November 20

Need to Drive Up Student Enrollment ASAP? 5 Tips to Convert Higher Ed Leads into Applicants


In higher ed, the typical traditional student enrollment funnel is long.

It starts as early as sophomore year, maybe earlier, with many touch points along the way.

But just like other kinds of “funnels” (hint hint), there comes a point after you’ve qualified and nurtured these leads that you need them to take action.

Not just for your sake, to hit your enrollment goals.

For their sake, too. The earlier they complete their application, the more you can help them.

So how do you get them to take that next step and apply – in time to hit your goals?

enrollment funnel - enrollment marketing

Driving Student Enrollment Like a Sales Pro

I know. Admissions isn’t sales.

Except that it kind of is.

There are key differences, of course. Education isn’t a commodity. As Paul Gratton, director of the adult and graduate studies business program at Montreat College put it:

“We have to maintain the integrity of what we’re doing as an institution. This isn’t a diploma mill.”

Fair point. But allow me to change the paradigm a bit so that we’re more on the same page.

What we’re “selling” in enrollment marketing and admissions isn’t education itself. Diplomas certainly aren’t for sale.

You can find the clue to what our service offering really is right in the title of those responsible for driving up those enrollment numbers: admissions counselor.

Like any other professional service provider – therapists, doctors, attorneys – we “sell” counsel. Connection. Advocacy. Assistance with gaining access to resources, like financial aid.

The difference is that we’ve got seasonal deadlines to hit. And that’s really where it’s most useful to recognize that some sales tactics are relevant.

And using them may even be critical to our success.

Asking for “the Sale”

Salespeople aren’t shy about asking a prospect to take action, especially if they’ve qualified that prospect as a great fit for their product or service.

Today, most of these interactions are happening online. Asking for the sale involves digital communications that blur the line between marketing and sales.

The same is true for enrollment marketing and admissions.

Jacob Baadsgaard of Disruptive Advertising has offered valuable insights, via Neil Patel’s blog, on the subject of closing the sale on “internet leads” – which absolutely includes your prospects.

(Does that sound odd? Think about all the social media, digital ads, emails, and other digital communication involved in attracting a prospective student. Yeah, that’s an internet lead!)

Baadsgaard points out that your leads are distracted. You have to be incredibly persistent if you want to break through the noise and drive them to action (and meet your enrollment quota).

Here’s a quote, in which I’ve changed “sales” to “admissions,” and “reps” to “counselors”:

“In fact, it takes a minimum of 8-12 contact attempts to get a 90% contact rate. Even if you’re only after a 50% contact rate, your [admissions] team will still need to make at least 6 contact attempts. The only problem is, most [counselors] only make 1-2 contact attempts per lead. As a result, internet leads are only contacted about a quarter of the time.”

I know what you’re thinking. If they were really motivated to apply to your institution, you shouldn’t have to reach out that many times. Right?

In my experience, as a father of college students and enrollment marketer, I’d have to say no.

A prospective student may have spoken with you at a recruiting event, expressed interest in your school, signed up for email alerts, and other signs of engagement.

But they’ve done the same with several others. Most students apply to eight to 12 colleges, which means they’ve likely engaged with dozens before narrowing it down to those.

Distracted? Absolutely.

When it comes down to the wire, the only thing that will break through the noise is a human touch. 

Yes, this most likely means you’ll have to increase your contact frequency. 

But this isn’t about quantity alone. Don’t just multiply phone calls and emails with the same old script. 

Instead, let’s have some fun with this. Let’s explore some creative ways to break through the noise that won’t exasperate your prospects or make your skin crawl. (I promise.)

Break Through the Noise, Drive Student Enrollment

Standard calls and emails to encourage prospective students to take action (e.g. reminding them of application deadlines) already have that human touch. You’re on the right track.

But too much repetition, not enough personalization, and the same old script falls flat.

These tips are all about changing up the script, thinking outside the box, delivering the same ol’ message in new ways as you persist in your goal to “close the sale” – to drive applications.

1. Change up your CTAs (calls to action).

Tired of writing Apply Now in email messages over and over again? Chances are, your prospects are tired of seeing it, too.

John Breese, founder and CEO of mattress guide and review company, has seen success when changing up their CTAs:

“We don’t just place verbs like ‘Download now,’ ‘Act now,’ or ‘Get free’ – you must admit that sounds like an order … We use a combination of idioms and call-to-action verbs – for example, ‘First come, first served,’ ‘Contact us today,’ or ‘Buy it off the shelf’ – and we use this combination on every page of our site.”

Generally speaking, I wouldn’t advise that most higher ed institutions get too playful with standard CTAs on their websites. You need to take student aspirations seriously.

But in a few emails to prospects, why not let our hair down a little?

If you’re unsure, A/B test it. Try out your new CTA on 20 percent of your recipients and compare your clickthrough rate with the rest. Whether it worked or not, you can always try, try again.

2. Automate personalization.

This can be as simple as using your recipient’s name. Many software solutions give you the option to insert a <NAME> tag into emails, text messages, even direct mail.

But you can do a lot more than that.

Consider all the data points you enter into your CRM platform or simple spreadsheet about prospects. You might have recorded:

  • Birthday
  • High school
  • What sport they play
  • What major they’re interested in
  • Their last touch point (visited, spoke with a recruiter, etc.)

What you have collected depends on your data-gathering practices. Whatever is on this list, you can feed tags like <BIRTHDATE> or <HIGH SCHOOL> into your communications to further personalize them automatically.

“Hey, it’s almost <BIRTHDATE>,<NAME>! We hope you have a blast.”

And if you want to, you can go even further by tapping into other data sources. These might be automated data gathering tools, like collecting location data when they visit your website. Or, you might bring in publicly available (some purchasable) data, like SAT or ACT scores.

There’s nuance to using this in a way that’s not creepy. But today, you don’t have much to worry about. Your prospects expect that everybody out there knows everything about them. 

Go ahead and automate a message of congratulations to all recipients who did well on the SAT. I doubt they’ll bat an eye. They’re more likely to feel seen in a good way.

3. Add texting to your email strategy.

This one’s pretty simple.

You’ve been building rapport with your best leads for a while now. They know about your school and what makes it special. 

They’re either pretty much sold at this point, or they’re just not going to apply. So what you have to say really just boils down to some variation of one simple idea. 

“We love you, but it’s time to cook or get out of the kitchen.”

(Not those exact words, of course. Or the other version you’ve probably heard that has to do with a different room in the house … you get the gist.)

Anything you can say in 160 characters, put it into a text message. 

Your prospects, especially for traditional enrollment, are far more likely to see and read a text than an email.

Text messages have up to a 98 percent open rate

I’ve worked with many schools that have successfully integrated SMS automation into tools they’re already using for lead generation, like LeadSquared and Slate.

And yes, you can automate personalization in your text messages, too.

4. Offer something fun as an incentive.

The standard incentives to act quickly can get a little old, especially when everyone is using them.

Here are a few you might be using:

  • Application fee waived
  • Faster admittance decision
  • Early scholarship consideration
  • Test-optional admission

I’m not saying these don’t have value. It’s just that their perceived value may be pretty low to your prospect who’s seeing the same incentives in emails from dozens of other schools.

You want to give them a deadline to create a sense of urgency, drive them to action. (Which salespeople also do, by the way.)

That deadline can be whenever you need it to be. The incentive can be whatever you think will be effective.

Why not make it something fun?

I’ve worked with schools that organize giveaways of items from the campus store, just like you might do at a college fair event. Here’s a great list of ideas to get you started.

And here are some more:

  • Tickets to events, like sports or concerts happening on campus. 
  • Gift certificates from businesses that have a relationship with the school. 
  • An opportunity to meet a celebrity alum.

Sure, the real incentive is the opportunity to enroll in your school. And the assistance, the counsel you “sell.”

But your emotive hook right now is this fun thing, and they have to complete that application to get it!

5. Make personal video emails to your best leads.

I often talk about how much I love BombBomb for making personal video email messages. 

For one thing, emails with the word “video” in the subject line stand out and can nearly double your open rate.

Now, you’re hopefully crafting magnetic email subject lines that get great open rates anyway. (If not, let me know.) There are lots of other benefits, too.

What I think is even more important than open rate is how effective this tool is for delivering a message in a personal, human way. That’s powerful. 

I find recipients of my BombBomb messages are much more likely to respond and to recall the message later. I’ve even had people insist we’ve met before based solely on that video message!

Your admissions counselors can’t do this for hundreds of prospects each, but I urge you to decide who your best leads are and do it for them. Maybe the top 50.

Of course, using video for email doesn’t always have to be one-to-one. And it doesn’t always have to be admissions counselors in front of the camera.

  • Consider getting the president to make a video just for this purpose. Not YouTube or the website, just for email distribution to drive applications.
  • Ask current students to help, too. Grab your best student ambassadors and have them make a fun, TikTok-style video about why they should apply now.

6. Bonus tip: Track results!

The most frequent mistake I see in enrollment marketing and admissions is getting excited about trying new things without the discipline to find out how well those things worked.

Make this an official part of your marketing (or marketing & admissions) plan. That means deciding on metrics to track (open rate, clickthrough rate) and reviewing those numbers regularly.

It takes some extra work in the beginning, but you’ll be glad you did when it’s time for next year’s enrollment push.

  • What worked? Don’t reinvent that wheel. Update the winning idea, and go!
  • What didn’t? Trust the numbers. Scrap it. It was worth a shot.

Get the help you need throughout the student enrollment funnel.

The earlier you optimize your enrollment marketing process, from the top of the funnel down, the better results you’re going to have.

If you wait until crunch time, when you need those apps in pronto, these bottom-of-the-funnel tactics are much less likely to work.

They’re most effective when built on previous touch points, like great storytelling and warm invitations to visit – in other words, a carefully orchestrated buildup of engagement.

Let’s talk about how we can improve the student enrollment journey for your school. Contact me today.

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Featured image by Art_Photo via Adobe Stock

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