Connecting With Prospective College Students Online

The Internet has become an invaluable recruitment tool for colleges and universities, allowing college administrators and marketers to connect with prospective students in ways never before imaginable. It enables them to engage prospective students one-on-one and to build relationships with them while establishing a cohesive brand image. At the same time, it also allows them to dramatically reduce their marketing costs and improve their ROI efficiencies.

Research now shows that a full 90% of students log on to the Web to obtain information for the college selection process. Yet surprisingly, very few colleges take full advantage of the Internet as a marketing channel. For many of those that do, the Internet is their most effective recruitment tool, providing a centralized platform that empowers them to effectively and efficiently close the loop from the recruitment of new prospects to the enrollment of new students.

Let's Review the "Funnel" Process

There are essentially four stages that prospective students will go through before deciding to enroll in a college. Let's examine these stages and the role of the Internet in transitioning students from one stage to the next.

Stage 1: Research
In this stage, prospective students are gathering the information they'll need to narrow down their decisions. Tactics such as search engine and directory listings, Email marketing and online media placements provide marketers with targeted branding opportunities while costing significantly less than alternatives such as direct mail, print advertising and others. One unique way to generate highly-qualified leads during this stage is by using online "matchmaking" services such as The Princeton Review's Counselor-O-Matic, which bills itself as "an advanced search engine that combines your academic and extracurricular history with your preferences to help you find the right college." It is essentially pairing an applicant's academic and extracurricular profile with the type of student a particular school typically recruits. This tool is a prime example of how the Internet provides college marketers with more precise and therefore more effective targeting than any other medium.

Stage 2: Prospecting
By now, users are interested in learning more about a school's academics, its campus life, financial aid options, faculty, degree programs, acceptance policies and more. Your Web site plays a vital role in this stage. Technologies such as virtual tours, which some colleges have started using in place of the printed college viewbook, allow schools to reduce printing costs while showing their campuses off to far-flung students. Another effective tool to help recruit prospective students is the online college fair. Online fairs operate much the same way as their real-world counterparts in that they enable college representatives and college-bound students to feel each other out, but the online versions offer a much cheaper substitute and oftentimes allow marketers to reach a broader audience.

Stage 3: The Hand-Raisers
Savvy colleges and universities offer their applicants the option to submit their information online rather than through the standard, paper-intensive process. With online applications, the information can be automatically transferred into a school's database, rather than having someone manually enter all of the data line by line. Some schools have tried standardizing their application processes through companies such as Peterson's or CollegeNET, which allow students to fill out the application once and send it to several schools at the same time. Tactics such as these streamline the application process and save colleges from the headaches of paperwork. They also show the prospective student that the college is ahead of the curve when it comes to the use of technology.

Stage 4: Decision Time
Here more than ever, it is important to open up the channels of communication to enable students to get in touch with faculty, administration, and, perhaps most importantly, other students to help them make their decisions. Technologies such as email, chat rooms, discussion boards and instant messaging can facilitate communication and help prospects answer any questions they might have.

Recruiting new students requires an ongoing process of open and effective communication, from the early stages of brand awareness through to the last stages of enrollment and retention. The beauty of the Internet is that it opens up the channels of communication, and it does so in a way that reduces costs.

Email: Paul Epstein