I often find that the primary thinking of most college coaches when it comes to getting prospects interested in their program could be described as a simple three-step process:
• Throw everything we can at them as soon as possible.
• They focus on one or two big selling points for our school or program.
• Those big selling points compel the prospect to want to come to our program.
Oh, if it were only that simple…
In reality, we’re finding that today’s teenage recruit takes a much more sophisticated approach to identifying with a school and, ultimately, choosing a program. While they have trouble explaining the process, our research as a part of our On-Campus Workshops around the country and continuing work with our clients shows that their decision making process mirrors that of grown adults.
The best example of this is found in a recent fascinating study just published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers have shown that we make buying decisions even when we aren’t paying attention to the products, and that electronic observation of brain activity can predict these decisions. Here are the details from the study:
Imagine you are standing at a street with heavy traffic watching someone on the other side of the road. Do you think your brain is implicitly registering your willingness to buy any of the cars passing by outside your focus of attention? To address this question, we measured brain responses to consumer products (cars) in two experimental groups using functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Participants in the first group (high attention) were instructed to closely attend to the products and to rate their attractiveness. Participants in the second group (low attention) were distracted from products and their attention was directed elsewhere.
After scanning, participants were asked to state their willingness to buy each product. During the acquisition of neural data, participants were not aware that consumer choices regarding these cars would subsequently be required. Multivariate decoding was then applied to assess the choice-related predictive information encoded in the brain during product exposure in both conditions. Distributed activation patterns in the insula and the medial prefrontal cortex were found to reliably encode subsequent choices in both the high and the low attention group.
Importantly, consumer choices could be predicted equally well in the low attention as in the high attention group. This suggests that neural evaluation of products and associated choice-related processing does not necessarily depend on our processing of available items. Overall, the present findings emphasize the potential of implicit, automatic processes in guiding even important and complex decisions.
So, let’s circle this back to recruiting:
If subtle messages do indeed play a key role in your prospects’ view of you and your program as psychology suggests, what are the most effective ways to reinforce your story to your recruits?
Here are three foundational ideas that we think work for practically any coach, at any college level:
• Consistency. No matter what college staff we happen to be working with, the one consistent measure that we find important to today’s prospect is consistency. Your message to them has to be consistent, both in timing and in content. From a timing perspective, we find it is critical that your prospect has some kind of contact from you – either through letters, social media, email, phone call, a visit to your blog, seeing you in person – on a weekly basis.
From a content perspective, consistency is important in your message: You need to make sure you are telling a story that takes them through the recruiting process step-by-step, building on your message and leading them to a decision. If you’re a coach who has had trouble mastering this aspect of your recruiting approach, as many do, make it a priority to build out a plan for accomplishing this before the next recruiting class is ready to make their decisions.
• Keep it short. What we find works the best in terms of message retention is a shorter, more straight-forward message. Your prospects have told us that most of the recruiting letters and emails that they open and read are way too long, and centered on all the wrong things (mainly, you, your college, your facilities, your facts and statistics, etc.). Your messages need to be re-worked so that they are shorter and more easily understood by your prospects. That enables them to pick-up on those little details that will stick in their mind…and stand out from the rest of the crowd.
• Head towards the edge. It’s safe and comfortable to look and sound like everyone else. For example, your admissions department’s brochures do a great job of looking exactly like every other college in the country in terms of the photography showing the smiling photos, highlighting your school’s impressive statistics, and bragging about the education that they can deliver. The problem with that? Every single other admissions department presents the same message. And, that trickles down to the marketing philosophy of most college coaches. You head towards the middle, and play it safe. For 1% of you reading this, you can get away with this because of how your program is performing at the moment. But for the other 99% of you mere mortals, if you want to get the attention of today’s marketing savvy teenager you’d better say things differently than your competitors. So, when I advise you to “head towards the edge” I mean that you need to come up with a compelling story, told in a different way, and not be afraid to define yourself so precisely that you will let a few of your prospects know instantly that you aren’t for them. While you’ll lose a handful of recruits that would have said no eventually anyway, you’ll attract three times more who will gravitate towards your philosophy of being unique and different from everyone else that’s recruiting them. I’ve seen it work numerous times, for coaches willing to take a leap and tweak their approach to their prospects.
The science backs me up on this way of approaching your prospects. And, that same science could just hold the key for you and your program making this year’s upcoming recruiting class the best ever.