By Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
Between starting work with new clients and being asked to audit individual letters and emails, the first contact piece is something I’ve been spending a lot of time on these past few weeks.
It’s an extremely important communication (maybe the most important one), so I thought it might be helpful to share a bunch of ideas and strategies with you today. These are things that continue to produce positive results for our clients at the beginning (i.e. they get a student’s attention, generate a response, and start the process of building a recruiting relationship).
To be clear, I’m referring to the first communication piece that your school sends a new inquiry or prospect whenever they enter your funnel. That could happen tomorrow, or it might not be until December or January.
The first thing that you and your admissions and marketing colleagues need to do is come up with an answer to the following question – “What’s the goal of our first contact piece?” I would argue, and I’ve done so many times in this newsletter, that it’s to get their attention and create engagement.
Email open rates are helpful, but an actual response rate is an even better metric to use. Engagement gives you that. It’s proof that your message was received, read (or least skimmed through), provided some amount of value or intrigue, and proof that your call to action worked.
The biggest problem I see with most first contact pieces is they look and sound just like 98% of other schools do. It’s just a different template and a different set of facts and figures topped off with a call to action that asks the student to visit campus or encourages them to call or email a general admissions phone number/email address if they have any questions. I don’t believe that’s a winning strategy in 2018.
Now let’s talk about what will work, starting with whom the communication comes from, and what kind of communication you send. The strategy we continue to use with our clients is a result of ongoing focus group surveys we conduct with the students themselves. We ask incoming or current college freshmen that just went through the college search process the following two questions:
Question 1: “When you started your college search, which person from a college would you have preferred to hear from first?”
Admissions Counselor – 82.6%
Director of Admissions –17.4%
Context for you – Students have told us that a message from anyone in a position of leadership (especially if they’ve never met that person) is intimidating and, in their minds, a mass piece. It’s more plausible in their minds that an admissions counselor would actually take (and have) the time to reach out to them.
Question 2: “What’s the first kind of communication you think a college should use with a student at the beginning of the process?”
Letter – 43.3%
Email – 32.6%
Phone Call – 21.3%
Text Message – 2.8%
Context for you – Students have told us that a letter is a tangible, safe interaction (especially when they don’t know the person). They also believe that a letter takes more effort than an email, and as such, they view it as a more personalized form of communication.
Let’s move on to the body of your first contact piece, which again I’m recommending should be a letter that comes from each individual admissions counselor. Here are some tips:
- Shorter, less formal, and more conversational. The longer it is, the harder it is for the student to take it all in. And in most cases they’re not ready for tons of information yet, nor do they care about it… which causes them to stop reading before the end and increases the chances they’ll miss your call to action.
- Forget about all the facts, figures, and history. It comes across as “selling” and studies suggest that we’re more apt to reply to something that doesn’t sound like an advertising message.
- Instead, introduce the admissions counselor and make it clear that he/she understands the college search process is confusing, scary, etc. and that the goal is to make it easier for the student and his/her family. Establish the counselor as the go-to person.
- Use words and a tone that creates excitement and makes it clear that the admissions counselor is looking forward to getting to know the student and hear more about what he/she is looking for in a college. You could even go so far as to tell the student he/she is a priority.
Finally, let’s discuss your call to action. I want you to avoid asking the student to visit your campus. This is something that’s really hard for a lot of schools to buy into. Let me explain the reasoning behind my statement.
If you tell a student, “I want you to come to campus,” or you ask them “When can you come to campus for a visit” in the first contact piece or during the first high school visit/college fair visit, it jumps several spaces ahead on their recruiting game board so to speak. You’re trying to skip a bunch of steps in their mind, and it just doesn’t seem right. Only bring it up once you have either a) spent two or three conversations asking them questions and getting to know them, or b) they bring it up…that would apply to their parents, as well. Push the visit too early, and, according to our research, you’ll seem disingenuous.
Instead, ask a specific question as your call to action. You could ask about their fear or their must-haves as they look at different schools. Whatever it is, it needs to be defined and not overly broad and general. Otherwise a lot of students don’t know what kind of response you’re looking for, and fear of sounding dumb will prevent many from responding at all.
Encourage them to respond back quickly with their answer. Tell them you’re excited to hear what they have to say because providing that feedback will give you a better idea of what information about your school will be useful to share with them next. In short, I want you to give them a “because”.
Follow the advice that I’ve given you today and I’m confident you’ll see increased engagement immediately with this next class of students.
And if at any point you want me to review your first contact piece and offer feedback, all you have to do is ask. It won’t cost you anything but your time. Simply email me.