How Can Colleges and Universities Use Email Marketing to Improve Admission Yields?

The number of college applications is up, but admission yields (i.e., the number of students who choose to enroll after being accepted) are declining. As a result of these trends, colleges and universities are striving to find new strategies for driving yield rates up, while also improving the academic quality of the student body and minimizing tuition discounts. In this article, we outline some exciting new concepts and tips for how email marketing can play a completely new role in reaching college admissions goals.

Reaching Your Goals — Trends and Factors That Affect Success

Some recent trends in college applications and admission yield rates are summarized in the National Association of College Admission Counselors’ “2012 State of College Admission” report:

  • Each year since 1997, a majority of colleges (varying between 64% to 78%) reported increases in applications over the previous year.
  • 79% of students applied to more than three colleges, up from 67% in 2011.
  • 29% of students applied to seven or more colleges, up from 25% in 2011.
  • Although the number of applications is up, admission yield rates — the percentage of students who enroll in a college that has accepted them — have been dropping significantly.
  • Private 4-year colleges’ admission yield rates dropped from 47.8% in 2002 to 36.4% in 2011. During the same period, admission yield rates for public colleges decreased from 51.4% to 42.6%.
  • For examples of college admission yields for the classes of 2015, 2016, and 2017, check out this recent New York Times blog.

Strategic Levers for Managing Quality, Quantity, and Profitability of Incoming Classes

There are several strategic levers that admissions officers can use to manage the quality, quantity, and profitability of their incoming classes. But what happens if you make the wrong decisions about which lever to use when, or make a serious miscalculation? You can come up short on your goals, or even lose your job, which has happened to some admissions officers I’ve spoken with recently.

Here are some of the levers used to drive changes in class size, quality, and profitability:

  • Increase the number of applications — Logically, if you get more applications, you could have a bigger pool to select from, to accept, and to enroll. The challenge is that increasing the number of the wrong types of applications may result in a lower quality of students in your applicant pool.
  • Increase the number accepted — The more students you accept, the more you may get to enroll. But be careful: Accepting too many lower-quality students to get your enrollment up can hurt the quality of your overall student body, which can impact long-term reputation and the ability to attract the optimal student.
  • Increase tuition discounts — Scholarships and grants are a great way to attract a higher-quality student or to increase admission yield, but they will negatively impact your profitability. Citing a survey by the National Association for College and University Business Officers, a recent Wall Street Journal article reported that the average tuition discount rate for private colleges reached an all-time high of 45% for last year’s incoming freshmen. That’s up from 39.9% in 2008, after increasing for 7 consecutive years. The discount rate for public universities decreased slightly last year, however, after increasing from 2007 to 2011.
Conflicting Goals Graphic

The trick is how to balance all of these factors to get the best class with the lowest level of discounts. The solution is elusive because as you improve one aspect (e.g., class quality), you risk hurting another (e.g., profitability).

That’s where a more-effective email-marketing program can make the difference. Think much more strategically about your email campaigns, and you will get the return on investment (ROI) you’re seeking.

In reviewing hundreds of emails from numerous schools, we see many fatal flaws in higher education institutions’ emailing efforts. Here are a few examples:

  • Poor segmentation — Many schools email students who have standardized test scores and grades far above the school’s averages without any messaging to explain why that student may be reasonable match.
  • Lack of customization — Even though many schools know a prospective student’s disciplines of interest, home state, and whether he or she visited or inquired about the campus, the emails reflect none of that information. Step back and think about how the message could change, given your knowledge of a few key factors. Use them to build a relationship with the student.
  • Poor deliverability — As shown in the deliverability table below, many schools have damaged their email reputation so badly that much of their email may never get to an intended recipient’s inbox.
  • Lack of testing — Many schools are likely not formally testing subject lines, creative design, messaging, from names, and more. With a systematic test-plan approach, many factors that drive email success can be honed to dramatically improve email performance.
Deliverability Is Key to Email-Marketing Success

Before embarking on any email-marketing improvements, it’s important to emphasize that the success of any email-marketing effort is highly dependent on deliverability — the ability to consistently get into intended recipients’ email inboxes. So how are colleges doing in terms of email deliverability? To help answer that question, FulcrumTech leveraged Return Path’s Sender Score system — a tool that measures the email reputation score of an emailer’s sending Internet protocol (IP) address — to analyze over 600 emails sent by numerous colleges and universities across the United States.

A sending IP address is essentially the “pipe” through which emails are sent. Generally, if senders’ reputations are below 90, they have deliverability issues that need to be addressed. As shown in the diagram below, 36% of the schools we analyzed had IPs with a score below 90, and 19% had scores below 75.

Higher Ed Sender Score

Whether you’re aware of it or not, schools with very low email reputations are likely having serious deliverability problems. Some reasons that your institution is having deliverability problems can include:

  • Poor sending practices
  • Repeatedly sending to email addresses that have a hard bounce
  • Poor permission practices (e.g., sending email to people who never gave you permission)
  • Poor engagement (e.g., low email open and click-through rates)
  • Ignoring unsubscribe requests, which is a violation of the Federal CAN-SPAM Act. Email us to request a free copy of a great overview that tells you what you need to know about complying with the CAN-SPAM Act.

The extent of deliverability problems at many of the schools we analyzed is most certainly reducing their ability to get their emails noticed by student prospects. That’s because their emails are automatically being placed in the junk or spam folder — or completely blocked — by such Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as Yahoo! and Gmail. So even with a strong email communications plan in place, finding and fixing deliverability problems is essential for ensuring a solid email ROI.

Do you have a clear email communications plan for each level of the recruitment funnel to meet your institution’s primary goals and objectives? Do you know where you stand in terms of email deliverability? Contact us for a free* assessment today!

*This offer is good through October 31, 2013.

How to Use Email Marketing to Meet Your Institution’s Goals

When it comes to generating leads and nurturing student prospects, email remains one of the most effective and cost-efficient marketing strategies for colleges and universities. The following outlines the major steps colleges can take to develop a customized email-marketing program to dramatically improve admission yields and class quality without “losing your shirt” with discounts. Each situation, though, demands a different strategy. Arriving at just the right mix of email tactics requires discipline, testing, and a devotion to email metrics, web analytics, and various business performance data. The below steps provide a framework to begin developing just the right plan for you.

Step 1: Determine your institution’s primary goals and objectives.

Defining your college’s top goals is first and foremost in developing an effective email-marketing plan. Some examples of goals include the following:

  • Increase admission yield rates
  • Increase academic quality of the student body
  • Increase profitability
  • Increase the university’s net revenue
  • Increase ethnic diversity.

As you determine your goals and begin to plan marketing campaigns, keep in mind that aggressively going after one goal may negatively impact the university in other ways. For example, increasing tuition discounts may have a positive effect on admission yield, but it will likely have a negative impact on a college’s net revenue goals. That’s why maintaining a balanced approach in your marketing strategies is important.

Recruitment Funnel

Step 2: Understand your recruitment funnel for colleges and universities.

To develop an email-marketing program that effectively communicates to prospective students and moves them forward during the decision-making process, colleges need to have a strong understanding of the different levels of their recruitment funnel.

Recruitment Funnel for Colleges and Universities:

  1. Potential prospects — Making up the top rim of the funnel, this group is very large and likely consists of a purchased list of students who have not yet expressed an interest in the school.
  2. Inquirers who show interest — Students who “touch back” to a college make up the next level of the funnel. For example, this could include students who request information from the college, register for a campus visit, visit a table at a college fair, or actually visit the campus. Most colleges will grade those touches from least to most important, with students who make campus visits the best prospects.
  3. Applicants — Once students fill out an application and pay the fee, colleges know they are interested in attending. This is the time to continue to nurture them, moving them further down the recruitment funnel with relevant, personalized communications. With the email tools available today, this is possible without a lot of effort.
  4. Admitted students — This is the group of students who colleges send an admittance offer to and the group they go after the hardest to get them to enroll. There’s typically a lot invested in this group, including organizing admitted student programs, as well as offering scholarships and grants. This springtime activity culminates on May 1 — the universal decision day. Again, make the communications relevant and personalized. Trigger additional content based upon open and click behavior. Develop a relationship!
  5. Enrollees — When a student pays a college enrollment fee, it’s a good sign that he or she is going to attend the school. No school can assume that their work is done, however, until the payment is received. Colleges need to get the new students through scheduling and orientation, which involves nurturing this group all the way up to first day of class.

Step 3: Develop a clear email communication plan for each level of the funnel, while also keeping your primary goals in mind.

A few examples include:

  • Starting at the top of the funnel, begin by trying to improve the quality and relevance of the students you are communicating with from the very beginning. First, narrow down your email list, for example, by using the applicant information you have access to. Standardized test scores, class rank, grade-point averages, geographic location, and academic interests are few examples of criteria that would help indicate which students to initiate contact with. Then, once you identify specific segments of students to reach out to, make those communications particularly relevant. For example, if you are a school with an SAT requirement significantly below that of a segment of students who have high PSAT scores, you’ll want to create a message to acknowledge that. Give them a big reason to consider you. Perhaps it’s geography. Perhaps it’s price. Perhaps you’ll want to emphasize an honors program, or attractive location, or high graduation salaries. You may end up communicating to fewer prospects, but you may also discover that by building a more personalized relationship with the right students in the right way, you can increase the percent of prospective students who pay attention to you.
  • Develop an email nurturing campaign for students who have expressed a strong interest in your school. This includes those who visited your campus or sent in test scores but haven’t yet applied. And make those campaigns really count. If a student expressed interest in a certain department, include a letter from that department head. Or describe the high caliber of professors in the discipline of interest. Be persuasive, and flaunt what’s so wonderful about your school in a way that is truly relevant to each specific student. Think about the many reasons so many students love your school. Emphasize the right benefits to the right students. This type of customization and automation is not difficult with tools such as ExactTarget. Contact FulcrumTech to learn more about ExactTarget.
  • Send targeted and relevant messages to students who have applied. Similar to nurturing campaigns, these emails should focus on what students have indicated their interests are — whether it’s through application responses or click activity. For example, this could include sending information about study-abroad programs, internship opportunities, or the professors and activities of the academic department of the student’s intended major. Not every student who applies truly knows what makes your school great. Now is the time to really get them excited, especially if you think a student is a great match.
Why Mobile-Friendly Emails and Websites Are a Must Today

In the 2013 E-Expectations Report, Noel-Levitz, OmniUpdate, CollegeWeekLive, and NRCCUA surveyed over 2,000 college-bound high school juniors and seniors from across the United States. Here are some their findings:

  • 53% of respondents cited email messages as influential in their college search, and 80% found reliable information in emails from campuses.
  • 98% of respondents said they would open an email from a college they were interested in.
  • 78% of respondents have access to mobile devices, while 80% of those devices are a smartphone, iPod Touch, or a tablet.
  • 47% of respondents reported checking email on their mobile devices daily; 67% did so at least weekly.
  • While 82% prefer to view college websites on a desktop/laptop, 68% have viewed college websites on a mobile device.

Students are doing everything on mobile devices. It’s required that your emails and web landing pages be mobile friendly, or your messages will never be read. Are SMS and mobile apps part of your communication strategy? If not, the time is now to make them be.

Step 4: Set up a metrics dashboard to test your email-marketing efforts and optimize ROI.

What’s working and what’s not? By measuring and tracking your metrics, you’ll be able to answer that question and continually improve your email-marketing results. This would involve testing elements of emails and associated landing pages including subject lines, the timing of emails sent, copy, calls to action, headlines, offers, and graphics and design. The metrics measured would include email open and click-through rates, conversion rates, acceptance rates, and admission yield rates.

Testing is mandatory to a successful email program at every stage of the funnel. Do you know what words, concepts, and subject lines get students to open your emails the most? For example, we just identified the three words that drive more opens for a client than any other words. Do you know what messaging works with what segments of prospective students to get them to click through? We help companies develop a rigorous email-marketing strategy and a supporting test plan to ensure the maximum results from email. And with our proprietary financial modeling tool, ROI Goalsetter®, you can set measurable goals, establish future scenarios, and then use your favorite one to drive your strategic goals. Testing will help you meet those goals.

When it comes to email, there’s no one size fits all. But if you are clear on your objectives, create a plan for getting there, collect the metrics to see how you’re doing, and test, test, test, you just may find your school performing head and shoulders above your competition before the end of your next admission season.

If you’re ready to try a new approach to get your email channel performing like it never has, give us a call and we’ll conduct our quick 10-Point Email Assessment to see where you stand. Then, we’ll work with you to map out a solid plan to make email perform before like it never has. Give us a call at 215-489-9336, or email us. We look forward to hearing from you soon!

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