How to Target Potential Students in Niche Markets

Creative Ally Marketing asked seasoned marketing director, Janet C. Harvey-Clark, for her advice on targeting potential students for schools and colleges. We were privileged to work with her on many of the projects she spearheaded during her distinguished career. Now, she is willing to share her methodology with you in the article below.

Janet Harvey-Clark

For almost 30 years I served as a director of marketing and communications at several colleges and universities: Peace College in Raleigh, NC; Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, MI; University of Michigan College of Engineering in Ann Arbor, MI; and Michigan State University College of Law in East Lansing, MI. One of my major responsibilities at each school was to develop and implement student recruitment marketing programs to increase enrollment in targeted markets, such as among women, African Americans, out-of-state students, and applicants with higher entrance qualifications. My marketing programs successfully increased enrollment up to 200 percent at each of these institutions.

The Basic Aspects of a Successful Marketing Plan…

Define Your Niche

Marketing your school to prospective students with the goal of increasing enrollment among niche audiences begins with defining your current student application and enrollment profiles.

Example of Groups to Target:

  • Entrance qualifications
  • Percentages of races, gender and ethnicities
  • Geographic relationships (i.e. in-state or out-of-state students)
  • Specific interests
  • Middle-aged people who want to change careers

By knowing what type of students already apply to and enroll in your institution, you define your strengths and identify areas where you may be weak. A marketing director, working with the director of admissions and the dean of students, can determine what’s lacking in your marketing by seeing what types of students are not applying to or enrolling in your school. For example, if you attract a significantly higher percentage of males over females, you could examine what is keeping more women from applying to your school by conducting a focus group of currently enrolled women, inviting women who are accepted but choose not to enroll to take an online survey asking why they did not select your college, and evaluating what support for women your school offers versus what is lacking, such as an adequate number of female faculty members.

Establish Specific Enrollment Goals

For example, you may decide to increase the number of female applicants by 20 percent, improve entrance exam scores (SAT, LSAT, GMAT, etc.) by 15 percent; increase the number of ethnically and/or racially diverse applicants by 20 percent and enrollees by 10 percent; improve out-of-state enrollment to 15 percent of the student body, etc.

Identify and Obtain Contact Lists

Once you have targeted contact lists, you can develop your marketing message aimed at these groups of prospective students. For future undergraduates—predominantly high school juniors and seniors—you can obtain mailing lists based on SAT scores, gender, race, geography, etc. For potential graduate students, you may acquire email lists in addition to mailing lists.

Be Unique, Pertinent and Personal

Prospective students will easily recognize cookie-cutter messages and quickly learn to ignore them. Your content must be personal to the student and relay a message that is unique to your school to help you stand out from the blitz of college marketing pieces.

List Your School’s Benefits, for Example:

  • Smaller class sizes provide students with mentoring-type relationships with faculty members
  • Your college’s academic counseling program is designed to provide students with more support in selecting a major
  • A variety of extracurricular organizations presents students with résumé-building experiences
  • Classrooms, libraries and other facilities are technologically advanced
  • Students experience constant, constructive feedback and personal guidance from faculty, teaching assistants, counselors, etc., who are committed to the school’s mission of preparing its graduates for careers or further higher education

Include Student and Alumni Testimonials

Gather testimonials from current students who fit your targeted groups’ profiles. For example, if your goal is to attract more women with higher entrance qualifications, speak to current women students/alumnae who have excelled academically. Ask them to speak to the academic challenges they’ve experienced at your institution.

Testimonial Example:

“Among the many aspects I love about attending [name of school] is the faculty’s recognition of my academic interests and successes. I excelled early on in my mathematics classes, and my faculty advisor worked individually with me to determine that I have strong interest in accounting. With her help, I was able to declare accounting as my major during my sophomore year and become involved in a couple of student organizations that will enhance my résumé when I begin looking for a career position in that field.” [Student’s Name]

Use Professionally Shot Photos

Hire a professional photographer to take a variety of student, faculty and campus photographs that Illustrate the full breadth of student activities and campus life. Make sure the photos portray the diversity of your student body in a realistic manner, especially if among your targeted groups are persons of different ethnicities, genders, ages, etc. If possible, include shots of the students and faculty with the testimonials.

Elements of a Direct Mail and Social Media Campaign

Electronic communications and social media—websites, direct emails, Facebook, Twitter, etc.—can add an exciting element to your student recruitment marketing campaign, especially since they offer prospective students the opportunity to respond in a manner they are comfortable with directly to your school. However, many schools today rely too heavily on electronic marketing because it seems less time consuming, more automated and less expensive. That’s not the case. It is very important to have a carefully designed and well-planned direct mail campaign in addition to online marketing to help convert prospective students into members of your student body.

Direct mail campaigns can be sent in a variety of ways, such as a self-mailer brochure, postcard, mini-viewbook or multi-piece mailer (usually a letter, brochure, reply card/envelope stuffed inside an outside envelope) that you mail to your contact lists. Be sure to include a return-addressed, postage-paid reply card/envelope in your mailing. And since your ultimate goal is to acquire applications from these prospective students, consider including an application in your mailing (it can be stitched into self-mailers). Typically the more pieces that are in a direct mailer the higher the response rate, however, the production cost is higher as well. The key here is to send consistently every few weeks or monthly during the recruitment period, and to make sure the pieces are personalized. Students receive far too many pieces that look and read just like all the others on the stack in front of them. They want to know that you “know” them, and the best way to do that is to personalize the letter and/or marketing pieces, create a dynamic and relevant message, offer them benefits for attending your school, and then make it easy for them to respond.

Consider sending targeted, personalized emails to alert prospective students of the application schedule, upcoming events, and/or a publication/invite/mailer that’s on the way to them. All of the email campaigns need to have the same design and message as the direct mailers, viewbook and marketing pieces to strengthen your brand recognition. The same goes for social media. Most important, make sure that one or more staff members are dedicated to monitoring the potential students’ online correspondence to build a one-on-one connection with them. You are far more likely to convert a potential student who feels that he or she has a personal relationship with your school.

Tracks Your Results!

Keep a record of each potential student’s response and track it to the marketing piece from which it originated. This will allow you to calculate the ROI and see if you achieved your goals for that particular marketing effort. It will also be helpful for planning the next year’s cycle, because when you know how each marketing piece performed, you can duplicate the ones that did well, and nix or improve the ones that underperformed—keeping in mind that the same “topic” might do better with a new headline/text, different photos or presentation, i.e. if you previously sent a postcard, you might try an oversized tri-fold brochure the time around.

Happy recruiting!

Janet C. Harvey-Clark


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