We’ve all heard this phrase more times than we can count over the past few months. It’s also accompanied by a lot of fear and speculation about the future of higher education – both for this year and years to come. While that isn’t totally unwarranted, I want to offer a reminder that the work we’re doing as enrollment managers is still the same – we’re still engaging with prospective students, equipping them to make the best decisions about their educational journey as possible, trying to reach them where they’re at and adapting our strategies and methods based on the data that we have. That being said – there are some key areas to be sure to pay specific attention to.
Measuring Recruitment Activities
We’re heading into the fall recruitment season – and for most of us it’s going to look a little different than it has in the past. But it’s important for us to remember that our main goal in recruiting is the same as it’s always been – to reach students where they’re at. In light of this, there are a couple of specific things that we can use data to make the most of.
Tracking Counselor’s Activities in Real Time
Your team may be out on the road, working with feeder schools and conducting business somewhat as usual, or they may be trying out new things – either on an individual basis or collectively. They may be testing out 1:1 SMS messaging with their students, or trying out video calling as a way to build relationships.
The main thing with all of this is to keep an eye on the outcomes of these activities as they unfold. By watching things like when students move to the next funnel stage, and connecting that behavior to what your counselors are doing, you can quickly make decisions to drop those activities that aren’t working or get your staff trained up on something new that’s paying off. Dashboards that show new funnel activity by counselor on a week-by-week basis can get that information in front of you and your team in an easily digestible way.
Effectiveness of Communication Methods and Messages
By watching things like email open rates, SMS messaging response rates, and how your prospective students are responding to calls to action, you can evaluate whether your method of communication is working, and how your messaging is landing with students. Email dashboards – like the ones offered with TargetX’s email tool – are something to pay close attention to this fall.
If you’re trying out something new with your messaging strategy, especially as the news and policies and impact of COVID-19 changes, you can use a/b testing to evaluate what works for your population of prospects – if one campaign focused on practical concerns about virtual learning performs better than its parallel campaign that has some general messaging, you can use that information as you plan your next campaigns.
These data points aren’t new – they’re the same kinds of data points that are important during a more traditional recruitment season. But paying attention to them on a regular and frequent basis, and being willing to make adjustments as things evolve, are the key to making use of them in this particular season.
Tracking ROI of Virtual Events
Some of you may already have significant experience around virtual events, and for some of you, this may be brand new territory. Either way, the main thing to remember with virtual events is to monitor outcomes, and be flexible.
Make Connections Between Events and Outcomes
Every event, virtual or in-person, has a desired outcome, whether you’re explicitly tracking it or not. Info sessions may be intended to get interested people to actually inquire, admitted student open houses are geared toward getting students to confirm or enroll. It’s important to track student behavior after an event to see if that event actually accomplished what you hoped for.
Often, we rely on large trends and general industry knowledge around events. We know that things like “students who visit a campus are more likely to enroll” have historically been true. In this time, we can’t just rely on general knowledge. We have to track actual outcomes.
If you aren’t already using point-in-time data to track student behavior, now is a good time to start. When I say “point-in-time data,” I’m talking about using date fields to track when a student took an action. It’s one thing to keep a student’s current funnel status at top of mind using a status field on the contact object – but you can really take things to a new level by tracking times of activity on inquiry and application objects. Starting with the February 2020 release, TargetX now delivers some standard date fields for those major funnel stages. We often talk about the value of this point in time data when we’re making year over year comparisons – like when we ask the question “where are we at compared to where we were at this same time last year”. But this information is also important for real-time recruitment tracking – we can’t know if a student who attended an event took an action within a week of the event if we don’t actually know when they took that action. Those point-in-time date fields can allow you to really enhance your event outcomes reporting.
Virtual Events Aren’t One-Size-Fits-All
By now, we’ve seen that virtual engagement can take many forms – from large-form webinars like these, to small group engagements like the face-time family calls many of us have been on, to weird new things that are just emerging – like the Zoom murder mystery party I was on a few weeks ago.
When it comes to recruitment, we can’t just count “virtual event” as one thing and get the insight we need. Different kinds of virtual events should be tracked accordingly – either using keywords in the event name, or specifying event types more granular than just “virtual.”
And once you’re tracking those different kinds of events and connecting them to student outcomes, it’s important to remember to lean on the data to help you make decisions as you go. And if you need to make changes to your programming mid-recruitment stream, you’ll have the evidence you need to do so.
Key Data Points for Predicting Yield
The next area we’ll jump into is around data and student yield. Now, if I was offering you a magic formula about how to accurately predict yield in the era of COVID-19, I would hope that y’all would have some serious questions about my credibility. The truth of the matter is that we don’t truly know what the impact of all this will be until it happens – and when it does, it will be so contextually defined that we’ll all have different stories to tell. But this is a good time for us to remember that those things are always true – COVID season or not. And in light of that, there are a couple of things to focus on as you work with students making their final decisions about what they’ll be doing for their education.
Pay Attention to Deferrals
The landscape is changing quickly – and schools are making big decisions all the time that will have an impact on a prospective student’s view of that institution. If classes started in person but are being shifted to virtual learning, or if expectations around testing practices for students living on campus are adjusted – students may change their minds, perhaps multiple times, about what they’re going to do. It would be unwise to treat a deferred student this year in the same way as you have in years past – they’re likely actively thinking about their options.
It’s important to track the reasons behind why students are choosing to defer – or “un-defer.” If you know about their rationale, you can address those reasons with those students directly and perhaps influence their decisions. You can also use that insight to shape your communication to other students – potentially nipping some of their concerns in the bud.
Don’t Guess What Students Are Thinking – Ask!
This may seem a bit like stating the obvious, but in this season, we can’t just guess what students are thinking about – we have to ask them. Beyond just reaching out to our pool of prospective students, we can also reach out to our students who have started classes this fall about what’s occupying their minds – and use that information to shape communication to students looking at starting in the spring or beyond. Surveys don’t have to be in depth – a quick question or two can provide you with a lot of information, and the shorter the survey, the greater the participation you’ll get.
Once you know what students are thinking, you have to actually make use of that information in your messaging. This doesn’t necessarily mean constantly revamping your major marketing campaigns – it may just mean asking a specific question in a 1:1 email or text message, or including a link to a resource or video in a regular email. Just be sure that when you’re collecting data about students, you’re putting it to good use.
Telling Your Data Story
We’re all going to be telling the story of 2020 for years to come. And when we tell that story, it won’t just be about how a long time ago we all watched Tiger King and learned how to make Zoom backgrounds. We’re learning major things about ourselves, our institutions, and our industry of higher education broadly speaking. We’re gaining a greater understanding of the value of education and technology, and the obstacles that students face as they pursue their goals. The story of this year is going to shape us in ways that we’re just beginning to see.
As enrollment managers, it’s our job to use data to tell stories.
Look Back – and Look Forward
There’s a concept in data science called a “black swan event” – it’s an event that’s an outlier, that wasn’t predicted, and that we try to rationalize and explain after the fact. We’re going to see the impact of this black swan year all over our data. If we’re watching our data as it unfolds – especially in the ways we’ve talked about today – we’ll be able to make sense of our numbers with real context, instead of just trying to rationalize what they mean when it’s all said and done.
And what we’re learning this year will shape what we do in years to come. We are all anticipating how our Fall 2020 lines will look on our year over year charts compared to 2019 and 2018, but we can’t yet see how Fall 2020 will look compared to 2021, 22, and beyond. As we track what happens this year in real-time with context, we’ll be able to use what we’ve learned this year in meaningful ways.
Key to Telling a Data Story – Trust
The main key to telling a data story is trust. And when I say trust, I mean that in a few very specific ways.
We have to be able to trust that the data we’re looking at is accurate and meaningful. If we are tracking things that don’t matter, or pulling reports from different systems or using different values and definitions to try to get to something important, we lose trust in our data. And when we don’t trust our data, we spend our valuable time talking about the data itself instead of using it to make meaningful decisions. Data that comes from a single source of truth, that has agreed-upon definitions, that is tracking things that actually matter – that kind of data engenders trust, which allows us to use it to move forward.
Data must also be accessible and relevant for it to be trustworthy. If we can’t get to the data we need, if it’s held behind a gatekeeper, or if it can only be accessed in backward-looking reports, we lose trust that it can meaningfully impact our work. We must be able to get to data quickly so that it is relevant in all our work. The more we use the data we have on a regular basis, the more we trust it when we look to it for major strategic decisions and planning.
Lean on Your Tools
Given all that, it’s important to lean on the tools at our disposal to use all of this data for both real-time adjustments and for bigger picture storytelling. TargetX Insights is one of those tools that takes data from your CRM and puts it into meaningful dashboards with clear, easy-to-understand visualizations. When you use tools like that, your data comes to life in ways that empower your staff, justify your spending, and offer clarity to your decision making processes.
Now that COVID-19 is part of our lives, we’re all seeing data stories everywhere we turn – statistics and maps and infographics dominate our newsfeeds. It’s important to remember that as enrollment management professionals, when we engage with prospective students, when we use our CRMs to keep track of activity, when we run reports and make decisions, we’re writing data stories too. I hope today you’ve gotten some reminders of best practices, some reassurance that in spite of unprecedented times we’re already equipped to serve our students, and some confidence for how to tell your school’s story of 2020.