Connect the Dots

Marrying the customer journey to enrollment

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Marrying the customer journey to enrollment

This year, Roberts Wesleyan College celebrated its highest overall enrollment since 2011. When Mary Sasso, Executive Director of Undergraduate Admissions, conducted a deep dive into how the enrollment numbers for the Rochester, New York, college surged upward, she was pleased to find the data pointed to its integrated marketing campaign. Multiple touchpoints, including texts, digital advertising, direct mail, personalized letters, social media engagement, billboards, etc., jumped off the page. The well-structured strategy hit the mark.

Among the myriad tactics that worked for the Roberts Wesleyan marketing team, one stood out—the sharing of relatable content via videos. The school’s YouTube views were up 201% over the previous year. “With video, a college can share student stories that engage prospects,” Sasso says. Take the launch of “Music Therapy at Roberts,” a student orientation video featuring interviews with freshmen talking about why they are excited about college.

“Students want to feel cared for, they want to trust their admissions team and get their questions answered by faculty and staff at a prospective college,” Sasso says. “It’s also important to connect prospects through current students. We feel that genuine connections start when a prospect first visits campus.”

Sasso says that a student’s experience across all parts of their enrollment journey matters. For example, when Roberts Wesleyan was enrolling its 2019-20 class, it wanted to “dial up” its “Four Year Promise” messaging and make it more engaging and memorable to each prospect. Because statistics show that Roberts Wesleyans’ four-year graduation rate is nearly 10% percent higher than the average state university of New York rate, the video stands as a visual testimony to its achievement.

“We knew that providing information to them about Roberts guaranteeing graduation within four years to qualified students entering the traditional undergraduate program would be important information, so we decided to have fun and create an engaging video to show at our visit days (see the video here: “From a customer visit perspective, students expect to be welcomed, cared for and to leave feeling more informed about the college.”

At Roberts, this starts with even the simplest of steps in the journey—putting the student’s name on a LED screen above the reception desk with a “Welcome to Roberts” message. From there, the strategy includes meeting with faculty members to discuss their major. “We find that going above and beyond, and caring and understanding the person on the whole matters,” Sasso says. “We [try to] meet their expectations with a personalized visit that answers all their questions in a meaningful and memorable way.”

“We find that going above and beyond, and caring and understanding the person on the whole matters.”
— Mary Sasso, Executive Director of Undergraduate Admissions,
Roberts Wesleyan College

New day dawning

As the rapidly shifting headwinds of technology continue to blow through today’s colleges and universities, keeping in step with how to engage with prospective students is paramount. It is one of the reasons Stony Brook University in New York brought Nicholas Scibetta on board in 2015.

A seasoned marketing and communications specialist who spent time as global director and partner at Ketchum Public Relations, Scibetta oversaw the agency’s national and international communications programs, providing senior strategic and global media planning counsel and placement for Fortune 500 clients.

At Stony Brook, with the newly created position of VP for Marketing and Communications, he was tasked to create overarching communications, a brand strategy and visual identity. Part of that role included building a team to develop and implement a comprehensive strategic marketing and communications program—one that would advance the university’s image at the local, state, national and global level.

As Scibetta knew from his days on the global marketing front with Fortune 500 brands, understanding your customer’s journey along the buying (in this case, enrollment) cycle is critical. He also knew that it was a new day on the higher ed landscape.

“There is a greater strategic focus on growing the marketing function within the team,” says Scibetta, who is active on a number of marketing-related boards, including the American Marketing Association (AMA). “To be successful moving forward, there must be a concentrated focus on building the marketing function and all that this brings to the table. This will only be successful if both sides of the house are integrated and working together on all levels.”

“To be successful moving forward, there must be a concentrated focus on building the marketing function and all that this brings to the table.”
— Nicholas Scibetta, VP for Marketing and Communications,

Stony Brook University

“As advancing technology impacts every marketing and communications function, it is forcing MarCom teams in the higher ed space to redefine their roles and responsibilities, and even their value proposition,” Scibetta says. “By combining big data with mobile technology, higher ed institutions are offering novel ways to contextualize and understand what they are learning. Predictive analytics enables university teams to do a better job understanding today’s students.”

On the enrollment front, higher ed marketers are able to identify the myriad sources that can provide information on who (and where) their prospects are. For example, integrated marketing technologies like email marketing automation are enabling schools to see all of their prospects’ touchpoints and their engagements, providing keen insight into potential students’ journeys.

As in any space, there is work to do. For example, the “Salesforce State of Marketing” report showed that only 30% of marketers use customer data to create more relevant experiences, something that higher ed marketers can process and file. Embracing the benefits that technology provides, when fully realized, will be a university marketing team’s biggest ally.

“Technology is increasingly used by prospective students to search for colleges, through online channels, mobile apps, social media and resources like virtual tours,” says Stefan Hyman, Interim Associate Provost for Enrollment and Retention Management in Stony Brook’s Office of Enrollment and Retention Management. “We need to be closely monitoring and testing new opportunities to leverage technologies, while also doing market research and speaking with our target audiences about not only which technologies they’re using, but also how they’re using them and how comfortable they are to receive marketing in those spaces.”

The line where technology and real life connections intersect is another plane higher ed marketers must learn to straddle. Sasso recounts the story of a colleague who was touring a college with her daughter. Unfamiliar to the area, they ended up being late for a campus visit. When they called the school, the admissions receptionist was rude, extolling the fact that their tardiness would throw everyone’s schedule off.

Arriving a little late, they apologized to the other parents, who were not bothered in the least. During the lunch gathering, they discovered they intentionally were not given meal vouchers.

“Needless to say, they did not select that college,” Sasso says. “Two years later and they still have negative feelings about that school.”

The point is that every step in a prospective student’s journey matters—every single one. Creating a holistic view into each student’s journey and interactions will help create campaigns that drive conversions. “Customer [student] experience does matter,” Sasso says. “Knowing who they are and their expectations will help answer all their questions in a meaningful and memorable way.”

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