Takeaways on the Web, Social Media and Student Recruitment

Michael Stoner is the president of mStoner (mStoner.com), a marketing firm that works with education institutions.

At least 80 percent of prospective college students have a Facebook account, as do 48 percent of their parents, and they use them to view college Facebook pages. This data from the 2011 Noel-Levitz E-Expectations Report suggests how important social media is for student recruitment.

But “The Online Expectations of Prospective College Students and Their Parents,” also confirms the importance of some more-traditional channels. More about that in a moment.

The report is based on research conducted by Noel-Levitz, which partners with National Research Center for College & University Admissions (NRCCUA) and OmniUpdate on the E-Expectations series. Researchers conducted phone interviews about the use of e-communications in the college search with more than 1,043 college-bound high school seniors throughout North America and 517 of their parents in February 2011.

Here are some of my takeaways from it:

  1. Don’t drop traditional recruitment channels right now. More than a third of prospective students said that an institution’s, “. . . website isn’t really an important resource for me.” And 25 percent of their parents agreed.
  2. If your website isn’t in shape, you’d better take steps to improve it. Now. On the other hand, nearly one in five prospects said that if they couldn’t find the information they needed on a website, they’d drop a college from consideration. And 57 percent said that they could think of an occasion when web content was so compelling that they became more interested in attending a college. When they visit a college website, prospects and their parents want info on academic programs and enrollment first. Cost is much less important.
  3. Don’t bother texting prospects. Or tweeting them. E-Expectations data confirm what I’ve been told by prospective students—they don’t want text messages from colleges. And, neither they nor their parents are on Twitter.
  4. Integrate social content with your website and move visitors to your social channels from there. Don’t expect them to search social sites to find your institution. While teens and their parents are using social channels, they aren’t using Facebook to search for colleges: only 27 percent of teens have viewed a college Facebook page. And they also aren’t visiting college YouTube channels to any great extent: only 27 percent reported visiting YouTube or other video sites to look for college videos. But embed that same video on your own site and visitors will watch it—55 percent of students reported watching video on websites of schools they were considering.
  5. Don’t dump email just yet. Many pundits have sounded the death knell for email. And when Facebook launched its integrated messaging app, we were told that teens would abandon email for it. Well, guess what Noel-Levitz found? Of the teens they talked to, 86 percent used email and 93 percent of those were willing to give email addresses to colleges. [And just in case you missed it, in this survey, a higher percentage of teen respondents used email than had Facebook accounts.]
  6. When you’re fixing your website (see #2, above), make it mobile-friendly. While only 14 percent of teens said they looked at a college website on their cell phone, all data point to burgeoning use of smartphones and tablets for web access. Be in a position to surprise mobile visitors to your site, including early-adopting prospective students and parents.

During the same week that Noel-Levitz released these results, I saw data from a Nielsen study of shoppers conducted in July 2011. Nielsen found that materials mailed to home addresses and emails from retailers both had high usage among consumers (67 percent) as opposed to ads on social media sites (45 percent). Maybe teen behavior when shopping for colleges is more a reflection of the larger culture than we often believe.

Of course, your prospects may differ. Which is why it’s always smart to know your own applicants, rather than relying totally on aggregate research data, no matter how trusted the source.

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