Engagement: the secret to savvy higher ed recruiting

Engagement: the secret to savvy higher ed recruiting

By William Kartsimas on Thursday, December 1, 2016

Being nostalgic about the way we used to market, recruit, and manage enrollment in the past is the fastest way to create a gaping vulnerability in your admission operation.

You need to understand the psychology of prospective student attention. Because It's not just about executing on new social platforms. It's about understanding why an impression converts to attention and how to recruit prospective students using the technology they already use.

It's too easy to rest on past admission success, an idealistic perspective regarding recruitment, and the comfortable way you admitted students and marketed to them. If you want to bring a sharper focus to admission operations you must seek discomfort, learn new platforms, respect the psychology of attention, and understand why and how your prospects curate and consume content.

Technology is a gateway to human engagement. In a recent survey, Which Universities get a Perfect Score on Instagram, TrackMaven, an integrated marketing software analytics firm, measured Instagram engagement among the biggest and strongest colleges and universities.

Their research uncovered exciting anomalies—anomalies that can translate across institution size, reputation, and past operational challenges. And while the study focused on Instagram, remember that an engagement strategy should be channel-agnostic because the popularity of an app (like Snapchat or Kik) changes quickly.

So be aware of what your prospects favor and use that. Regardless, the same sentiments apply to most apps.

Below is a quick look at the three must-have areas of focus for prospect engagement: authenticity, attention, and value. I've also called out schools that are crushing it based on TrackMaven marketing data and HubSpot rankings.

Admission marketing for the digital age requires that you fire up your Instagram account and deliver:


To foster an authentic relationship, remember:

  • Technology is just the gateway to human engagement, be real
  • Use storytelling to engage faculty, staff, and students
  • Context, not content, is King
  • Brand management = learning new methods
  • Don't be pure math arbitrators—just because you can't measure it doesn't mean It's not a good use of social media
  • Determine how important the cost of conversion will be for leads, prospects, and apps
  • Build platforms with 100s of millions of active monthly users and click-out functions that make tools easy to use

Want to hear a really authentic voice in Instagram posts? Follow Adolfo Ibáñez University in Santiago, Chile (uai_ci) and Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas (Texas Tech University).


Tech-savvy is not just a buzz word. If you want to get students' attention, consider:

  • 16–24 year olds do not consume Internet content on a laptop or desktop
  • 53 percent of their collective attention is focused on a mobile device
  • Social media = Internet
  • The disconnect between the way we market and the way we consume. Rather than pushing bulk emails, pull students into the conversation with topics that interest them
  • Facebook Ads and Google Adwords are all down in click-through rates, ads don't spark their interest

Who's getting and keeping their students' attention? See how the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa and the University of Nottingham in Nottingham, England are doing it at (uiowa) and (uniofnottingham) respectively.


Traditional advertising and digital methods see diminishing returns and open rates are at historical lows. That means you have to deliver something students actually want. Consider:

  • Email market like it's 1998, when we read everything that came through. It's still a great channel as long as you can engage on other platforms from a strong foundation that nurtures relationships
  • Deliver value with every engagement by giving them something without asking for anything in return—for example, 5 tips for surviving finals
  • Audit messaging for value indicators, for example, real-life student stories provide value in a shared experience—especially if accompanied with a raw iPhone video
  • Empathy and gratitude are valuable tools
  • Reverse engineer your prospects' needs, aspirations, and intent—what does an apprehensive freshman worry about: dorm life, financial aid, or keeping a scholarship? Think about what they need out of the experience and give it to them

Which universities know how to post valuable content? Follow Georgetown University in Washington, DC at (georgetownuniversity) and the University of Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain at (#universityofbarcelona).

Admission operators that have finally discovered a process or tactic that worked will want to hold onto it for as long as possible. But innovation doesn't care about the way things used to be. Tactics evolve. New platforms and the fight for students' attention are making admission work exponentially harder.

If your admission staff feels comfortable, they are vulnerable. The only way to succeed in a world where students are pulling and curating information on their terms is to provide so much value to them that they ultimately feel obligated to say yes. Yes to attending your information session. Yes to submitting an application. Yes to depositing. Yes to registering.

Engage. Care to learn more about your prospective students than any other admission operation on the planet. Learn new platforms. Respect the psychology of prospective student attention for the year we live in.

We've put together some strategies and great examples of how to do it in our new white paper, The psychology of student attention. It's time to rethink how you communicate with prospects. Download it today.

Tell us what you think—we're excited to see how you transform your approach with a focus on engagement.

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About the Author

William Kartsimas

William Kartsimas

Senior Management Consulting, Ellucian

William Kartsimas has more than a decade of experience in admissions, enrollment management, and student success initiatives.