Road Runners, Don’t Zoom

COVID-19 pandemic requires fresh thinking for fall "travel."

August 10, 2020

A rite of passage for many higher ed pros, travel has been a cornerstone of the college recruitment process for decades. Whether a fresh graduate in their first job or a seasoned admissions professional, high schools and community colleges across the country have welcomed fall college visitors with open arms.

Of course, thanks to digital channels, a lot has changed over the last 10+ years. Most significantly, the college search and choice process no longer begins when a senior hits their final year of high school.

  • Institution websites became the true "front-door" for most prospects.
  • College help and review sites like CollegeXpress and Cappex transformed the way students shop and compare colleges and universities and, ultimately, build their shortlist of institutions to apply to.
  • Location-based geofencing and lookalike audience targeting allowed institutions to reach students on their PCs and smartphones with targeted media to drive awareness.
  • Social media provided an entirely new window into campus life for prospective teens.

And yet, the legacy tactic of personal visits by admissions officers to high school guidance offices or community college counseling offices remain.

As learned during the recent "Farewell, Fall Travel?" webcast -- featuring key leaders from Babson College, Western Connecticut State University (WCSU), University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC), University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the University of Notre Dame -- traditional fall travel as we know it is "off the table" due to the current pandemic.

What is the purpose of a high school visit?

By and large, 4-year colleges and universities visit high schools and community colleges to raise awareness and identify new prospects. Plus, there's an opportunity to build relationships with guidance/career counselors who can identify students who may be a good fit for the institution. With that said, the primary desired outcome is to collect inquiries from students at that school on-site to help grow the prospect pool for the institution. The reality is that after the visit most students are likely to forget who it was that visited the school, if they remember the visit at all. The key is the follow-up communication.

But wait … if the purpose is to identify prospects for recruitment follow-up, why are high school visits from late August to mid-November?

The short answer is because you physically cannot visit all of the schools you want any faster. You are limited by the drive time between schools and availability of appointment times. If you could visit every high school and community college in your territory in a single month, earlier in the process, you would.

How do you replace these personal visits with online programs?

The path of least resistance for many will be to try to duplicate the in-person experience online. In practice, this could result in scheduling Zoom presentations with every high school in your recruitment territory as a high school visit replacement. The logic is that this will allow the same type of opportunity for an admissions officer to present an overview about the institution and answer any questions from interested students high school-by-high school.

This is a terrible idea.

After presenting face-to-face at a school, the admissions officer has the opportunity to decompress during their drive to the next school or stop for coffee (or dare I say, take a nap in their car). While not pretty, this is a far superior experience than giving the same presentation over and over again on repeat via Zoom.

Additionally, with list sizes surely to be smaller and on-campus visit days removed as an option to identify more prospects, the need to focus on conversion and yield will be more important than it ever has been before. Staff will need to focus on personalized follow-up and relationship building with identified prospects -- something that can't be accomplished via a Zoom sales pitch.

Consider the student perspective. Zoom experiences can be awkward. In a large group, a student may feel too uncomfortable (or unable) to share or ask questions. In a small group they may feel isolated and under-prepared. Zoom meetings are at their best when the group is familiar and people are comfortable participating. Zoom meetings work for businesses because professionals are more experienced with small group dynamics and have a published agenda. It may feel very uncomfortable for students to show up and find themselves in one-on-one situations with reps.

This was not an issue in the spring when the pandemic hit -- the large volume of admitted students and parents were anxious to hear details from the institutions they were accepted into. But now, the awkwardness of Zoom meetings with a few other students may become an issue. Also, it is likely that students will attend a bunch of Zoom classes during the day, so their interest level in participating in more Zoom info sessions may wane as the volume increases in the fall.

There is a place for Zoom meetings with students (mainly 1:1 interviews and financial aid advising). But this new normal actually allows admissions teams to focus on creating a more powerful prospective student experience by offering a robust stream of high-impact content featuring admissions counselors, faculty and students -- something impossible in legacy high school visits. Recruiters can deliver their traditional visit "pitch" in a large-scale presentation to which all of the high schools in their territory are invited -- thereby reaching all of their prospects at once.

What alternatives are institutions already exploring?

As the fall rapidly approaches, admissions professionals will be pressured to try to do everything and not miss any opportunity to connect with prospective students.

Pre-COVID, "doing it all" would include covering every college fair possible and visiting every high school in a territory beginning in September through November. Post-COVID, the methods to reach students have changed.

During the webcast, the panelists discussed alternatives to their legacy tactics.

University of Notre Dame
Prior to 2020, Notre Dame never hosted preview programs for rising seniors. The institution relied on students organically visiting campus for tours, football games and other events. Understanding this is not a possibility this year, Notre Dame decided quickly to plan for no travel by their staff and hosted their first virtual preview week for rising seniors. The campus-wide effort was a combination of live and pre-recorded content released throughout a week in early July for more than 3,400 prospective students. Now Notre Dame repurposes the content for on-demand viewers. The content is now available completely on-demand.

University of Missouri, Kansas City
UMKC took a similar approach; offering virtual bi-lingual information sessions and live chats for prospective students. However, rather than ask their admissions staff to give the same presentation repeatedly on a weekly basis, the institution simulates a live experience by playing their virtual information on pre-scheduled dates and times. To create a live experience for viewers, student ambassadors and admissions staff manage a live chat during the webcast. This practice engaged nearly 2,000 prospective students this summer.

Both UMKC and Notre Dame embedded live chat on their websites to provide a continuous and consistent way for students to connect directly with their admissions officer or student ambassadors to ask questions without having to search the site or navigate to the "contact us" page.

By moving the awareness-building tactics to the early fall where it truly belongs, admissions counselors can now focus on the work of truly counseling … hosting application completion workshops, financial aid workshops, parent panels and more. Eight to ten weeks of travel can be replaced with a bi-weekly virtual presentation. This means a more robust content plan, a better supported prospective student pool and an admissions staff that isn't completely burned out by the second week in October.

Now, all we need to figure out is how to keep those Starbucks rewards flowing and that Hilton Diamond Status …

A leader in enrollment marketing strategy, Gil Rogers has published numerous studies on digital student engagement and presented at dozens of national conferences on enrollment strategy. He currently serves as executive vice president at PlatformQ Education.




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