Analyzing Student Sources

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Students doing research in the library.

There are a lot of ways that students can learn about colleges, and in the same way that they value those sources differently, colleges should as well. A student might find their friends’ opinions or review sites to be the best places to learn about a college since they are less curated and groomed the way an institution’s website and social media are. Or they may prefer pure numbers and stats. As an enrollment professional, you should value sources differently as well. Are they partners or just a budget line? You might receive names, website traffic, support, consulting, or combinations of these services, but one of the things you can most easily measure and assign values to are the student names themselves.

There are two types of high-level student sources:

  • Prospect – Purchased names, those who didn’t request to be contacted. These commonly come from vendors who provide tests, surveys, or can be lookalike students from inquiry vendors.
  • Inquiry – Students requesting information about your institution. These might be acquired directly through your website, college fairs, high school visits, or campus visits. They can also come from college search and scholarship websites that allow students to request information directly.

Source Attribution Models

There are five primary attribution methods for student sources. While each can be used to varying degrees of accuracy by themselves, they’re best used in combination to get the full picture of your student search.

  • Source – Quite simply, this method is the most complete and only considers where a student came from. If counting only source, a student record can appear in multiple sources. It doesn’t matter if a student came from a source first, last, or anywhere in between. It provides the best picture of overall movement through the funnel for each source.
  • First Source – The first way a student record came into the CRM is considered their first source. If an institution is only looking at first source, they discount when the student actually starts engaging and tends to place more value to prospecting of freshmen and sophomores. The problem with this is that a student can come in to your system and sit there with no outreach on the institution’s part or engagement on the student’s part and yet that source will get all the credit if the student applies or enrolls. It’s a bit akin to crediting all the success a person has in their life to the doctor who delivered them. 
  • First Source Inquiry – Some institutions will look instead at a student’s first source of inquiry, not just their first import into the system. This is a better method, but requires more work for most institutions. A student might not become an inquiry until long after they were first loaded into a CRM as a prospect, but if they never engaged with your institution until becoming an inquiry, then they are essentially a new student anyway. It’s important to do this type of attribution analysis at least once to better understand whether or not it will be more valuable for your institution than a more simple first source attribution.
  • Last Source – The most recent source a student came in to your system, usually before an action is taken such as applying or visiting. This is a better way at finding the sources that drive activity. A student who came in to the system as a sophomore but doesn’t engage until inquiring as a senior will be credited to the source most recent to their action.
  • Unique Source – A source that was the only place a student record came from. This helps tell the best story of value for a student search vendor because it tells a school where they would lose out on enrollments by not having a source. This is the most time consuming and difficult, and I have not found many schools doing this.

What Can Hurt Your Attribution

  • Delayed imports – Delaying your imports in to your CRM is a bad idea for a lot of reasons. Not responding in a timely fashion reduces your likelihood of yielding that student and hurts their experience with your institution. According to HubSpot research, users expect a response to an inquiry within 10 minutes. That can be difficult, but having valuable autoresponders and integrated inquiry imports can certainly make this easier. If you receive inquiries daily but wait to do a weekly or monthly process, you are ignoring students for 7 to 30 days. At that point they are less engaged in the search they were initially doing, and may have been engaging with other schools. Aside from that, if you don’t consistently and quickly import students into your CRM you will decrease the accuracy and value of your attribution model. For example, if you place value in first source names but aren’t immediately importing students, then you don’t really have accurate first source data. Automate when you can and import quickly manually if you can’t. 
  • Poor sourcing in CRM – It should go without saying, but importing every inquiry as a generic “Inquiry” and every prospect as a generic “Prospect” source is the absolute worst thing you can do if you want to make good decisions about your partnerships and sources. Make sure that you have clear sourcing set up in your CRM. Don’t aggregate and mix imports. When you do this, you lose all ability to track a source in your system, so set up source names and make sure your automatic imports are set up correctly. Some sources (such as Niche) allow you to receive both inquiries and prospects. In these cases, you should be importing these as separate sources so that you can track them separately. Any enrollment manager can tell you that inquiries convert much better than prospects, which means that if you combine the two prior to analysis, it will make the source look weaker if analyzed as an inquiry or stronger if analyzed as a prospect.
  • Not removing duplicates from your system – Allowing duplicate student records to linger in your CRM is bad for a lot of reasons. You can end up sending “Apply Now” emails to admitted students or multiple brochures to the same student, and it makes your source analysis inaccurate. Duplicates not only hurt your brand, they waste resources and reduce your data integrity. 

Other considerations

While many vendors trying to sell you something will try to simplify things and make themselves look the best, you’re savvy, and know that there are always nuances and that any measurement of value will be a spectrum. You know that there is a balance of quantity and quality, and that things are rarely as clear cut as we would like them to be. Here are a few things you need to look at as part of the overall evaluation:

  1. Use multiple attribution models. They will each provide a new layer for your analysis of value. Discuss with your team to determine which models might be best for what matters to you. This is not a one-size-fits-all process.
  2. Was the more recent source really the same record? Were the address, phone, email, major, and interests identical? If not, even though the record might be called a duplicate it’s not really the same record. 
  3. Look at the cost per name, cost per applicant, cost per deposit, and cost to enroll by source. Some sources may provide fewer names, but at a significantly lower cost per enrollment — they might be one of your best sources. These are all data points to use in your evaluation of sources.
  4. In addition to names, are these sources sending other traffic to your website? There is a lot of value in referral traffic, and not just for additional inquiries and applicants that you didn’t pay for. High quality referral traffic can help your website’s rankings, thus bringing in even more organic traffic to become more inquiries and applicants.
  5. Don’t just look for unique names and duplicates, but look for which sources overlap with each other the most.
  6. Look to the future. As more schools move to test-optional admissions practices, you need to look beyond relying on standardized tests as your primary name source. There is always a place for using prospects to supplement your recruiting, but relying on prospects to drive your enrollment is expensive and inefficient.

There are a lot of considerations when evaluating your student name sources, but it’s important to evaluate your sources every year. You will have a better idea of changes in performance over time and can have conversations with your representatives about what you’re seeing.

Will Patch

Will Patch is the Enrollment Marketing Leader at Niche and helps clients with their enrollment strategies and digital outreach. He also shares insights and research on the Enrollment Insights blog and through webinars and a monthly newsletter. Prior to coming to Niche in the summer of 2019, he served Manchester University for 9 years in roles including Digital Strategist, Social Media Coordinator, and Associate Director for Admissions Operations. Outside of Niche, Will also coordinates the #EMChat community on Twitter, with weekly chats Thursdays at 9:00 PM Eastern.
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