Estimated read time – 6 minutes
If you’re a parent you certainly know what nurturing is. Nurturing is encouraging someone, or something if you’re raising plants or animals, to grow and develop. Regardless of what stage the nurturing is taking place, there are two very simple rules:
#1: It doesn’t matter what you want to say, the only thing that matters is what the recipient needs and wants to hear. Speak TO them, not AT them.
#2: Don’t lose sight of the first rule.
Nurturing starts at the prospect stage. For our purposes, we’ll use the common definition of a prospect being a name that was purchased (or prospected) who did not request to receive information. At this stage the goal is simple: determine if you’re a good fit for them and have them request more information. Don’t treat them the same as inquiries because you might be starting from a point where the recipient has never heard of you before. Start your outreach by testing a few different options as your leading message: academics, culture, “get to know us,” or outcomes. This will help you either learn what works best or find some personas to segment your outreach.
If you discover that there are specific personas you can better segment your prospect work. Perhaps students interested in certain majors react better to academics while others need outcomes messaging to engage. In the PK-12 world, families that are interested in specific programmatic offerings (e.g., STEM, fine arts, or foreign languages) might connect more with messaging focused on academics while others might be more interested in alumni stories and placements. Focus on email for these students and families, sending extensive mail communications is not likely to be a good use of your budget. Prospect engagement rates are low, so any sort of segmentation that improves it can help you better yield these students and families. From Niche’s Enrollment Funnel Analyses, we’re seeing prospects are eight times less likely to apply and six times less likely to enroll than inquiries. Whatever you do though, don’t propose on the first date. Trying to push a prospect to apply with your very first message is not the right tactic to build a relationship and help them see themselves as part of your community.
You should also understand how the prospects were selected. For example, in higher ed, Niche offers two very different types of prospects. Cross-Interest Prospects fit your profile and are looking for an institution like yours but haven’t considered you yet. These students will need less information about why they should consider an institution like yours, and instead focus on the unique offerings and cultural differences. Bulk prospects are similar to how you would find them from other vendors, you supply criteria for the students you want to prospect. In this case, they might fit the profile for who you want, but the individual students might not be interested in your type of institution and will need to know why they should consider a large urban university over a more intimate setting in a small town, for example. Trying to communicate with these students in the same way is suboptimally nurturing.
The inquiry stage is the first point that you can really get personalized in exciting ways. Personalization is different from customization; customization is merging fields so that their name or major is included in an email or print piece. Personalized communication provides the right information, in the right medium, at the right time. Your plans will be highly segmented and complicated, but much more effective as well.
An inquiry has reached out to request information from you, and if you are tracking the right information you will know where on your site they did so. This can allow you to differentiate the response message if the inquiry came on an admissions page, academic program page, financial aid/tuition page, or athletics. Additionally, if you have a follow-up form to learn more about the student you can speak to their specific interests and situation. Inquiries from partners should have a significant amount of information as well; for example, Niche Qualified Inquiries have 34 data points. Use these to speak directly to students and families about what they say they care about in terms of academics, extracurricular opportunities, and support needs.
Admission staff should also be developing relationships with inquiries. These are students and families who have requested more information, and very rarely does the inquiry form ask for their specific questions. After a student or parent inquires, whether on-site or off, there is a short window of time to reach out and start building relationships and asking questions. Find out what they’re excited about, what matters most to them, their hopes and goals, and also what their fears and concerns are. This will not only help you later on in the recruitment process but will help them connect to your institution. If you’re targeting students and they want you to connect with their parents as well, this is also a natural point to gather more information.
Inquiries have taken the first step, so now you can start encouraging more valuable conversions as well. Visits and applications should be natural CTAs for students and families who know you well enough to inquire. You still don’t want to propose on the first date and push an application with your very first message, they requested information and that request should be honored first before you ask them for something. Don’t be afraid to ask, but understand that they have questions and concerns too. If they wanted to apply right away they would have, there are plenty of students and parents who do (we just call them stealth applicants instead of inquiries).
Applicant nurturing can also be segmented based upon the source. A student who applies after being in your communication flow for years, visiting, and speaking to staff should be well versed in your institution and may only need to know about deadlines and maintaining a strong personal connection. A stealth applicant who submitted through an off-site application such as the Common App or the SAO might not know your school well enough yet or have a personal connection since they’re able to apply to multiple schools at once. Don’t let them miss out on all the information that was shared with inquiries and prospects just because they were a high-intent inquiry, which is all that a stealth applicant really is.
Make sure that they know what is needed to be accepted and address their questions and concerns early. Build personas from past years to provide relevant information that helps them move past pain points. You will also need to make sure that your print, digital, and email outreach are all coordinated and not providing conflicting information or confusing branding. Their next steps should, of course, be completing their application and visiting campus if they have not already done so. Connecting with current students, parents, and faculty can create valuable touchpoints as well as the arts and athletics departments for those that it applies to.
Nurturing Accepted Students
Most of the nurturing of accepted students should be done by admissions counselors who have been building relationships by the time a student is accepted, but there are still automation opportunities. Checklists, reminders, and invitations are easy starting points. Occasionally sending an email with an update on needed information or steps to enroll can replace a landing page or portal that they need to log into and check. Make them feel like they’re part of the community already with insider opportunities and ways to connect with the campus and with each other. This can be achieved with digital content, communities, or events. This is also your last chance to address fears and pain points before they prevent students and families from committing or melting after committing. Ask what would prevent them from enrolling, help address those concerns if possible, and put students and their families at ease.
Nurturing Committed Students
Nurturing isn’t done after the commitment—this is where melt prevention begins. We like to be patted on the back and told what great choices we’ve made in our lives, and the same holds true for making a college school choice. Sharing good news, traditions, and events that can get them even more excited about the coming years, and providing checklists of forms and processes that will come up are great ways to keep them engaged.
While not everything has to be done as a personal outreach, anything automated should be as relevant and highly personalized as students and families have come to expect. Generic emails that encourage actions they have already taken will hurt relationships. One successful tactic that some institutions have used is to steal the model of subscription boxes, or swag boxes, to share items with committed students that excite, surprise, and encourage them to share with others. This helps engage them as advocates and can bring more students into your inquiry and application cycles.
Don’t forget about the parents either! Throughout the process, have separate connections with parents to engage them in the search and answer their questions and concerns and welcome them into your community. Build parent personas and a knowledge base of common questions and concerns that can be addressed in a variety of media as well as with personal outreach. In PK-12, parents are the deciding factor; and in higher education they are an important part of the process and shouldn’t be ignored. Even if you don’t have their contact information, asking students or sending parent-addressed outreach to their address will reach them. Provide easy parent contact opt-in on your site as well to allow for them to learn more about what matters to them.