Your Enrollment Process Isn’t a Funnel – It’s a Dance!

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Think about how a funnel works: you pour something in the top and it inevitably moves through to the bottom of the funnel because of gravity. The student journey to enrollment and ultimately graduation isn’t a funnel. That’s what we’ve been told for years, but the analogy just doesn’t work with today’s student college search process. We shouldn’t expect students to progress from prospect to enrollment just because they exist in our known pool. The funnel is such a ubiquitous visual that I don’t expect it to be tossed aside anytime soon. However, I think that reframing the student journey can help to better serve students and change our expectations of outcomes. Let’s explore some inquiry and enrollment generation strategies, and this metaphor, a bit more.

So let’s talk about the student journey as a dance instead. Specifically, I think of it as a conga line. A conga line starts with a few people opting to get going and others being convinced to get up and start moving along. As it progresses others are able to join, there’s not a single entry point. People also can drop out at any time, they aren’t forced to dance until the song ends. In a conga line, most people ultimately will either watch and smile or avoid eye contact, they’re not forced to dance at all.

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Let’s look at it in terms of your student journey then. In the awareness phase, at the top of a traditional funnel, are your prospects and inquiries. Some have never heard of you and need to build interest not only in your institution but in your type of institution. Other students may have a passing awareness, but don’t know specifics or have a reason to pursue you for their education. At this stage, it’s just as important to figure out if they’re the right fit for you as it is for them to figure out why you matter to them.

For our metaphor, do they like the music? Can they keep the pace and follow along to be a part of the line? Since they have not taken an active role in reaching out, you need to address the Who and the Why: Who are you and Why should the student continue opening your emails or reading your mail. What value are you providing? Guide them towards things that interest them and help them learn as much about the search process as you. Provide opportunities to opt-in and engage, but also don’t just send a couple of general emails and assume that’s enough. 


Change the tempo:

  • Engage inquiries with a short audio or video message asking to get to know more about their process.
  • Supplement email with targeted digital marketing and social ads that speak to what you know they care about.
  • Address costs early and let students opt in or out based on affordability. Don’t wait until it’s a melt or retention issue.
  • Use Net Price Calculators as an inbound marketing tactic. Set up landing pages with the calculator and have students fill it out, and if they like the results they can inquire and move to the next phase in their journey. 
  • Treat prospect sources differently. A bulk purchase that fits criteria is different than a Niche Cross-Interest Prospect, which are students who are considering your close competitors but not you. They want a school like yours already, but might not be aware of your name yet. Custom Prospects are your traditional lists of students that meet criteria, but Cross-Interest Prospects are students who meet your criteria and are adding your competitors to their list for consideration, but not you. They have also opted in to be contacted by other colleges than the ones on their list, an added bonus for engagement.

Moving on to the engagement phase, inquiries should be given information that matches what they have told you. They’re taking the initiative, so reward them by treating them differently. When they fill out a form and tell you they are interested in a specific program or extracurricular opportunity, not sending them information about it right away is a missed opportunity. Engagement is also an entry point, these are the people that walk in and immediately jump in and dance. These students come to you already engaging by either reaching out directly or visiting campus. They initiate the process and are likely more valuable to you as well, as they are more likely to enroll.

 Some of your awareness phase students will never engage, they’re at the dance but don’t stand up. The vibe – in this case, what you’re presenting them with and how you’re communicating – just isn’t right for them. Keep testing your outreach, but don’t expect 100% conversion either. It’s not a bad thing for some to opt-out early if they realize that you’re not the right fit. 


Change the tempo:

  • Respond directly to what they inquired about. If they filled out a form on a landing page, the response should speak to that content. If it was on an academic page send them more information as well as ask questions to learn more about their needs.
  • If the engagement was a visit, tailor the follow-up to relate to what they experienced.
  • Make sure inquiries receive a personalized response, something directly from a counselor that lets them know that real people and not an automated system received their inquiry. In a recent Niche survey, 48% of students reported that the communications they’ve been receiving from colleges and universities all look and sound the same. Only 8% said they feel very personal.

When we move to the applicant stage, we’re moving to high-intent students. These are still essentially inquiries, they aren’t committing to anything other than asking you to consider them and determine if they have the chance to enroll. Most students who start as inquiries or prospects never make it this far. Either they engaged and it wasn’t the right fit or they never had enough interest at the awareness stage to take that next step and apply. Either way, the majority of those who are at your traditional “top of funnel” never even move to the middle. Many of those who were dancing are now tired and drop out. 

This is also our last entry point, it’s getting later and some people who had been off at the edges took the leap and joined the dance. These are where stealth applicants enter into the picture, even though we all know they really aren’t that stealthy. They have been researching your college on Niche or other platforms, have connections to current or former students, live in the area and know you well, or have grown up watching your sports teams on TV. A stealth application is really just your highest value inquiry, and a special communication flow for them can be a great way to make sure that they don’t miss out on anything that’s being shared with those who enter sooner. Your multichannel communications should emphasize these students, but it’s very rare to see a school or college that treats these students as the highest intent inquiries and instead processes them as traditional applications. 


Change the tempo:

  • Prioritize stealth applicants for personalized outreach and make sure to quickly build a relationship with their admissions counselor so that they can catch up to other students who have been hearing from you for months or years.
  • Behaviors at the awareness and engagement stages can still be used to personalize communication, don’t start from scratch at each stage.
  • Use targeted digital and social marketing to speak to all the information you have now. Segments can be much smaller and more personalized.
  • Keep guiding students to the next step. That may be a visit, application completion, conversations with students and faculty, or filing a FAFSA. 
  • A large amount of traffic from Niche profiles is going to applications, so it’s important to make sure that you are well represented on sites like Niche where students are doing their research and comparisons. Even if it’s a free basic profile, it will help you with recruiting. We have a guide to help you present yourself well on Niche.

As we keep moving along and the dancing goes on, many of those who made it to the applicant stage either opt-out or are pulled from the line. By the end of the night, most of those who danced have stopped, but the majority of those at the event never danced at all. A few though almost make it to the end and step out with only minutes left. The last exit is melt. The students who enroll and never show up on campus. The communication and relationship building has to start at the beginning of the night with awareness and continue through until the last person leaves. Backing off on building affinity at enrollment, or even acceptance, will hurt your ultimate yield and waste all the hard work you put into choosing the playlist early on.


Change the tempo:

  • Don’t back off on personalized outreach just because a student has deposited. Ask about concerns and things that might be a problem for them and guide them towards solutions. Not having the hard conversations can lead to melt or retention problems, and that’s bad for the student.
  • Plan for fun: “getting to know you” activities, short emails or texts soliciting a response, or swag boxes requesting photos back are great engagement points.
  • Connect the students to each other with private communities, events, speed networking, virtual affinity groups. Help them feel comfortable with the transition to college.

A party planner (enrollment manager) should step back, after taking careful notes of course, and find ways to better appeal to those who never decided to dance. With stronger awareness and outreach of the event, more people can opt in. This is what your outreach, comm flows, and remarketing will do for you. Outreach and comm flows can help put you in front of people who were unaware of you and explain why they would want to join. Remarketing is that persistent friend who saw you make eye contact and keep encouraging you to act, and then to keep dancing once you’ve started. Together these will make your institution’s dance the one that people keep talking about and bringing friends back to year after year.

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Will Patch

In addition to the Enrollment Insights blog, webinars, and podcast; Will is a frequent conference speaker and podcast guest. He has presented at NACAC, AACRAO-SEM, Indiana ACAC, CASE V, EduWeb, and EMA. Will's work has been featured in Forbes, Inside Higher Ed, CNBC, CNN, the LA Times, and The New York Times among other outlets.

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