The Educated Marketer


The What, Who, How and When of Recruiting Students Online

by Leah Peters | Aug 29, 2016

 |  college recruitment, inbound marketing

What a great online student recruitment strategy looks like now.

Online student recruitment isn’t just about the strategic placement of ads. It’s not about having a great website and a couple of blogs. It isn’t even about being active on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


Sure, all those things are a part of the plan. But student recruitment success requires more than these things.

Student recruitment success requires strategy.

According to Richard Levin, who’s in charge of enrollment services at the University of Toronto, strategy is key. It’s all about “what you communicate, to whom, and how,” he says. “Messages must be consistent and clear and authentic.”

And, we’d add, it’s all about the when -- reaching the right person, with the right message, in the right format, and at the right time.

So how do you take your student recruitment strategy to the next level?

Remember -- it’s all about what, who, how, and when

1. What

Defining the what of your online recruitment efforts begins with knowing your institutional identity and articulating it clearly.

While your institutional mission and values statements can offer some guidance toward communicating what you’re all about, we think it’s a good idea to identify other aspects of your institution that set you apart.

For example, do you offer an extraordinarily broad range of academic and athletic programs? Are you situated in an especially lovely area? Do you boast unparalleled opportunities for service learning? Is your institutional history storied and fascinating?

Students today have more choices than ever, and rather than trying to sound like every other college or university, institutions need to identify and lift up what makes them unique. That forms the basis for all your marketing communication.

2. Who

Defining the ‘who’ of your online student recruitment strategy is similar. Don’t settle for generalities, but craft your content with specific, researched personas in mind. Who are the students that actually apply to and attend your institution, and who are the students you hope will apply? The answers to these questions further help you to develop your message.

For example, if you are a highly selective college looking to recruit a more economically diverse student body, chances are that you’re already well-known as an institution: advertising your already much-vaunted bona fides may not be necessary.

However, if you’re not seeing the diversity that you’d been aiming for, it’s possible you’re not reaching the right people with the right message; many lower-income highly qualified students don’t realize that top colleges and universities are able to offer them substantial financial aid. It’s a question of getting the right message to the right people.

3. How

This one’s easy: the Internet.

We’re not exactly saying that the glossy viewbook has gone the way of the rotary phone, but it should be pretty clear to anyone with a computer that the Internet is where we turn for information -- and the younger we are, the more likely that’s the case.

Which means, of course, that your prospective students are using the Internet to research their college options.

Your recruitment communications strategy doesn’t need to be limited to moving traditional materials to an online format -- in fact, we think you should be all about exploiting the possibilities that the Internet affords. One example is this lip sync video from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver that has nearly two and a half million views.

We’re not saying that’s the approach everyone needs to take, but it’s worth considering the huge range of options available to you: photography, video, downloadable presentations, live chats, and more.

4. When

What gets us excited about the strategy for online student recruitment known as inbound marketing is that inbound has got the “when” down.

Parents who are researching college options for their high school student. Eager rising juniors looking to get a head start on the search process. Seniors who are beginning to research in earnest. Unhappy first-years looking to transfer colleges.

Each of these people has a different set of concerns and a different timeline. It wouldn’t make sense to bombard them all with the same messaging on the same schedule.

That’s where the sophisticated technology supporting inbound marketing comes in. When a prospect takes an action and identifies herself, her IP address and contact information -- and all subsequent actions -- are recorded. This gives the marketer a wealth of background to work with, and makes it possible for individualized messages and offers to go out at optimal times.

To sum up:

Effective online student recruitment means reaching the right people with the right message in the right way and at the right time. Knowing who you are, and who they are, and what you should say takes research. Saying it through the right channels and at the right time takes something more -- something we call inbound marketing.

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