Four Common Financial Aid Failures

Student search is the trailer, not the movie

By Jonathan P. Epstein
Senior Vice President, Enrollment Strategies

Student search is the one moment in the recruitment process when you, the institution, control the audience, the message, and the timing. It’s an enormous opportunity that requires creating a campaign designed not merely for “interest identification” but also interest generation and cultivation.

One of my favorite parts of working with a college or university on their student search campaigns is their enthusiasm at the prospect of having creative input and flexibility in a way they haven’t often had before.

Whiteboard’s search results have proven that content-rich, vibrant, and engaging messaging is the pathway from a pretty good search campaign to an outstanding search campaign – and when you factor in the scale of these campaigns, the difference in outcomes can be quite dramatic.

With our highly collaborative and flexible style, early in the process we often hear comments like, “We should really link to that student video,” “We want to make sure they know about the Open House,” “We have to link to our new student center,” and perhaps “Let’s be sure to highlight a link to our new academic programs!”

When you’re crafting a search campaign and developing a message that will be the first time that many students learn about your institution, this is the best analogy I’ve found to convey the most important element to remember:

Student search is the trailer, not the movie.

What’s your elevator pitch?

An admission professional faces the same dilemma a film director does in deciding what belongs in his or her movie’s trailer. The challenge in both cases is to condense a tremendous amount of information into a great preview that is compelling enough to leave the recipient wanting more. If you don’t give the audience enough content, people won’t connect. Too much information leaves people overwhelmed. You want to present something special that differentiates your movie from all the rest.

If you don’t give the audience enough content, people won’t connect.

This is why creating an exceptional student search campaign, though it can be difficult at times, is so very important.

I often wonder, then, why many colleges are comfortable handing over their search campaigns, giving their vendor the freedom to create their messaging through templated offers, bland design work, and redundant submission forms. We all acknowledge that recruiting students is very different from traditional direct mail outreach, where marketers are simply measuring response rates. Deciding to apply and enroll at a specific college or university is a lifetime decision, and the manner in which a college or university communicates with prospective students should reflect the values, the unique spirit, and the true voice of that institution. That’s why authentic and relevant messaging is so important to student search.

Building a search campaign

How should you build your search campaign? In my experience, the most successful search messaging includes the following elements:

  1. Highly relevant content that is presented in a visually pleasing and concise manner;
  2. Powerful images that captivate the audience, but do not overwhelm the message; and
  3. An integrated design approach that produces a positive experience every single moment the student interacts with your material, whether through a quick scroll on their phone or a more focused read on a home computer.

We want to create messages – your institution’s trailers – that are compelling enough to encourage more students to engage with every email sent. Ideally, that engagement should enable them to pursue their interest in the content by clicking on a personalized URL (pURL) that drives to a beautiful and cleanly designed landing page. This approach also allows your institution to collect information from students so as to identify and engage your best prospects, beginning a two-way conversation earlier in the pipeline.

Having the information to follow up with students in a personalized manner, based on their level of engagement with the search campaign, enables you to extract the most value out of the resources you’ve committed to student search.

Next, you want to make sure that you can track the precise degree to which students are interacting with your campaign – the traditional “responder/non-responder” dichotomy is outdated. There is a full spectrum of how students interact with search campaigns, which is why we developed our own engagement framework to score prospects throughout the campaign. Having the information to follow up with students in a personalized manner, based on their level of engagement with the search campaign, enables you to extract the most value out of the resources you’ve committed to student search.

In my experience, this combined approach produces maximum student interest while streamlining the once clunky handoff from “student search” to “inquiry cultivation.” The traditional method, in which a search vendor mails a letter or #10 envelope and a prescribed number of uninspiring emails, and then drops a huge, undifferentiated pile of “search responders” on your data doorstep, is no longer an effective strategy. It results in an unsatisfying, disjointed, and ineffective progression for the students and families.

So do a careful review of your search materials and messages, as if they were your institution’s movie trailer, and ask yourself, “Would I be dying to go see this movie?”


Whiteboard can help. Give us a call at (215) 282-0852 or email info@gowhiteboard.net to discuss all the possibilities.