Can Smaller Institutions Win when Recruiting against the Giants?

Research shows that time-pressed Millennial hs students prefer well-known brands. What chance do worthy but lesser-known colleges have to compete? Consider:

While researching ways to increase inquiries last spring, I found myself in a parking lot packed with hs students at the NACAC College Fair in Boston and decided to hold an impromptu focus group. To my amazement, the juniors I spoke with already had already put together their short lists and planned on talking with just 3-5 institutions at the Fair. I asked if there was anything a college that wasn’t on their list could do to gain consideration. They gave two answers:

  • Give away free stuff (NACAC wouldn’t be thrilled with that!)

  • Make an impressive presentation 

This experience reinforced two important points. First, it showed the wisdom of a recommendation made in a Search Expert presentation at NEACAC this year: “Starting early is key.” As Strauss and Howe point out, Millennials are big brand shoppers. Research shows that people who are pressed for time look for shortcuts, and a strong brand provides an easy one. Therefore, it’s crucial that students learn about your institution very early in the process. And if your college is not in the news regularly, it’s clear that you’ll need to do some good PR work with freshmen and then search sophomores if you’re going to make many short lists.

Students may have learned this approach from their parents. Internationally respected research firm Global Reviews conducted a marketing study on people buying insurance on the Internet. It showed that, just like prospective freshmen, those who buy insurance online often start their search with a preferred list of providers in mind. But a full 35% of those who did ended up buying their insurance from a firm that was not on that list.

What made the difference? Global Reviews CEO Greg Muller stated our second key point: “Strong brand awareness can get people to your website, but a better customer experience from a lesser known brand can often win out.” College websites are often well-designed, but actual experience shows that sites that get the right kind of commitments from visitors generate more applications and higher yield rates. In addition, one state institution broke the mold at the Boston NACAC College Fair, displaying videos in their double-size booth. Their VP of Enrollment reported that her inquiry level for that fair was the best yet.

When students approach your website or your booth, the better experience they have, the more likely they are to investigate further. And when they do, the enjoyable encounter they have may help your institution leapfrog the big brand universities and enroll students who had hardly heard of you when they began their college search.

The Allied Group is an award-winning marketing communications company offering personalized direct marketing, publications/web design and full service fulfillment to higher education institutions.

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