In a Crowded Student Search Environment, Relevance Rules

As Student Search letters hit the mail, it’s important to recognize what many institutions are up against. Students may have never heard of the college that would prove to be their best choice. If they choose a better-known institution that’s not a good fit, both they and their ideal school will lose. How can worthy but less-than-famous colleges get students’ attention?

Direct mail is still the best way to reach out to students initially. In a College Board survey, 81% of students said that personal letters from colleges increased their interest. Another 75% indicated that brochures mailed to them had a similar effect. Emails came in at 61%. All should continue to be employed by many institutions.


But crowded mailboxes are the bane of lesser-known schools. One study presented at NEACAC this year found that 40% of prospects’ names were available for only one year. Institutions must therefore make the best use of their opportunity to engage these prospects. Time-pressed Millennials often take mental shortcuts and choose brand name institutions. Many rely on the advice of parents and friends. Although 74% respected their guidance counselor’s recommendations, these alone may not be enough to help unknown but creditable institutions.

Getting noticed in a crowded Search market

After PSAT, SAT and ACT results become available, many students are deluged with Search letters and emails. As these crowd their mail boxes, two types will stand out:

  • Those from familiar institutions 

  • Those whose message is relevant

The first point is obvious. It’s also proved by research. When students feel overwhelmed with choices, familiar names will stand out. But if your college is not a household name, personal relevance may be your best chance at getting your letter or email opened. Studies cited by eminent social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson reveal that when a message is personally relevant, people will pay attention to it even if the presenter doesn’t have the benefit of fame and prestige.

How can you know what’s personally relevant?

Relevant text and/or photos on a mailer or envelope will make it stand out and increase its chances to be opened and read. But what’s relevant? If Search names are from a recent test, student-provided data on intended major, sports and extracurricular interests are likely to be fairly accurate. This information could be an excellent source of relevant data to be used in a one to one communication campaign starting with Search letters and emails. If test results are not recent, data on intended majors will spoil rather than improve with age. How can institutions make sure student interest information is up-to-date?

Some college websites employ a Stealth Program, offering visitors a customized electronic, and sometimes printed, brochure. Students wanting to receive one must give contact information and indicate their intended major and extracurricular interests. This tool can be used effectively in a number of settings.

Links included on college Facebook pages and targeted display ads can turn an electronic brochure offer into a great outreach tool. It gives students exactly the information they request, gets institutions the fresh data they need, and has proved to get substantially higher conversion rates than traditional Search. And, of course, prospects requesting e-brochures have thereby inquired and may not need to be searched again.

Could a relevant message help your institution stand out in a crowded field?

The Allied Group is a marketing communications company offering award-winning Search, Stealth, Conversion and Yield Programs for traditional and nontraditional college admissions.

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