When it comes to attracting prospective students, many colleges and universities tend to take the fire hydrant approach: “You said you were interested in our program; here is a bulleted list of 147 reasons our school is the best.” Realistically, a student does want to know all of the information you want to tell them, just not all at once. Having a communication plan in place that provides students with the information they need when they need it is important for your institution to be successful in identifying students who are the best fit.

In April 2013, I joined the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina to work on recruiting students for the Professional MBA Program. Moore School enrolls close to 200 students per year in this program and has between 2,000 and 3,000 prospects at any given time.

Here’s the story of how our team built a comprehensive communication model from scratch to help us reach the prospective students who were the right fit for our program and to meet their information demands.

Where did we start?

Prior to our current communication model, our method looked like this: students requested information and within seven days, they would receive a basic email with everything they could possibly want to know about the MBA program, from cost, to deadlines, to courses. Printed out, this email was six pages long!

Needless to say, this method had some issues. Although we did give students the information they asked for, we had no way of knowing whether they were engaging with that information, if they wanted additional information, or if they had even received or opened the email. This put us in a very reactive position, and not in a good way. We only engaged students who would respond directly to us. If they did not, then they received no further communication from us outside of the occasional marketing blast.

Where are we now?

Today, our communication model includes emails that perform with an average open rate of more than 50 percent, with some of our key communications having an open rate approaching 85-90 percent. Our model is completely responsive to a student’s needs. A student who applies and attends an event receives a different communication than a student who has just requested information and nothing else. Our model has more than 45 different possible communication points and we continue to build on this.

We have seen upticks in applications, event attendees, and most importantly, enrollments. The best part is that our communication model is automated, so our recruiters are not focused on who should get which email when and communication flows aren’t interrupted when staff members are on vacation.

How did we get here?

Here are five basic steps that worked for our team and can help guide you as you go about creating a comprehensive communication model from scratch.

1. Evaluation

I’m a big fan of taking stock. Based on your own data, what’s working for you right now and what isn’t? Are your prospective students getting the information they need at the time they need it? Is it automated?

You also want to evaluate what your competition is doing. The beauty of this industry is that everyone is more than happy to send you emails or marketing materials. It is easy to see how other schools are attracting students. If your peers are doing it better, it’s time for you to catch up.

2. Planning/Design

Now that you have evaluated your current position, the next step is to list your goals. What exactly do you want this communication model to do for you?

Our goals were simple to start:

  • We wanted to be responsive. Our plan needed to be able to respond to a prospective student’s behavior.
  • We wanted to be automated. We have a limited staff, and we couldn’t survive if a majority of these tasks were not automated.
  • We wanted to be comprehensive. We wanted our model to cover the entire cycle for students, from their initial thoughts about the program to starting their first courses. Students would receive targeted communication throughout the process.

One of the biggest challenges in embarking on a project like this is getting your mind wrapped around the big picture. For this reason, I mapped out everything first on paper or on a whiteboard. Knowing the big picture is going be helpful as you move forward into planning the nuts and bolts details.

3. Development

Once you get your plans down, it is time to get to work. Our initial plan called for 30 emails to be created. This was a considerable amount of work, but we created a workflow for each email. This step is important for the simple fact that it is a sanity-saver.

Our flow looks like this:

  • Idea: Decide the general context for the email.
  • Copy: Write the text of the email.
  • Edit: Fix the mistakes and get your wording exactly right.
  • Code: Write the HTML or build it in an editor.
  • Filter: Write the criteria that determines who gets this email and when.
  • Test: Test everything - design, delivery, performance.    
  • Implement: Set up the email to go live and become a recurring email.

TIP: Establish standard naming conventions. You should be able to look at the file name of any email and say with reasonable certainty what that email is, where it falls within the communication model, and who it is targeting. Find a convention that works for you and stick to it.

4. Implementation

You have thought about it; you have planned it; you have built it. Now it is time to make this dream a reality. Make sure you keep all of your notes and write down your processes. This is one mistake we made in building our model, and now we are going back and writing down the processes we used.


5. Evaluate

Once you go live with your communications, pay attention to the metrics and make adjustments as necessary. Important metrics to evaluate include email open rates, click rates, opt-out rates, and engagement rates. Another best practice is to track trends over time. Do not be afraid to make a tweak as you see performance falling short of the standards. Creating flexibility in your model will give you an advantage over models that are much more rigid.

Pro Tips

A few takeaways we learned from developing our communication model:

  1. Knowing your students and how they want to receive information will go a long way in building a successful model. Each student population is different. A good model molds itself to the student it is trying to reach.
  2. Plan, plan, and plan some more. I cannot emphasize enough how much easier it would have been to build some aspects of the model if we had done more planning up front.
  3. Be flexible. Change is going to happen, and a model may be successful for only one year before it needs to be tweaked. Do not be afraid to make adjustments.

Download our webinar to hear more of Paul Allen’s experience in building a dynamic communication model.


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