Using Storytelling to Drive Higher Education Enrollment

by Belfort Group | Agency News , Thought Leadership
December 30, 2013

Today’s consumers have a wealth of information at their fingertips. Whether they are buying a refrigerator, car, house or electronics, there’s enough information online to inform their purchase decision. The same argument can be made about choosing a college.

According to a 2012 U.S. News and World Report survey, social media plays an integral part in the decision process for high school students. Additionally, the survey showed that students take social media experiences with a college into consideration. So this primary audience, who are called I-Gens, is not only using the medium for research, they are also factoring in how a college interacts with them during the discovery process.

There are 70 million I-Gens (a term coined in the booked “Disrupted”) in the U.S. alone and they account for 18% of the world’s population or 1.2 billion people. And, as you can imagine, I-Gens are permanently connected and rely on mobile technologies. As a result, they have infinite touch points and the only way they filter this massive amount of information is to rely on real people: peers, consumers, and other influencers.

So, how do higher education marketers develop a program that’s non-intrusive but also readily available when prospective I-Gens—and their parents—are shopping around online? The key for schools is to maintain a presence without inundating these important audiences with marketing messages.

Instead of thinking about review sites and a steady diet of Facebook posts, higher education marketers need to focus on storytelling.

Why is storytelling to important? Relevant and interesting stories can go beyond push marketing and engage the prospective student through a variety of social media channels. Storytelling is less about promoting the brand in the traditional sense and more about sharing other people’s content, opinions, interactions in a way that nurtures a desire to learn more about your school.

Here are some examples of good storytelling campaign ideas for higher education that drive enrollment inquiries.

Let your students tell their story.

Coffee table books are a thing of the past and prospective students are not going to make a decision based on a glossy picture of the campus. Instead, they are more likely to engage with a student from their hometown, who is sharing his or her college experience through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Foursquare. One way to get current students engaged with prospective students is to create a Student Ambassador Program. The idea behind the program is to activate existing students through their personal social media accounts in a manner that is authentic, transparent and inviting. Additionally, providing students with incentives, such as bookstore credits, will go a long way toward encouraging them to share their experiences often.

Show, don’t just tell.

The average consumer’s attention span is getting shorter and shorter. So when thinking about creating content to engage with students, consider services such as Vine and Instagram. Both will allow you to take short snippets of video and share them across Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. Encourage current students to share their experiences using a specific hashtag or specific hashtags for special events that prospective students can follow.

Create a social home for the content

Remember, a university’s website is also a social media tool. Rather than just listing the school’s social media accounts, create a social media hub that showcases content from Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Vine, Instagram and other social networks. Additionally, create a specific section on the site that’s dedicated to the voices of current students This will provide an opportunity for prospective students to discover content from existing students that’s relevant to them in a unobtrusive manner. Also, make sure that the site is mobile and tablet friendly.

Create the experience, don’t market it

Higher education marketers should be thinking about ways to continuously keep prospective students engaged throughout their decision process. More often than not, a key part of every student decision is the campus visit. Schools should make this experience engaging and fun. Encourage the student to share their experience through any of the social networks that they use.

For example, ask the prospective student to “check-in” at different locations on campus using Foursquare. Then, work with your student ambassadors to “meet” the prospective student at that location. To make the experience extra special, have the student ambassador bring a t-shirt or hat with them to the meet-up. Another idea is to have the prospective student meet with the dean of the school he or she is considering. Both of these examples, of course, lead to photo opportunities, which is content that can be shared by both the existing and prospective students as well as by the school itself. A simple gesture such as a warm introduction and free gear can go along way toward making your school the one that really makes the student feel wanted.

Last but not least, make it fun

Higher education marketers often forget that they are targeting young minds — minds that ignore traditional advertising, rarely watch TV unless it’s on demand, and use their mobile devices as a lifeline to the rest of the world. Schools must think of their enrollment marketing programs as if they were compelling short stories. The programs have to be creative, speak in a tone that will resonate with prospective students and create a unique, memorable experience every single time the story is told.

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