Across the country, colleges and universities are stepping up their web-based recruitment strategies as they attempt to lure tech-savvy high-schoolers to their campuses with communications strategies that include instant messaging, blogs, podcasts, personalized eMail, and text messaging.

As another college admission season begins in earnest, high-schoolers are increasingly turning to the internet for behind-the-scenes insight. Next to campus visits, one study shows, schools’ internet sites are the most important tool high school seniors use when evaluating and choosing a college.

Such sites now rank higher than high school visits from campus representatives and direct mailings in importance as recruitment strategies, said Steve Kappler, an executive director at Stamats Inc., a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, firm that provides consulting services to about 100 colleges and universities a year.

The importance of the web has schools beefing up their web sites to lure prospective students.

North Dakota State University’s web site, for example, matches current and potential students with similar interests and encourages the interested students to eMail questions about life on the Fargo campus. And students at Franklin & Marshal College in Lancaster, Pa., muse about college life in video web logs, called “vlogs.”

Brian Niles, chief executive officer of the interactive recruiting firm TargetX and a former university admissions officer, said such efforts indicate that schools are trying new strategies in their efforts to attract students.

The current group of college-bound students, part of the millennial generation born after 1981, is different from their predecessors in the way they respond to information, Niles said. “These teenagers are much more interactive,” he explained. “They want to converse with colleges, not be marketed to. They want to be able to ask questions and comment on what they see and hear. They demand the unvarnished truth and are extremely resistant to hype and advertising speak.”

Niles added: “I call this new environment Recruiting 2.0. You can no longer talk at students through publications, direct mail, static web sites, and eMail broadcasts. You have to open a dialog with them.”

Recruiters: ‘Just IM me your questions’

One strategy Niles said has worked for Immaculata University in Pennsylvania is the assignment of instant-messaging (IM) addresses to everyone in its recruiting office.

“A young woman who had just graduated early from Penn State was working in the guidance office at Immaculata. She was IMing with a prospective student,” Niles said.

The other staff members were surprised to discover this, he said. What was just as telling, however, was how surprised the young staffer was at her colleagues’ response.

“The staffer, of course, said, ‘I have it on all the time–it’s the way I live my life,'” Niles continued.

Soon, everyone in the university’s recruiting department had IM screen names to engage directly with prospective students.

To help facilitate this kind of electronic communication with prospects, TargetX offers a suite of products aimed at attracting and recruiting students online. One of the strengths of these products is how they work together, Niles said.

“You can plan, eMail, chat, host all kinds of events–and everything coordinates with everything else,” he explained. “For example, you can promote an event online, track the response, register people, send reminders, record cancellations, follow up with those who attended and those who didn’t, and manage all these activities through a web-based planning tool.”

Harding University, a Christian school based in Arkansas, reports that undergraduate applications increased sharply after the school began using a web-based recruiting and real-time prospect intelligence system called eCRUIT, from the New York City firm GoalQuest, earlier this year.

“It was obvious to our admissions office right from the start that GoalQuest was having a positive impact on the number of applications we received,” said Glenn Dillard, assistant vice president for enrollment management at Harding. “During the first 11 weeks of the eCRUIT campaign, more students applied for admission than in those very same weeks one year earlier.”

Ceding some control

Using a proprietary blogging tool from GoalQuest, called UBlog, Harding assigned six undergraduates to act as “virtual ambassadors” for the school, connecting with prospective students and providing information on everything from preparing for exams to getting ready for summer break. The software lets prospects add comments or post queries to any blog entry.

Offering prospective students a less carefully controlled view of campus life through the use of blogs creates challenges for school officials, who worry that inappropriate material might harm the school’s image.

Yet Stamats’ Kappler said the casualness of such blogs is what students find appealing. And he urged schools to leave student blogs unedited unless they contain something “egregious.”

That’s the approach to student blogs taken at Ball State University. “We wanted them to be authentic,” said Nancy Prater, the web content coordinator at the Muncie, Indiana, school, where the student blogs have averaged more than 10,000 visits a day since last Christmas break.

Prater said that when she talks to colleagues at conferences, one of the main things keeping other schools from employing student blogs in their recruitment efforts is “the fear factor of turning [them] loose and having [them] a little less controlled.”

But she noted that prospective students already have unedited glimpses of college life, thanks to college networking site Facebook.com and MySpace.com, a popular web hangout for teens and young adults.

“I think you are a lot better off choosing the people talking about you,” she said.

Near-instant answers to questions

Another element of GoalQuest’s eCRUIT solution is a feature called Student Service Center. Harding University uses this feature to provide a service known to prospects as “Ask Harding,” which encourages them to ask questions and provide feedback on a variety of topics, such as the admissions process, financial aid, or dorm life.

Questions are time-stamped and sent to pre-determined campus administrators. Students are promised a speedy response from the school personnel who are best able to help them, while administrators can analyze the flow of questions and answers to see the types of questions students ask most frequently–as well as the average response times of various university departments.

Timely response to students’ questions is of paramount importance in the recruiting game, experts say. The speed and quality of responses has a direct impact on student satisfaction–and that influences the decision-making process.

According to standards from the Customer Operations Performance Center, a recognized authority on performance improvement in customer-contact businesses, the average wait time for a chat or telephone interaction should not exceed 30 seconds. Yet, in a recent survey of more than 100 U.S. colleges and universities by the Bellevue, Wash., firm Talisma Corp., officials found responses to telephone and eMail requests to be a major area of concern: 23 percent of incoming calls were never answered, Talisma says, and 49 percent of eMail messages were never answered.

RightNow Technologies, of Bozeman, Montana, offers one solution. RightNow says more than 50 colleges and universities worldwide are using its automated answering service to answer questions from prospective students, alumni, and other stakeholders quickly and effectively.

“With RightNow, we are able to get high-quality information to people where and when they need it,” said Betty Roberts, associate vice chancellor at the University of Houston. “And we are doing it at less cost to the university than ever before.”

Typically, a number of factors prevent schools from delivering timely responses to questions–including decentralized structures and limited budgets. RightNow says it addresses these issues by consolidating information from all university offices and making it readily available to students and staff alike through eMail, telephone, and the web.

Talisma, a maker of sophisticated CRM software for schools, offers its own solutions that integrate chat, eMail, and internet self-service to help answer inquiries.

With most students using the internet as their primary means of research and communication, statistics show that chat yields a higher rate of satisfaction than the telephone, Talisma says–and it enables real-time responses to inquiries with less cost and effort.

Developing relationships

With help from Talisma’s CRM software, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reportedly has increased its student enrollment by nearly 20 percent over the past two years.

Once the province of businesses, CRM software is being used by a growing number of colleges and universities to build personalized, one-on-one relationships with prospects, current students, and alumni to help achieve enrollment goals, fund-raising targets, and so on.

Talisma’s software allows schools to easily capture, analyze, and leverage information on prospects, students, alumni, and other stakeholders, the company says. Users can create and automated proactive marketing campaigns and communication plans; manage and automate multi-step workflow plans for reaching out to (and following up with) various groups of constituents; automate the response and routing of eMail replies to queries; facilitate real-time, one-on-one chat sessions with stakeholders; and analyze the effectiveness of all such efforts once they’re completed.

“With today’s powerful integration and automation technologies, universities can send out letters, eMails, and start calling prospects nearly as fast as they can get their database filled with PSAT names,” said Jill Lindenbaum, a spokeswoman for Talisma. “What’s new here is & that technology is finally helping higher-education institutions relate to their students and prospects better, while cutting costs.”

CRM software enables schools to deliver a more personalized experience for prospects, Lindenbaum said–which can pay off in terms of enrollment.

“Students and prospects have preferences in how they want to be reached today and what kinds of information they are looking for,” she explained. “One size no longer fits all. Institutions of higher learning will fare better if they attempt to connect with their prospects in their preferred mode of communication with messages that are on target.”

With Talisma’s software, “we can truly differentiate how we interact with our prospective students–with the goal of developing lifelong relationships,” said Deanna Miller, coordinator of information management for UN-Lincoln. The technology, she said, is helping school officials “better manage our recruitment efforts and yield more fruit from & that area.”

Links:

Stamats Inc.
http://www.stamats.com

TargetX
http://www.targetx.com

Immaculata University
http://www.immaculata.edu

Harding University
http://www.harding.edu

GoalQuest Inc.
http://www.goalquest.com

Ball State University
http://www.bsu.edu

RightNow Technologies
http://www.rightnow.com

Talisma
http://education.talisma.com

University of Nebraska-Lincoln
http://www.unl.edu