What does effective undergraduate recruitment marketing strategy look like? This question haunts the halls of higher education marketing conferences and recruitment marketers’ sleepless nights. To find an answer, we consulted the most credible judges on this topic: the students at whom this outreach is directed.

Our national Student Sentiment Survey™ of over 4,700 college-bound high school students asked respondents to recall a specific institution with particularly memorable communications. Nearly 70%—or about 3,000 respondents—did, and provided details about the outreach.

About 1,400 institutions made it into this honorable list, but few individual schools received more than a handful of mentions. A small number of schools, however, stood out from the crowd.

And the Award Goes To…

To make our list of top recruitment marketers, schools needed to not only be frequently mentioned by prospective students, but the nature of the responses also had to have a common theme.

Additionally, we took the size of the school and its reputation into account. A nationally-renowned research university or Ivy League school would naturally have a larger geographic reach (i.e., larger prospect pool) and, presumably, a larger marketing budget. To reduce the prestige bias, we also included smaller, regional institutions with proportionally high numbers of mentions relative to their reach.

So, which schools emerged as particularly memorable according to prospective students? Here are five that got their recruitment marketing right.

The Cat’s Meow: The University of Chicago

University of Chicago got the most nods by a large margin. Students appreciated the design of the mailed collateral, including a poster, but special mention was given to the humorous and quirky content – complete with gratuitous cat pictures, presumably of Modo, the campus cat.

Prospective students further valued the relevant, rather than repetitive, information they received. Interestingly, several respondents were positively impressed by the lack of statistics and other hard facts about the institution. Instead, this school successfully conveyed the campus community and spirit.

What students had to say:

“They weren’t trying to impress and used their mail to give off a feel of what college there would be like.”

 

“I loved the colorful, glossy pages of beautiful pictures and funny cat scenarios. And I LOVE posters.”

 

“The University sent me a Poster of the campus. It was very different … and it was very informative.”

 

“Their postcards were funny and did not include any actual data … they simply gave you a cultural feel of the school.”

As Seen on TV (and Online, Billboards, Emails…): Northern Arizona University

Comments about Northern Arizona University validated our survey findings that online advertising carries less of a stigma than many enrollment marketers may think. Students found this institution’s online ads to be effective.

This institution also impressed prospects with a variety of marketing outreach. The multi-pronged approach, which included emails, mailings, college fairs, the school’s website, and social media communicated consistent messages about the campus environment and academic program availability and strength.

What students had to say:

“They have ads on Instagram, which I go on often. They also have many billboards around my state.”

 

“I enjoyed how they had multiple ways of advertising and following up with college visits and emails.”

 

“I’ve seen specific and unique ads for the school on multiple platforms.”

Sassy Students Recruit Their Peers: Swarthmore College

Swarthmore College surprised and delighted prospects with sass and sarcasm. Students appreciated the humor, noting that it didn’t clash with the institution’s prestigious reputation but rather made the school seem more approachable and relatable. The authenticity of this communication style, it appears, stems from the institution’s involvement of current students in its marketing efforts.

What students had to say:

“Their printed handbooks were very sassy and sarcastic and fun to read.”

 

“The College sent me a letter … written by a student, which was very unique. It used language that I understood and was also very sarcastic, which was intriguing.”

 

“The material they sent out this past application cycle … had me smiling and laughing constantly.”

Numbers Don’t Lie: Boston University

Students who noted Boston University’s marketing efforts were impressed with its use of statistics. The marketing collateral was thought to be eye-catching enough to draw the attention from those who were entirely unfamiliar with the school. In addition to impressive numbers around student outcomes, this school was able to accentuate the campus experience.

What students had to say:

“The booklet they sent said 91% of their undergrads find employment within six months of graduation.”

 

“Their pamphlet was well organized and contained impressive statistics, as well as useful information and great pictures of the campus.”

 

“They had really good numbers and location and a personality that I liked, and I had never heard of them before.”

We know what you want (and how to get you there!): University of New Haven

University of New Haven sends a personalized message focused on academic programs and related career paths. Respondents praised the school’s personalized outreach, providing information relevant to their interests, painting mental pictures of career success in the student’s chosen field.

What students had to say:

“They sent mail to my house talking about enhanced criminal justice visits … they could help me go on the right path to get a job with the FBI.”

 

“Their brochure was specifically detailed to my desired career.”

 

“Sent informative packets to my home centered around my chosen interests and website was informative and helpful.” 

The Bottom Line

What, if anything, do these institutions have in common? While they all meet the threshold requirements for effective outreach—utilizing a variety of channels, conveying interesting and relevant information, delivering on the right cadence—so do many other institutions which did not stand out so prominently in our study. Sure, marketing budgets may play a role as well, but that explanation alone is insufficient; many institutions with presumably large marketing budgets did not stand out like our fabulous five.

Those that really hit the mark with their prospective students are able to tell the institutional story well, and to the right kind of student. In other words, they reached the right student, at the right time, with the right message, via the right communication channels.

University of Chicago’s cat posters and Boston University’s use of statistics fall on opposite ends of the strategy spectrum, but both approaches are lauded by their respective prospects. Neither strategy is universally applicable, but each fits the institution, for this class.

There is no foolproof formula in recruitment marketing. Be authentic and dare to be different. Above all, resist the temptation to copy other institution’s successful strategies – it may not work for your prospective student body. Understand those students who are interested in the story your institutions has to tell. Then tell that story concisely and consistently.

You can’t please everyone all of the time, but you can please the right students to make this year’s class.

Is your institution ready for Gen Z?

Thursday, October 18, 2018 | 2:00 PM EDT

Generation Z is here and enrolling! Is your institution prepared to give Gen Z students the experience they’re looking for? This presentation, based on the Eduventures Prospective Student Survey, explores the key distinctions between Millennial and Gen Z students and the implications those distinctions have on student expectations.

Join Eduventures Principal Analyst Kim Reid and Ellucian Director of Solutions Consulting Kim Fisher on Thursday, October 18 at 2 p.m. ET as they discuss how to serve Gen Z students better in recruitment and enrollment, as well as the role that technology will play in the overall student experience for this new generation.

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