Dispelling the Myth of “Big Brother” Admissions

By Gil Rogers

I’ve been in enrollment management and higher education marketing for 12 years.  During that time, a lot has changed with respect to how colleges find, connect with, and engage their prospects.  And yet, so much has stayed the same.  One thing that remains constant is casting doubt on the “next thing” and remaining comfortable with “the way things have always been done”.

One of the most recent topics of discussion has been digital recruitment tactics.  Specifically, one area of keen interest is Custom Audience Targeting on platforms like Facebook.  I’d like to take this opportunity to help ensure our community as a whole is grounded on what this tactic is (and isn’t), how it works, and why.

What is Custom Audience Targeting?

At a high level, Custom Audience Targeting is a tactic that enables marketers to leverage their own data to identify potential customers (or in the case of admissions marketing, prospective students) on web-based platforms (like Facebook) and serve sponsored content (i.e. ads) to them on the platforms they are using.  This process isn’t really all that new.  Big brand advertisers have been doing this for years.  Advertising, after all, is what keeps social networks “free”.

The benefit of Custom Audience Targeting to brands (schools) is that it allows for advertising budgets to be solely focused on prospects they’ve already identified.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say you had a database of names you purchased from a prospective student list service and have run that list through your predictive model to identify the students who have the highest likelihood to apply.  You could take that list of prospects and set up a Custom Audience Targeting campaign to serve ads to those students to support conversion and yield.  If you are strategic about your timing, your digital ads could start to appear at the same time that your search piece is hitting mailboxes and e-mails are hitting inboxes.  This persistence of message can boost conversion and yield by reinforcing a student’s interest in you across multiple platforms.

But aren’t students creeped out?

Once again, no.  As “grown-ups” we may assume that students don’t like the “big brother” aspect of these types of tactics.  And yet, we experience them every day.  Think of the last time you shopped on Amazon and then saw an ad for the item you were looking at but didn’t by show up in your Instagram feed.  It may catch you off guard for a moment but the reality is that hyper personalized advertising online is effective.

Additionally, there is a lot of research on this.  Here’s a few important data points:

Digital Marketing

Students generally view college ads favorably.  Based on the 2016 TeensTALK study by STAMATS and Chegg we know that students are more likely to have a positive reaction than a negative reaction to sponsored content from colleges online.  Additionally, a healthy percentage of students actually APPRECIATE the tactics as it is a method for them to re-engage and learn more.

Digital Advertising

Students and their parents click ads from colleges at a very surprising rate. The 2017 e-Expectations Report by NRCCUA and Ruffalo Noel-Levitz with OmniUpdate and CollegeWeekLive confirms that students and parents acknowledge clicking on ads at rates that far surpass industry averages.

Social Media Advertising

Social media ads tend to be seen as more relevant to consumers in general than standard display ads.  This makes sense considering tactics like Custom Audience Targeting are being leveraged by colleges to focus on prospective students, ideally as part of an integrated and multi-channel campaign.

What does this all mean?

One constant with respect to reaching prospective students is the importance of reaching the right student at the right time, with the right message, via the right medium … That’s a lot of “rights” to get right.

If anyone on your campus expresses concern about tactics like Customer Audience Targeting it is important to educate them on how these types of tactics are leveraged and that they actually work.