Inclined but Inactive: Strategies to Win Over Past Prospects

A Collaborative White Paper by Datamark, Leads360 and Neustar 

 

80% of prospective students who inquired but did not enroll say they intend to go back to school in the near future.

Did you know that approximately 80% of prospective students who inquired about a school but did not enroll indicate that they intend to go back to school in the near future? That is a significant number of qualified inquiries. However, continuing to nurture these inquiries isn’t necessarily a top priority for schools, at least not yet.

Most colleges and universities today under-utilize their lists of non-converting inquiries, when, in fact, many of these can still be considered strong prospects. According to our research, some institutions stop following up with existing inquiries in as few as 45 days, while others simply prefer to obtain new inquiries altogether because they think it is easier.

“The likelihood of a prospective student enrolling is 40% based on what happens before the inquiry is submitted to your school, while the other 60% is often dictated by how the inquiry is managed once it is in your system,” says Martin Lind, Education Vertical Manager at Leads360.

When you weigh these metrics, there is a huge opportunity to influence the inquiry conversion process. Having a disciplined and consistent inquiry nurturing program in place makes good operational and financial sense.

What’s a School to Do?

The higher education market continues to experience unprecedented change, mostly due to ongoing regulatory implications and the extended economic downturn. In fact, some private-sector schools are experiencing double-digit drops in enrollment rates, causing them to re-evaluate their focus on inquiry generation and management.

Schools that have been relatively successful in graduating students typically have at least one of the following advantages:

  1. A lower dependency on non-brand-controlled inquiry sources
  2. A measurable retention program that flags at-risk students
  3. Utilization of data to make decisions
  4. A consistent, disciplined inquiry nurturing program

"Through consistent and regular follow-up, you can drive higher enrollments at a lower cost."

For our purposes in this white paper, we will examine the importance of a consistent, disciplined inquiry nurturing program. A regular, rules-driven program is one of the best ways to enroll more of the right students: those who are inclined but inactive.

Where Is the Industry Today?

We recently had the opportunity to survey private-sector schools on their current approach to targeting unconverted inquiries. By way of definition, an inquiry was considered “unconverted” once it no longer was actively being contacted by phone or had stopped progressing through the enrollment funnel.

Participating institutions ranged in size based on inquiry volume. Approximately 57% of schools surveyed manage less than 10,000 inquiries per month, with 19% of respondents managing more than 80,000 inquiries on a monthly basis. While the results among the participants are somewhat concerning, they are not surprising:

By segmenting and evaluating inquiries, you will have a better idea of who is most likely to respond and enroll.

  • Approximately 33% think it is easier to buy new inquiries rather than nurture unconverted ones, while nearly 10% think it is a toss-up.
  • Almost 35% stop contacting inquiries within the first 90 days, while more than 60% halt outreach after 90 days.
  • Just over 38% don’t have a formal process in place for nurturing unconverted inquiries.
  • When schools do reach out to unconverted inquiries, respondents said email was the most popular method of communication (90%), followed by phone calls (67%), direct mail (61%) and SMS text messaging (19%). By comparison, phone outreach was the most popular when reaching out to new inquiries (100%).
  • When it comes to schools that have inquiry nurturing strategies in place, 43% say there is some customization in follow-up communications, while roughly 48% say all unconverted inquiries are treated the same.
  • Approximately 33% say their inquiry nurturing program is periodic and targeted to some inquiries, while 38% say it is ongoing and targeted to all inquiries.
  • An overwhelming 76% indicate that their inquiry nurturing programs are irregular and difficult to track from an ROI perspective.

Why Should You Consider an Inquiry Nurturing Strategy?

An inquiry nurturing program, when done well, drives prospective students to contact the school either by phone or by filling out an inquiry form. “Through consistent and regular follow-up, you can drive higher enrollments at a lower cost,” says Chris McArdle, Executive Director of Interactive Markets at Neustar® (formerly known as TARGUSinfo).

The 40% of inquiry “quality” taken into consideration prior to being submitted to a school is measured by the following:

"The tools, channels and messages you use should build on each other."

  • Scoring – the way the inquiry ranks in terms of your specific criteria set (e.g., students with broadband access at home would score higher than those without if they were inquiring about an online school)
  • Verification – the accuracy of the contact data submitted
  • Form Questions – the responses a prospective student provides (keep in mind that a shorter form will result in more inquiries but provide less detail about the prospective student’s fit with your school, while a lengthier inquiry form will generate fewer but more detailed inquiries)
  • Business Rules – the way inquiries are managed through your enrollment management system based on their score, contact availability and responses

When we look at the 60% of inquiry quality that comes into play after contact data is submitted to a school, we measure factors such as:

  • How quickly an inquiry is contacted (studies have shown that the faster you reach out, the more likely the prospective student is to apply)
  • How inquiries are evaluated in the pool of all inquiries
  • Whether or not a third-party call center is used for qualification
  • How inquiries are handled based on the source (TV, internet and direct mail inquiries all require a slightly different approach)
  • How your admissions team communicates with interested inquiries who are not ready to enroll

Implementing an inquiry nurturing program helped one school achieve a >25% enrollment boost and a >400% ROI gain.

“The 60% we are talking about – in other words, the way an inquiry is handled – can make all the difference in whether or not that individual moves forward with the enrollment process,” says Lind.

Even with rigorous efforts around quality, most private-sector schools are still only contacting 50-60% of interested individuals. Schools regularly contacting 60% or more of their inquiries are considered to have an exceptional contact rate, while 50% is considered acceptable and rates below 50% are considered subpar.

“There are a large number of inquiries that remain uncontacted, giving private-sector schools a huge opportunity to improve. An inquiry nurturing strategy is the ideal way to take advantage of that opportunity,” says McArdle.

What Goes Into A Successful Inquiry Nurturing Campaign?

Remember the 80% of students who still intend to go back to school in the near future? These inquiries need to be nurtured on an ongoing basis.

That said, not all inquiries are the same. By segmenting and evaluating inquiries, you will have a better idea of who is most likely to respond and who is most likely to enroll.

“Successful inquiry nurturing programs don’t just happen overnight – they take commitment to consistency and dedication to frequency,” says McArdle. “They must be methodical in order to increase velocity to enrollment, simple in the message and measurable in terms of results and ROI.”

“Inquiry nurturing programs should also be automatic and not require admissions staff to remember who should be contacted,” adds Lind.

A regular, rules-driven inquiry nurturing program consists of the right tools, channels and messaging, and ultimately determining when and how often to leverage each.

"A disciplined program can be a cost-efficient way to persuade unconverted prospects back into your enrollment funnel."

Tools

  • Segmentation – organize prospective students into target groups based on common threads
  • Print on Demand – customize your creative, messages and images to each prospect based on that individual’s unique situation
  • Scoring – evaluate prospective students according to the likelihood that they will respond and enroll
  • Business Rules – direct prospects down the most logical path depending on the quality of the inquiry and the support necessary to enroll that individual

Channels

  • Direct Mail – delivers a personalized message to a very specific target
  • Email – a convenient and non-obtrusive way to reach prospective students, giving them access to links and web resources for more information
  • Text – as more students turn to mobile communications, texting demonstrates that you know who your prospective students are and can connect with them in a way that is part of their daily lives
  • Phone – the most traditional of the communication mediums, phone outreach allows you to better assess a prospect’s tone and attitude through verbal communication

Messaging

  • Assess where the prospect is in the enrollment funnel
  • Customize the message to address their specific challenges and opportunities
  • Build on that message depending on where the prospect is at any point in the process

When determining the timing and frequency of outreach, the key is to stick with it. “The tools, channels and messages you use should build on each other,” says Steve Winchester, Vice President of Marketing and Solutions at Datamark. “Consistency will resonate with each prospective student.”

For example, within the first 30 days, best practices encourage using a variety of communication mediums – including calls, emails, texts and direct mail – to discuss next steps in the enrollment process and set appointments. At 31-90 days old, you should engage prospective students through written methods addressing challenges, showing support and encouraging students to inquire further. After 90+ days, consider re-engaging the prospective student with calls, personalized direct mail and email to revisit the experience and the dream.

“We recommend that an inquiry nurturing program start the moment an inquiry is submitted with continued outreach for up to two years,” says Winchester.

Consider defining your contact strategy so that outreach is timed appropriately and frequently. The following steps will allow the right inquiries to receive the right messages via the right mediums:

  1. Create a tier structure that categorizes your inquiries into groups
  2. Determine which tiers should receive a phone call (we suggest your top 3 or 4 tiers fall into this category)
  3. Decide which tier should also receive an email communication (we suggest all tiers receive emails)
  4. Consider which tiers should receive direct mail, and the kind of direct mail that is most appropriate and cost-effective depending on the qualifications of the tier

(We suggest customizing the quality of the direct mail based on the tier, so “A” inquiries can receive a customized letter, “B” inquiries receive a standard direct mail piece and “C” inquiries receive a postcard.)

What Can Be Achieved through an Inquiry Nurturing Program?

Post-inquiry nurturing is being used effectively by a variety of different private-sector schools. While results vary across the board, an inquiry nurturing program can drive significant outcomes in terms of higher enrollment rates, tremendous cost savings, and greater efficiencies.

For example, one school recognized that significant revenue opportunities were being missed within its “inclined but inactive” group of prospective students. The school took the following steps:

  • Developed a consistent, measurable dialog program with uncontacted inquiries
  • Changed business rules so that closed inquiries could be moved quickly to a recycled/remarketing status
  • Developed segmentation for its house file and began mailing regularly

The school was able to achieve the following:

  • >25% enrollment contribution from remarketing names
  • >400% ROI gain from dialoguing with those in uncontacted status

What Are the Key Program Takeaways?

First and foremost, we know that inquiry nurturing programs work. They can have a tremendous, not to mention cost-effective impact on enrollment. “As more schools prioritize existing inquiries and consistently and effectively reach out to these prospective students, they can enroll more of them,” says Lind.

Remember the following:

  1. Engaging in marketing and leveraging messaging that can turn a previous prospect into an inbound call will save your team time and money – they won’t have to work to track down that inquiry.
  2. Don’t be too quick to discredit an inquiry if he or she is unresponsive at first. Take into account the reasons why that student did not pursue the enrollment process.
  3. Use information collected throughout the process to target your marketing communications so you can help that prospect connect with your institution.

In an environment where the regulatory outlook remains uncertain and inquiry quality continues to be called into question, schools that turn to their existing database of non-enrolled inquiries can find success, and at a far lower price. Simply put, just because inquiries are inactive doesn’t mean they are not inclined to pursue the process in the near future.

“It won’t be without effort, but it will be worth it,” says Winchester. “After all, having a disciplined program can be a cost-efficient way to persuade unconverted prospects back into your enrollment funnel.”

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