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Forward to the Fundamentals

How the Admission Funnel Helps Determine ROI

Vince Lombardi would begin practice each spring by lifting a football and, with deep resonance, announcing, “Men, this is a football.”

These guys weren’t your average group of football players. These were the Green Bay Packers. Veterans. Gridiron gladiators who had won four consecutive league championships, including the first two Super Bowls.

To winning teams, the fundamentals are etched in stone; they make up the DNA of every player. When it comes to enrollment, many colleges have lost sight of the fundamentals.

Is Branding the Solution?

During the last ten years I’ve watched the importance of “institutional branding” become a taskmaster, dictating to all who follow. “Branded messaging is the cornerstone for enrollment success,” most say.

After more than two decades of creating institutional brands, my experience has proven otherwise.

The more intricate game plan, the Institutional Branding, should begin to form after the fundamentals have been drilled into the team. By way of example, what effect does institutional branding have on the quality of the campus visit experience? (see http://bit.ly/qJ74cH).

By first practicing the science of the Fundamental, the art of the Message and Brand will gain more traction and have greater impact.

Measuring ROI

An analysis of the conversion ratios of the age-old admissions funnel provides uncanny insight about how well the team is performing at the fundamentals. We begin by examining the quantitative portion of the admissions funnel.

If the conversion rate of an institution’s inquiries to applications is low in comparison to historical data or with peer institutions, what might the school expect the invested rate of return to be if there were a 1% increase in those conversions? What are the opportunities available to increase the conversion and what is the predicted cost?

Start With The Why

The foundation to investigate these fundamental questions begins with an accurate accounting of first point of contact. To successfully refine the fundamentals, the admissions office must accurately record and track inquiry source codes. This fundamental requirement is critical to examining the health of your admissions process, and for the development a rock solid marketing strategy and communications plan.

Basic stuff (the fundamentals)., right? But, surprisingly, many institutions get a ‘D’ in fundamentals.

Time Out…

For a moment, can we set aside our fascination with branding? Let’s begin instead with the fundamental question reflected in Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why. Examine the admissions funnel, look at conversion ratios, measure the anticipated return on investment affecting change. Do so and you can greatly alter the anticipated net revenue represented by the entering class.

In essence, get back to the basics, men and women…”this is a football.”

Rob Glass is a 25-year veteran of higher education branding & marketing strategy. You can learn more about the Glass & Gold Tuition Net Revenue matrix and identifying the five keys to unlocking your marketing strategy by contacting him at rob@glass-gold.com or http://www.glass-gold.com.

Bill Lee of Lee Consulting Group has written that it is, and the Harvard Business Review has published his opinion.  http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/08/marketing_is_dead.html

I agree that the method of marketing effectively has dramatically changed within the last few years. But fundamentally, all marketing begins with a premise… and ALL effective marketing follows a process, which begins with the fundamentals of blocking and tackling. College and Universities included.

Vince Lombardi would begin spring practice by lifting a football for all his players to see. With deep resonance he’d announce, “Men, this is a football”.

These guys weren’t your average group of football players. These were the Green Bay Packers. These were the veterans, the gladiators who knew the game best. They battled inch by inch earning four consecutive league championships, including the first two Super Bowls.

There’s a lesson here. The winning teams begin with the fundamentals. Begin with the basics and you’ll position yourself to perform best when the game is on the line.

In my experience, too many higher ed institutions have lost the will of focusing on the fundamentals. At least when it comes to time management within enrollment. There are just too many emergencies at hand. Seth Godin writes of this mindset in his recent blog, “Emergency Room Doctors”.  http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2012/05/emergency-room-doctors.html

Branding is important — but not the solution

During the last ten years I’ve seen the importance of institutional branding increase to a status of an unwavering taskmaster dictating to all. Branded messaging is the cornerstone for enrollment success. Well, it’s a cornerstone, but not the keystone. The power of enrollment success lies within data.

Institutional Branding should begin to form after the fundamentals have been drilled into the team. By first practicing the science of the Fundamental, the art of the message and brand will gain more traction and have greater impact.

I find it astounding that an institution will “invest” hundreds of thousands of dollars in the development of a brand, and yet be unaware or unconcerned that 5% or less of their inquiries convert to applications. Or that 55% of the applications received never reach the completed to review stage. Or that the completion rate of Stealth applications is 15% lower than conventional applications.

The Keystone

An analysis of the conversion ratios of the age old admissions funnel provides wonderful insight into how well the team is performing at the fundamentals. Coach Lombardi knew that success is determined by the fundamentals of blocking and tackling. The same is true with the fundamentals of admissions.

It’s time to re-focus our attention on the basics. We begin by examining the quantitative portion of the admissions funnel — these are the key indicators of the fitness of the fundamentals.

I’ve spent the past 18 months developing a method of examining the correlation of fundamental performance indicators against reasonably expected rate of return on investment. The results are fascinating — and exciting.

Measuring ROI

If the conversion rate of an institution’s inquiries to applications is low in comparison to historical data or with peer institutions, what might the school expect the invested rate of return to be if there were a 1% increase in those conversions? What are the opportunities available to increase the conversion and what is the predicted cost?

By examining the fundamentals of performance and return within the admissions funnel, a college or university can greatly alter the anticipated net revenue represented by the entering class.

The question might be asked, “If we increase our conversion of inquiries to applications by 1% and the admissions funnel’s remaining conversion points remain historically consistent, by what amount might we expect our first year net revenue to increase?  And what might we expect this entering class’ four year net revenue to be? What is our anticipated cost to institute this increase in conversion?”

Pretty basic stuff. But surprisingly, many institutions don’t examine these fundamental questions.

Start With Why

The foundation to investigating these fundamental questions begins with an accurate accounting of first point of contact. To successfully refine the fundamentals, the admissions office must accurately record and track inquiry source codes. This fundamental requirement is critical to examining the health of your admissions process and for the development a rock solid marketing strategy & communications plan.

So, lets momentarily set aside our goal of branding the institution. Let’s begin with the fundamental question reflected by Simon Sinek’s premise to, “Start with Why”. Examine the actions behind admissions funnel conversion ratios.  http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html

How about working on blocking and tackling before we build the stadium? Let’s work on the basics, gain some traction and move forward.

A father’s plea to the college administration

I’m shopping for a college. Actually, my son is looking at colleges; I’m inspecting them. I’m an undercover agent, a secret shopper, an admission counselor’s advocate, and the marketing committee’s inquisitor. I am the informed buyer the president should meet.

Together, my son and I are testing what, up to now, has only been a personal, well researched, thoroughly documented 27-year theory: the theory that branding and integrated marketing are the answers to two key questions. How does a student, a family, choose a college? What distinguishes certain schools during the college search?

History, Theory, and Reality

Historically, college operating expenses have depended heavily upon tuition-driven revenue. Today, when returns on endowment investments tend to fall short of expectations and the push for excellence and increased enrollments continues to escalate, the pressure to meet enrollment goals is becoming more and more intense. Colleges and universities nationwide are investing huge amounts of university resources into identifying their institution’s brand, with the goal of melding the institutional identity into the minds of prospective students, families, and potential donors.

The theory and process of marketing an institution is important work. Committees form, and together their members speak The Language of Marketing, spending countless hours discussing the theory of integrated marketing and the process of branding. They labor over the precise wording in the college tagline. They pore over the intricate language in the admissions publications. They devote brainpower and energy to organize a campus photo shoot. They persuade the IT department to work with them on a marketing-oriented initiative. New technology is purchased to streamline communications. All this effort is expended with the expectation that future enrollment goals will be met.

All of these processes are important in achieving that goal. But while you’re working to perfect your brand and your marketing materials, remember to put yourself in the place of your audience. Parents and students have no awareness of the huge financial and staffing resources that undergird a university’s marketing program. What’s important to them, as they set foot on campus, is that critically important first impression. Parents are asking, “Will this place love and nurture my child?” “Will this school be an acceptable substitute for my parenting?” “Is this college worthy of the gifts my child will bring?” The kids want to know, “Are the people friendly?” “Do the students like me?” “What do the dorms (excuse me — residence halls) look like?”

These are NOT typically the questions being contemplated by the marketing committee. And granted, in the great scheme of university life and planning, they may seem rather small. But they are important to address and answer correctly.

Campus-wide, folks should realize that hundreds of thousands of dollars have been invested to get the students and family to visit the campus — but all these hours of committee meetings and dollar investment are wasted if the family’s basic needs aren’t met when first impressions are being developed. The admission staff understands this concept, but I’ve discovered, during nearly 30 years in admissions marketing, that most college administrations fail to invest adequate amounts of time and money in the front line of the admissions war.

A View From the Outside, Looking In

Recently, my son and I visited one of the colleges he’s considering. As we neared the front door of the admissions office, one of the school’s top administrators was leaving through the same doorway. Having met this person before, I know that he is instrumental in leading the college’s marketing program. As he passed what were obviously a prospective student and a parent, did he extend a welcome? No.

When we entered the admissions area for our prearranged appointment, I felt as though I was intruding upon the receptionist’s private time. She greeted us with a rather cold, “Yes?” Hmmm. Second opportunity missed…was a recurring theme developing?

Our tour guide was a college sophomore who had been trained to point out buildings and provide a glimpse into the campus history as we talked. Here she was, selling a very expensive “commodity,” but lacking the training to do so effectively. She spoke of the beautiful campus, nice students, friendly faculty, but she did not address any of the benefits of the low student-faculty ratio or small class sizes. She told us what, but not why. The most important opportunity had been missed.

Back in the admissions office, my negative impression really took hold when the receptionist left us standing awkwardly while she spoke with a colleague. I wasn’t sure if we should leave or wait for an admissions counselor. Thankfully, as I turned to walk out of the office, an admissions counselor introduced himself. Although I asked not to be included in the interview, he failed to engage me in any meaningful conversation after his interview with my son. A fourth opportunity missed.

With my own admissions background, I knew this whole process could have been executed much better; however, an uninitiated family might think this impersonal approach normal. In fact, the experience I related above was not isolated to one campus. There seems to be a perception on many campuses that if enough time is spent on marketing strategy, the positive messages will trickle down to students and families. Strategy is important. But communicating the message actively and effectively is the key that unlocks the door to full enrollment.

If It Were Me…

If I were a college president for a day, I would implement the following strategies, with the goal of increasing enrollment:

• Stop searching for the “silver bullet” that will solve admissions and marketing challenges. There is no one solution. Technology alone won’t do it, killing the viewbook would be a terrible error, deep discounting certainly won’t do it, and the marketing “flavor of the month” is not the answer. Success in enrollment is just like success in life…a process of using wisdom through experience to achieve goals.

• Realize that the word “brand” has, in essence, branded itself. Many people are enamored with the term, but to really establish an effective marketing plan, you have to “get under the skin” and learn about the true culture of an institution. Don’t concentrate on how you can simplify that culture into a branded tagline. Find the best means possible to communicate that culture to your prospective audiences.

• Understand the difference between integrated marketing and integrated communications marketing. An integrated marketing campaign will take years to bear fruit. It is, for the most part, a theory that many in academe see as the holistic answer to reaching many goals. And unless you have a few million dollars and 10 or 15 years to devote to the effort, it’s virtually unattainable. Integrated communications marketing (ICM), on the other hand, is the goal most administrators have in mind when they express the desire to “speak with one voice.” An effective ICM plan involves print communications, electronic media, public relations and advertising.


• Spend one-third of the marketing effort communicating to parents of prospective students. Require senior staff to read Millennials Go to College, and then they’d understand that parents are co-purchasers in the decision. So far, my son has received marketing materials from 156 colleges. Only two have communicated directly with me.


• Require each admissions counselor, tour guide, faculty member, and janitorial staff member to read the college viewbook. The marketing messages in this publication should resonate through the campus. And these messages should be in a language that easily communicates what the benefits are to the student.


• Provide adequate staffing, superior training, and competitive compensation to the admissions staff. The institution has invested enormous resources in the marketing message, admissions counselors are one of the three most important factors in affecting a college decision, the people charged with personally communicating the message, have an average tenure of 2.1 years. Why dedicate large amounts of energy and money to “discover” a marketing message if your front line isn’t properly trained for battle?

A Father’s Plea

So here I am, the father of a college-bound high school senior. Like every father who visits your campus, I am searching for the “right” college. I want you to see my son as someone special. I want to know you’ll recognize his unique gifts, educate him in a way that not only ensures he’ll make a living, but make a life. I want his experiences with the faculty to reinforce the values that have been instilled within our home. I want to hear about those values when I speak to people on campus. They don’t have to be exact phrases, but I do want to sense them as I meet the admissions staff, take the tour, and interact with faculty.

But wait, as I walk onto campus for our admissions interview and tour, what do I hear coming from the senior administrative offices? Is that the sound of a fiddle?

This article was originally written for the 2006 SACAC Southern Scope magazine

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