3 Marketing Tips to Increase Enrollment Rates for Pre-College Programs

It's tempting to copy and paste, but this summer is different.

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By Melissa Stone

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Summer is approaching, the national vaccine rollout is underway, and families are eager to find enriching summer activities for their restless, college-bound teenagers. Even though most academic pre-college programs won't open up until the end of June, it seems as if people have been searching for summer programs somewhat later this year.

According to Google Trends, half as many individuals researched "summer school" and "summer courses" this January versus last January. But as of March 2021, search activity increased and now seems relatively comparable to last year. And, if last year is any indication, search queries will peak in early June. For many universities and colleges, that means that they've been planning their marketing initiatives since Fall 2020 to get ready for the potential influx of Summer 2021 pre-college applications.

While it's tempting to rinse and repeat, using what worked in 2019 might not be a solution for screen-fatigued families this year. For example, Harvard noticed that "information requests peaked one-to-two months later this year versus last year and overall student interest clearly skewed later," according to Susan Hackney, Director of Marketing at Harvard Summer School. "In fact, submitted applications also shifted later compared to prior years."

In October 2020, when Harvard announced the decision to host their 2021 college programs for high school students in the online-only format, they re-allocated their marketing budget to go 100% online and minimized partner collaborations. According to Hackney, Harvard refreshed their ads to focus on video and student voices, highlighting the value that high school students found in the online programs from last summer. They also leaned into "mid-funnel" and "bottom of the funnel" tactics (i.e. conversion-focused media), like paid search and paid social.

Related: 3 Tips to Re-Engage with Isolated Consumers

Given that many pre-college application deadlines are in May 2021, there's still time to enhance your team's digital marketing efforts. Based on my experience, whether selling an academic experience (measured by enrollment rates) or selling a product (measured by conversion rate), the same ecommerce marketing tactics are critical to drive revenue. Check out my three recommendations to increase pre-college registration.

1. Build anticipation with dynamic content

While highlighting your program's academic benefits and health precautions, don't forget that many families are still experiencing pandemic isolation and might appreciate a more personalized digital approach. One simple way to create online buzz is to use a live countdown timer to visually showcase upcoming application deadlines, promotional end-dates or deposit deadlines.

With a few snippets of code, you can implement this type of dynamic content on your website and into your email program. Once the real-time countdown timer is integrated, follow up with a triggered email to notify your audience once a key milestone is approaching (e.g. "Two Days Left to Apply" or "Just a Few Hours Left: Get $250 Off Your Application Fee"). Think of it as a "set it and forget it" type of automated marketing technique.

Be sure to think about how this dynamic email would fit into your broader CRM (Customer Relationship Management) strategy. Analyze the various segments you typically target (e.g. prospective versus admitted students, parents, teachers or guidance counselors), and determine which automated email stream this message would fit into. You might include it as part of your Welcome series (for new email subscribers who just signed up to hear from you), in an Abandon Browse/Abandon Cart series (for those who browsed your website and/or for those who started their application, but haven't yet finished it) or for Admitted Students (targeting those who haven't yet submitted their deposits). Plus, don't forget to complement your website/email strategy with some Gmail ads as another reminder touchpoint.

2. Be mobile-first and connect with your audience on Clubhouse

We know that everyone is "Zoomed out" and looking for new ways to connect and stay in-the-know. If you're not already on Clubhouse, check out some basic tips to get ramped up. Once you get a Clubhouse invite and download the app, start your own "Club" (like an official fan page for your university) and invite program alumni, faculty/staff, guidance counselors, students and influencers to join. Ask your Twitter and Instagram fans to follow the Club and its founding members, sign up for alerts, share the Club link with friends and nominate other members to join the Club.

With summer programs beginning soon, instead of taping a pre-recorded YouTube video or putting together a formal information session on Zoom for screen-fatigued potential applicants or admitted students, try hosting a "Room" in the Club where families can hear from summer program ambassadors, ask questions and network with one another. And remember, keep it informal, engaging and geared for teenagers (since the students are ultimately the ones that would attend).

Related: There's No Such Thing as Business as Usual this Holiday Season

3. Focus on crafting relevant, pragmatic content

Relevant content has evolved from being benefits-oriented last year to safety-first this year. For instance, when I did a 2020 media buy with The Princeton Review for Wellesley College's Pre-College Summer program, it included display ads, emails and sponsored articles focused on, "Why Wellesley?" I conducted interviews with Wellesley College professors to get their perspectives on the benefits of getting an all-female education and the importance of preparing for college early, such as, "Where Are the Young Women in STEM? Make Your Mark in High School" and, "Own Your Power: Invest in Yourself Now."

In today's challenging environment, with hesitant parents anxious to commit and an ever-changing list of health protocols, it's important to have empathy, listen to customer feedback and create a frictionless user experience by focusing on simplicity. For example, I recently caught up with Jennifer Kendall, Marketing Director at Summer Discovery, a pre-college academic enrichment program. She mentioned that for university partners who are still offering summer courses on-campus, they've shifted messaging to focus more on safety precautions and flexible program options like half-day versus full-day classes or commuter versus residential programs.

The overall message? Keep it simple this summer.

Melissa Stone

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Vice President, Head of Digital Media

A digital marketing leader with 15 years of experience generating revenue growth, creating content and optimizing the customer experience at global brands like Nike, L’Oréal, and Meta (Facebook). She is currently Vice President of Digital Media at Bliss, a mid-size marketing communications firm.

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