Part 1 of 3: Design Thinking for Better College Recruiting

The vast majority of college marketing materials go unread – and even unopened. But how else can you connect with prospective students to raise awareness of your college or university? In the first part of a 3-part series, we break down the problem – and look at how smart design thinking can help.

Illustration of a high school student buried in college recruitment marketing
Published: 8.29.2018

This series will be covering several key strategies to help you get the most out of your recruitment materials. The articles to follow will include Part 2: Top 6 Things Students Want to Know About Your College and Part 3: 7 College Website Essentials to Drive Enrollment. But first, let's examine the big picture and identify some important data that will influence where to begin in your marketing plan.

What students are really looking at – and where you should be investing more.

Thump. The mail hits the counter and my teenage son flips through it, pulling out his Sports Illustrated and a package that looks suspiciously like yet another baseball. He picks out another few things, and tosses them into the recycling bin.

“Wait! Colleges?” I shriek. “Yes, Mom,” he sighs. “More of them.”

He never looks at them. Even the ones from schools he’s interested in. He looked at the first two or three he received at the beginning of his sophomore year because he was excited that colleges were contacting him. After that, it was straight to the recycle bin. Every. Single. Time.

Since we specialize in recruitment marketing for higher education, I do quite a bit of dumpster diving (unless I get to the mail first). But it begs the question – why are colleges and universities spending so much money on these pieces when they haven’t been truly designed with the student in mind? Why aren't they timing things more strategically?

My son’s behavior reflects what we’ve learned in countless focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and surveys with Millennials and Gen Z students over the past half-decade – students are looking at your website and social media first (on their phones and laptops), to see what life on campus is really like and whether they think they’ll feel at home there. Instagram, SnapChat and yes, Twitter, are all really, really big for this.

More and more college admissions reps are indeed learning to interact with students where they hang out: online.

According to a recent study by the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, 100% of universities surveyed use social media to communicate with students, up from 61% in 2007-08. The study found that 98% of the responding colleges have a Facebook page and 84% have a Twitter account.


of universities use social media to communicate with students


of colleges have a Facebook page


of universities have a Twitter account

But you do still need printed materials.

Once your target is interested, they’ll engage – especially if it’s designed with their interests in mind. They want great photography. Minimal text. Big stats. And confidence that an education from your school will help them land the job they want. (Print is especially useful for college visits, which can be transformational for prospective students when they’re done right – and a complete turnoff when they’re not – but we’ll get to that in our next post).

And of course you still need to connect with influencers in a meaningful way. But do you know what they’re really looking at? Do you know who you’re truly designing for?

Utilizing design thinking, which is a strategic approach to understanding your audience and problem-solving for their needs, will help you get there (and it happens to be the way we always work).

With limited budgets, shrinking student pools, ongoing retention challenges and overwhelming competition, you’ve got to be smart with every dollar you invest in recruiting and converting prospective students.

Research, strategy and smart digital connection points are critical pillars in helping you realize a real return on your investment when it comes to finding and connecting with students. Make sure they’re done right, and you’re setting yourself – and your institution – up for real success.

Let’s talk about how your next recruiting year can be your best year yet.


Up next in our series is Part 2: Top 6 Things Students Want to Know About Your College, followed by Part 3: 7 College Website Essentials to Drive Enrollment.

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Sanger & Eby
501 Chestnut St.
Cincinnati, OH 45203

Katie Krafka
Director, Client Engagement
p. 513.784.9046

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