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How My Time as VP at a Community College Informed My Outreach Strategy

Graduates in graduation ceremony

For nearly 18 years, I had the pleasure of serving at a major statewide community college system, working as both the Vice President of Marketing and Communications and the Senior Vice President of Enrollment Services. The institution is one of the nation’s largest post-secondary institutions and statewide community college systems, and during my tenure, we saw enrollment surpass 200,000 students on campus, online, and in high school classrooms. Today, the school still serves over 150,000 students.

Here’s what I learned while developing the school’s successful communications strategies, and key considerations to make when creating yours.

1. Secure a strategic partner

Sourcing a strategic partner can help meet your institution’s goal of timely, relevant, and accurate communications. During my tenure, we partnered with RRD for their automation and innovation, plus the advantage of having all necessary resources under one roof. 

Prior to working with RRD, the school had taken a decentralized approach to managing communications. Each of its campuses spearheaded their own programming, including the printing, packaging, and fulfillment of all student-facing materials. As we continued to grow, this approach became increasingly challenging from a brand, cost, and efficiency standpoint.

As a strategic partner, RRD spearheaded all print and digital communications across all campuses, freeing up time for the staff and administrators to focus on providing accessible and affordable education. 

A partnership can streamline your multichannel communications, providing solutions that address the complete student journey through innovative touchpoints.  

2. Be open to a creative approach

Recent EAB research shows that the average student in the class of 2022 is both applying to and being accepted to more schools when compared to previous years. Additional options mean that an acceptance — or deposit — no longer translates to a guaranteed enrollment, making personalization more important than ever before.

Additionally, 87% of students indicate that their primary reason for heading to college is to pursue a particular career path or major, and 69% of respondents indicate that the “cost of education” is important when making their final decision. Finding a creative, personalized way to speak to these two considerations should be an integral component of your outreach strategy.

During my tenure, I was involved in developing a direct mail piece sent to prospective students and their parents. The piece showed the cost comparison between our school and other in-state options, and allowed students to assess different career paths and their associated earnings. 

A personalized communication approach will help your school stand out in a student’s — or parent’s — inbox or mailbox.

3. Hit multiple touchpoints with a multichannel strategy

Email is a cornerstone of any prospective outreach strategy, and should continue to be. However, there are risks that come with relying on an exclusively digital campaign. What if those weekly emails are not getting read by the right people? What if they’re not being read at all? Having multiple touchpoints increases the likelihood of reaching your audience and delivering a more effective message.

Because of this, direct mail should also be a key component of any outreach strategy. A recent RRD study reported that 63% of Gen Z respondents are “excited” to receive direct mail. Additional research shows that up to 90% of direct mail gets opened, while only 20-30% of emails get opened. 

Taking it a step further, EAB reports a 21% lift in response rate when there’s a mix of direct mail and email versus email alone. There are also opportunities to digitally empower direct mail pieces with a QR code call-to-action or a link to additional information. A multichannel approach can be more effective, especially when direct mail is added to the mix.

4. Focus on personalized, data-driven communications

Effectively orchestrating marketing and communications on a grand scale requires a personalized, data-driven approach. As I witnessed firsthand, an institution’s in-house direct data feed and student information system offer innumerable opportunities to develop and send personalized communications across each stage of the student journey — from prospect to applicant to enrolled student. Utilizing this data, you can further tailor communications, taking into account the student’s area of study, location, and other personalized details. 

Trigger-based mail programs are another popular and effective solution, with a certain action or event triggering a response. If a student, for example, indicates interest in a particular school, a personalized mailpiece highlighting program details and potential career trajectories can be trigger-sent to their address.

Customized email and direct mail communications — targeting students based on displayed program interest or other personalized parameters — can help turn your school from a contender to a number-one choice.

Last but not least

As the community of students, parents, and educators grew during my tenure, so too did our communication needs. Effectively communicating critical information to students — while maintaining brand integrity across a large student body — required an agile, data-driven approach to marketing communications. Our successful approach was omnichannel; meeting students and parents exactly where they were in the enrollment process. 

Consistency is key to any effective outreach strategy. However, you also need to be willing to adapt to new student preferences. Setting time aside to regularly evaluate and evolve your communications journeys can set your school apart from those delivering messages the same way they always have.

 

Jeff Fanter is RRD’s Vice President - Education Focus. Prior to joining RRD, Jeff served as Vice President of Marketing and Communications and Senior Vice President for Student Experience at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana. He also has an extensive background in college athletics, serving as an assistant athletic director and a conference commissioner.