Wednesday, January 23

Researching Colleges: Future Students Prefer Digital Stealth

Forget interviews. Forget phone calls. Forget campus visits. College bound students are researching future colleges with the click of a mouse or tap on a mobile application. Like many organizations are learning, the next generation of college student is more inclined to shop a future college online.

Almost 55 percent of prospecting students are investigating colleges every day, using social media networks and search engines over print guidebooks and direct marketing products. Almost 25 percent applied stealth to their searches, making it more difficult for colleges to pin down prospect interest or profile them based on any discernible psychographics or demographics. You know what that means.

Don't blink because your customer is invisible.

According to a new study conducted by Lipman Hearne, a national marketing and communications firm, and Cappex.com, a college search website, future students are researching schools online as early as their sophomore year in high school. And they are looking for very specific information, along with passive analysis, to determine what institutions might be a good fit for their college years.

1. Scholarship and financial aid packages.
2. Reputation in a major field of interest.
3. Affordable tuition and fees.
4. Strong academic reputation.
5. Job assistance after graduation.

In addition to prioritizing preferences, the report focuses in on prospect communication preference, noting that nearly half had visited a college's website on a mobile device (45 percent) and one in ten had downloaded an app from a college on a mobile device. What students are less interested in are text messages, unless they have an expressed interest in the school.

Students also turn to social networks as part of their research (85 percent reported having at least one social network account). And although most say that social media does not influence their decision, students frequently look for status updates, offerings, and even invitations. But what most won't do is use this information to start a conversation, poll, or ask friends for opinions on their school choices.

There is also some indication that colleges are over-marketing to students via email. The average prospect reported receiving as many as five emails from colleges that they have reached out to for information. The communication is intrusive enough that many have set a dedicated email specifically for college information. About 71 percent check this separate email account daily.

Not surprisingly (although surprising to some), more than one in three graduating high school seniors indicated that advertising influenced their application decision or influenced their enrollment decision. Students also identified online banner ads as more effective and easier to recall than other forms of advertising. Both of these statistics represent a dramatic shift in online behavior, which has previously suggested that social media is more influential than advertising. This might not be true in the future.

The Lipman Hearne study is available for a free download, but requires the typical form fill. It included more than 11,000 students as part of its survey process. It should also be noted that the research was conducted online, which sometimes skews data toward the medium where the survey was taken.

Looking beyond college bound applications and learning about consumers. 

While the study was conducted to better understand stealth applicants — students who investigate schools before and after applying to the school — it suggests that the next generation of consumers is already shifting their mindset. Specifically, more customers watch and listen to organizations without identifying themselves as potential customers. In essence, they are passive in their research.

Passive online participants (voyeurs) still represent a majority of online participation, even if many social media experts skew toward the more talkative and visibly engaged customers. But there is one difference between the voyeurs of the past and the voyeurs of the future. The voyeurs of the past were quiet because they weren't comfortable with the new tools. The voyeurs of the future know the tools and purposefully remain unengaged to avoid intrusive marketing efforts like emails and phone calls.

This could be a significant find because it seems that while the next generation of customer may be more reliant on digital research, they are also interested in remaining invisible to big data by giving off the appearance of disengagement. Note to researchers: Focus groups still require different formats.
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