• Issue #57

How do you market well when you waitlist or reject some customers?

Midjourney generative render of a classroom of high school seniors in the 1980s looking sad because they got rejection letters from their colleges.

Have you seen the college rejection videos circulating on TikTok? Like this one, this one, this one, and this one?

As employees of higher education, we often feel good about our work. We’re supporting education, which in turn, supports every other knowledge worker field. We’re marketing the creation and dissemination of life-changing research. We’re creating a better world.

But, let’s face it: we’re sometimes in the business of breaking people’s hearts.

You are only limited by your supply when you work as a marketer for products like Kleenex, Dyson, Nintendo, and Levi’s. Whoever gets to your product first just gets to buy it. There aren’t eligibility requirements for folks to be a customer.

But in higher education, we may have limited spots. We sometimes even want to be more exclusive. Exclusivity positively affects our rankings.*

*This is not true for Community Colleges.

So how does this change our marketing?

The fact that we have limited spots and admissions criteria means that we’ll never be able to market our degree programs exactly like brands in other industries.

  1. Our marketing is blended with “communications.” For every key message, brand differentiator, or selling point we bring to our marketing mix, we must find ways of incorporating information supporting an applicant’s clear-headed assessment of fit. When you think about it, it’s rare for the office that manages paid media and website sales funnels to be the same as the office that generates press releases and builds media relationships for favorable coverage. But, that’s a little bit of what we’re talking about here.

    When marketing and public relations are blended together, it changes how we say things because we have to assume that the public won’t be able to tell our marketing and public relations messages apart. In higher education, marketing messages are held to the same veracity standards as communication messages. That’s why pharmaceutical commercials can feature actors and models without a second thought, while it’s a scandal if you photoshop more students into an event brochure.

  2. Our “sales teams” are counselors. Sales teams use all kinds of marketing tactics - like asking for referrals, upselling and cross-selling, and revisiting cold leads. Counselors on the other hand provide advice, field complaints, review materials, and guide applicants and families through complicated processes.

    Our industry disappoints people all the time, all over the world. Reputationally, our “customers” may hold us at fault for those disappointments. This means that each year, our brands have to overcome rejections from previous years’ customers and any bad experiences they may have had. That’s not something Kleenex, Dyson, Nintendo, or Levi’s has to worry about.

    So, driving up applications creates a lot of extra work for diminishing returns. If we recruit a windfall of applications only to reject most of them, it will change your brand positioning and how people think about applying to your campus. On the one hand, our programs might get to be a little more choosey, but on the other hand, each person we turn away feels rejected.

  3. Also, our customers apply before they buy. Imagine applying to a fitness center, only they get to turn you away if they feel you won’t be successful in their program. You must supply references to show that you stick to plans and work through challenges. The whole time you’re in the application process, you feel judged. Your current fitness level might not reflect your capabilities, so you must provide intimate details of your lifestyle to persuade a fitness center to believe in you. That sounds preposterous!

    Our prospects apply to more than one place, and they pick their schools carefully knowing that the decision on where to go might come later. Just as our prospects can’t count on an offer of admission, we can’t count on our prospects committing the second they receive their acceptance notice. Getting students to apply is just the first step in a year-long journey.

Marketing for a college or university is just different. We play by different rules and are held to different standards. Our brands walk a tightrope between being desirable and being hurtful.

You might be thinking, “So, What?”

You’ve been living in this reality, so you already know this. Here’s why I think it matters and how we can change our behaviors a bit, operating with this reality in mind.

When working with vendors, get a feel for how experienced they are in higher education and the nuances they’ve internalized. Before I started at Bravery and was still on the institution side of things, I was surprised at how many vendors made big inaccurate assumptions about our institution. Have you ever heard a marketing agency say:

  • “Well, that’s where I think your central graduate marketing team needs to step up.”
  • “Why would divisions and departments **_not _**share their contacts with one another? You’re all one institution, right?”

I don’t want to say working with a vendor with limited higher education experience is a waste of time. But it does change how much vendor management work your team has to do to ensure the partnership’s success.

Work with Silos instead of against them.

Okay, hear me out. Silos are the great bane of higher education’s existence. I’ve been in this industry for ~14 years or so and I’ve been hearing about breaking down silos the whole time. I’m not saying they’re good. But, sometimes, they do help us consider our content from multiple perspectives.

For an adjacent example, I wrote a lot of financial aid emails for the last institution I worked for. From an admissions perspective, financial aid communication was part of that marketing process, earning commitments from admitted students. From the financial aid office’s perspective, these communications were sober realities that often required specific actions. This tug of war between “marketing” and “communications.” or in this case “admissions” and “financial aid,” is very real.

The thing is, both sides bring to bear important considerations for students and their families. It is important to let students know that there are scholarships available. It’s also important to let them know that those scholarships are competitive and don’t cover the full cost of tuition. Striking the balance between marketing and communications is important to ensure our students not only choose us but have all the facts they need to be successful with us.

Invest in that accepted student experience.

We spend a ton of energy, time, and money getting prospects to our website and getting them to apply. Once we’ve accepted them, we drop them off at a page with a few checklists, put them on an email list, and say, “See you at orientation!”

This can be so much better. Our journey from accepted to enrolled shouldn’t feel like an endless list of administrative tasks. After all, prospective students just went through an ordeal! They toured campuses, met with admissions counselors, put together applications, asked teachers and community leaders for recommendation letters, shelled out money, and possibly got accepted and rejected by multiple other schools. \

This is your chance as an institution to show them that you’re going to make that effort worthwhile for them.

Care for the students who have been rejected or waitlisted.

Our messaging to prospects who have been rejected or waitlisted is usually just a form letter. Imagine getting a different message, one that says something more like:

We don’t have a spot for you this upcoming fall term. But, we really believe in you.

Each year, we host special events where our admission team will go through your application with you and tell you how you can make it stronger if you want to apply to us again in the future. _

If you dream of coming here, we can connect you with a transfer specialist. Maybe you start your college journey in one place and finish in another. _

We also offer several non-degree-seeking online courses that can help you further your education or prepare for the next step in your journey. Some of these are for credit and can be transferred to the institution where you pursue your next degree.

If you decide to go somewhere else and aren’t interested in pursuing an undergraduate education with us, we still hope you will keep in touch. We always want to hear from former applicants about what worked for you along your journey. And, who knows? Maybe we’ll find a connection point in the future.

Maybe this isn’t realistic, but it would certainly make a difference to me. I would feel like, after all that investment I made in this school, they are at least willing to invest back in me in some way. And that matters.

Sometimes, we take for granted the more obvious aspects of our work. From a marketing standpoint, it can feel deeply frustrating that we don’t employ all the tactics and systems other brands have at their disposal. But, the very things that can feel like impediments to marketing our institutions and programs are the things that can make our prospective student experience more humane. With the right lens, these can be our strengths.

Interested in planning better accepted student user journeys? Looking for some digital strategy support from an agency that understands higher education? Reach out to us! We’d love to talk.