While most mothers are focused on the holiday shopping season, there is one segment of moms who are actively doing another type of shopping — college shopping. Yes, it’s that time of year when mothers with high school seniors are eagerly awaiting SAT or ACT results, sifting through direct mail pieces from colleges and universities and loading up the car for campus tours.
As the mother of four, I have personally experienced the anxiety of college searches while consulting with numerous university admissions offices on a professional basis. Marketing to the mother of a college-bound student has its own unique tricks and tips in order to be successful in a competitive market where school year price tags per student average $10,000 for in-state tuition to $40,000 and more for private and/or out-of-state tuition.
Here are my tips for administration, staff and recruiters based on research, as well as professional and personal experience.
1. At the end of the day, moms want happy, safe and well-educated children who are employable at the end. Don’t forget to highlight the safety element in your long list of “Top College” accolades. There’s nothing worse than having your child fall in love with a campus only to learn through an online search that crime rates are higher than normal.
2. Don’t underestimate the importance of your student tour guides. Like any front line employee, the first people your prospective customers meet are the most important points of contact for your brand. This could not be truer than with teenagers who tend to size up their peers in the first three minutes of interaction. I’ve been on tours where the student ambassador did nothing but talk about last Friday night’s party (not a good selling point for mom) or how homesick she is because there’s no social life on campus (not a good selling point for teenagers). No matter how much you are spending on glossy marketing materials that fill the mailbox weekly or how slick your customized portal is for the prospective student, if the campus tour is a bust, the student will quickly lose interest, and so will mom.
3. Keep the Mom in the loop. Yes, it’s time to let go, but most college-bound students aren’t paying for college alone. Mothers want to know where their money is going, particularly if it’s $40,000 - $50,000 of it. Offer the option for duplicate emails (one to the student, one to mom), or better yet, customize emails with financial, safety and success rate information that will go a long way toward winning over the family to your institution.
4. Invite the family to immerse themselves into a different experience. There is no shortage of colleges inviting moms, dads and students to visit their campuses. To get the attention of your prospective students, do something unique, different and customized. Last month, a college sent my daughter (a drama student) complimentary tickets to the fall performance of “Grease.” A few years ago, a school recognized my son’s interest in engineering by inviting him to a science exhibit on campus. Athletic departments do it all the time. They recruit prospective players to stand on the sidelines before a big game to truly deliver the feeling of being part of the team. There are lessons to be learned by this practice.
5. Enlist the help of subject department chairmen, professors or students to engage with recruits with similar interests. My daughter received a personalized email from the head of the theater department of a school she was not considering. She was so excited and impressed with his apparent interest that she not only applied but also fell in love with the college after a campus tour. As a marketer, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it was likely an email campaign but I did congratulate the admissions department on their successful marketing tactic.
Technology as well the increased number of college-bound students has changed the way higher-level education institutions market to families. There’s a need and demand for customized admission portals and email updates. However, when it comes to the personal decision of selecting a college, there’s no replacement for the value of personal interactions.