09 Jan The Power of Online Communities in increasing student enrollment
“Will I belong?” – This is one of the key questions that goes through an international student’s mind when choosing which university to apply to. That inexplicable gut feeling that makes you feel you’ve made the right choice is key to any decision and may be the most difficult to influence upon.
As Maslow established, belongingness is key to self development. The sense of belonging to a community which shares common interests and aspirations has been demonstrated to influence our level of interest, happiness and motivation.
While universities invest extensive resources in building and nurturing communities for their current students and alumni, they often underestimate the need to create an engaged community for secondary school students and how this could increase not only students’ desire to apply but also their likelihood to enroll.
Of course, social media platforms nowadays offer universities many opportunities to gain access to their target audience, however, let’s not forget that “the medium is the message”. This iconic quote from Marshall McLuhan reflects the importance of choosing the right platform to communicate your message. For example, when looking for movie reviews, users will consult a specialized website such as IMDb and when seeking for a job, users will consult LinkedIn instead of just any online forum. In the case of higher education, the key resides in finding the right platform where prospective students are drawn to engage not only with universities but more importantly with each other.
Imagine Thanh Leo, a student from Vietnam. Thanh loves reading science fiction and is passionate about tennis. He is planning to study business administration in the UK, was accepted to 3 universities, and he is contemplating where to enroll.
For the first time in his life, Thanh will be away from his family and friends. He will live in a foreign country, with a different climate and a different language. He doesn’t know anyone in the UK, he is wondering who would be his roommate, and who he’d play tennis with.
Luckily, Thanh was able to meet online two other students who plan to enroll in one of the universities he is considering. They both play tennis, and plan to study business management. They share their experiences and doubts. They understand each other. Suddenly, he is not alone. He feels relieved. If they choose the same university, he won’t be lonely.
Recruiters currently center their effort, time and budget on increasing the pool of students who apply by visiting fairs, buying list of leads, advertising and running email campaigns, and yet – many students who have applied eventually decide to enroll in another university. It is therefore key to go beyond lists of leads and find ways to build proper relationships and nurture communities of potential students.
Don’t underestimate the power of an online community. Whether it be for an online hotel or restaurant review, people nowadays grant their trust to online communities to which they feel connected to. This is true today more than ever before and this is especially true for teenagers. The key is to encourage emotional connections through positive experiences and engaging conversations. The presence of a supportive and welcoming community for prospective students can therefore be a game changer for universities.
Here are a few tips to get started:
Understand your audience – it seems like stating the obvious, especially for recruiters who often spend hours with students, but try to listen more and understand what’s really important for your students. Factors that may seem to be irrelevant such as hobbies, socioeconomic status, clothing, religious and political beliefs, can affect individuals’ decisions and lead them to seek for the best fit groups.
Mobile-first platform – when you want to create an ongoing engagement, mobile platform is the best option.
Identify the places where they are most active and receptive – you don’t need to build a platform to host students. Chances are that your prospective students are already actively seeking for the advice of other students who are going through the same process. Also, acknowledge that students are not open to interact with you and with other students on every social platform. Identify the right places for such interactions and participate in their discussions in a non-intrusive way.
Offer relevant content – the content they want to consume in such communities is not about you, but about the community. Don’t share your marketing material here, but rather offer educational and inspirational content. Make sure to address their concerns and encourage them to share their ideas and challenges.
Bring the right people – whether it be your student ambassadors, professors or guidance counselors, don’t hesitate to bring other relevant people to the community. If students are concerned about renting a room next to the university, bring someone who can guide them through this process. If they want to learn more about a specific program, bring the program director to the table.
Care about your students – be present, respond to them quickly, be aware of their internal discussions and offer your support. Focus on building a relationship with prospective students, and make sure you help them build connections with other like-minded students.