Six tips to build better communications funnels

It’s spring, and for university folks, that means one thing: It’s time to start working on your communication funnels for the fall.

A communication funnel is a targeted, pre-planned sequence of information delivered to your target (prospective students) in a friendly, conversational tone. Your communications should be relevant, targeted accurately and delivered at the right frequency to keep your prospective student’s attention.

Your funnels can be as sophisticated as your technology allows you, but don’t let poor tech be an excuse not to start. There are many brilliantly-designed and executed funnel flows out there that are running through ERPs and basic mailers. If you don’t have communication funnels, I promise you this: There is no better use of your time than starting these today.

1. Involve everyone

Have I lost you yet? All great things shine in the light, and that includes your communication funnels. Book a room and set up all your communications. Invite admissions, marketing, financial aid and other departments that have a direct relationship with prospective students. Give everyone a set of post-it notes and a red pen and let them mark 'em up.

You’ll be amazed with what you find. Yes, some of these notes will be irrelevant and some notes will contradict others. It’s your job to compare them to best practices and research to glean insight.

This practice will also help you with Part B in the great plan to break down silos and involve everyone, which is building allies. It’s very likely that you will need the help of your friends in marketing and IT or admissions to handle some of the more technical details of funnel construction. Spend time setting yourself up for success. Build your allies now.

By the way: I would also recommend having an outside source look at your funnels and give you some insight. We do this at D. White & Company, and the results can help you identify blind spots or weaknesses in your flows.

2. Do your research

While you’re building your internal base, make yourself a communications flow expert. Sign up for your competition’s funnels so you know the other mail your prospective students are receiving. Take notes. Read everything you can about your mediums, particularly email and text. There’s a giant world of marketing research. Use it.

3. Draw up a plan

Here's an example of how two postcards and two emails in your funnel plan might look. 

Here's an example of how two postcards and two emails in your funnel plan might look. 

If your communication plan is solely based on ad hoc communications, you don’t have a plan – actually, you don’t have a prayer. Your communications flows should be drawn up and documented and should include key information like:

  • Medium
  • Message
  • Conversion
  • Timing
  • Audience

I highly recommend you design and document your communication flows based on lifecycle stage and segmented, at a bare minimum, by audience type (first-year, transfer). This creates clear, direct communication that is usable for your prospective student.

Remember, there is no magic bullet to marketing. You need to use all possible mediums at your disposal. Email, mail, text, phone and digital should be coordinated and integrated. If you’re not there, don’t worry, most people aren’t. But it’s the goal you and your competition are working toward.

4. Be conversion-focused

The key to great communication flows is focus. Each piece of communication should do one specific, measurable thing: Ask a student to apply, explore majors or estimate their cost with a net price calculator. Take time to define your conversions ahead of time. If a piece doesn't have a purpose, lose it. 

That means you also need to start with your most essential communications and work outward. You probably need to a.) talk to prospective students b.) encourage them to apply c.) apply for scholarships and aid d.) attend orientation and e.) confirm.

A little note here: Just because you're conversion-focused doesn’t mean you're done. You need to continue to sell the value of your institution. Have you developed your message strategy and brand voice? If not, start now. Too many institutions simply stop selling the value of their institution too soon. They aren't sold until they make their first donation as a successful graduate. Keep selling. 

5. Keep it short

The average email read time is three seconds. Text messages are even shorter. Even with a postcard or a similar mailing, at best, you’ve got 10 seconds – the distance from the mailbox to the recycling bin. Make sure your message is tight and focused. Remember the old Strunk & White call to “omit needless words.” Your copy should be so tight that it reads out loud like a person talking to another in a conversation.

As a general rule, I like to budget out about 90 words for an email and not much more for a postcard, although it depends on what your content is, how often you email and who it is going to.

If you started with a written plan, this should be so easy that almost any competent writer in your office can do it. Why? Because you’ve already outlined your objectives, your audience and your message.

6. Measure it

Sometimes, it feels like we end every post this way, but, as Peter Drucker famously said, “What gets measured gets improved.”

Well, we say it because it’s true. Marketing without measuring is like driving with your eyes closed. Good luck to you and call me so I can remember to stay off the road.

Back when you were putting your plan together, hopefully, you gave every piece of communication a measurable job that supports your goals. Set targets and focus on the big numbers – conversions. Don’t get paralyzed by data. Just like your car, some data is for driving (your dashboard) and some is for the mechanic (diagnostics). Don’t try to focus on too many goals – just focus on the ones that move the needle. 

Bonus tip: Keep building!

Building and maintaining communications flows should be almost a constant process. Continue to segment your audience more accurately and reach out to them. The more personalized and the more segmented you are, the easier it is to deliver the right message to the right audience at the right time.

Here are a few sample tracks to consider if you don’t have them already:

  • First-year and transfer inquiries
  • First-year and transfer incomplete applicants and application abandonment
  • First-year and transfer admitted
  • First-year and transfer orientation sign-up
  • First-year and transfer enrolled
  • Housing sign-up
  • Confirmation deposits
  • Parents
  • First-generation students
  • Athletes & special talent

And that’s just the beginning. Happy planning!

Darren White is the principal consultant at D. White & Company, a higher education marketing and management firm that helps institutions work effectively. DWCo. offers funnel audits that assess your flow’s efficacy. Want to get started? Schedule an audit today.