What enrollment managers can learn from the retail world

You often hear about the struggles of brick-and-mortar stores in the digital age. Capturing people's attention is a constantly-moving target for retailers – shoppers are getting more sophisticated and, as we all know, there are more alternatives than ever competing for our attention.

Universities are facing many of the same challenges. There are now many online education options and alternative training programs competing for student’s attention and tuition revenue. The best of these options are fierce competitors who are experts at entertaining prospective students' attention on their mobile devices and in-person through innovative tactics. They know how to play the game, and unlike retail, there may not be another purchase waiting around the corner. The stakes are high for higher ed.

Some brick-and-mortar stores are winning the fight, and universities can, too. Here are a few strategies retailers have adopted to recapture engagement of consumers. 

First impressions are everything

What does your storefront say about you? Oh, and where is your storefront? Online? On campus? 

How about both?

The storefront is your first impression in retail — and possibly your last. The same is true for  university professionals that are designing a recruitment experience: "Wowing" your prospective student starts with your website and social media presence and continues all the way to their first physical impression of the campus when they visit. Small factors, like how easy it is to sign up for a visit, or how easy it is to find the parking lot (and find a spot to park for the campus tour), may shape the rest of the visit in a positive or negative light. From phone to campus, your experience should be consistent, engaging and integrated. 

The “halo effect” says that our first impressions often paint the rest of our experiences—let’s make sure they arrive on campus wearing rose colored glasses.
— Sarah Mittal, Ph.D., consumer behavior expert

Remember, anything a prospective student sees during the entire tour or visit process is your storefront. This is why legendary CEOs like Southwest Airlines' Herb Kelleher have long made walking their real estate a regular part of their busy schedules. If you don't know what the prospective student experience is firsthand, you are making decisions without an essential piece of data. 

Walk around your campus this afternoon. What “first impression" does it give? What arrival point on campus  has the biggest "wow" factor? How can you ease the arrival and check-in process?

Look for opportunities to reinforce your brand's message by showing your campus at its best. Have tour groups meet up at the campus coffee shop or another social gathering spot that will appeal to Gen Zers. The “halo effect” says that our first impressions often paint the rest of our experiences — let’s make sure they arrive on campus wearing rose colored glasses.

Two worlds collide: Digital & Physical Interplay

#Engagement. When creating digital and physical interplay, think I.C.E.: Instagram-able (or whatever the latest social media platform is), colorful and engaging.

#Engagement. When creating digital and physical interplay, think I.C.E.: Instagram-able (or whatever the latest social media platform is), colorful and engaging.

The next generation of college students belong to Gen Z. They are digital natives, have had a mobile device since they were 12 (on average), and spend more time on mobile than all other media combined. Sure, many universities recognize the necessity of incorporating social media marketing into their recruitment strategy, but oftentimes, it's all about telling the student your institution's story. Let's view it from the other side: What story does your student want to tell? How are you empowering them to do it through your institution?

Retailers are always shaping and reshaping their physical environment to encourage digital engagement. Many restaurants have not only redesigned their physical space, but also how they present their dishes — all to make their spaces and offerings more “Instagram-able.” That means really engaging with physical space. Great restaurants consider their lighting, table tops, and décor to make their presentation more colorful and unique. The battle to create continual "wow" moments is won and lost in the details. 

Gen Zers live in a world where the smartphone is ubiquitous to their lives, so consciously designing university spaces and recruitments experiences to be more “share-worthy” can enhance not only engagement in the physical world, but in the digital as well. One example some universities have found successful is creating a collage or mural wall for recruits to post with their image in it (Imagine “TX State Bobcats” with the X left out for the student to fill). The various touring destinations around campus should also be consciously designed to foster a sense of “I could belong here” — through community area setups, introducing them to areas where students congregate, or even by creating a multi-sensory experience. Is their music in your residence hall showroom? Do they get to taste the food in the cafeteria? Craft your visit experience with intention. Your student will engage your campus with all five senses — how are you being intentional about each?

Want to go for bonus points? Use VR to engage students in a virtual tour activity, like attending a football game, joining a classroom activity, touring recreation center or seeing a study abroad visit.

In-store personalization

Most campuses ask students to sign up and provide some basic information about themselves before taking a campus tour. Universities can take a note from retailers about better harnessing such data to personalize tours and provide relevant information.

This is a great, quick opportunity to ask effective questions that can increase engagement. For example, if a student rates food options as a high priority, the tour guide can ensure to point out all the convenient and delicious options on or near campus. 

While this data is often collected, it is often underutilized. Retailers like Apple ensure that their customer service reps have this type of info at the tips of their fingers, and you should, too, so that you can put the data you are already gathering into action — to create more personalized touches. Pair this with customer service training that encourages your team to go the extra mile, and you'll start to create a culture of "wow" moments. Strategies like these have kept Nordstrom relevant long after their competitors have disappeared from the landscape

Sharing is caring; providing this info to your recruitment staff and tour guides is an easy step towards fostering a “we care about you” campus environment and helping the student to yet again “see themselves” attending your university. 

One last thought

Here's what retailers know that many universities don't: Consumers buy not just because of the product, but because of the experiences it allows them to have — both in the physical and digital world. Consumers also believe in products that align with their “sense of self”— that means experiences that are relatable and story-worthy. Design recruitment strategies not just as the stories you want to tell, but the stories the student wants to tell as well. By understanding what types of experiences are important to them, you will help them see themselves at your university, and before long, you will see them there, too. 

Sarah Mittal, Ph.D. is a consumer behavior expert who studies the psychology behind consumption. D. White & Company is a higher ed marketing consulting firm that helps align your institution's brand with its strategic goal. Want to schedule a campus visit audit? Contact us and let's get started