Interest or Intent? Part II: Understanding the Journey of Digital

In Part 1 of our series exploring interest versus intent, Rick Bailey discussed the important distinctions between general interest in our institution and an actual intent to take decisive action, be that submitting an application, paying a deposit or matriculating. The inquiry and enrollment processes have shifted significantly over the past decade, and the bulk of our students’ behaviors are now occurring within a digital environment, introducing much more complexity and nuance into the funnel. So how are we to interpret these data points?

On any given day, we’re all inundated with hundreds of marketing messages, and our brains have been trained to almost unconsciously filter most of them out. Seriously, think about how many marketing emails you have already deleted today. Can you even remember who sent them all? What advertisements popped up in your social media feeds over the past 24 hours? Can you name the brands that showed on the display ads in your browser? Probably not.

Back in the days before the advent of eCommerce, social media and 24/7 access to limitless information via our smartphones, marketers were guided by what we call the Rule of 7, which held that a prospect needs to “hear” a brand’s message at least seven times before they’ll take action to move into a new phase of the customer journey. Of course, in a digital world, this adage is outdated; because it’s far easier to present our brand to our target audience, it often takes a greater number of touchpoints in order to drive conversion, and so we’ve adapted accordingly.

But it’s not only easier to reach students—it’s a lot easier for them to take an action, such as opening a certain number of emails, clicking a link or submitting a form. As we attempt to read the tea leaves of student behavior and engagement to identify what’s working, one of the primary mistakes we can make is focusing on the level of effort we’ve invested in capturing a student’s attention, rather than looking at the level of effort actually required for the student to respond. Of course, we want it to be easy for them to raise their hands (we want to limit those roadblocks whenever possible), but we have to remember that ease of engagement can be disproportionately correlated with degree of engagement. Let’s unpack that a bit more with three examples:

Example 1: The Fast (and Free!) App

For schools hoping to drive up their number of applications (aka “most schools”), the concept of the fast app has significant appeal. A student can click a personalized URL, add a few additional details on a pre-filled form, hit “submit”, and voila! You’ve gained a new applicant in less than five minutes.

From the student’s perspective, submitting this application requires nearly nothing of them. They don’t have to fork over an application fee, carve out time to write an essay or dutifully list out all their accomplishments and activities from high school. “Free and easy” is a pretty attractive value proposition for students.

But what’s in it for you? Are you actually seeing growth in your applications—or are you just bloating your pool to appear more selective while loading your readers up with a glut of applicants who have no real intention in yielding? Who do you think more authentically intends to pursue the opportunity to attend your university: the student who took time to complete your full set of questions and paid your $50 application fee, or the one who clicked a link in their email, added a few additional details on a form, and hit the “submit” button?

Example 2: The Virtual Visit

For years, attending on-campus events and visits has been considered a key indicator of a student’s intent to apply and/or enroll. “Come Visit” has been a prominent CTA in your materials, and you’ve poured untold dollars into open houses and special events. Now, in a world where digital programming has replaced in-person experiences for more than a year, the landscape has shifted, and discerning students’ level of interest and intent has proven much more difficult.

While you may still be having “visitors” as a result, you probably can acknowledge that the stakes are quite a bit lower for those who are attending your events. They don’t have to pay for airfare or gas to get to you, there’s no need to carve out time to travel to campus—they don’t even have to deal with the hassle of finding parking. You can no longer attribute this engagement to real intent to continue through the funnel.

Example 3: Admitted Student Day

At the average residential undergraduate institution, the admitted student reception is the most important enrollment event of the year, and schools will pour countless hours and financial resources into that final pitch to their admit pool, hoping to get them on campus and inspire them to submit their deposits. The students who attend these events are “the ones”— those students who are most likely to choose your institution— and you’ve likely seen their participation as a high indicator of their intent to enroll. You may view your admitted student day as, essentially, the rehearsal dinner. While it’s true that some students might get cold feet and change their minds, you can feel confident that most of these attendees are ready to commit to you.

But your students aren’t ready to walk down the aisle just yet, and for them, this isn’t the rehearsal dinner. They’re much further back in the decision process, still mulling your proposal and determining whether they want to say yes, and they’re there because they’re interested in you but haven’t yet determined whether they intend to make it official. For these students, your event is a convenient way for them to see what you have to offer; your event presents residential life, classroom experiences, extracurricular activities and campus traditions in bite-sized packages for them to sample. They don’t have to initiate their own research or reach out to members of your campus community themselves. All they have to do is show up, and you’ll take care of the rest. They don’t see you as “the one” (at least not yet), and making that assumption would be a mistake.

All this is to say that in our efforts to make it easier for students to respond, we’ve made it harder on ourselves as we try to discern what that response actually means. We’ll explore that further in Part 3 of our series.

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Megan Miller

Megan is a Senior Integration Consultant at RHB.