Interest or Intent? Part III: What Is Engagement?

Over the past several weeks, Rick Bailey and I have explored the contrast between interest and intent for both our prospect and applicant pools. Rick kicked this off, reminding us that for students, interest and intent are entirely different mindsets; if we’re hoping to better understand our enrollment funnel, equating the two does a fundamental disservice to our recruiting strategy. More recently, I examined why several of the traditional “indicators” that we fastidiously track for our prospective students no longer hold the gravitas that they once did. In that discussion, I noted that particularly in digital spaces, the effort required for a student to “respond” is far lower than the value that we as enrollment managers assign to it.

This brings us to the central question—what digital engagement actually tells us something? And in a world of digital convenience, that requires us to first define what engagement actually is. 

In our attempts to reach prospective students and convert them into active inquiries, our traditional approach has looked something like this:

  1. Student enters funnel
  2. Student receives messaging 
  3. Student takes an action 
  4. CRM converts student to an inquiry
  5. Student enters inquiry communications flow and is invited to take the next steps in the process

From here, we move right into the sell phase of the cycle, asking the student to take further actions…and they’re often big actions, like submitting an application or scheduling an appointment. We assume that because the student has “responded,” that means that they’re engaged and ready to hear what we want them to do next. 

In this approach, we aren’t thinking about the student’s experience. What does this engagement look like from their perspective? In a student’s mind, it may be more like this:

  1. Student receives message from university
  2. Student clicks on link
  3. Student provides name, email and entry term on a form
  4. Student submits form and resumes previous activity
  5. Student quickly forgets they submitted the form and disregards future “APPLY NOW” messages

No wonder we struggle so much with identifying intent. We’ve mistakenly based our concept of engagement on the student taking specific, large actions, rather than seeing intent as incremental; we’re focused on major conversion points instead of a series of gradual, small behaviors. If we hope to truly gauge intent, we need to focus on the conversion cycle differently, by examining what the student is doing next and how we’re guiding them in the desired direction, which means you need to think clearly about what that next incremental step is.

Assessing digital engagement starts with an understanding that audience behaviors do not occur in a vacuum. The actions directly surrounding that “conversion point” matter immensely, and the micro-behaviors occurring after an individual has taken the desired action can give you insight into their actual intentions—and help you to strengthen them. Here are a few key ways students can be showing their hand, if you know where to look.

Browsing Activity

Hopefully it comes as no surprise to you that very little is truly anonymous when it comes to our online behavior. As web users, we have concluded that convenience is a higher priority than privacy when it comes to internet cookies, autofilled forms, targeted advertisements and other tools and tactics centered around our activity on the world wide web. And those same digital footprints that we’re leaving across the web (mine seem to be particularly concentrated within Amazon’s domain) are available to us as we examine the traffic on our sites.

How is an individual behaving after they’ve taken the action you wanted them to? Are they closing that browser window, or do they explore additional pages on your site? Your goal is to keep them on your website for as long as you can, and the more pages they view, the higher the likelihood of intent. Many marketing automation platforms and CRMs enable us to track this behavior, not just on the aggregate, but for individual leads. For instance, in Slate, Ping can provide you with incredibly in-depth browsing data. You can view how many pages a lead has accessed, the total amount of time they’ve been active on your domain, and even if they’re visiting specific sections that you consider to be a priority. Tracking this behavior, particularly in the hours and days immediately following a student’s inquiry/conversion, provides you with a valuable indicator of who your high-priority leads might be.

And if you don’t have a CRM with these capabilities, remember that Google Analytics is free. While GA can’t link your individual visitors with specific leads, it can provide you with detailed reports on goal conversion, bounce rate, page view counts, and more, with the ability to drill down by segment so that you can see exactly how 17-to-21-year-old males in Wichita, KS, are engaging with your page (with an incredible level of accuracy). Overlaying this with what you know about your inquiry pool can help you draw some conclusions on how you’re resonating, and, thus, how well you’re nurturing intent.

As an aside, this is probably a good place to mention that if you want a student to stick around on your website once they’ve submitted a form or registered for an event, you’d better have your confirmation pages in tip-top shape. Serve up a menu of related content that will show once that submit button has been clicked—otherwise, you’re likely to see that student bounce. If your confirmation page says something to the effect of “Thanks so much, we’ll be in touch soon,” it’s time to do an overhaul.

Email Engagement

We all know how to track email engagement…or so we think. We look at the various stats on open rates and click rates and click to open rates, or we pull a list of the students who have clicked on links in two or more emails, or we group recipients who have opened four or more messages into a special segment. But despite that, it still might feel like deciphering this engagement is a black box that we can’t quite crack open. And, as with so many other digital behaviors, that often comes down to our tendency to see the recipient’s behavior in static bursts instead of as a flow of activity across a period of time.

It’s certainly important to keep track of your essential campaign metrics; those will tell you how you’re resonating with the group as a whole. But when you’re trying to interpret a specific lead’s level of intent, email opens and clicks aren’t going to get you very far down the road. And, to make things even more challenging, Apple’s latest privacy developments will make it even tougher to track opens and clicks, so it is an excellent time to reconsider how you assess email engagement.

Again, the micro-behaviors around these campaigns will be revelatory. Is the student glancing at your messages briefly, or are they returning to them later? A student who doesn’t just read your email once, but re-opens it several times (maybe even over the course of many days), is telling you that the message you’ve sent matters to them. Take a look at link clicks as well—don’t just consider whether they clicked or didn’t, but look for those students who visit multiple links from your message. And how is their engagement changing over time? As the message count on their timeline increases, are you seeing more emails with URL clicks or that are opened multiple times? A steady build in responsiveness is a strong indicator of growing intent.

And we can always create opportunities to foster further engagement in our communications flow. A few ideas:

  • Simple progressive profiling can quickly reveal leads in your prospect pool who are open to building a relationship with you. You can do this by sending a message to those records who have engaged in some way, inviting them to share more about what’s relevant to them. This can take them to a basic form (pre-fill those basic data points!) where they can respond to a few tailored questions, such as intended major or extracurricular activities. This provides you with two wins: you’re able to flag those students who are ready to engage with you, and you’re able to provide more targeted, segmented messages to these students moving forward.
  • Lower the stakes on your CTAs. If all of your messages are asking students to take an action that requires a higher level of commitment, it’s difficult for them to warm up over time. Instead of leaning on some variant of “Apply Now!” or “Register Today!” or “Take Your Next Step” for all the messages in your communications flow, intersperse emails that allow students to set their own pace. Give content marketing a larger role in these campaigns, and find moments to emphasize relationality instead of transactional behavior.
  • And of course, give students what they want. Segmentation is a surefire way to more effectively grab your audience’s attention, presenting them with relevant content that is more likely to answer their questions and pique their interest. Use the data points that you have for your leads to your advantage here. Don’t have the data you need? Return to the first bullet point and add progressive profiling to your communications strategy.

Social Media Activity

Our students live a significant portion of their lives interacting with social platforms, and higher education has been scrambling to catch up with what their audiences expect to see. Ten years ago, few (if any) universities had a social media manager on their staff; now at many institutions, it’s not uncommon for the marketing department to have an entire team dedicated to content development, community management, strategy and reporting for their many social channels. But understanding social engagement is nuanced, and the landscape seems to be evolving at the speed of light. How can we identify the behaviors that matter?

When it comes to interpreting the social media habits of college-bound students, there’s no better place to start than by having a conversation with Steve App. As assistant vice president for marketing & business development at Simpson Scarborough, Steve has spent a great deal of time exploring this question, and he’s identified specific behaviors that suggest that a prospective student has moved from mere interest to intent. Following university accounts, liking content, or commenting on posts all point to interest in your institution, but you can’t interpret that as an intent to go further. “The biggest indicator of intent,” he says, “is when the student moves beyond what the college says about itself and into what its students are saying about it.” 

Students who have moved into the intent phase of the funnel won’t be the ones who recently began following you on Twitter, are scouring your Instagram feed, or are commenting on your official YouTube channel. Instead, you’ll find them engaging with your university’s larger (and more unofficial) digital community, posting in a subreddit dedicated to your institution or commenting on videos created by your current students. As Steve notes, “It all goes back to trust, and students will trust the people who look like them.” These individuals are making efforts to connect with your student body, and their desire to engage with this community indicates that they envision becoming a part of that community themselves. 

This is, of course, more difficult to track, but Steve has a few recommendations that can help you pinpoint the students with the highest social intent:

  • Identify which students on your campus are the YouTube influencers, and follow these accounts. Look at the comments and questions they’re receiving from prospective students on their videos; since YouTube is owned by Google, each of these commenters is tied to a Google account, and you may be able to match them up to records in your CRM. And remember that it’s not just the fresh content to keep an eye on—prospective students can and will comment on older videos created by your campus influencers as well.
  • If your campus has a dedicated subreddit, observe the conversation happening there. Use a productivity tool like IFTTT to receive an alert whenever there’s a new post so that you’re able to monitor the dialogue that’s occurring.
  • Know which engagements matter the most. Students asking comparative questions (e.g., “Which school is better, school A or school B?”) are telling you that they’ve narrowed down their options, and you’re one of the finalists, while those posting a “Make Me Love [Your Institution Name]” thread on Reddit are indicating that they’ve probably selected your school (potentially begrudgingly) and are looking for a little extra reassurance to cement their choice.
  • Above all, remember that you’re there to observe, not engage. These spaces are not ones where you should be trying to sell your institution—that needs to stay with your official channels. Nothing threatens the candor and authentic dialogue of these digital communities more than seeing a university official jump into the conversation to try to correct misconceptions or steer the discussion in a particular direction.

Some Final Thoughts

So where do we go from here? If we want to more effectively understand how engaged our audience is, there are a few key takeaways to keep front and center in our minds:

  1. Intent (and interest, for that matter) is not binary. Determining whether a lead intends to take further steps with us involves more of a spectrum, and a dynamic one, at that: just because someone is on the lower side of that spectrum now doesn’t mean that they’ll stay that way. 
  2. The process can reveal more than the conversion does. Students will fulfill the same call to action in very different ways, and oftentimes the behaviors surrounding the desired outcome tell us more about that student’s mindset than the result will.
  3. The most insightful metrics may be a few layers down. Particularly when we’re talking about major decisions, the tipping point isn’t going to be sudden. Instead, we’re looking for incremental growth over time, which means that we ought to consider redefining what data matters as we examine our funnel.

Are the traditional indicators that we’ve been relying on for years obsolete? Certainly not, and they serve a valuable purpose as we build out our forecasts and projections. They should be a part of the picture, but not the full picture, and by marrying these larger actions to micro-behaviors, we develop a more robust understanding of where our students are in the process and what they need next in order to continue that journey down the pathway to intent.

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Megan Miller

Megan is a Senior Technology Consultant at RHB.