Interest or Intent? Take the Guesswork out of Your Higher Ed Marketing Communication

This piece of advice and counsel is long overdue. While the related concern is not new at all, the COVID pandemic magnified its urgency in terms of our addressing it.

The traditional funnel of movement toward engagement by audiences and constituents has been in disarray for years. We’ve been warning you about that for a decade or more. We favor a model that describes your “customers” in three ways:

1. Those who are unaware of you
2. Those who have interest in you
3. Those who have intent on buying

You may be reading this and you’re already angry because we’ve called students and donors “customers” and suggested that you have something to “sell” that they may be interested in “buying.” We understand the difficulties inherent in those labels, but we’ll use that language to represent the important exchanges you engage in every day to keep your campus afloat. Try to get over your anger to appreciate the principle here. And, we’re going to focus on enrollment in this post although the same principles apply to any exchange with any of your audiences.

Instead of a funnel (which suggests that gravity plays more of a role than your energy), we represent movement progressively from unaware > interest > intent. Your customers can’t have intent if they don’t have interest, and they can’t have interest if they don’t know who you are (or that you even exist). Your goal is generally to move customers to the point of purchase, then to keep them satisfied with the purchase they’ve made.

Traditionally, enrollment marketing efforts to build awareness have centered around some form of Search activity. For years, you’ve likely invested in the annual tradition of buying names from testing agencies or other data sources, then initiated a series of introductory messages–either postally or digitally–to these unknown suspects in hopes of triggering a response that allows you to nurture these leads with relationship-building strategies. This, we must note, is an exceptionally costly enterprise. We’re guessing your institution may have had millions of dollars tied up in these efforts in the past 40 years. (Don’t think about it too long. It will make you sick.)

With the advent of new technologies that streamline our—and our customers’—ability to access information, these conventional Search efforts are now essentially obsolete. You’ve noticed this, and you’re trying to rectify your losses by pivoting to investments in advertising—predominantly digital—in hopes that you will be noticed in new ways. Schools without widespread brand recognition struggle to make the investments necessary to generate sufficient interest to keep the fires burning. Some aren’t able to, and we’ve seen far too many news stories about them in the past decade. Not to put too fine a point on it.

So here’s the concern: If you no longer have the resources to create sufficient awareness, how can you convert those who have indicated interest into customers with an intent to purchase? And if the old funnel model is broken and the potential buyer now expects to initiate a conversation, how do we monitor and measure the exchanges in any sort of meaningful way? Who’s a suspect? Who’s a prospect? Who likes us? Who loves us? The increasing dependence on digital exchanges blurs the line between interest and intent. We used to assume that raising a hand (usually a search inquiry) in some way indicated permission to begin a relationship. And a payment by May 1 of a deposit indicated intent. Those measures used to be fairly cut and dried. But today, you’re faced with fuzziness when it comes to measuring how inclined a particular prospect is to show up in the fall—right up to the start of classes. Those old May 1 indicators made your CFO happier; today you’re feeling the pressure of discerning what your data say.

You offer a wide menu of options for your customers to maintain or build relationships with you. (Again, you can apply this to any of your audiences, but we’re focusing on enrollment practice here). Determining which of these best serve as indicators of intent (versus mere interest) becomes more difficult all the time.

Because more events now are asynchronous, it’s difficult to tell the difference between interest and intent. For example, when a potential customer takes the virtual tour on your website, how do you know if they’re simply curious or seriously interested? Intent on heading your way or just passing through?

To evaluate initial engagement, start by asking “Do we know this person? Do we have a relationship?” If not, you can assume only interest and you don’t know yet the level of that interest.

One way to improve your sense of a customer’s level of intention is to imagine that you are assigning an admission fee to experiences. A little skin in the game from your constituents can be a strong indicator of intent. By charging a modest amount for webinars or events, you would winnow your participants to exclude those with less interest. A quick note: by charging a fee for events, you run the risk of eliminating those without means or accessibility due to cost. Determine how you will override that danger by offering coupons, discounts or event scholarships. Of course—channeling the expertise of Joe Pine and James Gilmore, authors of The Experience Economy—you’ll want to question whether the experience is worth paying for. (Whether you charge a fee or not, you should be auditing your experiences by asking that question!) Nonetheless, willingness to pay would be a strong indication of intent.

These are big considerations, to be sure. My esteemed RHB colleague Megan Miller has written two outstanding articles to follow this that help you decipher appropriate strategies for communication with those who express interest versus those who indicate intent.

Note that your assessment of interest and intent by your prospective student pool will likely differ in some ways from your peers (a.k.a. competitors). You can investigate the patterns of behaviors within your pool to determine the signals that should trigger responses from your team. While you are waiting to read Megan’s thoughtful recommendations, you may wish to complete an exercise with your team to evaluate how your prospective students show interest or intent. Knowing the difference will make your efforts all the more productive.

Consider making a chart of five columns; label these SUSPECT ACTIVITY, PROSPECT ACTIVITY, APPLICANT ACTIVITY, INTEREST, and INTENT. Under the first three columns list the actions the student may take in the recruitment/admission journey. List as many as you can for each of the suspects (defined as those who may be a fit but who may not yet know us), prospects (those who have engaged in some way) and applicants (those who have begun or completed an application). Only add one activity per row in your chart. For each activity, evaluate with your team if this is HIGH, MEDIUM or LOW interest or intent. As an example, based on your data, you may rate a virtual campus visit as HIGH interest for a suspect, but LOW interest for prospects. This assessment should provide a more realistic view and generate better perspective to make plans for your incoming class.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.