Overcoming the Fear of Search

It is officially spooky season, y’all. As we continue our series about bringing search in-house, let’s take a moment to talk about the elephant (or ghost) in the room: the fear of bringing search in-house … and how it might actually look on the other side.

As a senior consultant at RHB, one of my favorite engagements to start, facilitate and complete with clients is bringing search in-house. It is beautiful to see a monumental project that can feel overwhelming at the beginning evolve and transform into something meaningful to students and bespoke to specific institutional needs and goals.

The irony of this being one of my favorite engagements is that I was absolutely terrified of bringing search in-house when I was an RHB client. In fact, I remember having several conversations in my past role with RHB’s president, Sam Waterson, about the opportunity. I had a visceral reaction: “NO, we absolutely cannot do that—it is too big, too much and too complex. We are underwater and can’t take that on now or ever. There is a reason we outsource it!”

These feelings are 100% valid, but should also be unpacked a bit. To do this, I chatted with Chris Gray, Dean of Enrollment at Lasell University, a client and friend who recently worked with RHB to bring search in-house. We talked about the associated fear and surprises (both good and bad) and a little bit about the advice he’d offer now that he’s on the other side. 

The Fear of Bringing Search In-House

To begin, because search is often the strategy that informs other strategies, it is a huge responsibility to take it apart and put it back together. This responsibility, coupled with the lift of building and deploying search, can be a non-starter for admissions leaders.

In our conversation, Chris shared, “I think my biggest fear, even though I have full faith in our team’s ability and vision, would be that the performance of in-house senior search would somehow not be as strong as a partnership with an application generation company.”

This concern is fair, and that is scary. Outsourcing search to a third party mitigates some of that responsibility, but with that diffused responsibility you may lose your flexibility to create a campaign that evolves with your pool and is nimble enough to change quickly and easily if you need it.

We experienced the benefits of this flexibility in real time as Chris and his team pivoted their messages quickly after search was deployed to capitalize on their tuition reset announcement. Because Lasell deployed search in-house, they had the ability to shift the cadence and messages to cater to this big news and tailor it in such a way that it seemed like it was a part of their search strategy from the beginning.


Coupled with the anxiety of shouldering the responsibility of search is a fear of the surprises that  you can’t entirely plan for and anticipate. And, while your surprises may be different, Chris offered some perspective from having just lived it.

To begin, bringing search in-house gives you the opportunity to do ANYTHING you want. I know you understand the massiveness of this statement and it’s in that massiveness that admissions leaders and their teams can become frozen. Where do you start, how do you go forward and what does this look like?  

“We have weekly brainstorming sessions on what ‘arms’ of search we want to grow,” Chris said. “Unfortunately, we always come up with more ideas than time allows us to implement. If I could fast forward three years, I know our search campaigns will be in a completely different space than our starting point today. Being patient and allowing development processes to play out is one of the toughest parts.” 

As you navigate the juxtaposition of big ideas and small steps to get there, I’d remind you that you don’t need to tackle everything at once. Take the approach of building the foundation first, then, much like renovating individual rooms in a house, work on your segmentation room-by-room. 

The More the Merrier 

To offer a different perspective related to this surprise, bringing search in-house gives you an opportunity to bring more of your team into the process. Oftentimes when you outsource search, the responsibility and knowledge of the intricate details falls on one or two people who maintain the relationship with your provider. However, when you bring search in-house, there is more opportunity to share knowledge and collaborate on the process.

As Chris and I talked, he pointed out that this allows staff to be part of the discussion, brainstorming  ideas, themes and even specific tone in messaging to broad and narrow populations that they are invested in. While all their ideas may not be implemented, the inclusion in the conversation creates a culture of buy-in and exposes more members of your team to new, celebrated professional experiences to add to their resume.


As we wrapped our conversation, I felt more excited and inspired about search than I had when we began. I also appreciated Chris’s intentionality of involving his team in the process–a framework that, candidly, I had not thought about before. When we talk about the potential of bringing search in-house with clients, we often focus so much on the features and how that translates to their day-to-day tactics that we forget about the strategic benefits–both from an enrollment perspective and a leadership perspective. Keeping these benefits in mind, Chris wraps our conversation with a poignant piece of advice for those grappling with this fear of bringing search in-house:

“My piece of advice to any institution or leader thinking of bringing search in-house is to not only strategize around responsibilities, time and workforce changes, but also to completely demolish areas you’ve wanted to change or have been thinking about for some time. This is an opportunity to restructure teams, give new responsibilities to staff and rethink how you’ll grade and evaluate search performance. In a micro-example, say a message didn’t perform as great as you’d like; under traditional search partnerships you may go back to the drawing board or rehash the message with your account representative. But if a junior team member played a role in that message, how does this turn into an experience that not only helps that individual grow but also the team as a whole? Use search as a vehicle to progress your team’s ability and connection to the institution.”


The fear of search has merit—after all it is the strategy that informs your other strategies. If you break it in the process of bringing search in-house, the ripple effect can be terrifying. However, if you have a plan, the support, and the ability to empower your staff to get involved, the benefits notably outweigh the risk.

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