Using Electronic Communication for Student Recruitment
A Case Study of The University of Tulsa

As a result of the growing number of prospective students communicating electronically, The University of Tulsa approached GDA Integrated Services to help them create an electronic communication program for prospective students.  In order to come up with an effective electronic recruitment campaign, we examined our market research data to determine how and when in the search cycle college-bound students use Websites, e-mail, instant messaging, and other forms of electronic communication.  We then set about creating an appropriate electronic marketing campaign for Tulsa that would mesh with their array of traditional paper communications.

Reaching Students Earlier

One of the most significant discoveries we made in examining our data (we survey over 30,000 college-bound high school students each year) is that students use neither print nor electronic communication exclusively in the college search; they use both throughout the process.  In devising a comprehensive recruitment communication program for Tulsa, we had to combine both print and electronic media into a communication flow that would begin during the prospective student’s sophomore year of high school and carry him or her through the application process up to the point of enrollment.  Tulsa had an existing program of printed materials to communicate with prospective students from their junior year onward, but it became clear from our research that students are increasingly beginning the search process during the sophomore year (or even earlier, in some cases).

Customization, Personalization and Automation
Since the admissions staff has its hands full working with seniors and juniors, we wanted to try to automate as much of the sophomore mail flow as possible.  We turned to the Internet, not only because of the growing roll it is playing in the college search process for students, but also because of its ability to reach students in a customized, personalized manner without using too much of the staff’s time.


Direct Mail
GDAIS has been conducting Tulsa’s initial search direct mail program for a number of years.  Using randomly selected subsets of the population, we have had the opportunity to test a variety of different messages, mail packages, list sources, timing, sequence, etc.  Among the most effective direct mail combinations for Tulsa is a personalized letter followed several weeks later by a self-mailing, visual brochure.  (It is important to point out that our measurement for success is not the number of responses to the mailing, but the total number of students from the search mailing who apply and enroll at the end of the recruitment cycle.) 

Both the letter and brochure contain a bounceback mechanism, or a device with which the student can not only request more information and share his/her specific interests but, more importantly from a prospect management perspective, demonstrate that he/she is interested in Tulsa.  Tulsa then uses these search respondents to create its initial inquiry pool with the added benefit of being able to rate the prospects: students who responded to either the letter or brochure are not as likely to apply and enroll as those who responded to both the letter and brochure. 

In the past few years, however, Tulsa, like most institutions, has seen diminishing responses to the search mailings.  We suspected that students were receiving the search mailings, but were going to Tulsa’s Website for more information instead of sending back the printed reply form.  While the Website instantly provides information to curious prospective students, it is virtually impossible for the admissions officers to track which students in the search pool are going online to find more information.  Without being able to identify and communicate further with these anonymous inquirers, it is virtually impossible for the admissions staff to make the case for Tulsa and actively recruit them.

Using the Market Research to Understand How Student Think
Our years of research show that students approach the college search process with very different goals at different stages of the search process.  Early in the process, they are seeking what we call investment benefits, such as the quality of education at an institution, percentage of students who go on to graduate schools or get jobs, the availability of their major of interest (if they know it), etc.  In short, they are looking for basic information about what they would get out of the school to determine whether or not it is worth the four-year time investment and the cost of tuition.  At this stage, they are seeking very specific information to determine if they want to learn more about a school or remove it from their search lists.  Once they have narrowed the pool down to the initial list of schools, students begin to investigate consumption benefits, such as the kinds of students who go there, the extracurricular offerings, residential life and how they feel they would fit in, etc.  This is far more subjective information, and students can easily get the wrong impression by randomly exploring the largely factual Website.  While helpful to most of its constituencies, the official University Website is so vast and unwieldy to a browsing prospective student that he or she often gets lost in the site or draws incorrect conclusions about Tulsa.  The result can be that the student drops Tulsa from his or her college search list before having gathered enough information to make a fully informed decision.  That is why it is vital that students receive integrated messages in print and online from the admissions office. 

Presenting Tulsa’s appeal on paper, the search letter takes the verbal approach and the follow-up brochure uses the visual.  Continuing the promotion through digital media during the search stage gives Tulsa additional opportunities to build upon its key messages and recruit students by engaging them in a continuous dialog.

Broadcast E-mail
In sending out the direct mail, we added a group of high-ability high school sophomores to the usual group of juniors that fit Tulsa’s search criteria and demographic parameters.  As in the past, these students first receive a personalized letter followed by a visual brochure about a month later (making both the verbal and visual appeals).

Approximately a month after receiving the follow-up brochure, we sent a broadcast HTML e-mail message to those students with e-mail addresses.  HTML e-mail can use the same colors, fonts, logos and even images found in the printed materials, allowing true integration of marketing messages across multiple mediums.  The appeal in the e-mail references the printed materials the students have already received and builds upon the same messages and themes found in the print mailings.  The e-mail invites prospective students to get an electronic overview of the school via a mini Website (which promises not to take up too much of their valuable time) and contains a link that opens their Web browser and takes them to an online form.

Electronic Bounceback: The Digital Reply Card
Tulsa’s online form asks the student for even more information than the reply forms from either the direct mail letter or follow-up visual brochure.  It requests basic contact information—including permanent e-mail address—as well as the areas of academic interest.  In addition to getting updated information about which major(s) the student is interested in, it also gives Tulsa the opportunity to showcase its wide array of academic offerings and how they are organized within the three colleges that comprise the University. 

Because the staff at Tulsa is already overburdened operating the University Website, their campus intranet, and all of the myriad technical needs of a world-class university, we felt it would be beneficial for GDAIS to host the data collection and Web components of the new electronic recruitment components being created.  In addition to easing the load on the staff, it allows the admissions staff much faster access to the online recruitment materials for revision and instant access to the online data.  This has greatly enhanced the ability of the admissions staff to view and respond to online inquiries.

The Introductory Website
Once students have completed the online form, they enter a special mini Website that introduces TU and expands upon the themes from the printed search materials.  The mini site is to the college Website what the introductory brochure is to the viewbook.  It is meant to serve as an introduction to Tulsa and entice prospects to learn more about TU.  The mini site has 3 major areas of focus: Academic Life, Student Life, and the City of Tulsa.  We identified these three areas as being either undersold or misrepresented in the existing print publications.  In addition to new information, each section is loaded with links into Tulsa’s existing Website as a way to encourage the student to explore the University further if he or she in interested.  Unlike the Website, however, the mini site is designed to deliver the salient messages concisely, without too much text and detail, so that a student gets a sense of the place without becoming bored or lost in a sea of information (which is what they typically find in a college Website).  The mini site is designed to peak their interest—the admissions staff has the next two years or more to convince prospects to apply and enroll.

Data Collection
In addition to providing the student with a digestible serving of information about the University, the site provides an additional service to the admissions staff as a means of data collection.  All of the information collected in the online form is captured in the GDA database and can be used to shape and tailor subsequent communications between the admissions staff and each student prospect.  In addition to basic contact information, we capture the academic interests of the student, which are used to continue the flow of information to the student in paper and online.  The admissions staff also has an instant means of determining how interested a prospect is in Tulsa, because only those students who are truly interested in learning more will go to the trouble of completing the online form.  If a student is not interested enough to complete the form, they are most likely not considering Tulsa very seriously.  Just as using multiple bounceback mechanisms indicates a student’s level of interest in the paper medium, the online form serves as another way to show how serious a candidate is.  This helps the admissions officers prioritize the inquiry pool—deciding on whom they should concentrate first.


Once a student responds to search by returning the reply forms from the letter, the self-mailing brochure, and/or the mini Website, they are entered into the inquiry pool and begin to receive follow-up materials.  Virtually all of these follow-up communications (both print and electronic) use the same concept of a bounceback mechanism to learn more about each student’s interests and to see if he or she is still interested in Tulsa.  As time progresses, the communications are tailored to respond to the student’s interests and answer their specific questions.  This ongoing flow of customized communication between the University and the student helps Tulsa slowly but surely make its case while keeping the Tulsa brand firmly in the student’s mind throughout his or her college search.  This recruitment strategy works by providing students with the information they are looking for without overwhelming them with too much at once.

Personal Assessment Survey
The next print mailing the student receives sets the stage for the rest of the communication flow.  Each is sent a personal assessment survey that asks them about their academic and extracurricular interests.  This information is then used to shape the flow of communication to that student, so it answers their individual questions and appeals to their personal interests.  Over the next two years, students receive a series of mailings from an arsenal of printed publications, personal letters, departmental brochures, open-house invitations, phone calls, etc.  Most of these contain similar bounceback mechanisms that allow the admissions officers to keep a pulse on which of the prospects are hot, which are warm, and which are growing cold before students make up their minds.  Our research shows most have already put colleges in a pecking order by the time they apply, so the best shot the admissions staff has to move their college up on the list is before students apply.  By rating prospects this early in the process, the admissions staff has the chance to make the case for Tulsa with the most interested students before they start to finalize their college choices.

Follow-up Websites
In addition to the mail survey, students with e-mail addresses are sent another HTML e-mail message.  The message expands upon Tulsa’s academic offerings—one of the three categories introduced in the mini site.  The e-mail invites students to a follow-up Website that elaborates on Tulsa’s academic programs via a link in the e-mail.  The link brings them to an abridged online form that asks for their permanent e-mail address.  After successfully logging in, students are welcomed back to Tulsa by name and brought to a new Flash-based Website that expands on Tulsa’s academic offerings and the internship and research opportunities available at Tulsa.  At the end of the site is an online form allowing students to request more information about internships and research opportunities as well as a free-form field in which they can ask specific questions.

Our database that runs in the background of this Web system uses each student’s permanent e-mail address to track individual prospects.  Not only does this help Tulsa keep an accurate e-mail listing for students, it allows us to compile cumulative information about each student over the course of multiple visits.  Each time a student comes back to the site, we are able to count the number of times they return and the date of their last visit.  This is an excellent method of tracking which students are most interested.  It also allows us to capture new information at each return visit without hassling the student by repeatedly asking for the same information.  If a student asks a question using the online form, our database automatically e-mails the student’s question to an admissions officer along with all of his/her personal information from the database.  This speeds up the response time to student requests dramatically.  For example, not only does the admissions officer know that Jim would like to know what kind of internships are available to computer science majors, he or she also knows Jim’s address in Houston, his phone number, e-mail address, the fact that he’s visited the Tulsa site six times in the past month and that he’s considering computer science, biology and English as majors.

Personal E-mail Messages from Counselors
The GDAIS database also has the ability to ensure that each student’s request has been addressed.  In addition to e-mailing the student’s individual request and personal information to admissions counselors, the student’s requests are stored in separate queue in the database.  Once a counselor has had the opportunity to respond to a student’s request, he or she can remove the student’s request from the queue.  This is a failsafe way for staff managers to ensure that each of these hot prospects receives a personal contact from an individual on the admissions staff.  Without a doubt, this personalized contact containing information customized to each student’s interests is the most effective contact the admissions office can make with a student.

Additional Follow-up Sites
Approximately every six to eight weeks for juniors and every two months for sophomores, this process is repeated.  Students receive a personalized HTML e-mail with a link to a new follow-up site.  The e-mail and site expand upon the themes originated in the introductory site and printed search materials.  Each contains links to specific, relevant pages within the Website. 

It is this process of continued contact and limited doses of information that keep the University firmly implanted in students’ minds and slowly build the case for Tulsa.  The constant bounceback mechanisms measure students’ interests while providing them with an avenue by which they can convey their interests and concerns to the admissions office.

Bounceback Cards
This same process is replicated in the print medium through a series of concurrent self-mailing postcards.  Much as the follow-up sites address targeted issues, the bounceback postcards address specific themes and provide students with a means of obtaining more detailed information about each topic.  The self-mailing postcards are really more like mini, tri-folding brochures each of which contains a self-addressed business reply card.  By rating the number of times a student responds either to a print or electronic appeal, the admissions office is able to create a very complex and sophisticated scoring system to determine the hot from the cold prospects. 

Fact Sheets, Departmental Brochures, E-mails, Letters and Phone Calls
Printed communications are still a vital part of the recruitment process, because although some students prefer to receive information electronically, others still prefer print.  Although many admissions officers would like to think that electronic communication will replace expensive, print communications, the reality is that students are not all on the same level of technical sophistication.  Our research also shows most students prefer a mix of print and electronic communication.  Therefore, it is necessary to maintain a regular dialog of information between the college and prospective students that spans all mediums. 

We therefore worked with Tulsa to weave a series of e-mail messages pertaining to individual student interests into the flow of printed materials that students receive, including departmental brochures about the academic majors of interest to them and letters from various individuals and departments on campus.  To make the experience even more personal for prospective students, we also introduced GDA Chat, a Web-based instant messaging capability that allows prospective students to chat live with current faculty and students. 

All of our research shows that this level of personal attention to students’ specific interests and concerns is paramount to successful recruitment.  Short of a campus visit, nothing is as successful at providing this level of attention as a one-to-one chat with someone on campus.  The culmination of all this printed and online communication is of course when these students apply and enroll. 

The viewbook is still a cornerstone of this process, because students and their parents still like to flip through its pages and show their neighbors the school to which they are applying.  It is also important to keep up the momentum to carry students from the application stage to the enrollment stage.  We worked with Tulsa to come up with a number of HTML e-mail messages and printed materials aimed at increasing the yield of this vital group.

New Responsibilities

In order to help manage the increased traffic and flow of e-mails going to students and responses received from students, Tulsa had the wisdom to hire a new staff member specifically charged with that task.  Their new admissions communications coordinator is able to steer specific student inquiries to the right people on the admissions staff and in the campus community at large.  She is also able to write and orchestrate the sequence of broadcast e-mails going out to the entire prospect pool or segments of the pool.  Similarly, she is available to act as a campus liaison between members of the campus community and GDAIS when we train faculty members in our instant messaging capability.  Most importantly, she has been an instrumental link between GDAIS and the admissions office to make sure the outsourced Web creative work we create works seamlessly with the needs of the admissions office.  This has greatly helped to save precious time and resources.  Because hers is a new position, she also had the flexibility to adjust her responsibilities to best suit the needs of the moment.  Flexibility is perhaps one of the most fundamental rules of electronic communication. 

For more information regarding integrated communication flows, contact Jonathan Steele at GDA Integrates Services by calling 860-388-3958 or e-mailing

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