The Media Omnivores
Understanding College-bound Students and Communicating with Them Effectively
by Jonathan Steele
From the Spring 2002 issue (Number 175) of the NACAC Journal of College Admission
Who They Are
They scour their environs with an insatiable appetite, perpetually devouring anything and everything that crosses their vision, falls within earshot or comes within their grasp. They are America's teenagers, and their prey is information. They are true media omnivores, consuming images, music, the printed word and the virtual word through every form and format imaginable - often simultaneously. While their parents often complain about being constantly bombarded with vast amounts of media information, today's teens have adapted to this media-saturated environment by learning to scan, filter and purge as much of this information as quickly as possible. Their adaptation to the ever-increasing flow of stimulation has been so complete that they crave increasing amounts of information and stimuli. It seems only natural to expect they would find nirvana on the Internet. More significantly, they see it as a new, unexplored territory in which they can escape the control of their parents. Consider this:
The Pew study on Internet & American Life released this June revealed that 64% of online teens say they know more about the Internet than their parents. Even more interesting: 66% of their parents agreed.
As a market research firm, we survey approximately 15,000 college-bound high school students each year on behalf of various colleges and universities. Not surprisingly, one of the clearest trends to emerge from our research is the dramatic increase in the use of the Internet among this population. Each year these young people exhibit an increasing comfort level in their use of e-mail, instant messaging, online chat, and live voice over the Internet as their primary modes of communication with each other and the world at large. The Internet provides the fastest, most readily available source of information as well as some of the easiest methods of communication. Today's high school students have embraced the Internet with a fervor unlike their predecessors of ten and even five years ago. As a general rule, our research shows that higher achieving students use the Internet more than their peers, and they are using it as a tool for their college searches.
In a recent GDAIS survey of high-ability students, when asked if a college Website increased their interest in applying to the institution, over three quarters responded that college sites either "greatly increased" or "somewhat increased" their interest.
What They Want
As our marketing focus is student recruitment, we pay close attention to how high school students use the Internet in the college search process. What we have found is that few, if any, colleges seem prepared to communicate with these students as they have come to expect to communicate online. Colleges were some of the first organizations on the World Wide Web, and they have spent a great deal of time and resources developing very complex and detailed Web presences. For the most part, however, college sites are geared for the campus community not for prospective students. Almost without exception, college sites have been passive sources of information. Many gather information about prospective students, but very few schools use this information to actively communicate with students online. Likewise, with the availability of student e-mail addresses from the College Board, the NRCCUA, and other sources, many schools have begun to use broadcast e-mail messages as a means of introducing themselves to high school students. Few of these institutions use e-mail to maintain continued contact with their student prospects, and there are very few colleges trying to tailor their Web and e-mail communications to the individual interests of student prospects.
The emerging trend in non-academic Website design is to create sites that deliver personalized, customized content in order to make the site a tool for each Web visitor. The idea is to provide consumers with a product or service they can use in exchange for extending a corporate brand or the opportunity of promoting whatever it is the organization is marketing. Currently, the only thing offered on most college sites is the opportunity for prospective students to dig through endless amounts of text-heavy pages and be bored to tears.
To entice students, college sites should offer them something helpful in their college search. At the very least, interested students should be able to quickly discern the most poignant aspects of what a college has to offer and what makes it different from other colleges and universities. Consider this statistic reported in a June 6, 2001 article in USA Today: Of the 17.3 million kids and teens that go online each month, they spend an average of only eight seconds viewing a Website to determine if it contains what they are looking for. So if a college site contains a list of 10 things that make it unique, but that page is buried four clicks from the home page, there is a good chance a prospective student will move on before she or he ever finds it. Because the average high school student is constantly bombarded with information, they have adapted to quickly screen out only the information they want. If they do not find it quickly, they move on. The average college Website has thousands of pages, so how can a student be expected to dig through it all to find an institution's key messages?
Nevertheless, it would be unfair to say a student will only be willing to visit a college site for eight seconds. If they become interested in a college, they will most likely scour the site to get a good feel for the place. Our research shows that there are two very different ways students use the Web in the college search process. The first method is when they are unfamiliar with an institution, and they use its Website to gain a quick overview of the school. They go to the site to try to determine objective information, or what we call the "Investment Benefits." Some examples include:
1. Does the college offer the major in which I am interested?
2. If so, what is the quality of the department?
3. How is the school's record on graduate school placement for its alumni?
4. How is it for career placement?
5. Where is the institution located?
6. What is the size of the college?
The second major way prospective students use the Web occurs later in their college search, when they are looking to place their college choices in a hierarchical ranking. Although this stage occurs later in the search process, it is usually before a student applies. Students will now go through a college site in much greater detail than the first glance they might have previously given it. The student is attempting to determine how well she or he will "fit" into the college, or what we call the "Consumption Benefits." For example:
1. What are the other students like, and how will I fit in?
2. What kind of dorm or residence hall will I be living in?
3. What does the campus look like?
4. How big are classes?
5. What is the social life like?
How to Give Them What They Want
While there are many ways to improve a site's usability for prospective students, that is only part of the puzzle. What students really want is a mix of print and electronic communication. Our interviews with college-bound students revealed that they want to explore a college Website online, show the viewbook to their parents, chat with current students online, and flip through a copy of the alumni magazine to see where students end up after they graduate. There is no perfect blend of online or print communications for an institution; the communication flow for a school should be as distinctive and unique as the college itself. What prospective students expect, however, is that they can obtain the information they want when they want it. Their fact-finding mission should not be an uphill battle through a quagmire of stale, generic copy. Each interaction a college has with a prospective student is another chance for the institution to demonstrate its distinctive character and appeal to each student as an individual with unique goals and ambitions.
Personalization and Customization
The key to developing a successful relationship with a prospective student is no secret. It remains the oldest principle of customer service: give them what they want. Our years of research have shown students overwhelmingly prefer receiving personalized messages from colleges (personalized letters, phone calls, e-mails, etc.) to form letters and more generic forms of communication. It is not surprising that students would prefer to be treated as individuals. Considering personal attention to students is a core value at most colleges, treating students as individuals throughout the recruitment cycle seems like a logical way for colleges to exhibit their commitment to that goal.
An important aspect of establishing a personalized relationship with students is sending them customized messages. As students prefer to receive personalized communication from colleges, our research shows they also prefer to receive customized information about a college or university. Colleges that tailor their messages to the individual interests and concerns of each student further demonstrate their commitment to personal attention. From a customer service perspective, it is also the best way to curtail their misconceptions and peak their interest in what the school has to offer.
Given the limited resources available to most admissions offices - particularly when it comes to human resources - it is nearly impossible for an admissions staff to deliver the kind of personal attention depicted in this ideal scenario. However, advances in technology make it possible to automate and simulate personalization and customization. For many years, direct mail has automated personalized letters sent to students. Similarly, e-mail and Web pages can be personalized. With the ability to capture data on the Web, a new door is opened that enables admissions offices to both capture data about students and instantly apply it in their electronic appeals to them. In effect, it automates personalization and customization. Granted, it would be much better to truly give students the personal attention they deserve, but this is not realistic given the number of students in a typical prospect pool and the limitations of an admissions office. More importantly, the media omnivores have come to expect a high degree of personalization in all forms of communication, whether it is automated or not.
You Can't Escape the Printed Word
It is important to point out that these technological developments can by no means replace all forms of traditional print communication. There are many students without Internet access, and even more who prefer to see traditional publications in addition to receiving electronic communication. The parents of many of these students still prefer to see the viewbook and course catalog of the school to which they will be sending their children. For this reason, it is necessary to develop a flow of communication between prospective students and an institution that dovetails print and electronic media.
Of all the new communication technologies available, which do students respond to best? Using our research data, we examined how students are using some specific applications.
It's Got to Be Online
For a number of years, CD-ROMs seemed the wave of the future for recruitment. Many colleges saw it as a perfect way to communicate with students via computers and thought CD-ROMs would make the college video completely obsolete. But as Internet connection speeds continue to increase, Websites have become the primary and preferred source of information for students. CD-ROMs seemed an ideal way of providing students with very sophisticated software applications and large images, but increased bandwidth is allowing faster delivery of large images and the use of increasingly complex applications through browser plug-ins. Suddenly, the CD-ROM that was once cutting edge seems a quaint bit of yesterday's news. Today's students have come to expect fresh, up-to-date information, and a CD-ROM, with a shelf-life of two to three years at best does not cut it.
Portable Document Format, or PDF, is a great way to make documents available on the Web. Reading plug-in applications (like Adobe Acrobat) come standard on most Web browsers, so they are widely available. The biggest limitations of this technology are in its awkward navigation and slow download time. It is ideal for information that must be printed, such as an application form that is to be mailed in. For the most part, however, an HTML Web page loads faster and can be scrolled through much more quickly. It would seem PDFs are a transitional technology that will be used only as long as it does not make sense to collect information directly through forms on a Webpage.
In his online column, Alertbox, Web guru Jakob Nielsen estimates that by forcing users to browse through PDF files, a Website's usability decreases by around 300% compared with HTML pages.
E-mail is perhaps the most underused online method of delivering personalized, customized information to prospective students. Most colleges have begun capturing e-mail addresses from students, and now all three major student list sources, the PSAT, the ACT and the NRCCUA, have made them available as well. Most colleges reply to student e-mail inquiries, some send out broadcast e-mails, and a few send out targeted messages to specific sub-populations of their prospect pools. Few, however, sustain ongoing e-mail contact with their prospective students. As the media omnivores continue to embrace e-mail, this would seem a logical way to reach them. Advances in automation technology are making managing e-mail campaigns affordable, effective and efficient. Even the e-mails themselves are taking on a new life thanks to HTML formatting that makes the use of images, graphics, and streaming video and audio possible. Through zappletts it is even possible to update the content of an e-mail right up to the second before a student opens it.
The biggest pitfall of e-mail is obviously junk e-mail, or spamming. Even more than their parents, the media omnivores are intensely aware of mass e-mailings. In fact, over half of the high ability students we surveyed with access to e-mail maintain more than one account. This is done largely to filter the e-mails of friends and family from unwanted ones. As colleges send e-mails to prospective students, they should keep the following guidelines in mind.
1. Send e-mails only to those students who want them.
2. Always give students the option of removing themselves from the mailing list.
3. Give students a reason to read the e-mail by offering them information that caters to their specific interests and needs.
4. Always give students a method of response, because all of our research shows the students most likely to apply and enroll are those that actively demonstrate an interest in the college.
Chat Rooms, Instant Messaging and Listserves
Many organizations are combining chat rooms and listserves in Websites to build "online communities." Chat rooms allow groups of people to post messages visible to others online. Instant Messaging allows individuals to exchange real-time text messages and often requires the use of a specific software application. Listserves allow e-mail conversations by copying e-mail messages to groups of people. Many Websites are incorporating these technologies to bring like-minded people together on their sites (and give people a reason to keep coming back to their sites). It is important to keep in mind, however, that members of a listserve expect new and constantly updated information, and chat and instant messaging are only effective when there is someone with whom to correspond.
The media omnivores are embracing these new technologies, and colleges have an obligation to understand how teens are using them. The Pew Project on Internet & American Life reports that 17 million media omnivores (approximately 73% of online teens) use some form of instant messaging, compared to only 44% of online adults. This quick fire method of communication might eventually prove an invaluable tool for answering specific questions, sending students application deadline notices, and as a means of contacting current students.
As is already apparent, there will be a growth in the use of wireless networks of information to transfer information. In such a network, computers do not need cables to transfer data with one another or access the Internet. Use of smaller, wireless devices like cell phones and Palm pilots to access the Internet will become extremely common as prices continue to fall and competition among service providers makes this technology more accessible. There is already a huge bidding war going on in the US over the frequencies reserved for these devices that is worth billions. Japan and Europe are well ahead of the US in the development of wireless technology, and it is inevitable that the US will follow suit. In Finland, home of cell phone giant Nokia, over 80% of the population already use cell phones. Of course, use of the majority of these new technologies will hinge largely on wireless connection speed. As in the wired world, if content takes too long to download, people are more likely not to bother with it.
Virtual Reality and 3-D Web Environments
Virtual campus tours already offer three-dimensional images of campuses. In the near future, however, Websites will take on three dimensions instead of two. Websites will have 3-D pages in which a prospective student might enter a virtual rendition of the student union, opening virtual doors to find the home pages of various clubs and organizations. The primary danger a college faces in creating stunning 3-D tours and virtual reality spaces is outpacing the plug-ins, bandwidth and patience of their prospective student audience. Chances are, if they have to download a separate plug-in to take your virtual tour, they are not going to bother - at least not on their initial visit to the Website. If a student becomes interested enough in a school, or if he or she has been admitted to a school, that student is much more likely to spend the time necessary to take a virtual tour. These 3-D tours can serve as excellent yield tools to convert admitted applicants into enrolled students. The key is for colleges to communicate these specialty features to students at the right time in the recruitment process. Why not send a personalized e-mail to admitted students inviting those that are unable to visit campus in person to go online and take a tour?
So, Where to from Here?
Will one of these technologies prove to be the silver bullet in the months and years to come? Not likely. There is no perfect single mode of communication with prospective students. One thing is clear: it will take a handcrafted combination of printed publications, online communication and personal contact to reach these media omnivores. Each college is unique and must find its own combination of communication methods to make its appeal. It will take creativity, experimentation and testing to determine what works and what does not. Much as TV did not replace radio, the Internet will not replace paper and ink. It will be a combination of media that shape the future of student recruitment.
Lenhart, Amanda; Rainie, Lee; Lewis, Oliver. Teenage Life Online: The Rise of the Instant-Message Generation and the Internet's Impact on Friendships and Family Relationships. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Washington, DC: 20 June 2001.
Nielsen, Jakob. "Avoid PDF for On-Screen Reading." Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox. 10 June 2001. <http://useit.com/alertbox/20010610.html">
Nielsen//NetRatings Audience Measurement Service. Internet Connection Speeds December 1999 vs. December 2000 Among U. S. Home Users. <http://www.nielsen-netratings.com">
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