December 30, 2004
College Recruiters Lure Students With New Online Tools
OLLEGES are taking their battle for high school seniors to the Web and beyond.
Frustrated by the failure of e-mail solicitations to generate much response - largely because of the colleges' own unrestrained e-mail policies - admission directors are looking for new ways to incorporate the Internet into their marketing plans. For some, that means setting up more online chats. For others, it means streaming more video from their Web sites.
For Saint Mary's College, a Catholic college for women in Notre Dame, Ind., the answer is a high-tech version of campus view books, glossy tomes featuring ethnically diverse samplings of students wandering through verdant campuses, happy to be within sprinting distance of a Chaucer text.
After two years of testing, this fall Saint Mary's rolled out a video magazine, or Vmag, aimed at prospective applicants. Students can download the publication from the Saint Mary's home page (www.saintmarys.edu), along with software that automatically retrieves updates. When an updated version is ready for viewing, a desktop icon prompts the user to reopen it.
Each Vmag contains four one- to two-minute video clips featuring various aspects of campus life. While some of the clips show monologues by the college president or financial aid director, most are narrated by a pair of Saint Mary's students, who take viewers on a tour.
"We were searching for something a little more innovative and exciting to catch the attention of prospective students, and we found it," said Mary Pat Nolan, who was until recently the Saint Mary's director of admission. "This really sets us apart."
Ms. Nolan, who left Saint Mary's this month, said the college had tested the Vmag for two years, sending it to applicants who had been accepted by the school but had not yet decided to enroll. She said it was impossible to determine how it had affected enrollment, but added that she suspected it had helped.
Delivering a video magazine, Ms. Nolan said, "is a way to tell students we're not living in the dark ages, and that we're technologically advanced."
"We're not a convent school that's isolated, where you'll never see a man or have a social life," she said. "You'll have it all."
That message resonated with Maggie Oldham, who was among the first prospective students to view the video magazine two years ago. Ms. Oldham, now a sophomore, had been accepted by four colleges; initially, Saint Mary's was at the bottom of her list.
"When you see pictures, you think, 'That looks nice,' " Ms. Oldham said. "But with video, I could see myself in that class or at that basketball game. It was pretty persuasive, the whole interactive part of it."
Frequent updates to the video were helpful. "Once you go to all those schools, they all kind of run together," she said. "You can go back and look at all the brochures, but this is better at reinforcing what you've seen."
Kathleen Hessert, co-founder of NewGame Communications, a Charlotte, N.C., company that produces Vmags for schools and other organizations, said the technology is starting to attract interest from more colleges. "I think we were a little bit ahead of the market initially," Ms. Hessert said.
After a presentation at an early December conference of colleges and universities, though, about a dozen "are at some level of negotiation to launch their own," she said.
Christopher Simpson, a marketing consultant in Williamsburg, Va., who specializes in educational institutions, said such initiatives would soon become commonplace, as colleges realize that the utility of e-mail and printed communications is diminishing.
"Today in marketing to students, the Web is everything, period," Mr. Simpson said. "Whatever's second is a very distant second."
In a recent survey of Virginia students, for instance, Mr. Simpson found that 94 percent relied on the Web as their primary source of information about colleges, while 52 percent relied on view books. "Most colleges are moving to some kind of e-view book, where you see online what you normally would see in the hard copy," he said.
Others, like Westminster College in Salt Lake City, are using video at their Web sites. Arrayed throughout the college's site, westminstercollege.edu, are 136 video clips of students, faculty members and alumni.
The clips were meant to appeal to a wide range of students, said Joel Bauman, Westminster's vice president for enrollment. "The philosophy of the school is that the faculty take an active role in designing a learning environment for students, so we're trying to convey that same idea from the admissions side of the house," he said. "We don't want to present a generic image."
The videos, Mr. Bauman said, are "not all that expensive to produce" with digital video cameras and inexpensive software.
Colgate University, in Hamilton, N.Y., recently began posting more videos on its home page, said Karen Giannino, the senior associate dean of admission.
"It can tell our story in a compelling way, and it helps differentiate Colgate from all the other great schools people are looking at," Ms. Giannino said.
Colgate has been the host of chats on its Web site between prospective students and faculty or current students, Ms. Giannino said, "as e-mail has quickly reached the threshold of its effectiveness." Chats, she said, can better engage students who may not have the chance to visit.
Nonetheless, neither new Internet technology nor new approaches to older applications like chat are likely to displace the glossy view books and brochures, Ms. Giannino said. "We may use the printed stuff differently than in the past, but there's clearly a place for it still," she said. "Let's not forget the role parents play in this process."