This post originally appeared on Inside Higher Ed’s blog Call to Action: Marketing and Communications in Higher Education. Please go to the original post on the Inside Higher Ed website to leave a comment.

Increased competition for prospective students means you need to stand out in the blur of the same-sounding, same-looking recruitment practices. Here are three shifts that can set your recruitment effort apart:

1. Show and tell your institution’s brand story in a compelling, engaging, and memorable way.

Get emotional. Touch hearts. Demonstrate what is genuinely special about your institution. For great examples, check Unity College’s “Relentless” print campaign supporting recruitment and fundraising, and Drake University’s “Pedigree” initiative that leverages all that is wonderful about their beautiful bulldog mascot. And remember, at the end of the day prospective students don’t buy “different,” they buy “special.”

2. Relationships recruit.

You may perceive this second shift as a step backwards. As new communication channels and platforms come online, some college and university recruiters are swept into a near-obsession to employ technology to increase efficiency. However, no amount of digital bling and sizzle should be fully entrusted to build the tried-and-true, heart-and-soul relationships that recruit.

Yes, we need to be where our prospective students are. We’d be conspicuous by our absence on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or YouTube. And if we’re not prepared to engage in an instant message or text message dialogue when the prospective student wants to trade quick quips, we’d be considered out of touch at best.

It is the relationship, not the channel or the activity, that recruits. Repeatedly bombarding prospects with “Apply Now!” email because email is cheap carries a higher opportunity cost than most schools realize. Take a critical look at the relationship substance of each of your recruiting tactics. Based on our last 2-3 years of focus groups with college-bound prospects, quality of contact seems to trump quantity every time.

3. Employ content recruiting.

Content recruiting isn’t a new practice, but giving it a name seems appropriate given the current buzz around content marketing. Content marketing is focused on creating and distributing content that attracts attention because the content itself is appreciated by target audiences as being valuable, relevant and consistent.

Content recruiting is a strategic recruitment approach that involves enriching your recruitment messaging and outreach with content of value to prospective students and their influencers.

This relatively simple strategic shift positions your messaging (and your institution) as more interesting and valuable than just another sales pitch. Carefully developed and executed content recruiting can also position your school as a community that cares.

Higher ed direct marketers have long-practiced this approach by offering “Top-10 Things Your Recruiter Will Never Tell You About College” or “Best-Kept Secrets About College Admission” flyers to those who reply to student search efforts. Take the same approach to the next level:

  • Beef up interest in — and attendance at — recruiting events both on- and off-campus by enriching your probably predictable program with a 15-minute career or personal development workshop experience. Lead event promotional messaging with this special feature.
  • Include valuable, discipline-specific reference information in your academic program propaganda and on academic program website pages.
  • Design high school visit posters that double as classroom or guidance office aids.
  • Create a mobile app that includes profession-specific references or resource tools of value to practicing professionals in your most notable academic program fields.
  • Script your campus visits to include a 10 minute life-enrichment exercise, sending visitors home with a useful and interesting report (think Myers-Briggs Assessment or the like).

What kinds of valuable content should your school develop? First, it must be aligned with your institutional brand. Second, consider engaging your faculty in that discussion, then enlist them to help develop the content. Showcasing their expertise offers a win-win-win content recruiting opportunity.

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