Making a First Impression in Higher Education Marketing – It Matters


By: Becky McCafferty Feb 21, 2017

For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard about the importance of making a great first impression. To this day, my father continues to tell me that the first impression I make will set the stage for the entire relationship. And while you can always work to improve other’s impression of you, it will be an uphill battle. Thus it’s especially important to put the extra effort into that first meeting.  My father ingrained this in my head, and I’ve worked to accomplish it with every new person that I encounter, regardless of the circumstances.  So when I first started working in advertising 15 years ago, I was baffled at the lack of attention paid to first impressions during a typical advertising cycle. Many of my current and perspective clients over the years paid close attention to the creative being placed in whichever medium they were running (print, display, email, etc.), however, limited attention was placed on what happens when someone responds. In my opinion, this critical misstep wreaks havoc on your higher education marketing ROI.  

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How to make a great first impression

There are three key areas I recommend my clients pay attention to as part of their marketing planning. Each plays a critical role in the first impression a prospective student has and determines whether the prospect engages further with your school.  For any seasoned marketer, none of these keys are earth shattering, but it’s always a good exercise to remind yourself of them.  

1. Have a clear CTA

Call-to-Action (CTA) is a term that marketing folks are all too familiar with. Though, you would be surprised at how often a clear CTA is missing from an advertisement. Sometimes the CTA does not even match the path the prospect takes. Tackle this challenge by breaking it into two parts.  Step One: Review the CTA of any campaign you are running and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the action I want the prospective student to take?
  • Is this the action that will provide the best ROI?
  • Is the CTA powerful enough to grab the attention of the busiest prospects?

Step Two: Act as the prospect and respond to your ad as they would.  View the creative, take the CTA directed, and navigate the experience as they would.  During this process, you should be asking yourself:

  • Does the CTA meet my marketing objectives?
  • Is the student experience relevant to the CTA?
  • Is the experience self-intuitive?

A great example of a disconnected CTA and experience is display advertising that has a clear CTA of “Request More Information” but connects to a school’s homepage, which lacks an easy way to actually do so. You are creating more work for the prospect, and as a result, lowering your conversion rate.  This is solved by ensuring the page linked to the ad clearly outlines how to “Request More Information”. Though, a form is ideal, if that is not possible, the best alternative is to provide clear instructions on who to call or email to get the information.

2. Optimize your website

Forty-one percent of online students use a school’s website as their primary source of detailed information about a certain program (according to data found in the 2016 Online College Students Report). To take advantage of this behavioral shift, consider the following steps:

Step One: Analyze the URL you are incorporating in your advertising. While this is important for all forms of advertisement, it is critical for any advertising where you are directly linking to a page on your site. Maintaining engagement is vital, particularly if you are dealing with a younger market who is probably multi-tasking as they are on your site. Also, make sure the information about why they should choose you is clear, compelling, and easy to find.

Step Two: Speak to your audience. Many of my clients are communicating with prospective students from different generations and stages in their lives. What speaks to a prospective graduate student, coming directly from an undergraduate program, will not speak to a full-time working mom of three. While it is easy to put all the information in one place, it will end up cluttering your page and confusing your prospects. This does not leave a great first impression.  Consider breaking up your page by target audience groups and incorporating key benefits that are important to each.   

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3. Practice good phone and email etiquette

During a recent webinar on Best Practices for Graduate Admissions and Enrollment with Dr. Donald Martin, former Associate Dean of Columbia Teachers College, I learned how critical customer service is in the admissions and enrollment process. Poor phone and/or email etiquette throughout your institution can immediately derail any well thought out marketing plan, especially if you have a CTA tied to a phone number and email address.  In my opinion, the best advice Dr. Martin gave on this topic is to secret shop your institution’s directory, both phone and email.  Evaluate your institution on the following items:

  • Can you easily find the correct phone number/email address within the online directory?
  • Is there a voicemail set up? If so, what’s the messaging?
  • How quickly does the person return your call or email?
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I understand that restructuring the phone etiquette of your institution, if necessary, is a potentially huge undertaking; one that most likely does not fall into your job responsibilities. However, it’s important to benchmark where your institution stands in this area, and take the opportunity to pivot your strategy to address any issues.  Once all of these areas are optimized, you’ll have positioned your institution to make a great first impression. And even better, set the stage for the right prospective student path through your enrollment process.