Episode 15: A Prospective Parent’s Perspective on Admissions

Episode 15: A Prospective Parent’s Perspective on Admissions
Season 1

 
 
00:00 / 48:38
 
1X

Mike Richwalsky joins Joel and J.S. to talk about his experience as the parent of a high school senior in the college admissions process, partially during COVID-19. Mike brings lots of insight from his 20 years in higher education marketing about what surprised him being on the other side of the campaign.

Episode 15: A Prospective Parent’s Perspective on Admissions
Season 1

 
 
00:00 / 48:38
 
1X

Mike Richwalsky joins Joel and J.S. to talk about his experience as the parent of a high school senior in the college admissions process, partially during COVID-19. Mike brings lots of insight from his 20 years in higher education marketing about what surprised him being on the other side of the campaign.

Mike is the Principal of Gas Mark 8, a digital agency working in the US and U.K. with non-profit and education organizations.

A Prospective Parent’s Perspective on Admissions Transcript

Joel Goodman:
Welcome to the Thought Feeder podcast. I’m Joel Goodman with me as always is the nearly unflappable, Jon-Stephen Stansel.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Nearly.

Joel Goodman:
Nearly, exactly. We’re joined today by our friend, Mike Richwalsky, who is one of the founders of Gas Mark 8, an agency that does a ton of good web and digital strategy work for not-for-profits and higher education and tons of other things.

Lots of stuff on the teaching and learning side of stuff lately.

Mike Richwalsky:
Yep.

Joel Goodman:
Mike. We’re really, we’re really glad that you’re here. Thanks for coming on.

Mike Richwalsky:
Thank you. Yeah, it’s awesome to be here.

Joel Goodman:
We wanted to talk a little bit about the admission process for new college students for undergrad students and especially the changes that have happened coming into COVID-19 and the pandemic lockdown and stuff. And Mike’s in a unique position where he has a son who recently made his decision of which college to attend, but he went through the process of being a prospect into being an admitted student through the “normal times,” and now the… post-normal times, I don’t know, the end times, where are we?

I don’t know what we’re in. So anyway, we just wanted to, we wanted to talk to Mike a little bit about what he experienced as a prospective student’s parent, as well as what, what his son experienced in all this and, and hopefully shine some light onto just the practices that a lot of schools have been utilizing and, and putting out there and, and maybe like which ones don’t work and which ones do work and which ones they should double down on.And which ones you should just get rid of. So hopefully this is a helpful, helpful discussion.

Mike let’s get started! First off, could you just give us a rundown of the kind of communication process you saw from colleges and universities as they were interacting with you as parents and with your son as, as a prospect?

Mike Richwalsky:
Sure. So, as you mentioned, you, he graduated this year. I would say that the communication flow really started in the spring of his junior year. And I think that’s when the PSAT lists got bought by a lot of institutions. So the email flow started then, it started with emails and a decent amount of print, which kind of surprised me, you know?

Probably should back up and also say that you know, I’ve worked in higher ed for nearly 20 years, on the marketing side, on the web side. So I always knew how the sausage is made, but what kind of surprised me coming on the other side as a parent was just the volume. I was stunned by how inundated my kid was with emails, with print pieces, really throughout the whole process. I never understood the volume cause we were always sending to our prospect pools and then our applicant pool and then our accepted students and then our deposit students. And I really only understood the flow in terms of that sliver of people, but I didn’t know, or, or comprehend the volume that came through and it was a lot. It was just a ton of stuff. And I think overwhelming. It was overwhelming to me, I can only imagine what it would be like for a 17, 18-year-old kid to get that volume, of stuff.

Joel Goodman:
Geez.

Mike Richwalsky:
It was a lot.

Joel Goodman:
And he applied to something like eight schools?

Mike Richwalsky:
Eight schools. Yep. Yep. So eight. Kind of went eight for eight, which is nice. And, you know, it was really surprising to the post-application flow from some of those schools as well. A lot really pushed early action and gave some financial incentives around that as well.

Like a, you know, apply now or before this date, you’ll get your, you know, here’s a housing discount or

Joel Goodman:
Get a $6,000 grant.

Mike Richwalsky:
Yeah, your early filer award. It seemed like early, early this year in this cycle, you know, the people were starting to sweeten the pot really early.

Joel Goodman:
Hmm.

Mike Richwalsky:
Earlier than I thought they would. So that was institutions saying, here’s a dining upgrade to the next level of dining plan for free.

Joel Goodman:
The Six Flags offer, you know, like buy the, buy the Six Flags membership and we’ll, we’ll upgrade your meal pass for like

Mike Richwalsky:
Yeah, cut to the front of the line. yeah, but that was one. One school said, here are your books like we’ll rent you your books for all four years.

So it was, you know, the institutions really came out early and I was kind of pleasantly surprised by how forward and often those schools were communicating throughout the application process. And then I was stunned at how some of those schools, even after we applied like there were long periods of silence.

Joel Goodman:
Hmm.

Mike Richwalsky:
And just, they didn’t, they didn’t communicate. It was weeks and weeks and weeks, you know, I often had to like ping and say, “Hey, is there any movement on this? Did you even get anything?”

Joel Goodman:
Yeah.

Mike Richwalsky:
So, you know, from the parents’ side, something like an application status portal.

Joel Goodman:
Oh yeah.

Mike Richwalsky:
Those were things that we checked a lot.

Joel Goodman:
Yeah.

Mike Richwalsky:
Just to make sure, you know, trying not to be too helicopter-y as a parent, but, you know, did you get our transcript? Did you get our SAT scores? Did you get our ACT scores? Did you get our recommendation letters? Did you get, you know, the actual application? And so that was a great tool for us that we use quite a bit, was those application portals.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
I doubt that they understand that in the realm of just how they’re communicating with those perspectives prospective students as well.

Mike Richwalsky:
Absolutely. And I think, I think there’s a point too, that more schools could maybe be better about in your process emails. Always copy the parents.

Most of them did that. But a few, I was surprised didn’t. And so these are, again, big schools, people I thought would really have their process and stuff pretty set, but I had to always go to Evan and say, “Hey, did you hear from this school? Like, are they sending stuff?” Because to me it just felt I wasn’t getting it, the parent things, so I didn’t know what was happening. So schools, loop your parents in. The earlier the better.

Joel Goodman:
Out of the eight that your son applied to and was accepted to, how many of those had portals for parents, all of them? Were you surprised by the level of technology that was there? Were they all kind of using the same platforms?

Mike Richwalsky:
Like most were Slate.

Joel Goodman:
Yeah.

Mike Richwalsky:
Which is fine, you know? Great. Pretty good. One really didn’t have one, which surprisingly and all of their registrations applications were actually in TargetX. So that was kind of, interesting. but yeah, most of the, even, you know, whether it was a state school here in Ohio or some of the privates in Ohio and PA, in New York that we applied to, the vast majority were Slate kind of portals.

Joel Goodman:
That makes sense. I mean, that’s what I’ve seen in working with schools.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
We’re moving to Slate right now.

Joel Goodman:
Yeah, I’m sure you are. Everyone is. And not to, not to knock Slate. Like I think, I think Slate is actually probably the best of what exists out there. But if you talk to any developer on staff that’s had to work with Slate… they are not happy.

Mike Richwalsky:
I’ve struggled even with making email templates for it. And this was, you know, four or five years ago. So I hope maybe it’s gotten better, but I know even during those times it was kind of a challenge.

Joel Goodman:
Yeah. I mean, one of the projects, one of the bigger projects that Bravery has done in the last several years was an accepted student portal thing for Loyola Marymount University.

And we did it in WordPress, but connected back to Slate, mostly because Slate just wasn’t flexible enough. Or it really, it was that Slate didn’t allow us to one, do the cool things we wanted to do and two, trying to do something that looks good and Slate is, I’d say it’s almost impossible. Their templating is not good.

There’s just a lot of issues with that. And so like I’ve had to deal with, with that side of it. And I’ve, I have big problems with their API rate limiting. It’s just terrible. Anyway, I’m going down a nerdy path. so we built something really cool and we kind of crushed melt, but it was, it was a long slog through dealing with Slate’s, kind of mess of things at the time.

So along the lines of communication, what, what did you, what did you notice pre-lockdown and post-lockdown from how universities communicated with, I guess, with you and, and, and with Evan?

Mike Richwalsky:
Let’s talk pre-lockdown, pre quarantine. It became apparent really fast the four or five vendors that everyone uses to do search with. I could tell immediately from the email and the language and the format and the style, what vendor, what school used what vendor.

Joel Goodman:
Interesting.

Mike Richwalsky:
So this, this fall was a huge amount of like gated content emails. So, “Dear Evan, we think we’d, you’d be a great fit at X. Click here to download our guide.”

And then insert title here to get them into the flow. So that was everything from “five tips on how to apply to college”, “six ways to nail–” — I mean, they were listicles — “six ways to nail your interview”, “three ways to look at a college”, “seven things to ask on your tour.” And then it was a closing from Admissions director.

And then, “PS, don’t forget to grab your, your special gated content.”
So that was one. And the other one was, the designs were always the same layout with the same button style leading to like a, sometimes a Perl-based page. Or just really the buttons were always in the same place with the same structure. So, I mean, I picked up on that and I think he picked up on that as well, that like everybody doing search was kind of the same.

Joel Goodman:
Were they different enough to allow you to still feel like, they were separate institutions or, or do, do you think there might’ve been confusion from, from a student’s perspective after getting, after getting, you know, six of these emails or whatever else?

Mike Richwalsky:
That was six a day! I mean, after like number 30 in three weeks, like everybody did search about the same time in the fall and really after, you know, a couple you’re like, wait, what school was that?

Cause it was always like, “Dear Evan. We think you’d be a great fit here,” you know? Or come join B, we think you’d be a great Tiger or Trojan or whatever. And like early on in a process, in a cold email, I don’t know, to me that was something that didn’t resonate with him or with us. Like, sell your community pieces later, you know? Don’t, don’t lead with that. Lead with your outcomes, your affordability, your accessibility, that kind of stuff.

But, don’t come at me right away with your, “We think you’d make a great Ram” or whatever because that means nothing.

Joel Goodman:
Yeah.

Mike Richwalsky:
Save that for later in the flow, when now I’ve got to make that emotional decision of, where’s the right fit for me?

And am I going to be a better Ram or am I going to be a better Duke? Am I going to be a better Zip or whatever? So that, that was, you know, some of those pieces, especially some of the print pieces that came early on had that kind of like. You would do great here. You’ll be a great X. And it was just, it was kind of surprising.

So pre-lockdown, lot of gated content, lot of print pieces, a lot of kind of cold call print pieces that we never requested. So again, list buying for sure, but I was just shocked at people sending huge viewbooks, unsolicited, in the mail, to a school that we’d never heard of.

We had one from a school in Nashville, and I forget the name. It was a folder with three letters in it and another side full of packets and “come to campus for a competition where we’re giving away a full scholarship.” Like it was just bizarre that, again, that was your lead-in from a school we had never heard of. So. Just really weird content choices for those initial reach-outs that we saw.

And again, you know, I think so much is about brand awareness because he didn’t go down the road with a lot of those schools that cold-called him, cold-called, cold-emailed, cold-print mailed. They didn’t get much traction there. I don’t think we visited any, certainly didn’t apply to any. It was, it was ones that we either had some name recognition of or, you know, had a relationship with.

And again, I had worked at two of the eight schools and went to one. So I’d worked at two, went to one of the schools that he applied to. So that was, that was kind of pre-lockdown. everything shifted in March and I’m sure for, you know, our Enrollment friends, like that was just, just a crisis because all of the things that we normally would have done accepted student days big and open houses, big pushes to get the kids to campus like we couldn’t do.

Joel Goodman:
Yeah.

Mike Richwalsky:
So everybody shifted really fast to a ton of Zoom events. So I think there was a little bit of Zoom burnout, but what it, what the positive thing was it allowed us to do is they, some of the schools really did department- and program-specific Zoom calls with a current student, a faculty member from that department, and an Admissions person. And those events like were actually really helpful to focus in on the program to be able to ask questions. Really specific, deeper-dive questions than you would do either in a, everybody, a hundred person Zoom, or even 100% open house event.

So those were pretty nice events and I think, you know, I wonder if schools will keep those things, even after everything opens back up, eventually. Because they were, they were really as close to kind of one-on-one you could get without me getting to New York City to be able to talk to a faculty member in that department.

So those were cool. And I think post-lockdown, we saw a lot more personalized emails. So not just “Dear Evan,” but actually like more program-specific, that he was interested in or applied to.

Joel Goodman:
And the content itself was more targeted than just like customized from an insert first name here in MailChimp or whatever?

Mike Richwalsky:
Right. And I think, you know, I knew that would happen anyway, but I think everybody doubled down on it this spring, because there weren’t those opportunities to come to campus.

Or, one of the schools we applied to had an event here in Cleveland, like two days before everything shut down. So again, there were 150 people and kids and parents at a bar here in Cleveland. So it was a fun event, but that’s not a time to like really sit down with a professor and pick his brain or his, or her brain. But yeah. You know, these kinds of Zooms were a great, a great way to do that, especially for institutions that hadn’t done a lot of that before. I mean, they had to scramble quickly to get those on board.

And I think there was a little bit of, we are in one session that did get Zoom-bombed, and that stuff happens. But I think, you know, for the schools that weren’t doing those kinds of departmental live chats, and other than here’s a one-on-one or ask a student a question, you know, I think, I think they were really helpful.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
In addition to Zoom, I’ve seen a lot of schools doing like Instagram Lives of questions like that. Did you participate in anything like that?

Mike Richwalsky:
No. We didn’t as parents. Evan may have further down the process, but what was great about the Zoom meetings is that we could all sit in the living room and do those sessions together.

So, you know, we hooked up a laptop to the big TV in the living room and we could all participate and talk amongst each other about questions or thoughts during the session. I just think there was a little bit more interactivity because we could turn on the cameras. We had a live chat and those things compared to an Instagram Live.
Like if there were a lot of people in there commenting, you know, you could miss a lot of stuff as it kind of scrolls by. So, you know, the Zoom was, was the right platform to do that. And interestingly enough, all of the schools were doing Zoom. So nobody was doing Teams, nobody was doing Hangouts. Everybody was, was on the Zoom platform.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
While we’re on the topic of COVID-19 and how things kinda changed post-lockdown.

What, what does the communication look like now, as plans for fall are kind of always a little bit in flux and kind of communicating with these students as, you know, Freshmen, first-year students coming to campus, and parents who were all on pins and needles about what, what it’s gonna look like, what sort of communications are you seeing?

Mike Richwalsky:
The school, and again, Evan’s deposited, he’s going to John Carroll in the Fall. They have been really good about keeping us in the loop even early on, you know, leading up to decision processes. We were getting notifications and emails about, you know, we’re not sure what’s going to happen in the Fall to once he deposited we started getting copied on emails that I think went to the campus community, really talking more about their plans, and they’re going to go to this high flex model in the Fall. So that has been helpful for us to start to be included in there. And we’re also getting some emails from the Admissions office and our Admissions Counselor, even though, you know, we’ve kind of transitioned into orientation and away from that side. They still have been good about sharing that information.

And again, a great resource, this is going to sound weird, is the parent’s Facebook group. I don’t know. I know schools may still do kind of student groups, but a couple of the parent groups that we were in after we applied and got accepted, were pretty active and lots of info in there.

And then the John Carroll one has shifted from look at my kid, he’s going to John Carroll, which posts are fine. It’s good to kind of brag but shifted over to like now asking questions because the Admissions VP is in that group and answers questions pretty actively. So she’s great and has been super helpful.

And people asking questions from, you know, are we going to be on campus? How many masks should I bring? What cleaning stuff does he need? You know, all the way through to, can I bring my hot pot? To, do I bring a laptop or, you know, what kind of laptop should I buy? So that parents group has remained active and has been a source where we can ask questions to get feedback from the school again, from the VP on down, have been active in that group.

Joel Goodman:
It’s really interesting to me to hear that shift where on the admission side, it’s always been about the class of whatever group and we’ve all heard the stories of how those are declining in activity, but it makes a ton of sense that especially when all of our parents ended up being on Facebook, what like eight years ago, and especially seeing as a lot of folks that are in our general age bracket who are parents and have kids that are entering college, like that does become a natural place for them versus for us trying to market intentionally to, to the student or to the prospective student.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
It makes a lot of sense because I think the bulk of the comments I see on our university Facebook page are our parents tagging the students saying, “Hey, little Johnny. You need to be aware of this, just, just flagging it for you,” rather than students themselves interacting.

Joel Goodman:
This is stuff we were talking about five years ago. Well, more than five years ago, like just the increase of parent involvement in all of it. And we, a lot of people that were paying attention, shifted their digital strategies to incorporate a lot more of the parent communication and draw the parent in on, on a website or whatever else. Whether they did that right or not is different.

But I think that’s an interesting development. Mike, I want to talk about some of the physical pieces that you guys got. The print stuff, I know that a lot of places were sending out swag and whatever else this year.

One, what are some of the things that Evan got that were interesting? And then, at the same time, you mentioned earlier, already that a lot of the cold mail pieces and cold emails and stuff that came through didn’t really produce a conversion, didn’t really make him get in touch or send information out. Was that around just the anonymity aspect of it, or was there something that played into it in terms of quality of design, quality of the things that were going out?

Like what, what were some of the things there?

Mike Richwalsky:
Let me start with the good, which is some of the pieces that we got from places like the University of Oregon and West Virginia University — absolutely gorgeous. I mean, just the design was incredible. The pieces were great, I mean, just as a design, you know, print nerd, I just was amazed by how awesome they were.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
I’m a total University of Oregon fanboy, as far as their design goes.

Joel Goodman:
Their design is great.

Mike Richwalsky:
Oh, so good. So good. This piece. All the mail went in a box that we’ve had over the last year. I’ve pulled that one out more than often. And I pulled the West Virginia one out because again, really good.

And that West Virginia one. Just again, the design was great. They had great interactive pieces in there, like a couple of the shareable Spotify URLs. Like you can get those little, like design-y code things to share and it was, you know, a couple of points through their piece was like, here’s all of our fight songs, but done by our band, on a Spotify playlist. Here are our favorite songs about West Virginia, and, you know, it’s all just that John Denver song. But I mean just the way it was integrated. Beautiful.

I’ll tell you who surprised me, that had really, really great pieces that we got was Butler University in Indianapolis. Gorgeous design. And what I loved is that the design elements carried over and the themes and even the colors, the kind of accent colors around programs and things like that carried over piece to piece. If you looked at, you know, viewbook to emails, to websites. I mean, it was just, I just, I had a smile. It was great. And we come back to their kind of personalization. What kind of Bulldog are you? Cause it was a great, a great piece. So those pieces really worked.

Again, not every school has the name recognition of an Oregon or a West Virginia, but Butler jumped out. Gorgeous pieces. Great, clear, concise messaging. I think the messaging was a big piece. If you get this postcard and a picture of kids on the front, on campus, on the path, walking on the quad, you know, with a headline, flip over to two paragraphs, take the next step. Like that has to be really compelling or really personalized, or really grab you, otherwise, it ends up in the pile, you know?

And, and so that’s an opportunity. If you are going to cold mail, somebody out of the blue from some private college, we’ve never heard of in Michigan.

Joel Goodman:
Yeah.

Mike Richwalsky:
Like I think you can get through, but you’ve got to have that great piece. You’ve got to have that… It’s got to be impressive. It’s got to stand out because, if you’ve also outsourced, you know, postcards and everything, to your search as well, because here’s the other secret.

I mentioned those five email vendors. We got a ton of form letter things that all look the same. Must’ve been from the same vendor. So it was the empty outer envelope was the same. The nonprofit, you know, bulk stamp was the same. The letters themselves were the same. Sometimes they had an insert, sometimes they didn’t.

So like, that’s the other thing that, that got something on the pile very quickly was three letters today, three colleges I’ve never heard of. Well, they all seem to be the same form letter. The envelopes are designed the same. In the pile they go.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Just a personal note, like, as a higher ed marketing professional. Did you ever find yourself just throwing your hands up in frustration going, amateurs!?

Mike Richwalsky:
Absolutely.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Just drive your family nuts with that? Because, we’ve got a three-year-old right now and I’m just bracing myself for 15 years from now going on college visits going, “I can’t believe this. These guys. You’re not, I don’t care how good the school is. Their marketing isn’t on point. You can’t go here.”

Mike Richwalsky:
Yep. No, absolutely. You know, some of the schools, we got stuff from, I just expected better. And either because I know people there, or, you know, again, it had some name recognition. And then people I thought wouldn’t have done as well, come back and surprise you with really great pieces.

But you’re right. We used this as a process and I probably shouldn’t have voiced my frustrations as much with the family, because I think Evan picked up on that. And towards the end of that process, he’d be like, you know, the design of this isn’t very good, or, you know… I trained him. So he definitely picked up on that and started looking at it towards the end with a critical eye, which is pretty fun.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
So that said, we’ve been kind of focusing on the print piece, but what about, let’s talk a little bit about the digital element, from website to social media. What did you see that you were both pleasantly and maybe not so pleasantly surprised by and what did you find to be kind of pain points or anything that was particularly effective in the digital front?

Mike Richwalsky:
Yeah, I think we’re still struggling with, after how many years, of making it easy to find an academic program.

Joel Goodman:
Hmm.

Mike Richwalsky:
Why, in 2020, is that still difficult to do? And why is there so much crap on these homepages that we don’t care about? And I know, we say it internally all the time, but the school’s leadership feels like, well, we’ve got to have our events calendar there, and athletics, and whatever.

But again, this process has been so eyeopening for me, having been through the parents’ side of, you know, we would sit down together and look at 30 schools in a night and go to them and say, okay, Evan’s interested in like digital media, digital production design, that kind of stuff, do you have a program in that? And sometimes it was really easy to find that. And you look at somebody like Xavier in Cincinnati, their web public website is just so laser-focused on undergraduate enrollment and getting you there and not very much else is there. It’s really focused on the undergraduate enrollment experience. Stuff like that made it easy.

Other schools. It was really difficult to, you know, you’re down four or five layers before I’m at a list of majors. Do you even have my program? So like, why we still haven’t figured that out, I don’t know.
He looked more on the mobile side, we looked more on the desktop side. So that was pretty interesting.

Joel Goodman:
That’s consistent with all the metrics that I’ve been looking at over the last couple of years.

Mike Richwalsky:
And for the most part, and again, this is us, social didn’t matter. It did not enter into the decision making process. It did not get us to come to an event. It did not get us to come to campus. It did not get us to do any of that.

He didn’t follow any social accounts until he deposited. So I don’t think he was spending the time going to look at any of these schools’, institutional accounts, as well as. Certainly not their enrollment accounts. Everything that we went to, whether it was an on-campus event, a regional event, it’s time to apply, were all email communications to us. So we paid very little mind to social during this process.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Did you find yourself getting served any social ads at all?

Mike Richwalsky:
I didn’t as a parent until post the lockdown started.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Well, that sounds like a lot of shift.

Joel Goodman:
That’s interesting. Do you have an idea of how long after?

Mike Richwalsky:
I think it was really leading up to May 1. So it was, you know, April, I was seeing ads for two or three of the schools that he applied to. And I don’t know if that was just a list they did and targeted me that way, or I was getting retargeted cause I was on their websites and their at portals a lot.

Joel Goodman:
I like to think that it’s because it was after J.S. and I had our episode where we told everyone that they should be advertising cause no one else was. So I’m going to, I’m going to claim that one.

Mike Richwalsky:
Take the credit, Joel.

Joel Goodman:
I’m going to claim that one.

Mike Richwalsky:
Plus one for Joel.

Joel Goodman:
Thought Feeder, making an impact.

Mike Richwalsky:
But I asked him today, I said, did you see a lot of ads? And he did, you know, even in the Fall. But I think the main platform for him, is Instagram. And I think whether it was a story ad or whatever, it was like done, swipe, swipe, like, I don’t think he paid much attention to them. I would pause on them. I saw them mostly on Instagram. Mostly would just pause on them just say, Oh, that’s interesting you’re getting targeted for that. And I think I mentioned at the beginning, or maybe before we were recording that he started getting ads for the school he’s going to after he deposited.

So, the best, you know, I’ve been impressed with everything John Carroll has done, and hi, Stephanie, if you’re listening, but that was just a weird thing that he started getting ads to go to school there after he deposited.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Yeah, that sounds like a, just a little glitch in that redirection, probably that getting redirects off the website and not really setting your targeting metrics quite right.

Mike Richwalsky:
Maybe, or, you know, not timing your campaigns, you know? Because I would think with all the schools that shifted to a June 1 deadline, that may have messed with their campaign planning and scheduling. And I know like you can’t edit at an individual person level.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Right.

Mike Richwalsky:
You know, go and pull Evan out of a campaign to do that. Though, that happened more than you would think this Fall that, we applied early, again, cause I’m higher ed guy. And he was on board pretty early with all of his applications, but we continued to get emails and postcards for several months from one of the schools saying, it’s time to apply, your deadline is coming up. And that’s, again, their online portal wasn’t good or wasn’t kept up to date with any of our statuses. So I, as parent freak out, like, what do you mean it’s time to apply? Like, did you not get any of our stuff? And that’s why I’d have to email or try and call the counselor who I’m sure has a ton of people probably doing the same.

But that just goes to like, refresh your lists. Especially for something like targeted search. That’s way easier to pull somebody out of, or refresh that data upload than targeted social ads. So go through your campaigns and work with your vendor to pull people out of printing campaigns, especially the sooner you can, especially with something that print has got a longer run than an email, a longer leadup time.
But pay attention to that because it causes confusion for families and it, it kind of comes out of that with like a negative brand feeling of like, why is this big school in New York City sending us things for three months that we didn’t apply when we applied like the second-day applications were open?

Joel Goodman:
Yeah.

Mike Richwalsky:
So, you come out of it saying, what are they doing that they like? What? So people scrub your list and keep them clean and refresh them during the process. Please, you will have much happier students and parents.

Joel Goodman:
What about texting campaigns? How effective were those?

Mike Richwalsky:
Absolutely zero. Not a one.

Every time there was a “give us your phone number,” he skipped it. So whether that was a, like a few of the emails that we did want to request more info about a program, or sign up for this, he ignored it. If they did at some point, because we visited campus and he gave a phone number, he would not answer the phone if anybody called. And I think after a while he learned the area codes or the numbers to say, Oh, that’s, that’s somebody from this school. I’m not answering that. So, texting was not a thing for us.

Joel Goodman:
Interesting.

Mike Richwalsky:
And I know that a lot of people like, you know, plug that into Slate and that’s one of the things they really like about Slate is the ability to kind of blast those out. But you know, for us, even the ones we applied to, he didn’t really give that info out to.

Joel Goodman:
I think you’ve got to have student segmentation, right? Like it works actually decently well for adult learners, people that are going back to school, maybe people that are going to grad school in some instances, because they’ve gone through all of this before. But not every student is the same student. Not every person is comfortable with giving that information out. And I think we’ve seen trends broadly … so well, okay. So here’s a thought I had about this.

How far behind are we in marketing in higher ed, you know? Because we were late to the texting game in general and everyone’s like, Oh, texting’s working, it’s working and then all of a sudden it drops off. We had to have been five years late. You know, as far as mass adoption goes in this industry, we had to be late because now there’s a rise in privacy concerns among kids among Gen-Z and younger in a lot of ways. No, they don’t want to give out that information.

They want to be private. They want to make their choices on their own or with people that they trust directly. And a lot of times that’s not a big organization that doesn’t have a face, whether it’s a university or not. Just, yeah, I dunno something, something to think about.

Mike Richwalsky:
You’re right. And I think we were behind on texting and then, you know, I think we’re also late to really automating a lot of that funnel as well.

Joel Goodman:
Yes.

Mike Richwalsky:
You know, we saw like for some of the things that we did ask for, we got into a drip that night and follow-up things pretty quickly. So I mean, we’re really late to that party, but I think the trick though, for schools is finding the right balance of like not coming on too strong versus still being useful and helpful because I think you see, and I think you maybe see it more on the grad side, but you know, if you fill out, I’m kind of interested in your grad program, like 10 minutes later, you got a phone call and the email starts and the texting starts and you’re like, yup, that’s why people don’t want to give that info out because they know, I know if I give my phone number, I’m going to get called I’m like, they just don’t want to deal with it.

Where an email you can be like filter, unsubscribe, spam it.

Joel Goodman:
Right.

Mike Richwalsky:
And, and get out of there. And mail’s probably like whatever, like recycle. So.

Joel Goodman:
I think you have to be very aware of the type of education that you’re offering, the type of student you attract that sort of thing. Because it does work for, it works for for-profits. It works for, I know that like National University has done really good work with following up and, you know, fairly high pressure without feeling high pressure, which is nice.

But it works because of who their students are, what stage of life they’re in, you know, that sort of thing. It’s maybe not going to work with a traditional undergrad student or, or with a, with a grad student who, you know, is working a full-time job and is looking to expand their horizons and wants to go to a state school or to a large, you know, private school or something.

Mike Richwalsky:
Yep. And they want to do it, you know, maybe online or that kind of executive MBA get through it pretty quickly. But yeah, those things, especially the for-profits are high pressure. And I don’t think that works on a 17-year-old kid today. I think they’re too smart for that. They’ve seen it and I think they can see through it.

But we mentioned it really kind of briefly in passing, but I was surprised by the number of swag boxes we got this year. Like I’m interested in them. The students love them. They’re like, Hey, I got a tee shirt and a water bottle and this stuff and this big box with a bunch of confetti and whatever. Yeah. We got three of them this year kind of out of the blue.

Joel Goodman:
Wait, with confetti? It sounds like a mess.

Mike Richwalsky:
Well, like one had confetti, but what’s the other kind of like shredded paper in there to hold this stuff like —

Joel Goodman:
Oh yeah.

Mike Richwalsky:
Like cut up crinkle paper? And. Just really interesting that that was a thing this, this Spring. And I don’t know if it’s just, again, pandemic stuff or what, just trying to get in the hearts and minds of your students who were maybe waffling or had so much other stress going on. And so the boxes were nice.

And what we saw in these parents groups is that once the kids started getting them, the parents were posting pictures of them. And one of the schools did boxes like one for undecided and one for deposited students. So I could see where maybe you’d send something out to your deposited students. We did that when I was at John Carroll, but the card that was in there says, Oh, we’re so glad you’re coming to campus. You’re going to make a great musketeer or whatever.

But then the undecided one was like, we think you’d be great here. So yes, go for the heartstrings at decision time. Don’t lead with it, as I mentioned earlier.

But from an ROI perspective on these boxes, like these had to be production, design, swag inside, they’re boxed up, kitted, mailed. That has to be a $40 to $50 incentive package that I don’t, maybe there’s some magical formula or schools were just freaked out about their classes, but that just seemed like a really expensive piece to go, unless you were really sure you were sending still you’re targeting students.

That just felt like a lot of money going out the door that you were never going to see back.

Joel Goodman:
They had all that travel budget leftover from their Admissions Counselors, not being able to go out. And instead of putting that into digital strategy, they put it into temporal strategy.

Mike Richwalsky:
We saved the money from not having our big admitted students day and there’s always swag at those things cause I’ve helped order that before. But like this was, oh. Like one of them had a tee shirt and a cowbell and a water bottle. Another one had, again, a tee-shirt or something, a hair scrunchy, socks, a water bottle.

Joel Goodman:
Does your son have long hair and need a hair scrunchy?

Mike Richwalsky:
No, he’s got like a buzzcut. But my wife has used it.

Joel Goodman:
Oh, it was for the parents

Mike Richwalsky:
He was pretty pumped about the socks and he’s worn the tee shirts. But again, it just seemed like, I wonder if they’re measuring the ROI on that of like, was that just one more thing that helped get people over the. Over the hump to make their decision. I don’t know, but that was really interesting.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Or even if it’s a bit of looking at what other schools are doing and going, oh, school X did this. We need to have a swag box too. Feeling this pressure that because, Oh, if we don’t do it, we’re going to miss out on these students who are getting swag boxes without really thinking, is this effective or is school X actually wasting money and hurting their own bottom line while we’re smart and sending a really well-designed piece out instead.

Mike Richwalsky:
Which is, which is great if you’re using your Slate, if you’re using your Slate and your CRM effectively, and you’re seeing that like who hasn’t deposited four weeks, a month out and you’re giving them some kind of lead score. And I don’t even know if schools are doing that, but are you looking like, are you sending this $50 box to kids who came to campus? Who visited, who had an admissions visit, who came to another event? Who visited your webpage? Like, maybe if you checked all these boxes, it would make sense. But you’re just saying, look, we’ve got enough money for 2000 boxes. We’ve got to send these out. That seems like just kind of throwing money away.

Again, like you said could have been used on better, smarter digital targeting.

Joel Goodman:
And some insight. My wife has been working for a custom sock manufacturer, for the last year. And they saw a lot of the higher ed stuff actually go even before, even before lockdown, they had a lot of universities or a lot of, a lot of the distributors that handle universities as clients were ordering custom socks to send out. And, and we know that some of them went and swag bags. I think there, there are quite a few schools that sent them out to graduates. And those socks aren’t cheap, man. Like they, I mean.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
It’s also kind of like swag-of-the-year, right? Like last year it was pop-sockets. This year, it’s socks. Next year, it will be…

Mike Richwalsky:
Face masks!

Joel Goodman:
Yeah. Right. Yeah.

Mike Richwalsky:
But, but I’m seeing some of that too. I mean, following some of the schools, you know, I don’t follow, but kind of watch what they’re doing on social and some are promoting face masks for their institution. So maybe that’ll be next year’s hot thing.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Alright, Mike. So let’s finish up with one last question I want to clarify with you, alright? So you’re telling me that the #NationalPancakeDay posts that the Admissions office made did not affect you in any way at all? Didn’t change your decision?

Mike Richwalsky:
No.

Not one bit. No.

Joel Goodman:
Did it encourage you to have pancakes on that day?

I feel like, you know what, that’s the thing in the swag bag. What they should have done is sent out a branded pancake pan, or at least like a brand that you could brand your pancakes with, with the university logo.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Joel, you hit on something though that I do want to ask. Like, a lot of those swag bags and a lot of these packets do have a social element to them, like a banner that says “hashtag I’m going here” or whatever.

Did your son participate in any of that or are doing that once he decided settled on a university?

Mike Richwalsky:
Once he decided yes, but you know, a lot of those things were in the acceptance packets and maybe less than the swag boxes. So.

Joel Goodman:
Well, that’s smart.

Mike Richwalsky:
Yeah. There was, and it ranged from very small, like something I can hold up, to larger kind of 11″ by 17″ or larger kind of foldouts that were in the, in the packet to kind of hold up. And those got used a lot. So we saw a ton of in the parents’ groups of, I’m sure parents are taking pictures of their own kids, holding up their sign for their own socials. And then they’d also throw them on the “class of” parent pages.

And so a lot of, a lot of use of those, but again, we only used the one that he went to. He did get accepted to let’s say, Xavier, which he did, and he didn’t say, yeah, I got into Xavier. Though Xavier is a great school.

Shout out to the Jesuits.

The other piece that’s been big this year is the yard sign. So don’t underestimate the yard sign because what a lot of high schools are doing because everybody closed, nobody really had in-person graduations, including us here in Avon, Ohio. The school district and the high school printed up 400 signs and delivered them to all the kids saying I’m a class of 2020 Avon High School graduate.
And so…

Joel Goodman:
“John Carroll for College”?

Mike Richwalsky:
Well, everybody got the Avon High School graduation signs. And so everybody else around here, all the surrounding cities that have school districts, like also did their own signs for the yards again, cause nobody could really graduate.

Joel Goodman:
I saw some of those in Austin too. Like I definitely saw some of these yard signs around here.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
We got them here in Conway.

Mike Richwalsky:
But, like John Carroll again, I’ll use them as an example, were going to do kind of yard signs. And then that whole plan got derailed because of the COVID. So they did a couple and delivered them locally. And I said, yo, let me get that file because I want to print one.

So it was another great engagement touchpoint for Stephanie, the Enrollment VP to come into the parent group and say, Oh yeah, like we want to print more of these, but we ran into just, you know, everybody was off-campus and we just couldn’t pull it off. Here’s the PDF. Take it to Fast Signs or Office Depot and get your own sign. And about three or four days later, everybody starts putting up their JCU 2024 signs like I have in my front yard now. But that was the next phase of the “I’m holding up my JCU 2024 sign” is now, “I’ve also got my yard sign.”

So schools, for next year, think about yard signs or bigger format stuff, or include a PDF that parents could get yard signs of, because that was definitely a thing this year for us.

Joel Goodman:
Mike, I want to close out by asking you to give us just like, kind of a quick rundown of a wishlist, you know, all these different things that you had issues with, while you were going through this process of being a parent. What are the things that you wish schools would do?

Just, you know, bullet points are fine, sorta deal, but like, you know, things that were missing, things that could be tweaked things, that things that were great and people, more people need to do.

Mike Richwalsky:
Laser-focus you’re targeting. You have that data it’s in Slate, you have access to it, target your stuff, customize it, and personalize it where you can.

Don’t lead with your warm and fuzzy. Save that for later.

Social doesn’t matter. Sorry. Again that’s just me. I have run social. I love doing it. Didn’t pull the heartstrings one way or the other, or have any impact in our decision making.

One-on-one made a huge difference for us. So whether that was our enrollment counselor or faculty members like giving us his cell phone number when we did a tour, if we had any other questions, give me a call like that. One-on-one stuff made a lot of difference. So where you have opportunities to do that, whether it’s an on-campus event, a departmental Zoom, which was awesome. John Carroll did a parent’s only Zoom, no students allowed where we could ask dumb questions and not be made fun of. That was a great event. Like, and again, it just because it was Zoom and we were in the living room and we can type her, turn our camera’s on. Like that felt one-to-one. So the more one-to-one you can do given the scale of your institution, do it.

And just think about opportunities where maybe — and I’m gonna catch flak for this — but where can you bring your stuff back in-house and do things in-house. Because we picked up pretty quickly that everything was run by five or six vendors in search and other spaces.

Joel Goodman:
So it’s, bring it in-house or choose someone else, like find someone else that can give you more attention.

Mike Richwalsky:
Switch to someone else or maybe conversely, take a more active role in the messaging that goes into those pieces because everybody getting the same form, download our special piece X. After the seventh email of that in two weeks, you see through that, it doesn’t feel special. It doesn’t feel customized. And this institution really didn’t take a liking to my student. Like they said they did.

Joel Goodman:
So maybe this is also a call out to the vendors.

Hey vendors. Treat your clients individually, don’t treat them like they’re all the same brand. Like you got to, they’re paying you a lot of money, give them their money’s worth.

Mike Richwalsky:
And just don’t mail merge the name, gated content and Enrollment VP, or Dean’s name at the bottom. Cause that’s all, a lot of this stuff felt like.

Joel Goodman:
Vendors be better. Schools, don’t be stupid. Done.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Yes. And this might come back into like, where social does matter. Because I don’t think a lot of universities realize that there are certain parent groups floating around with parents who are applying to various schools for sharing some of these things and going, and then, Oh, I didn’t realize that school X has emails like exactly like school Y until you did it back to back.

Or there was a separate piece for students who were admitted versus students who were still wavering and it looks different from what my kid got and why didn’t, why didn’t my kid get. The purple tee shirt and got a yellow tee shirt or something like that, you know? They’re sharing that information and we need to be aware of those conversations.

Mike Richwalsky:
Absolutely. Definitely. And also maybe segment out your parent groups. And I say that because one school put us in a parents’ group, but it was also all the parents of their current students. And this spring, when schools were closed and there was questions about online classes and refunds and whatever, like these parents were not happy.

They were pissed.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
I bet it got real, real fast.

Mike Richwalsky:
Well, yeah. And what, the thousand new parents that just maybe sent their kids there in the Fall, you come out of there with a really feeling like, wow, like the pieces that we got made it sound like this school knew what they were doing. But when you hear from the parents, like what is going on at this institution?

Like, I’m not sending my kid there. Like they don’t, what are they doing? So again, it goes back to be smarter about your targeting and your segmenting and your messaging. Don’t put your parents in with your existing parents by the time they’re juniors and seniors, they’re salty. And you know, they’re going to have a very different opinion than I have of the institution now in the summer before he goes to school there.

So yeah, those are kind of the key things. Vendors do better schools take a more active role and let’s maybe make pancake day thing next year.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
I’ll bring the syrup.

Joel Goodman:
Thank you so much for listening to the Thought Feeder podcast, we would appreciate a review or a rating. You can do that on Apple Podcasts and there are actually a ton of other places you can do that. If you need to find a place to subscribe to the show, visit thoughtfeederpod.com.

And please follow us on Twitter, @ThoughtFeedPod. Jon-Stephen Stansel and I want to thank Mike Richwalsky for joining us today and going over his experience as a prospective student’s parent. Thanks, Mike. We appreciate you.

Mike Richwalsky:
Thank you so much. This has been a, it’s been a lot of fun.
Thought

Joel Goodman:
Thought Feeder is sponsored by University Insight.

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