Agile Insights Blog

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College selection and the secondary target you might be missing in your marketing efforts

Sep 28, 2021 9:00:00 AM

Choosing a college is a big decision – arguably one of the biggest of a young adult’s life. Tons of research is done, both formally and word of mouth, visits are made, feelings are had, and finances are evaluated. The timing of the entire process can take up to two years with many students now starting their higher education search early in junior year. Finally, after a consideration process unlike almost any other, the final choice is made.

With enrollment and retention rates declining in the last few years, higher education institutions are vying to become that final choice to as many as they can –scrambling to understand how they can better influence prospective students and why they make the choice they make to attend, or not attend, a university.

Many higher education facilities are starting to conduct research to discern how prospective students make choices, with the hope to position themselves ahead of their competitors in this increasingly aggressive market. Case in point, one of our top-tier university clients was able to almost triple their enrollments in just a few months’ time using Vennli’s integrated survey platform to gather real-time insights about what’s most important to students and how they choose between competing programs. These insights enabled the university to take immediate action and develop targeted messaging based on the factors most important to each segment of prospective students. From their VP of Marketing, “With Vennliʼs choice data, we improved our marketing messaging against the competition by segmenting our applicant population and focusing on what matters most to each segment’s decisions. It’s been extremely effective in helping to increase qualified new student enrollment”.

While it’s great that universities are doing the work to understand the different choice factors of their students and target their messaging and programs accordingly, it appears that there is a very important target audience generally being neglected in this deep analysis of choice. One that is incredibly influential in these prospective students’ lives – their parents or guardians.

Are higher education facilities marketing to parents?  It appears that many are not, or at least, doing it well. A whopping 91% of parents say that they were involved with their child’s college search (1) and 73 percent said that they were involved or very involved in identifying the initial list of prospective colleges for their child. (2) But only 32% of parents strongly agreed that they have the knowledge they need to guide their child through the application and decision process. (3)

So how can colleges better arm parents with information so they can help to influence their child to choose their institution?  First, it’s important to acknowledge that these two target segments are very different – they consume media differently, they have different experiences, their emotional development is different – it even seems they speak a different language sometimes. So, it’s safe to say that a student and their parents’ priorities in choosing a school could be very different. While a parent may be more interested in safety, cost and future career outcomes, their student may be swayed by a vibrant social atmosphere, the campus layout, and program offerings.

Imagine the impact a webpage or email newsletter specifically targeted to parent concerns or interests could do for increasing an affinity with your institution? Specific tours for parents during a campus visit that highlight safety features? Facilitated one-on-one mentor programs with alumni to talk about their career opportunities post-graduation? Once you understand this secondary target’s pain points in helping their child make a choice, the path to establishing the right programs and delivering the right message to influence choice becomes clearer. But don’t forget that this should be an ongoing journey – retention rates at some schools are also trending down. Keep asking these parents if they are satisfied, not just the students, so you can continue to message them with the useful information they need to support their child’s continued education, or pivot directions if the feedback in negative.

Contact Vennli to conduct customer-based research on both the primary AND the secondary target to learn what is important to each group. Building your communication strategy around those insights could be the differentiating factor your institution needs to increase enrollments and retention.


  1., “Niche 2020 Survey of Parents of Students Searching for Colleges”, Jan 2021
  2. “Parents as a target market in college admissions”, Vander Schee, 2006
  3. org, “American Dream vs. American Reality” 2018
Tracy Corry
Written by Tracy Corry

Digital Marketing Strategist with 20 years experience, dedicated to helping brands create meaningful connections with their customers.

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