Imagine you’re at a drive through, hungry and ready to order lunch. An employee comes over the speaker and starts explaining why you should order lunch at their restaurant instead of the one down the street, then demands to know what sauce you want with your nuggets—even though you don’t eat meat!

That wouldn’t make any sense, right? You’ve obviously already chosen this restaurant, so further convincing isn’t necessary. And presuming to know your order before you’ve even uttered a word? Well, that’s just foolish.

The problem in this scenario is that you’re not receiving the correct information for your stage in the decision-making process. Such communication missteps are ineffective, frustrating and have the potential to turn prospective customers off of a business entirely.

The solution? Meet students where they are.

While these examples are a bit outlandish, many universities make these same mistakes every day as they work to recruit new students.

Often, teams fail to recognize where a student or their family is in the decision-making process, and instead speak to them where they assume they are, or where they hope they are. Conversely, if we fail to recognize when a student is ready to commit, and only give them surface-level sales pitches, we may lose them to another school that’s formed a stronger connection.

It’s time to shift your mindset. We must effectively and regularly communicate relevant information to prospective students—meeting them at whatever stage of the decision-making process they’re at.

It could be kids who have never heard of your college or university before, or students who have you as their top choice. It could be kids who are deciding whether or not to submit an application, all the way up to students who are preparing to commit and pay a deposit.

A typical decision-making journey for a student follows these five stages:

  • Prospective Students. These are students you want to attract, even though your school may not even be on their radar. They need to hear why they should be interested in your college or university. What’s unique about you that should put you on their consideration list? What do your current students and recent graduates have to say?
  • Inquiry Students. These students have touched base with you in some way. Maybe they’ve met a counselor at a college fair. Maybe they’ve engaged on social media. Maybe they’ve filled out a form. However they’ve done it, they’ve expressed interest and are ready for you to get to know them and speak to their unique interests and higher education needs. Generic, mass emails won’t work here.
  • Applicants. Congratulations! You’ve made the list of consideration and the student has submitted an application. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that that means they’ve already fallen in love with your school. Now’s the time to harness the insights you’ve gained through previous interactions with them, and their college application. Talk to them about programs related to their potential area of study, show them extracurricular clubs and activities that play off what they’ve done in high school and entice them with features of your university that would appeal to them. The goal is to keep them engaged, make them feel important and give them relevant information. So many students slip away between starting an application and submitting all required documentation for an admission decision. Now’s the time to make them feel like a valued individual who’s worth the extra effort of some personalized and relevant communication. (Maybe they live in a cold northern state, and you’re a college in Florida. Show them sunshine, palm trees and beaches! … But don’t think a student who lives in Florida will care a bit about those things—tell them about study abroad opportunities or your active student activities board.)
  • Accepted Students. This is, perhaps, the biggest hurdle. Up until now, you only needed to be in their consideration set. Now, they must choose one—just one—school to commit to, and they must be excited enough to submit their deposit. Here, speaking to their unique interests is more crucial than ever.
  • Deposited / Committed Students. They’re committed, we’re done! Well, not quite. Do you want to retain these students? Then keep at it! Continued marketing that engages students, connects students to each other and the college or university is essential to student retention.

Keep in mind  that each of these sets of students is in a very different mindset. The messaging, when customized to the appropriate stage, gives your admissions team an edge because they’re not looking at the audience as one broad segment. Instead, they’re looking at it as micro-audiences with specific needs to be addressed.

Patience is a virtue, but diligence is too.

Once you nail down the motivations of each stage, don’t forget to dig deeper. What do international students care about versus domestic students? Transfer versus first time in college? Big city students versus those from rural communities?

The more you know about each individual and provide information and interaction that responds to their individual needs, the more successful your efforts will be. Ultimately, meeting students where they are sends a message they’re hungering to hear above all others: “Have It Your Way.”