Nothing can fully replace face-to-face interactions. An exchange of instant messages will likely never have the same impact as an in-person conversation. An e-mail isn't the same as a phone call. However, with state governments slashing budgets and college endowments taking major hits, the search for cost-effective recruitment solutions is becoming more important than ever.
The slumping economy has had a major impact on admission offices and families of college-bound students. Many admission offices are now facing budget cuts, meaning less money for student recruitment efforts, including trips to high schools and college fairs. Additionally, families now have less money to invest in the college search process. According to a Longmire and Company survey of 1,030 parents of college-bound students, a quarter said they would be making fewer college visits as a result of the economy.
It's now time to be creative in how you cost-effectively reach out to prospective and admitted students. With fewer face-to-face interactions, using virtual solutions may be the way to build relationships with these students.
Virtual Interactions May Be the Next Best Option
For several years, hundreds of colleges and universities have been utilizing online chat rooms to interact with students. Having participated in several online chats, it is by no means a fast-paced back and forth between prospects and the admission office, but it does offer an opportunity for students to get some of their more pressing questions answered. And chances are that the admissions office's answers are relevant for a good portion of those on the chat.
Wake Forest has gone even further. Starting this past December, Wake Forest began using Skype to conduct "face-to-face" interviews for students who could not make it to campus. While they would likely be the first to admit in-person interviews are preferred over these virtual alternatives, this solution has allowed admission officers to have a personal interaction with applicants when it otherwise would not have been possible.
Building an Online Community Around Your School
Many schools are still figuring out what to make of Facebook and whether they want to engage with prospective and admitted students within social networks. I think schools that sit by and do nothing to engage candidates on social networks are missing a huge opportunity. If a prospect can't make it to your campus, social networks like Facebook give you an opportunity to bring your campus to them, or at least a taste of it.
The stats about your school (standardized test scores, size, location, and diversity) are important, but it's the personal connections that a prospect makes with your school that will stand out and tip the scales in your school's favor. You don't want to hijack the conversation on these social networks, but there is plenty of room between taking over the conversation and not participating at all. You can be a facilitator, helping prospects connect with people and resources on campus. When they have questions, you can point them toward answers. If done effectively, you can even help them build relationships with each other. My guess is that there is no better sales pitch for a college than an excited student (whether it is a current student on campus or a high school senior that has fallen in love with your school and is dying to get admitted).
Play within the "Rules"
Don't forget that Facebook is a social space. If you are going to participate, make sure you participate in a way that is in line with how Facebook is used. Don't just recreate your admissions website in Facebook. Start conversations, promote events, build a community around your school.
Virtual interactions are unlikely to ever supplant personal interactions as the best way to build relationships. However, they may be a good alternative when live, face-to-face interactions are not possible.