Listen to Will or He’ll Go Elsewhere

Colleges need to go phone-first to recruit prospective students

I took my son Will to visit a college last week.

While we waited for his interview, he tapped away at his smartphone, ignoring the piles of brochures on all the tables.

“Not interested in any of these?” I asked, pointing to the brochures.

“No,” he said, “they’re all the same.”

“So what are you doing instead?” I asked.

“Looking for real reviews by real students.”

For the rest of the visit, the phone never left his hand—he shared a video he took of students playing Frisbee with a dog on the quad on Instagram. He took a selfie on the library steps and texted it to his girlfriend. He friended the tour guide and a young professor he met in the chemistry lab.

If the phone is everything to kids like Will, why are colleges still doing it all backward?

Why start with viewbooks, emails, and web pages—shouldn’t every school’s priority be to the student’s phone first?

After the visit, I asked Will what made his phone so important to him.  “That’s easy,” he said, “it’s always with me. I can search for answers on the spot. Get notifications immediately. And I’m always connected to my friends.”

I have to confess to treating my phone as a fifth appendage, but for me, it’s more like an extension of my work computer; for Will, it’s something completely different.

“See these?” he said, swiping through a gallery of pictures he’d taken during our visit. “You can get the vibe here through their faces. And look at these social posts—not the BS ones the college puts out, but real students on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and flickr—you can see when they’re doing things they really like.”

While I’d listened to the canned tour guide speech and looked at the ivy-covered buildings, Will had used his phone to get a real feel for life on this campus.

What’s the lesson here? Colleges absolutely must adopt a phone-first approach to recruitment communications.


Will received over 800 viewbooks, search pieces, and postcards and over 1,800 emails from colleges! He has looked at precisely 4 of these. That’s a 0.17% impression rate resulting in no increase in his interest.


This is not a good return on investment for colleges!

If I were a college and wanted to engage students like Will, here’s what I’d do:

  • Before spending a dime on print or email, make the most of phone-based communications (text, social, web).
  • Print brochures still have a limited role—but for parents. So address parents directly. Make the case from their point of view.
  • Design messages to have maximum impact on a small screen—take a less-is-more approach, with simple headlines, bold visuals, and minimal text.
  • Mimic the functionality of apps—be fun, easy, and finger friendly.
  • Make it real—give prospects a chance to see and hear for themselves what your school is like through unsanitized student videos and photos.
  • Treat social as a big part of the recruiting mix, but not official posts from the institution. Let the PR department do that. Instead, help high school prospects connect directly with students – warts and all.

Want to connect with kids like Will? Reach them on their phones. Schools that focus on the small screen are making big numbers.

Learn More

You CAN increase applications and yield through phone-centered, digital strategies.


Posted on October 19, 2016 in Creative and Design, Higher Education, Recruiting

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