Traditional sales funnels are typically short and straightforward: you create a product, sell it to customers, and make a purchase. The enrollment funnel for (higher) education marketing is much longer and more complex: you have to convince potential students that college is worth it, that their chosen college is the right fit for them, and that they can maximize their experience by attending.
The enrollment funnel is longer because it has to be. Our students are making decisions that will impact their lives—and often the lives of their families—for many years to come. They need a chance to learn about our institution, compare us with others, and make an informed decision about whether or not we're the right fit for them.
This means that education marketers have a lot of room to be creative in how they approach enrollment. They can't just wait for interested students to come to them—they must find them. And once they've found them, they have to convince those students that their school is the best choice for them.
Students don’t convert overnight. The sales cycle of the average student can take as long as a year. It’s important to remember that you’re selling them their future - not a product that they can return if they are not satisfied.
Defining the Enrollment Funnel
The Enrollment funnel, sales cycle, or admissions funnel represents prospective students' journey before making a decision. This cycle can be broken down into 6 key stages - each of which represents an opportunity for you to communicate your message, and guide the prospect along their journey.
- Prospects: Students who haven’t yet engaged with your institution, but are in your funnel. These individuals are likely captured through referral programs or bought names.
- Inquiries: Students who have engaged with your institution (e.g., taking campus tours, completing inquiry forms, or requesting more information). The goal of any inquiry is to convert them into an applicant.
- Applicants: Students who’ve applied for admission. The percentage of students transitioning from the inquiry to the application stage is called the “application rate.”
- Admits: Students admitted to your college. They’ve been evaluated based on their application materials, transcript(s), recommendations, and other requirements. The percentage of admitted students is known as the “admit rate.”
- Deposits: Admitted students who’ve committed to an institution, and submitted a financial deposit to reserve their space in a program. The percentage of students who submit a deposit is the “yield rate.”
- Enrols: Deposited students who’ve completed institutional onboarding, such as orientation, and registered for classes.
But, why a funnel?
This funnel is meant to visually illustrate the journey prospective students take as they progress through your school's admissions process. Looking at this from a (higher) education perspective, we can simplify the process into 3 stages - each of which aligns closely with the end goal: Admissions or sales.
- Awareness Stage: Prospective students become aware of the urgency to start searching for a college or university.
- Consideration Stage: Those students begin evaluating different institutions, comparing and identifying the options that best meet their needs.
- Decision Stage: The students have finished evaluating their options and are ready to make a final decision.
Ideally, a prospective student will enter the admissions funnel at the Awareness Stage and eventually progress to the Decision Stage. However, the reality is that “enrols” account for a very small percentage of the funnel.
To better understand how prospective students move through the admissions process, it's often broken into three, more general sections, Top, Middle, and Bottom funnel.
Finding the link between traditional marketing efforts and ed(tech) marketing objectives can seem daunting at first, particularly if as a marketer you come from a (hard) sales-oriented background. You’ll soon come to realise that while the process and funnel might look different, the objectives are much the same.
Leads = potential students
Sales = enrollment
We don’t like to refer to enrollment as a sale, simply because the ‘product’ we are selling is more than just something that can be bought and returned if necessary. As ed(tech) marketers, we’re marketing (and selling) education, life purpose, hopes and dreams. We’re not pushing products, and we’re not selling an item of convenience that will be left on the shelf and forgotten about. Education is an investment, and the decision to pursue higher education is never taken lightly. While the commodity differs, when boiled down to its basic elements the journey is much the same as a traditional buyer's journey.
- A student (or parent) realizes their need for further education. (Top of the funnel)
- They begin the process of researching potential choices to fulfill that need. (Top of the funnel)
- They identify their criteria (location, cost, program, etc.) and narrow their choices down to institutions that fit the narrative. (Top and middle of the funnel)
- They scrutinize each option until they are satisfied with their final choice, or choices. (Middle of the funnel)
- They decide to pursue their education with the chosen institution and begin the enrollment process. (Bottom of the funnel)
While there may be additional steps that a student takes along the journey, the above outlines the basic (or average) student enrollment process.
By understanding this journey, you’ll be better equipped to design a campaign that includes touchpoints at each stage of the funnel, increasing your chances of being ‘chosen’. Compelling and creative content is a foot in the door, it is also worth noting that attracting your audience is only the first step. In ed(tech) marketing, what happens after a stranger becomes a lead is crucial.
Redefining the Traditional Sales (Enrollment) Funnel
Jim Collins who is famous for his originally coined and path-breaking leadership theory called Level five leadership coined the phrase “the flywheel effect “in marketing management. He defines it as “the act of building momentum by consistently making small improvements”. The flywheel effect is the key to building a strong brand, driving revenue, and increasing market share. It is also the secret sauce behind ed(tech) marketing success.
The flywheel effect is what, then? Customers start to trust a brand more when they have positive brand encounters. The bond between a brand and its customers that is created through time and is also known as customer loyalty sees the customers begin to promote the brand and the business. Word-of-mouth advertising is still the most dependable, valuable, and beneficial for brands today.
Technically speaking, a flywheel is a weight that is attached to a rod. The weight spins around and around, turning the rod as it goes. The flywheel effect refers to the growth of a business that is self-generating, meaning that each new customer brings in more customers. In other words, every new customer increases your reach and helps you find more people who will be interested in what you have to offer.
It's more than that.
A flywheel is a self-reinforcing loop that consists of a few key initiatives, including the creation of relevant content, personalized marketing messages, data-driven marketing, periodic content updates, ongoing marketing research, routine sales staff training, a focus on quality maintenance, diligence in managing marketing channels, and an effective supply chain. As a result of these endeavors feeding off one another, long-term momentum is created.
In marketing ‘value’ has a special meaning. When institutions work on improving their value chain, they achieve a flywheel effect. Value is determined by a customer’s perception of how much benefit a product provides, compared with what that same customer perceives to be the costs associated with using it.
Where the funnel falls short.
The traditional funnel paradigm tends to view developing and communicating with the prospect pool as a one-and-done event, rather than a process.
The prospect response rate (from search to inquiry) became the primary metric for evaluating the quality of the prospect pool, and the focus on moving students from one stage of the funnel to the next led institutions to discard high-quality prospects who didn’t respond to the initial marketing contact. Since they focused so much on managing stage changes instead of actual enrollment results, institutions placed too much emphasis on top-of-funnel initiatives that led to increases in inquiries or applications but failed to produce the desired outcomes.
While it certainly has its place and has served marketers for years, the funnel is an aging tool that hasn't evolved as it should. It may be effective in some industries, but education marketing isn't always the case.
Marketing to prospective students is a personal and complex process. It's also a highly emotional journey, which means that the funnel won't always work. It may not work at all.
Adopting a flywheel approach to education marketing
Adopting a flywheel approach to your education marketing strategy means more than changing a diagram. The sales funnel aims to fill one end with prospects and push them through until they become customers on the other side. Businesses then repeat the process, focus on new leads and relegate the newly acquired customer to an afterthought.
Instead of relying on one-time sales, the flywheel approach puts customers at the center of a company's marketing activities. Customer retention, recurring revenue, and word-of-mouth referrals are all tactics that business leaders use to increase their bottom line. It is more cost-effective to retain existing customers than it is to find new ones, so businesses should focus on retaining their current audience.
Using the flywheel, you can generate momentum that will keep your business growing without much additional effort on your part. This isn’t a marketing ploy; it’s reality. We aren't debating jargon; we're describing the way things are. And we're not redefining or renaming what is already defined by existing words and phrases that are readily understandable in our culture. When you think about your business as a flywheel instead of a funnel, you make different decisions and adjust your strategy.
Successful enrollment relies on the right mix of marketing and product development. By focusing on creating a sustainable flywheel instead of a funnel, we can better understand how to approach learning analytics and education marketing in general. There are a lot of moving pieces in online marketing, but all the moving parts need to be working together in tandem—not working against each other.
By shifting your focus from sales to enrolment, you can create a more holistic, effective marketing strategy that flows in a genuine, powerful way for your business and your students.