Ramping Up Enrollment Conversion


With the unusual economic times we’re living through, it becomes more imperative than ever that online schools and distance education institutions market with smart techniques.  One of the biggest problems facing schools is how to more efficiently convert their inquiries into solid enrollments. 

 This article, written by Ron Gregory, G&P’s president, was published by the Distance Education and Training Council in December.  It contains a round-up of ideas for conversion marketing that can online schools market smarter.

Read More, or open and download this article, published as a Special Bulletin by the DETC, by clicking here:

Ramping Up Enrollment Conversion in a Declining Economy


Ramping Up Enrollment Conversion in a Declining Economy


A Roundup of Strategies and Techniques for DETC Institutions

Published by the Distance Education and Training Council


Editor’s Note: In these tough economic times, it’s vital that you improve your inquiry conversion rates to generate lower-cost enrollments and increase your marketing ROI. Most conversion marketing programs can be improved, so DETC has invited Ron Gregory, President of Gregory & Partners, to share some strategies and techniques with DETC institutions.

Conversion marketing is undoubtedly one of the least-mined areas for finding additional enrollments in the field of for-profit education.  Schools tend to spend so much time worrying about how to get more inquiries, that they sometimes pay little attention to their efforts required to convert an inquirer into a student.  Most schools develop an inquiry-conversion formula that works fairly well, but then test very few ways to improve the process.  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be a common theme.

But smart conversion marketing requires more effort than that, and at least some improvements can be made to nearly every conversion scheme to develop more enrollments from a stream of inquiries.  Earlier this year, a benchmark survey on marketing practices among DETC schools, conducted by Gregory & Partners, revealed that many of them don’t test new ideas heavily in their conversion marketing programs.*  While some testing was done by over two thirds of the respondents, half of them conducted 10 or fewer tests in direct mail in 2007.  More surprisingly, given the low cost, a third of the schools conducted 10 or fewer tests in email, with another quarter conducting less than 30 email tests.

Another reason to focus on conversion marketing:  In these difficult economic times more and more inquirers are looking for a better education or new training program to bolster their employment situation.  Several presidents of DETC schools have said that the coming months could very well bring more business to schools, including distance learning institutions. (See DETC Bulletin Number 21, November 4, 2008, on inquiry marketing for their rationale.)

So from a big-picture standpoint, employing stronger conversion techniques is right now a “win-win” situation:  You win with added enrollments; and inquiries win by learning why your school or program best fits for their current pressing education or training needs.


So these are two very good reasons why more efforts should be made in conversion marketing.  But what about the costs?  Why spend any more on conversion marketing than you already are, when you’re receiving free referral inquiries, or when they are each costing you $10-$50 or more to generate?  Because conversion marketing is one of the most efficient ways you can invest in your school business.  The return on investment, or ROI, for this type of spending, properly managed, is higher than nearly anything else you can do to quickly gain more revenue.  That extra dollar or two spent on each inquiry can pay off big in additional enrollments and revenue.


But it must be spent wisely to make it worthwhile.  And since there are many ways to improve most programs, where do you start?  That depends on your current efforts and a host of other factors.  In this article we present these factors for you to think about, along with some strategies and techniques you can employ to evolve to a more effective conversion marketing program.


Strategies for Success in Conversion Marketing


Let’s consider some overall strategies for lifting conversion rates.  Every school is different, of course, so the exact strategies and methods best used to convert inquiries will vary.  The amount of money and effort you should expend for each technique will depend on many factors, including:

  • Type of student base targeted (adult students, military personnel, corporate tuition aid students, etc.)
  • Level of programs offered and field of study (certificate or master’s programs; allied health or business fields)
  • Funding available to potential students to pay for tuition (Title IV, VA, out-of-pocket, school-financed)
  • Quality and cost of inquiries received
  • Conversion channels used and efficiency of each
  • Size of marketing budget
  • Value of enrollments in retention and revenue


First and foremost, when implementing specific strategies, you should plan to utilize direct response principles in virtually everything you attempt.  These principles demand a way to measure actual results, so you’re not shooting in the dark.  Fortunately, using direct response measurement techniques, you can gauge the success and failure of nearly every marketing effort, so you can test new ideas and know how well they’ve worked on a small scale, before you spend too much on them.


A key strategy is to utilize all available conversion channels as efficiently as possible.  This seems obvious, yet it is surprising how little thought or testing is given to this basic formula.  For example, virtually all schools use some sort of inbound marketing (or information providing), but not as many use any form of outbound calling – to inquiries who are looking for information!  The benchmark survey conducted earlier this year showed that 80% of the responding schools use outbound calling to try to influence or convert inquiries.  And just over a fourth of the schools use only one conversion channel.


The major conversion channels are:  website, email, telephone, and direct mail (including catalogs and solo packages.)  The new media of online chat, click-to-call, and mobile marketing are technically available, but these are in their infancy for distance-education schools.  Properly utilizing all the major channels will help your conversion program.  Learning the proper way for your business, of course, will require testing out some tactics and ideas.  More about this later.


DETC schools often overlook one of their key strengths, which is their long list of advantages over traditional, campus-based schools.  Emphasizing these benefits is an important strategy to use in conversion marketing, when inquiries are looking for reasons to enroll with you.  A partial list of these advantages, to which others might be added, is shown in Exhibit A.  Many of them apply to most DETC schools and should be cited in the conversion efforts for inquiries, along with other messages and offers outlined below.


In addition one strategy for the current economic environment is to make sure that inquiries are aware of your shorter, certificate or vocational courses, which they can complete quickly, then put to immediate use in job hunting.  Nowadays more inquirers are likely to enroll in those programs that offer a quick “fix” to their employment issues.  Many schools break up degree programs into shorter certificate programs to accomplish this, and others offer single-course or entry-level programs that are similar in topic area to their degree programs.


One very productive strategy is to vary the level of spending and effort applied according to the quality of the inquiry.  Quality is a relative term, by definition, and it can be measured and predicted, according to the past behavior of similar inquiries.  Not all inquiries are created equal, of course.  And measuring their quality can be done against a number of yardsticks – conversion rate (the most common), ROI, revenue per enrollment, and other metrics.


Judging the quality of an inquiry, regardless of the metric used, is the trickiest task of all – but well worth the effort.  There are many methods for deciding how to rank (or score) inquiries on a quality scale.  Here are some of them:

  • By source of the inquiry (affiliate marketing, search marketing, website, referral, or natural search)
  • Level and field of program chosen (certificate, master’s; allied health, business)
  • Funding available to potential student to pay for tuition (Title IV, VA, out-of-pocket, school-financed)
  • Reason for seeking education or training
  • Geographic criteria (urban versus rural; nearby versus far away)
  • Demographic criteria (age supplied by inquirer, or else data derived from census data or cluster models, such as the Claritas PRIZM system)
  • Score generated by a predictive model (usually the best method, which utilizes all available data)


No matter what scheme you employ to determine the quality of the inquiry, the reason for doing so is the same:  The higher the quality, the more money you should be willing to spend to try to convert that inquiry into an enrollment.  When using conversion rate as the quality metric, for example, staying with an inquiry longer and working harder to convert it should depend entirely on its quality score, which in turn depends upon the odds that the inquiry will enroll.


This differentiation of inquiries translates into varying levels of conversion efforts.  For poor quality leads, you might send one direct mail piece and just a few emails, in which you move your best offers up front.  For the highest quality inquiries, you’ll probably want to start with full tuition and normal terms and fees, then gradually “sweeten” your offers throughout a longer series of direct mail, emails, and/or telephone calls.


Speaking of offers, don’t forget that the DETC strictly governs some aspects of enrollment offers, so be sure to review the Business Standards before undertaking any new conversion test.  For example, while you cannot offer a different tuition to different inquiries at the same time (except for bona fide special groups, like military personnel), you can offer different terms and fees to different inquiries.  If you finance students’ tuition fees, you can alter the down payment amount and/or the monthly payment amount, depending on the inquiry’s quality ranking.  Also, even if you don’t finance student tuition, you can offer free shipping or drop other fees that you normally impose, as a special offer to the higher-quality inquiries.  Time-limited and dated tuition discounts, offered to all students at the same time of enrollment, are also allowed.


Tactics and Techniques in Conversion Efforts


Managing the various conversion channels effectively requires a lot of trial and error, which fortunately can be judged accurately with the right tracking capabilities.  Adding an email to your current series is likely a no-brainer for your best leads, given its cost.  But deciding to conduct an outbound calling campaign, or to drop a catalog in the mail, is a lot more critical, again due to their expense.  Nevertheless, using all the conversion channels available to you can be a very productive method for generating additional enrollments.


Regardless of which conversion methods or channels you utilize, remember that creative and copy is crucial for appealing to inquirers.  In these difficult economic times, several schools are adjusting their messaging to prospects to empathize with their potentially stressful situation, and to emphasize how the school has the programs to help them with their pressing educational needs.  Other schools that appeal to special markets, such as the military or corporate tuition assistance students, are also tuning up their messages to keep in touch with the times.  And don’t forget to include the applicable benefits of attending your school from among those listed in Exhibit A.


Now let’s cover each of the four main conversion channels, mentioned above, including their strengths and weaknesses, as well as tips for using each one.


Direct Mail is the oldest and still the most focused conversion channel, although it can be an expensive one.  In a good direct mail package, you can “guide” the inquirer through the key benefits you’re trying to present about your school and their program of interest, along the most influential path.  In many cases, direct mail is the most effective channel, as well.  Most people won’t throw out a piece of mail unless they have a pretty good idea of what’s in it and who it’s from – and a package that’s clearly sent in response to an inquiry thus gets a relatively high open rate and readership.


Timeliness of response is an important factor with all conversion media, but especially so with direct mail.  Nothing is more impressive to an inquirer than receiving your catalog or direct mail package in the mail a week or more ahead of your competition (with which they’ve also inquired!)  From the standpoint of “caring for the student,” this responsiveness puts you a step ahead in their initial consideration.


Developing an effective mailing, or improving your current package, requires testing some new ideas, designed and executed by a professional, and patience in reading the results.  It’s good to test some new creative or offers before “throwing in the towel” on your current direct mail program in favor of all email or call center promotions.  For example, a follow-up post card might work well by reminding inquiries of your initial mail package, spurring them to take action, and encouraging them to visit your website.


The design and copy should be created professionally, however, to receive the best results.  If you’re not a direct mail expert, or you don’t have a designer and direct mail writer on your staff, then it’s usually best to hire an outside agency or freelancer, since many direct mail principles and tactics are not intuitively obvious.  Finally, don’t forget that all this work must be rewarded with results that can be read accurately.  Designing and executing a valid A/B test can be trickier than it sounds, so again, if you’re not sure how to do it, consult a professional.


Email has emerged as a strong and effective response medium for converting enrollments, given the attention that a quick-response, initial email receives from inquirers looking for details, and because of its low cost.  A drawback to email is the clutter in most people’s inboxes, causing lower readership, especially for follow-up emails.  Another issue is that email could be overlooked, blocked by an email provider, or sent to the recipient’s junk email folder.  To improve the effectiveness and attractiveness of emails, you can test adding color, illustrations and photos, and lots of click-through hyperlinks.  Other productive tests are varying the subject line and changing the timing of receipt.


Few schools take full advantage of “transactional” emails, or those sent to “confirm” you’ve taken an action for the recipient.  These emails have a very high open rate, compared to other types.  A transactional email confirming that you’ve sent out a direct mail package can be used as a vehicle to go through the benefits of your program and to allow a click-through to your website for immediate enrollment.  This sort of email also supports your direct mail program, preparing the inquirer to look for and then open the piece you’ve sent them.


One effective method for converting enrollments quickly is over the telephone.  For more than 15 years, some DETC schools have used this channel to take immediate applications and increase their conversion rates.  While outbound calling to inquiries had been practiced at International Correspondence Schools for a few years, this author in 1991 pioneered the “long” inbound call method required to actually enroll inquirers on their first contact with the school.


These scripted calls, properly conducted, can inform, influence, and even convince potential students that you are the school they should choose – increasing enrollments from the same pool of inquirers – and all without high-pressure selling tactics.  Similarly scripted outbound calls also can convert undecided inquirers into enrollments.  However, those inquirers called should be carefully selected, based on their quality score, program of interest, and other factors.


Your own website should be one of the strongest channels for receiving enrollments.  In the benchmark marketing survey by Gregory & Partners, the website was the hands-down winner as the best conversion channel for the responding schools in 2007.  Although this channel is a one-way street, requiring the inquirer to do all the work, you can encourage them to go there with each of the other channels discussed above.


When inquirers arrive on your site, you should be sure they can apply or enroll immediately, to speed the process and prevent any buying “friction” from retarding your conversion rate.  Of course, most will want to learn a lot about you and their program of interest before actually enrolling.  But many times they arrive on your site after doing their homework, ready to sign up – and then you want them to be able to move through the application process easily.  A good way to see just how easy it is to enroll on your site is to sit back and watch a few people try to do it – a process known as usability testing.


As crucial as the website is to most schools, this important testing is often overlooked during and after web development.  And it’s always surprising to see just how many places people hesitate or get hung up on your site.  Yet, while many schools could stand improvement on their sites, especially in the enrollment area, little time is actually being spent working on the website by many schools.  Only 60 percent of the responding schools in the DETC benchmark marketing survey* spent five man hours a week or more improving or upgrading their website in 2007, and only a quarter of them spent 15 hours or more a week.


The new media field has produced several potential channels for schools that someday may assist in conversion.  Some schools have tried online chat for those visiting the website, with mixed results.  Another technique is “click-to-call” for those schools with technically capable call centers.  In this method, the inquirer clicks a button on your website, and a command is transmitted from your web server to your call center’s predictive dialer, which in turn dials the inquirer’s previously captured phone number.  Mobile marketing, or texting to cell phones, hasn’t really caught on yet for most schools, although there are agencies that specialize in this area, including at least one that works with educational institutions.


Regardless of what methods you end up using, the coordination of efforts within the various conversion channels is a key factor in a successful program.  Clearly, the arrival of two of your direct mail packages on the same day will not impress an inquirer, but neither will two emails and a phone call occurring on the same day.  You should plan to space out your efforts, staggering them in a tactical manner to obtain the most effective response.


You should also consider various ways to support key messages in one channel with follow-up or preview messages in another channel.  An example mentioned above was a transactional email prior to the receipt of a direct mail package.  This could also take the form of an outbound call or a first-class postcard preceding the mail package arrival.  In each case an attempt should be made to enroll inquirers immediately, without waiting for the package, in case they are ready to do so.  When properly timed, follow-up calls, emails, and reminder postcards also can be productive in raising your conversion rate.


In conclusion it’s clear that there is much that can be done to improve the conversion marketing for many schools, with an increase in enrollments as the reward.  That extra attention paid to your conversion marketing efforts with new testing can generate a very nice return on your investment.


There is usually no lack of ideas to test when attempting to improve your conversion marketing program.  Indeed, you can proceed in so many ways, that a few caveats should be kept in mind, including those mentioned earlier.  Limitations in technology, infrastructure, staff, or budgets are usually controlling factors, so be sure each test idea is one you are prepared to roll out, before spending time and money on it.


And no matter what direction you take from where you stand now, remember that not all techniques will work for all schools, and that each new idea should be given a fair and accurate test before deciding to roll it out.  Good luck and happy testing!




* Results of the benchmark “Survey of Marketing Practices of DETC-Member Institutions,” conducted by Gregory & Partners, published in March, and referenced in this article, is available via email, free to all DETC members.  Just email your request to:  ron@gregoryandpartners.com

Exhibit A


Advantages of DETC Schools over Traditional Schools


  1. Convenience factors:
    1. Study and learn whenever, wherever – “24/7 Classrooms”
    2. Saves time and gas costs required to commute to class
    3. Allows more time at home with family
    4. Allows a “pause” or delay in lessons, if something comes up (for asynchronous curricula)
    5. Choice of online or correspondence format (if available)
    6. Group projects and required study groups are fewer and less time-constrained
    7. Large selection of courses available online – not limited to those offered on campuses near the student
    8. Shorter courses and certificate courses add speed to completing training and education needs.
    9. Lower costs versus regionally accredited schools attract students with less to spend on training
    10. For most DETC programs, year-round or multiple start dates, versus the traditional three or four.  Students can start any time.
    11. Many DETC schools self-finance tuition for students, offering monthly payment plans.  Such financing removes the need for federal loans, private loans, credit cards or credit lines.
      1. Federally guaranteed loans are available, but these won’t cover all expenses in many cases.  Private student loans are harder to get, with more stringent credit requirements and fewer available lenders.
      2. Admissions procedures are less cumbersome and lengthy with DETC schools:
        1. Approvals are quicker and simpler.
        2. In most cases, no entrance exams, lengthy applications and other requirements, such as essays and letters of recommendation.
        3. No need to wait for Financial Aid office to approve a scholarship, grant, or other commitment of aid from the school or from other sources.
        4. Pre-requisite courses are few or none with many DETC school programs.
      3. Accreditation standards evaluated and approved by the U.S. Department of Education are identical for DETC schools and regionally-accredited schools.  “You can’t find better-accredited schools anywhere.”
      4. DETC schools are required to have each course and program reviewed individually by the Accrediting Commission.  The same is not true for regionally accredited schools.


Ron Gregory is President of Gregory & Partners, a consulting firm specializing in acquiring and retaining distance-learning students, as well as student services and recruiting for management personnel.  He was VP-Marketing, International Managing Director, and COO over a 10-year period for ICS Learning Systems (now Penn Foster Schools), and recently served as VP-Marketing over 2 ½ years for PCDI, now Ashworth University.  He can be contacted via email at:  ron@gregoryandpartners.com or by calling 407-951-5115.


©2008, Gregory & Partners.  All Rights Reserved.


Leave a Reply