Episode 79: Improving the Student Journey From Inquiry to Enrollment with Rustam Irani

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Shiro Hatori
Hello, everyone. Welcome to the higher ed demand gen podcast hosted by concept 3d. If you like our content, please follow and subscribe to us on Spotify, Apple, Google. And if you’re on Apple specifically, please drop us a comment. We’d love to hear your thoughts. My name is Shiro Hatori. And I will be your host today. And I’m really, really excited to be talking about improving the student journey from inquiry to enrollment. On this episode for the conversation, I’m stoked to really introduce Roustan Irani. rcem, has over 15 years of experience in higher ed, and is the principal consultant at our GI Consulting Group, which is a marketing consulting firm for higher ed. And alongside that he also runs a digital marketing agency for higher ed called ad click. Welcome to the show was done.

Rustam Irani
Thanks, Cheryl. Appreciate joining. Thanks so much.

Shiro Hatori
And I do ask all my guests on this show this icebreaker, which is, what do you love about higher ed?

Rustam Irani
Sure, sure. Man, I’ll tell you. When I was very young, you know, education was was always extremely important in the family, it was always talked about at the dinner table every evening. And, you know, we’ve definitely been, you know, fortunate to be able to pursue our education as a family, myself, my brothers. And so, you know, it’s always something that stayed near and dear to me as far as being impactful. And not only for me, but I’ve also seen it be impactful over the last 15 plus years for so many people. And that is really what continues to drive kind of my passion. And, like telling the story about, you know, when I was at a, I was at a graduation ceremony for one of the schools where I was working, and I met so many students and just the emotions. And, you know, the pride there that, you know, just sticks with me day in and day out, I think about a lot of those students that I’ve met over the years and graduates and just so powerful. And I think, you know, Steve Jobs told John Sculley once, you know, he said, Hey, do you want to sell sugar water the rest of your life? Or do you want to come join me at Apple and change the world, right? And so like, I truly feel like, you know, it’s very impactful what we do day in and day out. So really proud to be a part of the industry.

Shiro Hatori
That’s fantastic. And speaking of telling stories, can you tell us a little bit about your, you know, last 15 years of experience before our consulting group, and add, click,

Rustam Irani
share, share. So like I said, Actually, 15 years ago, I worked with an agency, I was consulting, and I joined an agency, and one of our largest clients was an online school at the time. So we jumped deep into the deep into the deep end there, and I started generating inquiries for the school. And back then it was definitely a different environment, 2008 2009 ish. And it was still, you know, a lot of growth in the online marketplace, with only a few players. Whereas today, it’s definitely shifted. And so from there, I eventually ended up at a at a school, where I was head of marketing, we were a national school, about 15,000 students. across the US, we had a couple of campuses as well. And then, most recently, I was, you know, Head of Marketing for an OPM here in the US. And we partnered with about nine university partners, and we help them promote their programs across the US. That’s fantastic. Now, over the last year and a half or so I’ve been on my own with our GI Consulting Group. And, and as you said, we’re working across the education space, primarily with universities and trade schools.

Shiro Hatori
That’s great. And I know in our prior conversation, I was like, Hey, so what what is your day to day? Like? What are the important things that you’re working on? And you mentioned, you know, creating that better alignment with admissions, enrollment teams and marketing teams? Can you tell us a little bit more about what it looks like to look at the full student journey?

Rustam Irani
Sure, sure. So love Shiro. This is one thing that if I were to say, you know, if I make any suggestions to marketing, leaders, and even just marketing team members that are in education or getting into education and getting in an environment, I tell them like, Hey, do what you can to listen to an admissions phone call, sit in with an admissions person and just understand what the students are saying, right? What are those pain points? What are they? What’s interesting them about our program and so on. So, you know, I think there are a couple of things that are so important in the alignment with admissions. And I truly believe that, you know, marketing admissions has got to have synergies and alignment. And that starts with the budgeting process. One thing that I pride myself in over the years, and it was a lot because of the environment that I was a part of the culture was very collaborative. And so we would work on our budgets alongside admissions. And so if from the executive team, we had goals and targets for 5%, or a 10% enrollment increase in a particular program, we would step back and say, How are we going to build this out? A lot of times, it was like, marketing, how are you guys going to do this? And then I would stop and say, Okay, well, let’s take a look at the entire student funnel, let’s take a look at what’s happening at the top and what marketing we’re doing, and how that’s being impacted in admissions, what’s working, what’s not working, and in order to get that growth, what’s got to happen across the organization. And, and the key is one thing, the key is euros when we’re putting these budgets together, like there’s going to be a number of assumptions, make sure you’re aligned with the admissions team on those assumptions, especially with a lot of the challenges we have today with competitive marketplace, right? Google is not becoming any cheaper. You’ve got to have that alignment and say, Hey, we’re assuming 5% growth from Google. But our keywords are more competitive than ever. So how are we going to make that happen? Well, can we improve landing page conversion? Can we improve student journey? Conversions? Can we improve engagement? Can we improve certain things in the admissions process to help marketing, right, so I think that alignment is just just so so critical. And then, you know, again, going back to having the marketing teams go through the actual process of being an army inquiry. And I tell that to a lot of schools I work with, I said, have every single one of your marketing team members, fill out a lead form, go through this Site, do it on the site, do it on the paid search, or Facebook or whatever it is, go through that process and go through it, put your real information in, get an email, get that correspondence, and then really understand that experience, and then provide the feedback, right? And even sit, like I said, with admissions and go through that process. So that alignment is really critical. And and I believe that there’s just so much opportunity there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not how many inquiries we bring in, right. From a marketing standpoint, it’s how many students end up starting or enrolling. And not only that, but you know, one of the schools I was with, we would take it a step further, we were looking at retention rates, across cohorts across the lifecycle of the student and even graduation rates for particular programs for particular channels. What were the graduation rates? Right. So, you know, and that’s where you’re completely aligned, not only with admissions, but with Student Services, with career services with the entire organization throughout the entire student journey. Right. Very, very powerful.

Shiro Hatori
Yeah, that’s great. I’m glad you followed on that. Because my question there was going to be, you know, if you’re working on retention, graduation rates, are you working with students success? And the answer is, yes, it sounds like, you know, I had another question earlier about your comments around assumptions, right. When when you’re mixing, budgeting and planning with, if you’re a marketing team with admissions and enrollment, what are some of those like common assumptions that come up that need to be addressed?

Rustam Irani
Yeah, I think, again, typically, in the marketing side, it is growth in channels. So Can Can the marketing team become more efficient with Google? Right? Can they become more efficient with SEO? Can we just drive more people to the website and get more inquiries from people that are our ideal student? You know, and it’s not a flip of the switch, as we all know. And so to really educate admissions teams to educate executives in the organization on what some of those challenges are, right? The organic landscape, the more and more schools are, especially in the online environment, the more schools are offering online for programs and you’re seeing that across the board, even some of the top universities, right, traditional universities have online programs, and it’s grown over the last three to five years. And that’s going to continue to grow. That creates more competition, right saturation. So we have to be able to showcase, hey, we’re assuming we’re going to grow X percent. But here are some of the challenges in the environment. Here are some of the challenges out there in the ecosystem. And I think those are the assumptions that need to be very clear. Sure, our target is this, but here are the things we are building into this target, just to be aware, we’re going to keep an eye on it. But we want to be aware of that. Right. So that’s kind of a an example of something that we would have a discussion, you know,

Shiro Hatori
gotcha. So it sounds like really have setting a baseline of educating and awareness building amongst both teams of what, in your specific example, like, what maybe the paid, paid advertising market is like, what the competition is, like, what the costs are like, and having that level of transparency and expectation setting across both teams. You

Rustam Irani
nailed that transparency. I mean, you know, a lot of times, I would be in conversations where it was like, Well, what’s happening? What do you guys do? And what’s your team doing? Right? What’s happening in the in the search like Google, I heard that Google is just becoming more competitive. But what does that mean? Well, being transparent, sharing the data and sharing the, you know, sharing what’s happening in the in the space and the ecosystem. And a lot of times it’s just high level, here’s where things are at, here’s a competitive landscape, you can do that pretty easily with a lot of the tools that are out there. And that’s all that’s needed. For people to understand. Okay, I get it. Our CPCs are gone up 25% year over year. And here’s why. Right, but transparency is definitely, yeah.

Shiro Hatori
Yeah. And kind of along the same topic, I know, we talked a little bit about, you know, as your experience as a consultant, also working in house as well. What are some good KPI metrics that you’d like to implement with some of your, with your clients when it comes to that increased enrollment process? Yeah,

Rustam Irani
this is one where I truly love digging in, right? And that’s probably the engineer in me. But, you know, when you look at the student journey, and you look at it as a funnel, right, you look at, you’ve got awareness, you’ve got people who are actually engaging clicking, let’s say, there’s, there’s the clicks, then when they click to your website, they’re inquiring, right? What are the percentage of clicks that are turning into inquiries on your on your site? What are they doing on your site? There’s a lot of data there and Google Analytics, right to just understand how they’re engaging with your website, where they’re going, what they’re engaging with, then once they engage, let’s say, they inquire and they’re interested in program, what’s happening afterwards? What’s the contact rate on those inquiries? Who’s reaching out to them? How often? are they reaching out to them? And are they getting in touch with them? Then from there? What are the communications that are going out to them? Let’s say they have inquired, but we haven’t been able to connect with them yet. What are the communications that are going out to them? So emails, SMS outreach? And then, you know, finally, you know, what’s the follow up? You know, and what are we doing to engage them and get them to talk to, you know, the appropriate people in admissions and the right programs? You know, as far as as far as KPIs, and that’s just kind of an overall right, high level funnel. But as far as KPIs, you know, one thing that I like to you know, when I go in one thing, I tell people right away, I say, Hey, do you know what the eighth eighth wonder of the world is? Right? I ask them, Do you know what they want? Eighth Wonder of the World is Shira.

Shiro Hatori
I don’t I don’t tell me compounding. Right?

Rustam Irani
It’s compounding. So compounding interest is supposedly the eighth wonder of the world, right? And so the way I look at that is when I look at a funnel, I say, hey, let’s build out what your funnel looks like. Exactly what I mentioned, just some of those touch points, right? And I’ll give you a perfect example how compounding is so impactful. And when I teach this to marketing teams, and when I have these discussions, it’s like it’s an absolute eye opener. So when you look at it, let’s say sure I said, hey, you’ve got your student journey or funnel right you’ve got let’s say clicks clicks turn into inquiries, inquiries turn into cash. contacts, contacts turned into applications, people were interested in your program, and then those applications turned into enrollments. And let’s just say we started, you know, from you had 50,000 clicks that came to your school’s website. Of those 50,000. We have certain KPIs, let’s say 10% of them turn into inquiries. That’s 5000. Let’s say, you know, and then you could go down the bucket, right? You can go down the funnel, right? And let’s say a 50,000 clicks, you get 50 enrollments, just just based on your current funnel. So of the 50,000 clicks, you get 50 enrollments, right? Now, let’s, let’s say if I said, Hey, Sure, I’d love to see a 10% increase in enrollments next year, right? So we want to get from 50 to 55. How can you make that happen? And you can, okay, sure, I’ll go back, we’ll work with a team and so on. And then you could get it from 50 to 55. Right, you can say we’re going to do these things, the way I like to look at it and say, every single touchpoint has an opportunity for improvement, for efficiency. And so at each touchpoint, what if I said Shiro, let’s make a 10% improvement, not just at the bottom, but across each touchpoint. Let’s improve our impression rate by 10%. Move our clicks by 10%. Let’s improve our contact rate by 10%. Our applications by 10%, and then our enrollments by 10%. Now you have 10% improvement here, that increases the next step, then you have a 10%. And at the end of the day, if you were to do that, instead of 55 enrollments, you would actually have a 46% increase, and you’d have 73 enrollments, if you just made incremental improvements, the same percentage of improvement, but across each of the funnel points. hugely impactful, that’s compounding. Right. And that’s like one of the first thing is I jump in and start to work through. And when you look at this, and there’s so many different tactics at each and every level, right? How do we improve contact rate? How do we improve the application rate could be so many different things, conversion rate optimization, you know, student journey mapping with emails, I mean, there’s just so many different things we can do there across each point in that funnel. But man, how impactful is that? When you look at it like that? That’s the beauty of compounding, right? And it and it works. It works in a funnel. And we’ve been able to do that, where we look at every single step, every touchpoint, look at those KPIs and make improvements. Yeah,

Shiro Hatori
I really enjoy that you break that down, because when I’m a marketing person myself, right, and so, you know, we’re not always just trying to shove more in at the top right, we know that there’s value in in improving our website conversion rates, improving our opportunity to close one deal, which is a Salesforce term, but basically like, it’s extra steps in the sales cycle. And so improving those conversion rates is so much more impactful than just trying to add all this extra budget at the very top. And, you know, expect such good results at the bottom. Because, yeah, you can get way further with improving the funnels between the very top and the very bottom, and officiate it. I appreciate it because you run an agency too. And like, you know, I guess the assumption I have is like, if you’re an agency, you’re really just trying to work at the top funnel, right? So let’s get you more collects. Let’s just get you more impressions. But I like that you’re also talking to the engagement points and conversion points in between there too, because those really do add a lot more value with more time but less budget, right. So yeah, appreciate that.

Rustam Irani
Yeah, that’s one of the first things we do when we start to work with a client, we map that student journey out, we look at that funnel, and then we try to find optimizations. I would much rather find additional opportunities with a current marketing budget then to try to figure out a way to increase budget. A lot of times you’d be you know, you’ve probably seen this yourself. There’s so many ways to optimize what you’re currently doing and your current efforts. And so it’s really exciting, because then when you can do that, a lot of times a school is like man, wow. So we’ve got additional budget, what are we going to do with this now? And so that’s where it can be really fun, right? Because then that’s when you can start to test things. That’s when you can start to get creative. That’s when you can kind of reinvest and to really think about scaling. So yeah, exactly. You absolutely nailed it. We don’t need more at the top you want to make want to really improve that that funnel because there’s so much there Ready? Usually,

Shiro Hatori
yeah, that’s like another example of good work. And compounding is if you get more students in your revenue based institution, then you’ll have more budget when you are, you know, increasing your enrollment and admissions as well. So it just keeps going. Absolutely

Rustam Irani
100%.

Shiro Hatori
I know you’ve you currently run an agency, you’ve worked at an agency, you’ve also been in house at a hired institution? Where do you see a lot of agencies kind of missing the mark? Or, you know, maybe not understanding their customers very well.

Rustam Irani
Yeah, and this goes right in line with what we just talked about, I think, you know, a lot of agencies try to just increase that top part of the funnel, we just need more leads, we need more leads. And, you know, without really mapping what that means down to the student level, right? And somebody actually looking at the cohorts, what are the targets for these enrollments? And, you know, what are these students look like? You know, across each of these programs, I think the other thing that’s missed a lot of times is, it’s a competitive landscape. And it’s a much different than before, you know, certain programs for certain universities, even when the brand is considered when they go online, or they are competing against some of these larger online institutions. It’s a it’s a competitive environment. So what are you truly doing to stand out? And to differentiate, right? What are those key differentiators of your program, your brand, your experience, that can really make things stick out? I think those are probably some of the main challenges that I’ve seen, you know, on the agency side, and then look, you know, we had an agency running our campaigns when I was at a school, we brought it in house. And we just really, it was just in credibly impactful, and impressed impressive to see what we were able to do with it. But again, we we nobody knew our program and product better than we did. And so we were able to take advantage of that.

Shiro Hatori
That’s, that’s great. I think that segues perfectly to my next question is like, what’s your experience building an in house team in higher ed, I know, you work on the consulting agency side. So it’s a little counter to that, but like, a lot, I think a lot institutions eventually want to move to building an in house team. Do you have any tips or advice on building that up?

Rustam Irani
Yeah, absolutely. Um, you know, again, like I said, a lot of times, it really boils down to resources, you know, you’ve got to get executive level support, you’ve got to have buy in, you’ve got to have these resources. If you truly do not have the capabilities, or the opportunity to build the capabilities and resources, then there’s nothing wrong with with working with an agency, a true agency will be a partner, an agency that’s worked in education should have a pretty good understanding. And they should ask the right questions, and they should go through your process. And they should fill out an inquiry form. And they might even want to start a class to see what that experience truly is like to to gain that right. And then, you know, what, what would you need to build in house? You know, what are those key roles right now that are not there? And you’ve really got to basically create an org chart. This is what I try to work with teams on to say, Okay, what does this org chart need to look like for your digital marketing team? That’s going to take over? And then really understanding what that current agency is doing to support you? What are they providing? Is it creative? Is it campaign management? Is it content? Right? Just kind of mapping all of that out to really understand, okay, what are what are the resources that we’re going to need there? Right, so really mapping that out? And then, you know, I think finally is, you know, finding either internally, somebody who’s been through this process of transitioning or finding an external partner that has transitioned, you know, agency work internally before. And I think that’s really important, because there’s a ton of gaps, ton of pitfalls, ton of challenges that can come out of it. But if you can work with somebody who’s kind of done it before, and transitioned it, that can pay dividends in the long run.

Shiro Hatori
Thank you. I think our audience will find it really, really helpful because I know a lot of teams are always battling between, you know, do we bring this in house or do we hire agency and yep, just giving those examples really helps people think of their situation and where to go next. So thank you for that.

Rustam Irani
Okay, yeah, sure. And one other last. The one other last thing I’ll mention there. And I think, look, it’s a competitive environment right now. That’s something to keep in mind as well. I’ve worked with clients that say we just don’t even want to bring it in house because we can’t afford the to pay, you know, digital marketers what they’re worth right now. We’d rather work with with an agency, it just doesn’t fit our model. And that’s okay. Right, but just be aware of that. Be realistic with it. You know, I think that’s very important. Yeah.

Shiro Hatori
Well, thank you so much for sharing all that insight. We’re just at about time right now. I’m wondering where our listeners can connect with you and learn more about what you’re up to?

Rustam Irani
Sure. No, I appreciate it just RDI consulting dotnet they can definitely reach out to us. They’re pretty active. I try to be active on LinkedIn. So just rested me Ronnie, on LinkedIn, please feel free to reach out connect. And if I can help. You know, I love meeting people love having these conversations and any way I can help. grateful for that opportunity.

Shiro Hatori
Yeah, and I vouch for your activity on LinkedIn, because that’s literally how we I think we connected in the comment section.

Rustam Irani
That’s right. That’s right.

Shiro Hatori
That’s exactly yeah, sure is active. Very, just as awesome. Thank you so much for joining our show today and you know, hope to catch you soon. Sounds good.

Rustam Irani
Thanks. Sure. Appreciate it. Have a great day.

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