Episode 41: The “Death of Inquiry” and Using Transparency in Marketing with Mike Sklens

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Shiro Hatori
Awesome Hello everyone. Welcome to the higher ed demand gen podcast hosted by concept 3d. On this podcast we discuss higher ed marketing topics on creating and capturing demand. Before we jump in, we do have a quick message from our sponsors over at concept 3d. So concept 3d His purpose is to foster connections through technology, elevating the way businesses connect with the community by leveraging the power of events and location. If your school needs an updated interactive map, virtual tour or a centralized events calendar, please reach out to concept 3d dot com. So my name is Shiro Hatori, and I will be your podcast host today. And today I’m super super excited to introduce our guest. Today’s guest also has experience with podcasting. And fun fact started his journey all the way from the mailroom, and is now serving as the Director of Marketing Strategies for undergraduate recruitment at Syracuse University. Please welcome mice Glen’s.

Mike Sklens
Hey, thanks so much for having me, Shiro. Real pleasure.

Shiro Hatori
Thank you, Mike, for joining as well. And I do love to set the conversation with a quick icebreaker. And that is what do you love about higher ed.

Mike Sklens
So I think I’d have to say, I think there’s two things I really like about higher ed, it’s an industry that I didn’t plan to go go in an industry that I didn’t plan to go into. But it’s one that I found myself in and really, really found a passion for it. The first thing is, I just love having a connection to the students, you know, it’s a, it’s an industry where you can work in and you can see the impact you’re having on students every day. And I really love that aspect of it. And the other thing I love, specifically, since I work in enrollment marketing, I just I love the admission cycle, I love how we get to repeat it, you know, every year we’re repeating the same cycle, and it lets us really grow and learn from the past and improve for the future. I think that’s something that other industries can’t always say they have, you know, you might be marketing a product, and you might finish a product marketing cycle, and then have to move on to an entirely different product and can take very little knowledge with you from the last one. But with higher ed, enrollment marketing, it’s it’s the same thing. You know, students are always graduating high school, and we’re always speaking to that audience of high school juniors, high school seniors, we can just learn a little bit every year and get a little bit better.

Shiro Hatori
Thank you imagine it, you know, everything’s changing so quickly right now to it. So it’s exciting time to be in higher ed. Exciting. And

Mike Sklens
yeah, yeah, for sure. I mean, the pandemic, especially, like just hit the gas on a lot of stuff with higher ed. And it’s, it’s exciting, right, for sure.

Shiro Hatori
That’s amazing. Thank you so much for sharing that. And in our previous intro call, you know, we talked about a lot of stuff, you’ve tons of experience in all sorts of fields. One thing that really stuck out to me, you know, is an ongoing theme and topic is meeting students where they are. And we had some great conversations about that. One interesting, unique perspective you brought up was around the depth of the inquiry. And I like the way you said it’s punchy line, but can you tell us a little bit more about what you mean by that?

Mike Sklens
Yeah, the depth of the inquiry is, I guess, a term we started throwing around at Syracuse, about a year ago, we were looking at our junior search campaign, and noticing that today’s students, they just don’t seem as willing to submit a request for information form as maybe prior generations of students did. So we’ve been really cutting, we’ve been really trying to dissect that behavior and understand why, why we’re seeing it. And I think what we’re circling around on here with the depth of the inquiry is that if you look at, you know, enrollment marketing, or the college search process from, you know, 1015 years ago, if you were a student, and you’re in high school, and you’re trying to learn more about a university, you kind of hit this point where the only way you’re going to learn more is to go ask the university to send you information. Right, right. And that behavior is changing the whole information landscape is entirely different than it was 1015 years ago. Every piece of information about a school is very easily accessible on the internet, you don’t need to say, you know, hi, Syracuse, I’m interested in you, can you please send me a brochure, that brochure is online, you can download the PDF, you don’t need to fill out a form to get it even. And even outside of, you know, university websites. If you search any university on Google, the search results page has that, that that panel on the side and it now gives you an absolute, like wealth of information about a university. So we’re finding or at least we’re starting to believe that students are not feeling the need to request information anymore, right? They they can get almost or maybe even absolutely everything they need by doing their own searching on plug, you know, digging around on of course, the university’s website, but then also looking at you know, College Board, Princeton Review niche.com All of these many channels that are out there that help you in your college search process. They’ve got all the information. And it’s really absolutely no longer an unnecessary step to ask the university to send you anything, which is having a direct impact on the number of inquiries that universities are receiving. We know there were else. We’re also seeing, as a result of this arising in stealth applications, you know, the applications coming from students who have never really expressed any prior interest in the university, they might have, you know, and probably have done a ton of research, they might have hit your website, you know, a dozen times before they applied. But at no point in that journey, did they fill out a form and say, I’d like to learn more, they just did all their learning. Right, put us on their shortlist. And when the application opened, they submitted it. And that’s the first time we really ever saw them, even though in the background. They’ve been looking at us for months.

Shiro Hatori
That’s amazing. Thanks for explaining that as well. In so, you know, is if you’re shifting away from using inquiries as a as a KPI or a goal indicator, are you shifting more of the focus? You know, to the more bottom of the funnel conversions like trying to speak to an admissions counselor? How are you defining new goals?

Mike Sklens
Yeah, I mean, I think we’re definitely still looking at the number of inquiries we’re bringing in, we’re just kind of looking at it with that context. And that understanding that maybe the audience isn’t as apt to want to do that. I think we are paying more attention a little further down the funnel to the number of applications that we’re receiving. Now, in the last couple of years, we’ve noticed, you know, maybe we’re not, we’re not smashing prior records on inquiries. But our applications have grown every year in the last, you know, I’ve been at Syracuse for about a year and a half. But I’ve seen the prior data, the applications we’ve received, they’ve gone up every year. So it’s it’s not that, you know, we’re it’s, give me a sector rethink this? Yeah, it’s not that students are losing interest, right? It’s not that students are losing interest, it’s just that they’re not signaling it the way they used to. So they’re still, at the end of the day, they’re still submitting that application. So I think that’s kind of shifted our metrics a little bit, we pay more attention to the number of applications we received. And if the inquiries are down, it’s certainly something we’re paying attention to. But it’s not raising the red flags that it maybe would have raised in the past, because we’re still seeing further down that funnel, the movement is still there.

Shiro Hatori
The bottom line is still increasing, even though you’re seeing shifts in that increase. Count. Gotcha. Yes. That’s interesting. And are you still able Are you more in the dark now that you’re you’re not having this, like middle step or goal that used to really be one of your strong metrics for understanding admissions enrollment.

Mike Sklens
I think we are a little bit more in the dark in that regard. Not totally in the dark, you know, there have some other there’s some other methods that you know, have come up in more recent years, you know, Cookie tracking, and a lot of admissions, CRM platforms can track a student’s visits to your website, even before they’ve even before they’ve existed as a record in your database, right. And then once they exist in that in that database, because maybe they did eventually fill fill out a form or they registered for a tour, or they just submitted an application, all of that historical data does populate on their record. So you can do some data mining there. But you have to do it later in the process. You know, it’s not there at the point in time, it’s only there kind of at the end of the cycle, you can look back retrospectively and see the funnel movement was there, it just wasn’t visible at the time. We also have, you know, other methods we can do. We do user testing on our websites, you know, we survey our admitted students, we, you know, we we run focus groups. So we’ve got other things, other methods of trying to understand student behavior, even if they aren’t as crystal clear, as you know, we received this many inquiries this week. And, you know, here’s the growth year over year, etc.

Shiro Hatori
Gotcha. And for thinking of exactly what you said, around data mining, understanding students journeys before application and your role as undergraduate recruitment. Like are there trends you’re noticing, like, you said that students are doing a lot more research on their own, and they’re finding all the information they need. Now, that doesn’t require the inquiry, like, how are you taking the approach to understanding what information to continue to display or to better display like? That was probably a huge question, but hopefully,

Mike Sklens
yeah. So a good example of how we’re kind of reacting to this behavior with the audience is our Jr. search campaign last year. It was built around a very traditional marketing landing page where it Look at you know, any guidance on how to put together a landing page, it says it should be reasonably light on content so the user doesn’t get overwhelmed. And it should have a very strong call to action to make sure they get to that form. And they submit that form. And there shouldn’t be any way to leave that page. Because if they leave that page, they’re not coming back, right, and then they’re not going to fill out the form. But you know, we saw a decrease in inquiries last year, and we followed that method, and it didn’t really succeed for us. So we’ve gone back to the drawing board on it for our upcoming Junior search campaign. We listened to our users, we had a we did some user testing on that landing page after the facts to figure out, you know, what we could have done better. And we heard from the users that we tested with that they didn’t feel comfortable submitting the form, and that they would only feel comfortable submitting it if they actually could learn a little bit more beforehand. So you know, before we were kind of doing this, this very traditional, like, give us your contact info, and then we’ll give you the information. Now, we’re trying to switch that around. So with our our junior search campaign that’s upcoming about to launch, I think, actually, next week, we have a new landing page, it’s a public page, it’s our first year students page, it’s a it’s already the 14th most trafficked page on our flagship website. So we know it’s a place that students were already going to. And it’s a place that has links to other pieces of information, you know, you can click on a link and see admission requirements, you can click on a link and see about campus life, you can click on a link and learn about academic programs, all of those will take you away from that page. But we know that the students are going to do that learning on their own. We’ve also on a lot of those pages, including that destination page, we’ve added an always on form. So if the student is ready to fill out the form, it’s there, it’s ready, it’s waiting for them. If they’re not, that’s okay, we can still invite them to learn about the university, on their own terms at their own pace with the understanding that if they pick up that knowledge, they are still more likely to submit an application even if they skip over that inquiry step in the middle.

Shiro Hatori
Huh, got it interesting. Now, that’s a very specific example. Thank you so much for sharing that. And I love how you’re going a little bit more into the strategies and the tactics here, you know, landing pages, using different metrics, like are there other strategies that you’re working you’re seeing that are working right now, in today’s climate?

Mike Sklens
I think personalization is really important with this audience, you can pick up any number of white papers, you know, from any of the major players in this industry. And I think almost all of them will say something about how your efforts need to be more personal, you can’t send out a generic email blast to however many 1000s of students, you’ve got to segment that audience down, you’ve got to insert some, you know, Conditional Text in the middle of that language that instead of it saying, check out our 200 majors, you know, we already know the students interested in engineering. So we can put some custom text in there. And that says, check out our engineering majors, check out you know, these engineering opportunities at the university, not just check out the university in general, anything you can do really to get personalized, timely information out to this generation seems to help move the needle with them. Not to say that it didn’t with prior generations, but it seems to work more with Gen Z,

Shiro Hatori
is is chat and like website chat, also a big channel or growing channel for you as well. Or how are you seeing?

Mike Sklens
I think so it’s starting we, we have a chat bot enabled on on tons of our pages, both for external audiences, like prospective students, and also for internal audiences, your IT department has a chatbot that can help you if you need to fix something with, you know, your connection to the campus network or something like that. So we are seeing good engagement with our chat bot, it’s, it’s a useful tool, you know, it can also kind of be a way to collect inquiry data that way, you know, it can be configured to actually collect the data in a chat format, which is, you know, different than feels different than filling out a form. But at the end of the day, it is still getting the inquiry information into your CRM.

Shiro Hatori
Yeah, I was just gonna say, like, are asked, you know, how is chat being tied into your enrollment and the depth of inquiry? Are you counting those as inquiries? If the information you get is, let’s say the same exact as a traditional inquiry form?

Mike Sklens
Yeah, yeah, we would, you know, it’s, it’s very explicit, right? When you’re in the bar, you’re saying, I would like, you know, it’s pre populated with a couple of topics. Obviously, you can ask it whatever you want. But one of the pre populated topics is join our contact list. And that walks you through the process or sends you to a form. So you’re, you know, actually, you’re still definitely opting in. It’s not, it’s not like a trick on our part.

Shiro Hatori
That’s cool. That’s great. You know, I think on our last call, I was actually very surprised when you share that a lot of students that applied actually don’t ever visit campus. And that was really interesting. I definitely went to my top choices. When I was In that process? So I’m curious, like, what are some of the ways you’re getting, like dealing with that? Or are you trying to get more students on the campus? Are you okay with that metric, since you’re not seeing a huge decline in admissions in applications?

Mike Sklens
Yeah, and we know, you know, I think anyone in enrollment marketing will tell you, if you get a student on campus, the likelihood of them choosing to submit a deposit and enroll at your university, just it goes right through the roof. So we understand the importance of the campus experience. As a private university, you know, we, we have a much broader reach than than a public university, if you go to any public university, the campus population is absolutely dominated by students from that state. But as a private school, you know, we’re in New York, obviously, New York students are a huge portion of our, our population, but not compared to the public universities in New York, right? We’re pulling a number of students from California, you know, from from Texas, from Florida, internationally, we have about I think 29% of our undergraduates are international. So we have a pretty broad reach as a private institution, because the financials don’t change, right, you know, if you’re from California, are you from New York, the tuition is the same. So it changes our audience significantly in that regard. And because of that, it’s a lot harder for these students to get to campus, right? If you’re in New York, you know, even if you’re in New York City are about four hours away from Syracuse. So it’s already, you know, probably a weekend trip for you to come check out the university. But if you’re in California, you know, that’s an air that’s an airplane, and a rental car and a hotel. And the financial burden goes up pretty fast, especially for, you know, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who we really want to try and support, we know they are having the hardest time of all to visit campus. You know, everyone, of course, also has to consider just the logistical constraints, your parents have got to take time off work to come visit campus with you, that can’t always be easy. It’s, it’s, there’s so many challenges for a student to get to campus, especially if they’re not from the immediate region. So we are, you know, we’re thinking of ways to work through that. The pandemic, you know, silver lining is that it brought zoom to the forefront, it brought all these virtual experiences to the forefront. So we have a virtual tour, it can give you a sense of at least what the campus looks like, even if it can’t really, you know, you’re not going to feel the wind going through your hair on a virtual tour, right. But you can at least see the facilities. And you can see, you know, the beautiful environment, we go a little further than that, we of course, have online virtual info sessions. Some of those will be you know, more targeted, like at a specific major, or specifically at international students. And then we’ve also started moving into online sample classes, which we’re seeing, you know, the students who are joining them, there’s not a ton of options for them right now. But the students who join them report back that they’re very insightful and very helpful in getting them to learn about the university and understand what it’s really going to be like to study there. You know, sometimes it’ll be like sitting in on an existing lecture, some of the times the faculty members will put together a custom lecture just for this virtual online sample class. But it’s a really great way to showcase our faculty and to showcase that kind of knowledge you’re going to be exposed to do at the university, even if you can’t physically get here to see it.

Shiro Hatori
That’s amazing. And and are you seeing like, in terms of the the process of student enrollment, like, where does that fit into the journey? Is that, you know, before or after inquiry, if you’re traditionally speaking, or is that open to anyone? Like, how does that fit into the student recruitment process?

Mike Sklens
So there, we offer them in the fall and the spring and in the fall, it’s definitely more focused on you know, prospects and increase student or maybe students who have submitted an application and are just, you know, waiting to learn more, in the spring, you know, especially coming up around the corner with our yield period, they’ll definitely be the audience will just shift and there will certainly be a higher proportion of actually admitted students who are trying to make their final decisions.

Shiro Hatori
Oh, wow. Okay. So it’s a it’s a tactic to help increase yield, as well. Got it and not just as a as a way to get students in the door in the first place. Gotcha. Yeah, it

Mike Sklens
can definitely help in both aspects in both the search phase and in the yield phase, although I do I do think we are seeing more volume at the search phase. But you know, we’re higher up in the funnel there. There’s more students in the funnel at that point. Once we get down to the yield phase, you know, we’re down to like something around 10,000 admitted students compared to like, 40,000 applications.

Shiro Hatori
Wow. Okay. Gotcha. Thank you. Thanks for sharing that. Awesome. And, you know, I’m just curious. Also, in your day to day I talked to schools of all different sizes, regional schools, community colleges, for person marketing teams. I know. Turkey is a much bigger school, tons of undergrad students. Can you tell me a little bit about like the dynamic of the teams there? I’ve just I think our audience would be very curious around how things are centered and structured.

Mike Sklens
Yeah, I think, you know, I’ve obviously only worked at two universities. But I’ve from what I can see just from you know what, talking to other people, online industry conferences, etc. It feels like Syracuse’s marketing arm is quite robust. I mean, we take up a floor and a half of a reasonably large building that used to be a Furniture Warehouse downtown that the university bought and converted into a real floor and a half. And the rest of it is our College of Design, right in the heart of downtown Syracuse. So we have somewhere between I want to say roughly around like 60 to 80 employees in our marketing division, you know, spread across multiple teams focusing on, I’m on our marketing strategy team, we have a content strategy team, we have a digital development team. We have also a photography team, we have a video team, we have, you know, traditional team of designers. So it’s we are essentially like a full on marketing firm, except that our only client is the university and its various colleges and departments, which is great. We don’t have to go out hunting for for contracts, right? They all we’re all just partners, one big happy orange family,

Shiro Hatori
you have one solid customer for hopefully, the entirety of your lifespan. Great. That’s awesome. And in, are you also responsible? Like what are some of the KPIs and roles that your metrics that you’re responsible? I am assuming student recruitment enrollment is one of their other measurements that your your team is measured on?

Mike Sklens
Yeah, so I mean, obviously, the the enrollment departments enrollment goals are absolutely a Northstar for us, because our, at least in my role, my function is almost entirely to help support them in meeting their goals. But then, of course, we have our own internal goals that we’re looking at, we’re really looking at, you know, engagement with our digital marketing campaigns, sentiment and engagement on social media. You know, I think probably things you’ll see across the industry that we’re, we’re looking at, of course, our website metrics, you know, time on page, number of pages visited in a session, et cetera, we’re doing is really as much as we can to be very data driven, because there’s so much data out there, and it’s incredibly useful to help understand your audience.

Shiro Hatori
That’s incredible. Yeah. Is there? Are there metrics that you really report upward? Like, obviously, like maybe like, click through rate, engagement time and pager, are numbers may be hard to explain to your senior level executives, like, what are this messages? And where are the ways that you’re communicating information to them?

Mike Sklens
Yeah, so we send out monthly reports on any of our major digital campaigns. So those go up through the leadership, we also report to our board, of course, we have a record early report that goes out to the board and to our Dean’s, where we kind of summarize things and make it a little more explainable. So it’s not, it’s not a document that’s just full of spreadsheets. It’s you know, it’s got text in there that provides context to our efforts. It can show you know, where we’ve been, where we are, where we’re going, how we’re moving the needle and what strategies we’re using, that we’re seeing the most effectiveness with.

Shiro Hatori
Got it. Well, thank you so much. Thanks so much for all that knowledge share and your unique perspective on where inquiries are going. It’s super, super helpful for me to understand and our audience as well. I was wondering where some of the listeners could connect with you.

Mike Sklens
Yeah, if you’re looking to connect with me, you want to see my, you know, hear my thoughts on higher ed marketing especially, definitely check me out on LinkedIn. Pretty easy to find me because I’m, as far as I know, I’m the only myself and my family are the only people in this country with my last name. So you can just pop Mike’s Glenn’s into LinkedIn, and you’ll definitely find me.

Shiro Hatori
That’s awesome. Really. You couldn’t find anyone else?

Mike Sklens
No, I’ve searched multiple times. That’s incredible. Okay, cool,

Shiro Hatori
then I’m happy to get right on the first one. That’s great. Well, thank you so much, Mike. And thank you so much for listeners for joining us today. Please catch us again on the next episode. And we’ll talk then, thank you so much again, Mike.

Mike Sklens
Yeah, thanks for your great talk. All right.

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