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The Ultimate Channel: Word of Mouth Reigns Supreme in Institutional Brand-Building

Harnessing Word of Mouth

“Word of mouth” continues to be a popular means for prospective students to learn about colleges, particularly their diversity initiatives. This came as somewhat of a surprise, although it shouldn’t have, since that was how I learned about my alma mater, which I enrolled at a quarter century ago. My guidance counselor was the first to put me on to Clark University, a 4-year Liberal Arts, research-based university in Worcester, MA, that I had never heard of before she added it to my list. Since there wasn’t a ton of trust in that relationship, I was weary of it until I talked to the principal’s daughter who was a senior at the university. When I visited the campus, I didn’t even go on the tour. I chose, instead, to talk to students on the campus because I felt like tours and information session panels were curated. Apparently, this approach is still a thing.

I work at a high school so I hear from many students every year who are applying to college. When I ask the question of how they learn about their options, the usual response is a parent, sibling, relative, friend, or somebody they know at the college or university that is of interest. The second most common response is social media, namely Instagram and TikTok. It’s rare that their search ever starts with the web even though it ultimately gets there, and is very important for digging deeper. The web comes in after their curiosity has been piqued. For students with identities that have been historically underrepresented on college campuses, asking others with whom they identify how they are experiencing a campus makes complete sense. There’s a general awareness that it’s crucial to hear from people with whom they can relate when they’re learning about a new community. 

For students with identities that have been historically underrepresented on college campuses, asking others with whom they identify how they are experiencing a campus makes complete sense.

Since word of mouth is such a prevalent way for prospective students to learn about colleges and universities, institutions ought to harness it. When I worked in college admissions, we often enlisted current students to help with overnight stays and panels during yield events. I used to prep my hosts and panelists with talking points to make sure they were able to answer some frequently asked questions. What I didn’t do back then was host regular sessions with current students who didn’t work or volunteer, in the admissions office to discuss how they could assist the university with recruitment through word of mouth. 

While this may appear to be a daunting task, it doesn’t have to be. College students will show up anywhere there’s free food, and school pride is a thing. Inviting students to partake in regular sessions to learn how they can help their college or university yield students with  common interests, particularly if it’s a population they identify with, is not such a tough sell when they can get a free meal out of it. In these sessions, they can learn stats and facts to relay to prospective students—and learn more about what the institution offers in the process.

Cohesion (i.e., aligning all platforms and tactics in a common strategy) is key in marketing. Repetition is everything if a particular message is going to stick. A lot of effort is placed on web presence, and in some cases, social media. And it should. Both are really important communication tools that universities and colleges take time to carefully curate. However, one of the most powerful opportunities for any institution just might be to thoughtfully take more proactive steps to harness word of mouth due to its prevalence and powerful influence.  In fact, one might argue that the most authentic and relatable input for a prospective student is the sharing of current, personal experiences by the community of peers that a prospective applicant would most like to get to know.

Cohesion (i.e., aligning all platforms and tactics in a common strategy) is key in marketing. Repetition is everything if a particular message is going to stick.

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