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The Prospective Student Journey is Overrated, and Other Things We Learned From Chris Aarons

I recently had the pleasure of talking about digital transformation and higher education with Chris Aarons, co-author of the WSJ best-selling book, The Digital Helix. Chris is an accomplished marketer with no shortage of bold opinions on how professionals in higher ed can get the most out of technologies like AI, big data and automation. We covered a lot of territory, from how he was able to spot the one school that clearly “gets digital” while sifting through hundreds of direct mail pieces sent to his son (7:00), to what schools can learn from Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad (15:20).

Below are just a handful of the insights I got from our conversation.

Lesson 1: Beware the Digital Veneer

“Let’s just do something” is the default mode for most of us, most of the time and, while that’s not always bad, over time it can lead to chronically superficial thinking when it comes to digital marketing.

We roll out a new CRM or put our school’s president on Snapchat and think “NOW we’re doing digital!” And that might be true, but often it’s nothing more than a glossy (and expensive) digital veneer. We haven’t innovated; we’ve simply translated our same old thinking into a digital medium and ultimately failed to explore how these technologies could have a broader, more profound impact across our entire organization.

Instead of trying to teach our president how to Snap, we’d probably have been better off asking her to spend some time getting to know the CRM and helping us think of ways we could get more value out it.

Lesson 2: Digital Transformation Won’t Just Make You Different, It’ll Make You Distinct

Standing out in a sea of similar-looking schools is a central challenge for many colleges today. According to Chris, schools that embrace digital technologies organization-wide are far better equipped than other institutions to understand why their prospects choose them, why they don’t, how they truly compare to the competition and how to showcase what they want their audiences to know about them in a customized way.

Schools that are able to effectively leverage these insights can do far more than just be a little different than the next school—they can be genuinely relevant and distinct in the minds of their prospects.

Lesson 3: The Prospective Student Journey Just Might Be Dead

Much has been said about the messy, confusing and often stressful journey students make as they conduct their college search, and Chris is deeply skeptical about the value of attempting to map such a complex and highly considered decision. Rather than following a linear journey, Chris argues prospective students develop a portfolio of experiences that’s completely unique to each individual.

As a result, he suggests schools spend less time thinking about the particular paths a prospective student might follow, and more time uncovering the nuances behind why students ultimately choose their institution. Chris recommends studying how prospects discover information, finding out where they are both physically and digitally, and looking for opportunities for your institution to show up in all those places in a way that’s more impressive and relevant than your competition.

I genuinely enjoyed my conversation with Chris, and if the handful of take-aways I’ve described here have gotten your wheels turning, you’re definitely going to want to check out the full interview episode.

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Jarrett is our VP of Strategy and the torchbearer for all things digital. Since joining us in 2014, he’s made it his mission to help clients seize the power of smarter marketing strategies—and reap the rewards.

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