Guide to Mapping the Student Journey to Enrolment + Free Journey Map Template
I like to think that finding a study abroad feels like running a marathon, rather than a 100-meter sprint: it’s long, daunting and equally exciting; it requires good preparation, strong will, and is about personal exploration. If we as marketers were to step into prospective students’ running shoes and run their distance for a moment, we might learn to be better coaches.
From the moment a prospective student discovers your university for the first time to the moment they enrol, it will take anything between 6 and 18 months to find a fitting programme. And no wonder it takes so long: choosing a degree is a life-transforming decision which poses multiple implications for a young adult’s life and thus needs careful consideration.
It’s tempting to think about it as a single snapshot, but in fact, a student’s decision-making process could be better expressed as a timeline, spanning various touchpoints of information exchange and emotional microdecisions. During this period, students will interact with your college across various channels. They will go back and forth as they move through the different stages of their journey to enrolment.
For any university, this translates into an 18-month relationship building roadmap: It’s really hard to keep track of the student journey end to end, and even more so to keep the student’s interest alive. How can you make sure your university is part of prospective students’ decision-making cycle at every step of the way?
Mapping your students’ journey to enrolment is the key to ensure your university’s marketing and recruitment activities are following the student enrolment cycle in order to prioritise your outreach strategies. A deep understanding of the dynamic between your institution and prospective students – what is pushing them down the funnel or out of it – will incentivise an effective recruitment strategy.
What are journey maps?
Simply put, a journey map pinpoints the relationship between a user and an organisation over time and across all channels that they interact with. It illustrates the experience of a user as they travel through the various stages of getting to know a brand. Against such a map, a brand can check whether their promises and services actually help a user get a problem solved or succeed in bringing them a delightful experience.
User journey mapping has become a powerful tool for designers to visualise the customer experience and their fluctuating expectations as they move along the path to and after a purchase in order to make it logical, helpful and effective. Marketers too are adopting such maps to inform strategic planning in all of its aspects: lead generation, automation, content, outreach, and support.
The way you do that is by mirroring your activities with the needs of the user, depending on where in the decision cycle they sit.
Traditionally, marketers rely on the marketing – or sales – funnel to do that. They would run campaigns for each of the four essential stages of a user’s maturity: Awareness, Interest, Decision, and Action, the latter usually taking the form of a purchase. Today, however, it would be too simplistic to insist that the relationship between a user and a brand just ends with a purchase, or that an isolated campaign is enough to push users down that funnel.
Thanks to their user-centric and empathetic nature, journey maps are gradually replacing the traditional concept of the marketing funnel, as they establish more comprehensively the elaborate interplay between the user’s decision process and the touchpoints a business provides as it happens, case by case, student by student.
These are the key elements that comprise a journey map:
- Student journey steps
- Student goals
- Interaction touchpoints
- Experience or pain-points
In the case of higher education, we are looking into a complex flow. When a student decides they would like to study abroad, they would go through more stages and interactions, and will be faced with certain challenges and pain-points – emotional as well as rational – while searching, choosing and applying for a degree abroad.
Mapping your target personas’ journey will help you identify any weak link in your strategy, as well as strong points you can leverage to engage and attracts high-quality students to your institution.
Mapping the student journey
A student’s journey to choosing a study abroad is anything but linear. Mapping it through careful research will help you understand how it spirals exactly. A deep understanding of what students want will lay the foundation for the bespoke experience the new generation demands.
Ultimately, students want to know if and which university is the best fit for their background and goals. Broken down into steps, mapping their journey to the answer starts with identifying the key decision-making points and underlying context of the students: what they want to achieve in each phase, how they engage with your institution to obtain information, and what are their pain-points.
How do you make sure your university can build such pesonalised experience?
Identify the journey steps
The first step is to research how many steps separate students from their dream study abroad. Studyportals’ Product Innovation team has done extensive research to determine the milestones that comprise the student’s decision-making process from discovery to enrolment.
Our research shows that, on average, a student would go through 7 steps before enroling into a degree programme:
Connect students’ goals
Each journey step corresponds to an information need or a question a student is trying to answer. For example, in the discovery phase, students are trying to find reliable sources of information, most often online. In the exploration phase, they are guided primarily by finding programmes and universities that offer education in their sphere of interest.
We were able to establish that the part of the journey students consider the hardest and messiest is the Comparison stage. To give an example, some students would use notebooks and excel files to note down requirements (IELTS/TOFEL, scholarship, etc.) and deadlines.
This pointed us to the conclusion that making information easily accessible to students is critical to those first engagement moments.
Map the interaction touchpoints
Let’s adopt a student’s perspective for a moment: learning about your university should be a seamless, uninterrupted experience. They expect you to know and remember who they are, anytime and everywhere they interact with your university: when they return to your website or reach out with a follow-up question on your university’s Facebook page, technically, across every channel and touchpoint of your brand. It feels a little bit like nursing a child: you get to predict what they need and when – by studying their behaviours – and serve it to them at the very moment they look for it.
In this stage, you can make an audit of all the touchpoints your university can influence and map them out along the different steps of the student journey, to make sure no interaction slips through the cracks. Make sure you always have a contact point open for maximum engagement!
Pain-points reflect the experience a student has at each step of the journey and via a particular touchpoint, which your university should aim to resolve or improve.
A major benefit of mapping your prospective students’ struggles down the journey to enrolment is that it can help you identify and repair blind spots in your strategy. Gaps and mismatches between your marketing activities and the experience of a student can be smoothened and transformed into a more intuitive experience for applicants.
Here’s a helpful podcast that focuses on the subject.
Connect your personas and their journey
This is where personas and journey maps come together. A persona is a reflection of the person, while a customer journey map is a reflection of their experience. Use your student personas to populate your journey map. Connect their profiles to their journey goals, challenges to pain-points, channels to touchpoints, and adapt your messaging accordingly.
Using the journey map to build your strategic framework
Strong marketing frameworks are built around delivering the right message to the right students at exactly the right time. Use our Student Journey Map Template to build a scalable recruitment strategy.
Armed with a student experience map, you need to align your university’s marketing components to have a scalable strategy:
- University goals
Proactively gauge student interest
Your admissions office holds the answers to students’ most common questions, but can students readily find that information through the different sources and across all touchpoints of their journey?
Imagine instead of students reaching out to you with questions or downloading brochures, you take the lead in supplying the information even before they have started looking. With a journey map, you can anticipate student’s behaviour and effectively guide prospectives through the information jungle, step by step.
Each step of the journey to enrolment demands a different type of information. Programme information dominates the beginning of the timeline, while application guidelines dominate the end. You can address all of the student’s questions by creating a content piece for each of their pain-points and pair it to the corresponding step of their journey.
Here are a few musts from our content cheat sheet:
- Study programme – description, course content, entry requirements, rankings, scholarships, application procedure and deadline, career prospects and internships opportunities and facts about student life/university culture.
- Country and city – Give students the city experience. Based on student’s country of origin, consider information about visas, work permits and safety. Students especially coming from developing countries can be wary about levels of cultural tolerance, or just how much “at home” they may feel in a foreign country. Include key facts about the infrastructure, such as airports and public transport.
- Cost of studying abroad – Can a student actually afford to study abroad? You can help them budget by including not only tuition fees and scholarships, but also living, housing, transportation, and healthcare costs.
- Career opportunities – Give students concrete examples. They are concerned about how and if they can transition from the academic to the working world. Consider including alumni testimonials about their career paths and the types of jobs they’ve landed after graduating from a specific program.
- Life on-campus – sports facilities, social events, counseling: anything that describes the academic and social support students will need during their time abroad.
- Student reviews – you simply cannot skip this one: students want to know how other students experienced studying at your programmes. Reviews impact students’ choice just as much as affordability and employability as it helps them assess their fit with your institution.
- Housing – rising prices and the shortage of housing are one of the student’s increasing struggles. In some cities, like Amsterdam for example, students drop out of their programmes because they cannot find or cannot afford a place to stay. Offering information on a support network can increase your retention rates.
Whether you’re recruiting for a university or running a major company, you need to remember one key lesson: timing is absolutely everything.
When strategising your timing, you need to think beyond basic metrics like time on site, time of day, or month of the year. What you need to do is sync the timing of your marketing campaigns to your students’ perspectives and psychology. This caliber of analysis will enable you to deliver the right marketing message at just the right time.
Here are some sophisticated recruitment timing tricks from Studyportals’ kitchen:
- Increase your capacity to answer inquiries through automation around the peak search seasons: December-January and August-September
- Publish articles with more specific information about your university’s surrounding city or more detailed student testimonies are most relevant to prospects who are searching for a study-abroad destination rather than a discipline or programme.
- Drip email marketing campaigns are most compelling to prospective students who’ve subscribed or requested more information from your institution.
- Send scholarship information when applicants have stopped moving down your funnel
- Retarget students who’ve visited your website through Facebook or Linkedin ads when application deadlines are approaching
- Focus on brand storytelling all year round
Finally, create a timeline for your activities that is fully harmonised with the steps, goals and pain-points along the student journey, and specify the delivery method of the content pieces through the different touchpoints or channels. And voilà, your strategy is coming together!
What about tools and channels?
They are absolutely crucial components every marketing strategy should have. What do you use to deliver your message? Paid ads, social media, your website, contact forms. Those questions are as valid as they have always been.
When using journey maps, however, channels and communication tools will oftentimes overlap with the touchpoints on your student journey. As communication is a two-way process, thinking in touchpoints has the advantage of prioritising the interaction and allowing the student to pick their channels. Let the data behind the interaction points lead you to what tools or channels to use and how important they are.
It helps shift the focus from inside-out to outside-in and have a truly student-centred strategy.
Once you put all the elements into a grid system, here’s what the result would look like: