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There's No Such Thing as a Stealth Applicant

Tony Fraga

If you have ever worked in an enrollment office or marcomm department for any educational institution, you’re probably already familiar with the term “stealth applicants” — a term commonly used to refer to applicants who show up in the system without any previous interaction with your brand. 

Enrollment managers, admissions officers, and higher ed marketers alike have used this term for many years to describe the seemingly unstoppable force of a certain number of prospective students that will essentially fly under the radar and appear at the application stage of the admissions process.

In the past 14 years of working with schools of all shapes and sizes, I have heard statements like, “Well there are always some stealth applicants that will come into the applicant pool.” Or, “We’re seeing more stealth applicants than ever before, so we can’t really count on certain marketing tactics.” 

Well, I’m here to let you in on a secret about stealth applicants — they don’t actually exist anymore!

Yes, I’m aware that this statement may not agree with the lists of applicants that you cannot associate with any marketing source or previous engagement with your school, but just because you don’t know where an applicant came from doesn’t mean they didn’t interact with your brand.

In the past, decades ago, it made sense to use this term because enrollment marketers simply did not have the technology tools to track prospect journeys like we do today. But as we approach the 3rd decade of the 21st century, there are several important reasons why you should let go of this outdated concept.  

Think about it...do you really believe that any applicant just wakes up one day and starts an application at your school without a single engagement with your brand, your content, or your people? Maybe one in a million...but for the rest of them, that’s just not true.

The fact is that we know prospects are engaging with our content and our brands before they ever start an application —you just may not be able to pinpoint what exactly they are reading and where they are going for information as they mentally go through the stages of the applicant journey.

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The Problem with Believing in Stealth Applicants:

In one sense, allowing stealth applicants to be a regular piece of your applicant pool is a self-fulfilling prophecy. They exist by the very fact that you don’t happen to know where they came from, but that is only true because of a limited tracking capability. By having the bucket available at all, it makes it normal to place certain applicants there — specifically any applicant that your current tracking system does not account for. But if you never look at your system for tracking prospects, your school will never know if it could identify the source and touchpoints your stealth applicants came from. 

There is a growing sentiment in higher education that people are more tech savvy, and somehow that means they are able to just find the application and not engage with any marketing content. And that’s true when your enrollment communications are limited to linear email comm flows and viewbooks.

If the scope of your marketing tactics is limited to the traditional communications that most schools use, then yes, keep believing in stealth applicants because — by that definition — they exist for you.

But if you realize that today’s prospects are more research-prone and hyper-connected than ever before, then you should agree with the fact that “stealth” only means you aren’t aware of  the content your applicants DID engage with.

In other words, it’s only a relatively narrow way of looking at the applicants your system doesn’t happen to track — but you understand that they did, indeed, engage with your brand in meaningful ways that certainly impacted their choice to start an application at your school.

Marketing Technology Has Changed, Even if Your School Hasn’t:

The answer to eliminating stealth applicants comes down to marketing technology. Today, in the education world, there are dozens of marketing tech tools that will enable you to track your applicants’ journeys going back to way before they ever even hit your application page. The question is...do you know how to get this information?

If you work at a school that uses the term stealth applicants fairly regularly, in almost all cases your school suffers from one of the following two critical failures of enrollment marketing:

CRITICAL FAILURE #1 — You have severely outdated marketing technology tools, or…

CRITICAL FAILURE #2 — You have great marketing tech tools, but you’re using less than 20% of those tools’ capabilities

If you work at a school that falls into Critical Failure #1, you need to be advocating for better enrollment marketing tools as a major priority. You need a solid application CRM, and you also need state-of-the-art marketing automation tools. These tools need to include more than just the ability to execute email communications flows. They need to be able to publish content, manage social media (paid and unpaid), create quick and simple landing pages, and track all marketing sources as traffic drivers to key pages and forms. 

If your situation is more similar to Critical Failure #2, then you have a few options to consider:

  • Find more time yourself to learn how to use more of your tech tools
  • Get more time from other staff who can be dedicated to learning how to utilize more of your tech tools 
  • Hire outside help from professionals who know how to leverage these tech tools to your advantage

Either way, if you’re stuck in a CRM system that you aren’t utilizing very well, my recommendation is to be really honest with yourself and your team. Ask yourself WHY you are not using the full system and taking advantage of all of its features. Is it because it’s too complicated? Is it because you are juggling way too many tasks and lack the time? Do you love your CRM system...or not? 

I’m a big believer that you (or your enrollment team) has to love the system and tools you are working with. If not, get rid of it and find one you like! You need a powerful CRM system that will empower you with the data you need to make informed, effective marketing strategy decisions.

The reality is that the opportunity cost of not utilizing your technology tools in the way they were meant to be used — i.e. to track prospect engagements before they apply, and to know what sources led to their engagements — is extremely high. In 2020 and beyond, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic, your school is wasting money by not knowing this information about every single applicant.

Eliminating Stealth Applicants = Less Enrollment Marketing Waste:

Let’s be honest: in enrollment marketing, there is a lot of wasteful marketing expenditures, and for some schools, the wasted dollars are in the hundreds of thousands! There are many reasons for this, and I certainly don’t have the time or space to speak to all of them in this post, but I do want to acknowledge an underlying factor that I believe contributes to nearly all wasted marketing investments — the lack of source-tracking information on applicants and enrolled students.

I’m going to be brutally honest about education’s biggest challenge in this decade...and it’s not the President, nor is it the economy, nor is it the rising social sentiment against student debt, nor even the decline of birth rates contributing to a smaller student population to recruit into schools. And yes, the coronavirus pandemic has been a huge curveball this year, but it only highlights the need to combat the broader hurdle we face.

The biggest challenge facing the education industry is wasteful spending on “marketing stuff that doesn’t work” and that is fueled by a lack of information connecting top-funnel marketing to bottom-funnel results. I say this as an education marketing consultant whose primary job is to actually do that “marketing stuff.” I’ve learned firsthand the difference between “stuff that works” and “stuff that doesn’t”...but more importantly, I’ve been appalled at how many schools simply are not able to account for the real ROI of major marketing expenditures.

It’s not okay for schools to spend $300,000 with a digital advertising agency and have no idea how many applicants came from those efforts.

It’s not okay for schools to spend $20,000 on a direct mail event invitation to an outside list of prospects, and not know how many RSVP’s came from that tactic.

It’s not okay for schools to spend $62,000 on the salary of a “social media specialist” who spends 80% of his time posting organic and paid social promotions, and not know how many applicants engage with that content.

If schools eliminated stealth applicants and took the time to execute enrollment marketing plans in ways that tracked applicants and enrolled students all the way back to each and every marketing engagement, they would have the source-tracking information they need to spend their budgets smarter and reduce a serious amount of waste in the industry.

The only thing worse than stealth applicants is “stealth marketing campaigns” — marketing efforts that happen “under the radar” and are thus not held accountable to some sort of bottom-line metric. Those kinds of rogue enrollment marketing initiatives are typically the result of internal battles for control between enrollment managers and marketing/communications teams, and they are often self-perpetuated by vanity metrics and the fear of not doing those tactics.

The good news is, you don’t have to settle for allowing stealth applicants to be a part of your school’s culture. Take the step to invest in better technology tools and systems now so that you can connect every marketing action to a meaningful and trackable outcome.

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Topics: Enrollment Marketing, Marketing Analytics

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