The Shifting Importance of Direct Mail in Recruiting Students

If you’re like most college admissions departments, you’ve been putting more and more energy and resources into email and other online communication with prospective students. According to Ruffalo Noel Levitz’s new study, 2015 High School Students’ and Parents’ Perceptions of and Preferences for Communication With Colleges, in 2011, a high school student’s first communication from a college admissions department was equally likely to be a direct mail piece or an email (direct mail 45%, email 46%). In 2015, that first communication was more than twice as likely to be an email than a direct mail piece (direct mail 30%, email 65%). Given the relative cost of email and snail mail, that makes sense.

However, in the midst of that shift toward electronic communication, another surprising shift happened. In 2011, 30% of prospective students said they preferred for their first contact from a college to be a direct mail piece. In 2015, that number grew to 37%. Even as students grow more accustomed to online communication, a significant (and growing) proportion still want something they can hold in their hand.

We should point out, by the way, that students weren’t less interested in email communication, which held steady as the “preferred channel” of communication for 49% of students. The growth in preference for direct mail came at the expense of the telephone, which plunged from 22% to 13% as students’ preferred channel for a first communication.

So direct mail isn’t dying; it isn’t even ailing. The folks at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, however, offer this helpful advice regarding the use of direct mail in a multi-channel communication strategy:

Direct mail is still important, though its purpose has shifted: it can no longer be about pushing direct response. Direct mail is a great way to get your message into households and initiate family conversation. It reaches parents as well as students, and can drive them to research more about your institution online.

Email is a great way to reach an individual. But parents and teenagers don’t sit down and look at emails together. When it comes to reaching families—and you do need to reach whole families—direct mail is still a great medium.

Let's talk about your 2016 plans and developing a comprehensive communications strategy that more effectively reaches your institution's prospective students.