Unconverted

Once you have a conversion, that doesn’t mean game over. Your first exchange with a prospective student is only just the beginning. Nurturing leads through the enrollment funnel is a complex process.

Christina Fleming, ‘4 Quick Stops on the Road to Increase Student Enrolment

Marketing funnel diagram
Marketing funnel, found on flickr at https://flic.kr/p/9TpTcX

Colleagues in university sales and marketing, we need to talk about the language that we use when we talk about student recruitment. I work alongside you, and I’m writing this respectfully and appreciatively: you are trained and experienced, and the language that you use is part of that. So I’m writing in the hope that we can come to an understanding of what I hear when you say “conversion”. (See also: conversion rate optimisation. And win-loss analytics. And funnel. So much nope.)

First, let’s get some things out of the way. I’m genuinely comfortable that universities are run responsibly and accountably with good business practice at the forefront of our thoughts. We use public money, which is scarce, and we must use it in ways that are efficient, effective and ethical. To do what we do at all, we need students to show up, which means we need them to know we’re here and what we are trying to do. I appreciate this is why everywhere I go in my community, or when I’m browsing online, and even when I’m watching television in my own home, local universities are coming at me with messaging.

I’m not afraid of data, large or small. I’m up for analysing complex situations with measures other than anecdote and hunch. You can’t be too evidence-based for me. I’m all for tools and perspectives that genuinely help us with the complex particulate matter of our working environment, and enable us to plan and deploy our scarce resources with better outcomes for everyone. The lives of university students are tiny floating fragments of human data in the sea of university operations, and sometimes by standing back at a great distance from this we can get a sense of the directions they’re floating in, the patterns they form, the future they project. I’m here for this.

I’m also in that peculiar window: I’m both the product that you’re marketing, and the parent of someone you’re marketing at. She’s finishing high school, she’s potentially a university student of some sort in the next calendar year, she has the results and the extracurricular and the attitude you’re after, she’s attended marketing events, and actually she’s been on our campus the whole of her life since she was a tiny thing walking the corridors holding my hand and looking at names on doors of people she knows, people who come to our house. She’s an insider, a natural, a sure thing, a home run. And while we’re at home watching TV with cups of tea, she and I, I know that converting her and hundreds like her keeps me in a job. It’s a loop, it’s capitalism, it’s how things work, at least for now.

I get this.

But I’m currently working in an area of university operations, internationalisation, that needs to be especially mindful of care in recruiting. International students make our universities smarter, better places to work and learn. They bring the world forward, including for local students who haven’t had the opportunity or resources to travel. Enrolling at an Australian university comes at a cost that’s different from many domestic students. International students are living away from home, under visa conditions that make it hard to vary their pattern of enrolment if they come unstuck; they’re learning in an unfamiliar language, tangling with the social rules of an unfamiliar culture, managing a new climate,and often dealing with the rougher edges of exclusion and isolation in our communities. They have tough stories for us to hear about workplace exploitation, health problems that they’re managing without family support, and a sense that they’re not sure how to reach out to fellow students or to the staff teaching them.

Sometimes we don’t even know what their names are.

And yet they’re here, and they’re doing great things. It’s honestly good to work in this area because of the students, and because of the colleagues I work with who are committed to their wellbeing. This week I had the privilege of a conversation with a student who has come to our university from somewhere else. I asked him why. He told me: the person who held this position before me, showed up at his high school and talked to him. She listened to him. She was enthusiastic about what he would have to offer, and what he would have to gain, by enrolling in this university. Just as I am now so glad that he is here.

I believe we can hold ourselves to this standard: in listening properly to students; in remembering that the prospect of their taking on major debt to enrol at this university or another one binds us to them ethically; in insisting that the way we reach out to them must be uncompromisingly relational, respectful and open to the possibility that other choices could also be good for them. And for me it’s also about how we talk about them when they’re not in the room, and how we refer to our own processes of inviting them to join us.

Here’s the thing. The quote at the start of this blog isn’t from an Australian university, for reasons of courtesy. But we’ve all heard this language where we work. It doesn’t intend harm, it’s just a label. But in most areas of university work, especially in the humanities, we argue that language matters, and that the words we choose suggest something about the beliefs that we hold. So for me, when we speak about prospective students and their families using the borrowed e-commerce language of conversion, we slip into the trap of converting student recruitment into a competitive game that we’re seeking to win. When the language of this game descends to nurturing actual humans as sales leads through a funnel, this isn’t just complex: we have lost our way entirely.

And a final thought about how language works. Any word means what it means to you when you use it, sure. But words are also given meaning by the company they keep. So recruitment colleagues near and far, that word you keep using, it does not just mean what you think it means.

[and every trigger warning ever on that link]

2 thoughts on “Unconverted

  1. Students may, in a sense, be buying a product but that doesn’t make them “customers” – the relationship is not the same as a retail operation. Too often we all (students and staff both) simplify it to these transactional terms and then wonder why we cannot extricate ourselves from the implications of those terms.

  2. Hi Travis, good to see you here.
    Yes, I think there’s a dilemma of implication when we use the language of retail, and much of its literal architecture (especially the architecture of debt, of marketisation, finanicialisation), and increasingly universities do actually describe what we do as product.
    But whatever we call it when we market to students, there’s what comes next, which is much more like healthcare in its practices, and in some of its awkward shuffling around power and agency.
    What I feel we lose through both the retail and the healthcare model is the possibility of something more radically open to surprise, something less fixed in its expectations, that might not be viewed in narrow transactional terms, but might be (now I think about it) a bit more like art practice.
    I’m thinking this because I’m just watching videos of an art project that has something in common with a Change My View on reddit: the potential of human encounter to be open to change, rather than a contest of fixed views.
    This post is probably just a plea to the business side to watch out for the language that we use backstage, but I think you’re right to look harder at the deep implications of that language: we cannot pull ourselves back out, even when we hope to.

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