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CBE in the News
Measuring Clicks, Emotions, and Brain Waves: Student Recruitment Keeps Evolving
To understand the mysterious creatures known as teenagers, it helps to observe them in their natural habitat. So last summer web designers from a Richmond, Va., company specializing in student recruitment visited a shopping mall.
Set up near the food court, they invited high-school students to participate in real-time usability tests of redesigned college applications. On laptops and mobile devices, dozens of eager volunteers logged in, answered questions, and clicked "submit."
After each test the web designers prodded. Was there any point where you were unsure of what to do? Did it feel like a quick process, a slow process, or somewhere in between? Even the smallest snag, they know, can waylay an application. Each participant got a $5 Chick-fil-A gift card; the company got valuable feedback.
Such feedback keeps the big admissions machine humming. Years ago colleges had limited information about prospective tuition-payers: addresses, test scores, intended majors. Today the multibillion-dollar recruitment industry chases nuanced data, gleaning insights not only from demographic profiles, but directly from students’ behavior.
Which parts of a website draw eyes? How many pages does a visitor click? Why do some hearts (but not others) soar on a campus visit? How might teenagers’ personalities affect their college search? Several companies now track the answers to those and many other questions. One marketing firm recently tried to gauge the effectiveness of college messaging by measuring students’ brain waves. (Sit tight, Mr. Jetson, we’ll get back to those brain waves.)
In one way or another, people are relentlessly peering inside the minds of the collegebound. The shopping-mall experiment was conducted by Royall & Company, a division of EAB (formerly the Education Advisory Board) that runs more than 300 field tests a year. That’s not counting the regular visits to high schools and malls, where sessions are often recorded on video, allowing the company to see what that 17-year-old was doing the second his face registered confusion. One thing real-time research missions have confirmed is that many students overlook "visually rich" designs (say, a prompt to visit a campus) that don’t look like the rest of a page.
Big themes can emerge from seemingly small findings, says Emily Bauer, managing director of program marketing at Royall. Students tend to say, for instance, that they don’t want to engage with colleges on social media. But solid data complicate that. "Their sense of what they will do and what they will like," Ms. Bauer says, "is often at odds with what they actually do and what they actually like."
‘A Feedback Loop’
As any parent knows, teenagers often don’t say what they’re really thinking. That can hinder effective recruitment. A recent report by Longmire and Company, an enrollment-management consulting firm, examines "hidden opinions and perceptions" that influence college choice. Better understanding prospective students, the report says, would come from soliciting their honest impressions (good and bad) of the campus. So what didn’t you like about your visit? No, really.
Maybe that sounds ridiculous. Or maybe colleges are generally bad at listening. Most students Longmire surveyed said colleges cared more about touting their offerings than understanding potential matriculants. "That’s a damning indictment of where colleges place their focus in recruiting," says Bob Longmire, the company’s president. "If all someone did on a date was talk about themselves, you probably wouldn’t go on a second date."
Colleges, especially large ones, should solicit information each time they ping students, creating "a feedback loop," Mr. Longmire says. "It’s about getting insights into students’ thoughts, feelings, and emotions." Those, the company has found, are what often shape final decisions.
And so it developed psychographic questions meant to reveal the influence of students’ personalities and attitudes. An analysis of tens of thousands of responses led to distinct profiles ("skeptical introvert," "analytical perfectionist") that Longmire includes in workshops for colleges, and that they, in turn, could use to craft personalized communications.
"The potential is there for understanding granularity," Mr. Longmire says. "When you get information that helps you define who a human being is, you can have a better conversation with Johnny about what he’s most interested in."
Outside higher education, the quest for better insights is well underway. Some marketing experts have called demographic data useless. A Netflix vice president told Wired: "Geography, age, and gender? We put that in the garbage heap." Instead, the company uses criteria like viewing history to group subscribers into "clusters," tailoring recommendations for each one based on their tastes, as determined by what they watch.
Capture Higher Ed does something similar. The Kentucky-based company touts the potential of "behavioral engagement," a fancy term for responding to what folks do online. With the company’s system, a college can track an individual user’s activity on its site. That data will customize even an anonymous visitor’s experience. You don’t need to know someone’s name to know he’s interested in engineering.
Along the way, Capture matches users’ IP addresses to information a college already has, from purchases of test takers’ names and contact information. So when a high-school student "opts in" by clicking a link in an email or filling out a pop-up window, the system syncs up her previous browsing data, and — boom! — the college can see that it’s Susie from St. Paul who’s clicked on the biology department’s page 12 times in 21 days.
Nearly 60 colleges now use Capture’s behavioral-engagement technology to communicate with prospective students. In traditional recruitment, admissions officers generally consider a high-school student worthy of serious attention (which is to say, a flood of communications) only after she somehow contacts the college, becoming an "inquiry."
But with people clicking around your website night and day, the old model misses too many opportunities, says Thomas C. Golden, the company’s vice president for data science: "Most colleges are only sending information to students who have popped up above the water, but there are many others below the surface."
So much happens below the surface. Just ask neuromarketing experts, as Robert M. Moore did. A while back, Mr. Moore, senior consultant at Lipman Hearne, a Chicago-based marketing and communications firm, wondered if neuroscience could shed some light on the best way to promote the importance of the liberal arts. (Hey, he’s a creative guy.)
So Lipman Hearne teamed up with Nielsen, a prominent neuromarketing firm, to conduct an experiment, almost certainly the first of its kind. Here’s what happened: About three dozen 18- and 19-year-olds were fitted with an electroencephalograph, or EEG, cap, which measures the brain’s electrical activity. The brave subjects were then shown various statements about the benefits of a liberal-arts education.
Loaded with electrodes, the cap registered immediate brain activity in response to specific parts of each statement. The goal was to measure the subjects’ emotional responses, "memory activation," and intensity of attention. In short, some phrases resonated more than others. The teenagers really connected with "The marketplace demands the broad-based skills developed with a liberal-arts education." That wasn’t true of "CEOs hire effective communicators and tireless collaborators with critical-thinking skills." Oh, and "gain a breadth of knowledge"? Blah. Forget about it.
So far nothing more has come of the experiment. Still, Mr. Moore thinks it’s an important reminder to colleges. "A lot of things we find ourselves saying in higher education get a big yawn from students," he says. "You really have to make sure you’re hitting the buttons that work."
If neuromarketing sounds creepy, stop reading now to avoid hearing about Mind Genomics Advisors, which, its website says, "maps how … different ideas work in your consumers’ heads." The New York company helps businesses identify distinct consumer personas, crafting precise messages to motivate each "mindset cluster."
Over the last few decades, the method has helped sell more cars and pet-insurance policies. Now the company wants to expand into the higher-education market. It has developed student personas ("independent," "personal attention"), along with the messages most and least likely to resonate with each. National University, based in San Diego, recently brought mindset-segmentation to its call center. Enrollment advisers who used it, Mind Genomics says, recruited 30 percent more students than advisers who didn’t.
"More data will not tell you what to say to someone, what will influence them," says Kenneth J. Rotondo, the company’s president and founding partner. "The subconscious mind drives decisions."
And yet it’s the conscious mind that considers a hefty tuition bill. In choosing a college, students use their heads and hearts alike. And that’s probably a good thing.
One could get lost chasing their often-fleeting desires and whims. "Ultimately, you need to find out what’s going to impact their actual behavior," says Craig Goebel, a principal at the Art & Science Group, a higher-education consulting firm. "An appealing communication doesn’t necessarily change your behavior."
Show Mr. Goebel pictures of an Audi and a Volkswagen, and he would find the former more appealing each time. But he chooses to buy Volkswagens because they’re less expensive.
Mr. Goebel and his colleagues rely on in-depth interviews with students to help clients choose which strategies to pursue. Often they require substantive changes — a new curriculum, perhaps — that will affect students’ experiences on a campus. The most meaningful moves go well beyond branding and communications strategies, he has found. Yet colleges often seek shortcuts.
"We hear it a lot: ‘If they only knew more about us, they would choose our school,’" Mr. Goebel says. "That’s dangerous to believe in."
No matter how many mind-reading innovations arise, students will surely remain somewhat mysterious. But trying to understand them better might just go hand in hand with a college’s willingness to understand itself.
THOM GOLDEN, PH.D.
VICE PRESIDENT OF DATA SCIENCE
July 27, 2017
"Most colleges are only sending information to students who have popped up above the water, but there are many others below the surface."