In online education, multiple hurdles stand between students and enrollment. Students need to feel inspired, both by the school and their own potential. They need to commit to investing in their future. Most of all, they need to not get spooked along the way.
Behavioral Science interventions can help an online school or university connect with and motivate its users.
After years in the industry, the ICON Collective – a music production school in L.A. – already had a stellar reputation. Word-of-mouth marketing and a steady line of famous alum meant prospective students were willing to wait years to get into their brick and mortar school.
But their old website wasn’t resonating with users. They needed to bring this iconic school to life online. They used behavioral science to do so.
Spot trends in traits. Make it personal.
This may not be the case for all institutions, but a specialized school might consistently attract a specific type of student. Ask admissions teams and teachers to do an informal personality assessment on their most typical students. Having this image in mind can help craft highly personal messaging.
We helped ICON conduct did the following personality assessment on its target market:
- Openness? High. A typical student enjoys novelty and adventure.
- Conscientiousness? Low. Detailed lists can feel stifling.
- Neuroticism? High. A typical student tends toward sensitivity and can be easily stressed.
By including such nuances, designers can add elements that speak directly to the persona they're writing for. For example, knowing that students tend toward adventure, but are easily stressed, the text can balance making a case toward pursuing one's dreams with the benefits of a supportive community that’s so essential to success.
When speaking to users, recognize their best selves.
When speaking to an audience, it’s essential to know what words and concepts will inspire them. According to the Behavioral Science concept called labeling, people will rise up to act in accordance with the labels we give them. Labeling someone as a good citizen, for example, makes it a bit more likely that they’ll act like one by voting.
What’s critical for each campaign’s success is knowledge of which labels will resonate with a student’s sense of self, while also inspiring action. It’s not just a question of picking out what we’d like them to respond to. We need to leave our bubble behind and actually interview the students. Ask them open-ended questions about themselves and listen closely for values.
When we did those interviews for ICON, we discovered powerful words like: Driven. Passion. Artist. Inspired. Because they’re authentically sourced, these labels have a much bigger chance of triggering the sense of belonging and inspiration in prospects.
Identity marketing. Help them see what’s already inside.
Remember the real beauty campaign by Dove? The soap bar changed the conversation about beauty and empowered women around the world by recognizing that real bodies are beautiful. When Troy Campbell, one of our Behavioral Science advisors (Editor’s note: And friend of PeopleScience!), reviewed ICON’s site, he pointed out that it was using a similar technique called identity marketing. Instead of convincing people to change, identity marketing recognizes who you already are and offers a solution that helps you unlock even more of the elements you already have.
“All research shows that people don’t want to entirely change,” says Campbell. “They want to become the person they’ve always meant to be. Jason Riis did an experiment and found that people were more likely to take a medicine when they were told it was unlocking a trait, rather than adding that trait.”
When less is more. Add a sense of urgency.
We know that people want something more when it’s unique or has only limited availability. Think about your own experience: When you’re online thinking about booking a hotel room and you see that 20 other people are also looking at that same room, don’t you feel a surge of adrenaline? Fear that, if you don’t act, it might get taken away?
We certainly don’t want to go that far with these students,* but we do want to remind them about scarcity. Not only does it prevent them from taking the school for granted, but it aligns with the school’s authentic drive to fill the class with passionate students and provide high quality support.
Introducing scarcity can be as simple as something like this:*
When you put together your next campaign – whether for a school or not – keep these critical elements in mind:
- Start with deeply knowing your persona and respecting their highest values;
- Show them how your solution is helping them become more of who they already are; and
- Create a site that speaks directly to the heart of your users.
* Editor’s note: I had been putting off publishing this piece because of this section on scarcity. I wasn't comfortable advocating for the use of scarcity, or any behavioral principle, if it approaches manipulation... or even seems to maybe, sorta, kinda hint at approaching it. Upon too much reflection, I really don’t think that’s what's happening here, but I still want to flag it for discussion.
To be very clear: I respect Shirin's work and know she's a thoughtful, grounded thinker, so this is absolutely zero reflection on her. I'm just oversensitive to the ethics of this emerging field and I use every opportunity to bring it up for conversation. This is one such time.
I often revisit our piece on dark nudges, my conversation with Dan Ariely about ethics and Richard Thaler’s three rules to avoid sludge. What do you think? About this point on scarcity or on behavioral ethics in general? Seriously, I claim no authority and these cases are worth discussing.
Email me or use the comments.