The Higher Ed Podcast Series: Marketing to Passive and Active Responders

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By now, higher education professionals are well aware that 2020 enrollments are down due to COVID-19. Having spent the first part of the year figuring out how to survive and operate during a pandemic, higher ed professionals are looking forward to determine how to attract prospective students to their universities despite the major hesitation that students are feeling about college right now. Engine’s latest white papers have addressed some of these topics by offering insights on how to make up for enrollment gaps and how to effectively market to prospective students. On top of that, this week’s Higher Ed Podcast guest Shannon Yerkic addresses the differences in active and passive responders, and why marketing to your school’s ideal demographic is so important.

As the CEO of Trumantra Education Group, Yerkic is well aware of what it takes to entice and enroll students, especially right now in the COVID-19 era. He indicates that “It’s more important than ever, not only to attract candidates, and the right type of candidates, but also hold them. And really what we’re going to talk about… What I’m going to advocate today works not only in the industry element, but also the professional developments, and also in your personal life because the same skill sets apply whether you’re talking in admission rooms, career services, the financial aid, the education sector, or even with your employee personal development and personal lives.”

Shannon, Kamaar and Geroge primarily discuss the concept of marketing to active and passive responders in higher education. Our latest white paper explains the necessity of creating the ideal student profile, and Shannon provides the perfect example of why knowing this information can be valuable in the admission process. In his case, many of TruMantra’s students are passive responders, which is why Shannon considers them most heavily in his marketing strategy.

What is the Difference Between a Passive and Active Responders? 

Yerkic uses himself as an example of an active responder, indicating that he can be impulsively driven into action by products that are tangibly in front of him that give him instant moments of satisfaction, such as a candy bar or magazine in the check-out line of a grocery store. Marketing college to active responders is a bit tricky because it’s not a tangible product that offers direct results and satisfaction, but rather a long-term investment. And perhaps what’s even more troublesome is the fact that active responders who jump to make impulsive decisions can be detrimental to higher education institutions. Although they may bring quicker and easier enrollment rates, they might also increase attrition rates since active responders are more likely to lose interest in their decisions and drop out once that interest dies. Marketing to students who aren’t likely to complete a program causes adverse effects on colleges and universities as it impacts retention and, ultimately, compliance.

Passive responders, on the other hand, are those who wait a long time before they even think about committing to a program. Yerkic describes his own institution’s student demographics to outline what a passive responder looks like: “For us, they’ve been thinking about maybe going to school 16-18 months before they ever privately and personally input in that sensitive information into a computer. And when you think about that, that’s alarming because we have a student that, by and large, could come to us complete our programs twice over before they ever engage us for any type of interest or information.” But ultimately, passive responders are the ones who are more likely to make an informed, well-thought out decision that they will follow up with. They are the ones that are harder to get but are easier to keep in the long run.

Communication Between Different Kinds of Responders 

Active responders are more likely to see a deal and confront someone to talk about it. They want that quick and fast communication. If they see a college that piques their interest, they might pick up the phone that very day to call it and start asking questions. George describes them as “very transactional, it’s very much what people are historically used to, here’s the benefit sheet, ‘m going to hit you with all the pros, and it’s going to be very transactional.”

Passives, on the other hand, would prefer to avoid that confrontation. They’re going to wait longer to put personal information in, and then they’ll wait to hear back. And they likely won’t want to hear back right away as a mark of an aggressive marketing campaign- they’ll want to wait a little bit to talk further with an organization. Shannon explains that learning how to engage with these prospects on their level has been crucial for TruMantra, as they represent up to 70% of his schools’ student population. “Knowing how to engage them, how to convert them, and really how to compel them forward is essential not only to building your population, but also earning on your population.”

How to Successfully Engage with Passive Responders 

To start with, passive responders are most comfortable in the digital realm where they don’t have to converse with anyone. They respond best to information from university websites, social media, SEO rankings and pay-per-clicks. Shannon explains that the hardest part that comes from these profiles is maintaining continued engagement: “Once we engage them, the real difficult element [that] comes in play is how do we captivate them? How do we capture them? How do we get them to commit to something, because they’re the hardest to commit. But once they commit, they’re the strongest in converting and staying and retaining and completing.” From there, “a lot of it has to do with knowing how to engage our candidates on the initial conversation, and it goes into so often we want to engage, and we want to talk, [but] we don’t want to listen.” What Shannon means is that it’s important to listen to them and engage in open-ended conversations, so it doesn’t feel like an interview where they get nervous and clam up and shut down. Engaging in open ended conversations where candidates can talk about their lives leaves greater room for admissions counselors to show them how enrolling may help them progress. George explains that passive responders are “a lot more emotional in terms of their decision making.” Aligning the recruitment and admissions process to this frame of mind will give it a more personal and authentic approach that can really entice hesitant candidates and help them gain confidence in their decision making.


Understanding the difference between passive and active responders is crucial for any marketing department, and especially in college admissions. Having representatives that can adjust to different personalities and perspectives and engage with them on their level will allow for more authentic interactions that can positively represent your organization and its values.

While Shannon focuses on passive responders to fit the demographics of his particular institutions, it doesn’t mean that all colleges should be taking the same approach. That is why it’s so crucial to understand the demographics of your ideal student and then cater your marketing towards them in order to gain students that will stick. You can learn more about this process in our latest white paper, and you can hear more from Shannon, George, and Kamaar from this week’s Higher Ed Podcast. Subscribe to the podcast and follow Engine on social media to keep up with more industry insights and advice.

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