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Direct Mail vs. Digital Display Targeting: Which Is Driving Students To Apply?

Although direct mail is the most tactile form of communication available, its effect can be the hardest to get your hands on. That’s because with other forms of communication like email and digital display targeting, we can directly measure opens and clicks. With direct mail, we can’t be sure the student even looked at the thing. However with a large enough group of students, we can get a gauge of how much effect it has in driving them to apply, then compare that to the effect of digital display targeting.

We finally have that critical mass, so we looked at 724,352 students across 13 of our partner schools. We targeted 193,448 students with direct mail and 173,943 with digital display ads.

Here’s what we found.

Direct mail does drive some students to apply, about as effectively as DDT. Students who we targeted with direct mail have applied at better rates than students who we didn’t target: 1.7 percent compared to 1.0 percent. The same goes even more for DDT — targeted students have applied at about four times the rate of non-targeted: 2.9 percent compared to .7 percent. These groups have considerable overlap. About 43,000 students received both digital display ads and direct mail.

We built a random effects model to account for that overlap as well as the varying effects by school — some schools have a naturally higher applicant rate, and some schools have a much larger cohort of students and would otherwise overwhelm the model.

Both DDT and direct mail had significant, positive effects on students’ likelihood to apply. Based on this model, we estimate that for every 119 students we’ve targeted with direct mail pieces, we got one more applicant than we would have otherwise. These results are similar to DDT. We estimate it takes 371 students targeted with display ads to get an additional applicant.

The take-away from this is that both direct mail and DDT drive some students to apply. They both have a place in the marketing mix. Traditionally, direct mail has held a larger piece of that budget. However, this shows DDT should probably have about an equal share.

We also continue to see better performance from students ranked highly by Capture’s predictive engine, Envision. For something as expensive as direct mail, we should probably only use it on the top 10 or 20 percent of students who are most likely to apply. That’s where we’ve seen the best traction. Those students have applied at more than five times the rate of other students and are the best use of your marketing dollar.

By John Foster, Data Analyst, Capture Higher Ed

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