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Email RecruitingNow a proven way to communicate on a regular basis with prospects, e-mail recruiting is moving at a lightning pace
by: Matt Fulks
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Talking with a teen-ager. Oftentimes a daunting task for any middle-aged coach. Many coaches have an uncanny ability of knowing the best way to communicate with a high-school recruit. Still, staying ahead of the competition while finding the best way to be noticed and remembered by a teen-ager takes communicating in the way that they’re most comfortable.
“From the standpoint of what kids read, I’m not sure how we get noticed,” joked Tom Creguer, the recruiting coordinator at Northwood University, an NCAA Division II school in Michigan.
Like many coaches around the country, Creguer realized that one of the best “new” ways to communicate with recruits is through e-mail.
“Its usefulness has gradually improved as we’ve become more versed at figuring out how (e-mail recruiting) would help our program,” added Creguer, who first tried e-mail as a recruiting tool in 2002, his first season as Northwood’s football recruiting coordinator. “As with anything tech-wise with coaches, we’re trying to feel our way in the dark. Here, we found right away that through e-mail and our Web site, we were getting kids from all over the map.”
“If you’re going to be competitive in the 2000s in recruiting,” says Mike Sondheimer, the Associate Athletic Director for Recruiting at UCLA, “you need to be good in e-mail in every sport, not just football and basketball. All of the studies and information show that probably 90 percent of all recruits are e-mail active.
“Today, e-mail is the primary source of communication for 17 and 18-year-old youngsters, and that includes text messaging through their cell phones and instant messaging as well.”
“Today’s youth is so active on the Internet that they probably prefer e-mail rather than talking in person,” Creguer said. “Some kids even e-mail me during the school day.”
Power of E-mail Recruiting
There is a plethora of reasons why using e-mail as a recruiting tool gives coaches an edge. E-mail makes it less intimidating for the recruit, giving him greater freedom to respond as he wishes. And, he can check his e-mail when it’s appropriate for him. Besides, e-mail is an inexpensive way to communicate, making it appealing to institutions and the NCAA alike.
“The biggest benefit of e-mail recruiting is the instant ability to get a hold of somebody,” says Mike Sondheimer. “With regular mail, you hope it gets there in 24-48 hours, but you have no guarantee. The NCAA outlawed overnight mailing two years ago. So now, e-mail is one of your best ways of communicating with somebody.”
“It’s almost as good as a phone call because it’s instantaneous,” said Keith Allen, the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator at Southwest Baptist University (Mo.), who first used e-mail sparingly in 1998 when he worked at Texas Christian and more extensively the next year at Quincy University.
A few years ago, the NCAA limited the number of phone calls that a coach could make to a recruit. E-mail now gives coaches the ability to relay important information, such as a flight change for a recruit’s official visit or finding out the best time for a coach to visit, without using a phone call.
Originally, the only restriction the NCAA placed on e-mail recruiting was that schools couldn’t send e-mails with color. It since has loosened up those restrictions. Now schools have figured out ways to add an electronic watermark to the main body of their e-mails and they can send attachments with everything from portions of their media guide to game notes to materials on the school.
“Within the rules of the NCAA, we can do some things to make e-mails attractive,” said Allen. “We might not have the resources to send letters everyday like bigger schools, but we can send an e-mail just as fast and often as anybody else.
“For a smaller school like ours, we’re basically saving 40 cents a letter. Also, we’re not using letterhead and we’re saving on having a kid fold the letters and stuff envelopes.”
All of that translates to possibly a more level playing field when it comes to recruiting.
“I absolutely think it levels the playing field in recruiting,” said Creguer. “E-mail allows us to reach out to the recruit who’s being bombarded by the big programs, but who might not be ready to play at that level. Division I schools are so limited in their number of scholarships that they have to filter out a lot of kids.
“I’m e-mailing a kid now who has only Division I schools talking to him, and no other Division II schools. If he wants to play immediately, he might be a good fit for us. We want that kid to feel wanted.”
To the upper echelon Division I schools, e-mail serves more as a communication tool than a way to get noticed.
“The top schools are still going to be the top schools and the top recruits are still going to be the top recruits,” Sondheimer says matter of factly. “It doesn’t level the playing field so much as it maybe gives schools a better idea of how they stand with that young man or young woman in terms of being able to recruit them, based on the type of response you get back. You potentially have the ability to get an instant response if there’s an interest.”
One advantage to using e-mail in recruiting is that it’s a non-obtrusive way to promote dialog with the recruit. And it’s easy to use for coaches and recruits.
“All a kid has to do is hit ‘reply,’ he doesn’t have to write a letter and fold it up, put it in an envelope and get it to the post office,” said Allen. “Once they reply, that gets the dialog going. If they respond back, that means they’re a level-one prospect, meaning they’re interested in us.”
Knowing When To Hit Send
The coaches that have utilized e-mail recruiting effectively understand that it’s as important as any other part of their communication with a recruit.
“Our coach, Pat Riepma, pretty much said he wants us to prioritize our recruiting,” said Tom Creguer. “When you have a certain amount of hours to recruit, you have to decide where your time is best served. If you have a better feeling calling high school coaches, then call coaches. If you have a good feeling about recruits you need to speak with in your area, call those and e-mail the ones you can.
“But with e-mail, instead of calling 24 kids in two hours in the office, I can contact about 80 in the same amount of time with e-mail. Right now, e-mail communication is about 75 percent of our active recruiting season.”
Creguer estimated that in addition to the sheer number of recruits that coaches can contact, out of about 40 recruits in this season’s class, about 75 percent had some type of e-mail correspondence with at least one of Northwood’s coaches. It could’ve been just a quick thank-you note for a visit, Creguer said, but, regardless, most of this year’s class had been contacted via e-mail.
In fact, Creguer said that because of the professional-looking and well-organized athletic department’s site at Northwood, many of their recruits actually contacted them first.
“The best e-mail for us is when they go to our Web site and they start by filling out the questionnaire and contacting us,” he said. “Last year we dialoged with over 550 kids as a result of our Internet site. In all sports combined at the school, more than 900 kids contacted us.”
E-mail recruiting is a high priority at UCLA, also. Mike Sondheimer explained that at least one coach on each of the school’s 22 sports teams needs to be proficient in e-mailing, text messaging and instant messaging. And, all of the school’s coaches need to be able to handle basic e-mail communications.
But, that’s not to say that e-mail is the UCLA athletic department’s main form of communication.
“We’ll do e-mail with as many recruits as we can, but some prefer phone,” said Sondheimer. “Unlike some schools, we try not to overwhelm a recruit. Once a week is fine with us. Some recruits like it more often. … We try to leave the form of communication up to the recruit and the family because we don’t want to be intrusive with them and overtake their lives.
“There are some recruits that are getting e-mails and instant messages 24 hours a day from coaches. We try to avoid being in that realm. A lot of our coaches have families of their own, and we don’t want them to take away from their own family time to make a bunch of phone calls or hop on the computer.
“We want to be a school that can communicate when we need to communicate. We don’t need to be sending something everyday, but we want to be effective in two-way communication.”
As the man who oversees UCLA’s recruiting efforts, Sondheimer stresses two-way communication. After all, why send something – e-mail, standard letter, text message, etc. – if the recruit might not even be receiving or reading it?
Southwest Baptist University e-mails a little more often. With the use of their e-mail’s mail merge function, the SBU coaches can send out weekly updates on how their team fared and mention something specific about the recruit’s game. “After our game on Saturday, I can customize an e-mail to tell the recruit that we won, and then I can personalize it to say something about the recruit’s game on Friday night after we find out how he did,” said Allen. “With e-mail, though, the kid can get it that night or the next day instead of the next week when he’s already forgotten about his previous game and is looking ahead to next Friday.”
Knowing What To Say
The most important aspect of knowing what to say in an e-mail is to know the e-mail’s objective. Do you want to send out general information early in the process about your program or school? Are you fishing to find out if your school is a legitimate possibility for the recruit? Or, do you want to encourage the recruit during his season?
In much the same way that there are various reasons to use e-mail in recruiting, there are seemingly more things to say in the message. Most of the time, coaches start off by sending general information e-mails.
“First thing we say is something to the extent of ‘thank you for showing interest in us,’” said Southwest Baptist’s Keith Allen, who’s part of a first-year staff. “We have a standard part that says, ‘We are very excited about your interest in our program. We are a new staff that’s going to recruit very aggressively and play very aggressively on both sides of the football, offensively and defensively.’ Then we’ll say something about the recruit’s specific position and how he could help us. We end it by letting the recruit know that we’d like a current transcript and a tape. “Then we start sending that weekly update through e-mail.”
Tom Creguer at Northwood University takes it a step further.
“In the first e-mail, we talk about what we have to offer at the university,” he said. “We show them that they’ll have options but this is who we are and what we believe. The last thing we want is a recruit that comes to our place, doesn’t have a good experience, and then doesn’t think well of the university.
“After that first e-mail, I encourage them to visit the campus to get the experience. So, we try to go right from the e-mail to a visit on campus.”
But, what’s the secret to getting a teen-age recruit to reply to an e-mail?
“If we’re looking for a response, we’ll usually ask an open-ended question,” said Allen. “That way, instead of replying with a yes or no, or not responding at all, the recruit gives us a longer answer.”
“With e-mail, especially instant messaging, you’re having a conversation without voice interaction,” says Mike Sondheimer. “So to get a response, you can ask about everything from how well they’re doing on their team, how things are going in school, to what their mom and dad want them to do about college. Then, you might get more specific, such as telling them that they need to take a certain class for college next year, or find out when their best game is for us to visit. It can go from very general to very specific topics as the relationship builds.”
Regardless of the message, one coach did caution that before hitting the “send” button, the e-mail needs to be proofread as any letter would be.
“You still want to make sure your punctuation and grammar are correct,” Allen said. “You always need to check that because once you send it, it’s gone.”
Rising Above the Spam
As most anyone with access to e-mail can attest, it’s common to be bombarded with messages from mortgage companies to that delegate in Zimbabwe promising millions of dollars to every herbal enhancement product in between.
“We usually keep the subject line specific to us, such as ‘Bearcat Football’ or ‘Hey From Coach Allen,’” said Keith Allen. “Since we got their e-mail address from a questionnaire, and since we send out the weekly updates, they’re not too surprised when they get something from us.”
“With the UCLA name on it, they know it’s coming from us,” said Mike Sondheimer. “Then, with (our software), when the recruit opens the e-mail, there’s a big banner across the top that shows it’s from UCLA.
“(Our software) provides us with the ability to know when an e-mail’s being read, how many times, whether it’s being forwarded, and what percentage are being read. We think that gives us a recruiting advantage because we have a good idea of whether the recruit’s really interested or not.”
If it’s not being read, the steps with e-mail recruiting are similar to that of traditional mail, which also might not be read or even reach the recruit.
“When you don’t have that much time on your hands, you can’t waste the effort of worrying if they read the e-mail,” said Creguer. “If it’s a kid you’ve identified as one you’d like to recruit, and you don’t hear from him after e-mail, you have to follow up with a phone call.”
Changing With The Times
Ultimately, the key with successful recruiting applies to e-mail as much as it does to traditional letters and phone calls.
“Without question, we correspond more with e-mail around,” said Mike Sondheimer of UCLA. “But it’s not so much that it’s because of e-mail, but rather it’s keeping up with the times. Those ‘times’ are not what a 40 or 50-year-old coach thinks. Those ‘times’ are what a 17 or 18-year-old boy or girl thinks.”
Most coaches that use e-mail recruiting as part of their overall communications concur that it never will take the place of the more traditional methods of keeping their school’s name in front of a prospective student-athlete. However, in this age of changing technology, while personal calls and notes are an integral part of the recruiting process, email recruiting is not only here to stay but ready to explode.
“The handwritten note every once in awhile, especially if your school has nice card stock, is something the kids will always like,” says Southwest Baptist’s Keith Allen. “But for the smaller-budget schools that might not have nice note cards, you can make your e-mails however nice you want them to be.”
Adding e-mail to a program’s recruiting communications not only ensures an additional outlet to the recruit, but it also translates to a greater possibility of more regular contact with a recruit. In the end, it benefits everyone.
“For as many recruits that are out there, I’m not sure if we’re getting as many contacted as we need, but I feel we’re getting more than we did before,” said Tom Creguer of Northwood University. “Over time, that will allow us to enhance our overall recruiting effort, which will mean better performance on the field.”
TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS
Although coaches are becoming better at using e-mail in their recruiting efforts, the true “experts” are the ones in the field everyday, working directly with coaches at all levels around the country: the software gurus.
Some of the companies that offer software services to help in recruiting include CyberSports, Inc., LRSSports, Recruiting Radar, and Scoutware. The main objective, they say, is to get noticed.
“As I deal with high school coaches and recruits, it’s amazing to learn the number of recruits who have e-mail and use it regularly,” says Dwight Thomas of LRSSports. “I’d say 95% of recruits use e-mail on a regular basis. So that’s another avenue to go for that exposure.”
Having a strategy when it comes to e-mail recruiting is also crucial. Ricky Hleap of Recruiting Radar feels it’s critical: “An effective e-mail strategy is instrumental to winning the recruiting wars. A good e-mail strategy gets even better when integrated into a total communication solution.”
They also offer the following top five tips when implementing e-mail into your recruiting communications.
1. The “From” line is the most important line to start.
“You need the recruit to know who you are and what your purpose of the e-mail is,” said Murphy. “With the level of spam filtering out there, your first choice should be to use a white listed service, such as ours.”
Murphy went on to explain that a “white listed” service is recognized by Internet Service Providers as a legitimate sender, and those e-mails don’t end up in a spam folder or the trash can before reaching a recruit.
2. Put a meaningful subject line.
Along the same lines as avoiding spam filters with certain “from” lines, the subject line is nearly as important.
“You want to avoid certain phrases in your subject line to lower the risk of being blocked,” cautioned Candice Hobin of CyberSports.
There are sites that can tell which words are likely to be blocked. Even so, you still can be sent to the spam folder. In that case, make sure your subject line is specific.
“You generally want to put the name of your school, such as ‘UCLA Football,’ in the subject line,” said Murphy. “That way, you can still be recognized on the quarantined side as long as the recruit checks that folder.”
3. Get added to the contact list.
Once you get past the spam filters, the trick is to be added to the recruit’s contact list.
“That’s when you’re on the A-list,” Murphy said. “If you’re added, you’re in. But you want to be added to that list. We’ve worked with two coaches from the same school sending e-mails to the same recruit. One always goes to the spam side and the other always goes to the inbox. It’s because the one is on the recruit’s contact list.”
4. Be sure you know the NCAA guidelines regarding the use of e-mail.
“You need to know, for instance, that you can’t send certain links in the e-mail,” said Hobin. “You also can’t send a photo of a prospect over e-mail. You need to know the regulations.”
5. Personalize the e-mail for the recruit.
“If your school’s on a limited budget and you don’t use a service like ours or Scoutware, you can personalize mass e-mails with the mail merge through Microsoft Word and Outlook,” said Hobin.
Follow-up is also critical. “”Tie-in calls to action from the prospect within every e-mail you send are important and you can measure the results,” said Hleap. “You will learn which days are better for getting quick responses to your e-mails. Additionally, you will be empowering your staff to better gage a prospects interest in playing for your school.”
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