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Higher Education Marketing During a Pandemic

This fall, whether students are grabbing their laptops and logging in from home or unpacking their masks, hand sanitizers, and anxieties in the dorms, college looks different in ways no one anticipated. (Except maybe the scientists who predicted a pandemic for years but everyone ignored, but I digress.)

Not only have there been massive changes in where and how students are learning, but the numbers are soaring of those who’ve decided to skip it all together. According to Forbes, 20% of Harvard freshmen have chosen to defer, 40% of expected freshmen attending 4-year residential are likely or highly likely to not attend this fall, and 28% of returning students say they are not going back or haven’t decided yet. Those are some big numbers.

So what can colleges and universities do to keep students enrolled and their “doors” open? First and foremost, they need to be flexible, adaptable, and dedicated to proving their worth for the investment even more. Read on for some opportunities higher education can take to shift its traditional marketing and messaging to connect with their audience in new, relevant ways.

Know your audience and how to speak to them

Marketing’s golden rule: know your audience. Know what they care about and what obstacles they might be facing. Think beyond the traditional first-year students, too. Evaluate all the different types of people your college or university serves, such as adult-learners, transfers, graduate students, and parents. Even if you’ve gone through an exercise like this prior to the pandemic, it’s important to update now that our world has changed. Your audience is reevaluating everything.

Once you’ve outlined your top audiences, identify the following topics for each:

  • Where are they from?
  • What are their goals and challenges?
  • What are their hesitations and barriers?
  • What is their primary motivation right now?
  • Where are they most likely to receive news and information?
  • Where are they spending their time?

These aspects should influence your messaging, your tone, and your marketing channels. Do you need to focus on being motivating? Empathetic? Energetic? All three when talking about different topics? Don’t assume everyone is going through the same consideration process when it comes to planning their education.

Another important aspect to consider is that online learning provides an opportunity to expand the geographic target market for schools. Previous research shows that students typically don’t go too far from home for school, but now with online learning, the geographic barriers aren’t as relevant for potential “in-state” students.

Adapt in-person events and marketing for digital

Prior to the pandemic there was already a growing demand for online programs and the recent repercussions of COVID-19 has only increased that need. Setting up and promoting your online programs now will only continue to benefit you in the future—and that goes for on campus events and recruitment as well.

Thanks to the many video chat opinions on the market, going virtual isn’t as difficult or time-consuming as it once was. However, when transitioning your typically in-person events like tours, open houses, and student clubs online, the details matter. Just sitting someone down on a stool and turning on Zoom isn’t going to cut it anymore. Avoid being yawn-inspiring by considering the following:

  • Make every connection interactive
  • Include current students’ commentary in all areas
  • Feature staff, faculty, and students from all different demographics
Student wearing mask

Tours

  • Create digital versions of any brochures or maps that would be typically handed out during a tour or open house. Include information and links to the new virtual tours and open house opportunities online.
  • Host a virtual campus tour for prospective students by filming the typical route and overlaying tour guide commentary. Include a link to a digital map created with Google Maps that tags important areas on campus so prospective students and parents can follow along from home.

Open Houses and Forums

  • Have Q&A sessions for prospective (and new) students led by current students. Create different topic-focused sessions that people can sign up for, like sports or campus life.

Student Clubs

  • Host student clubs virtually instead of in person. Appoint a current member as the leader for each meeting to help facilitate and keep the conversation going.

In-person campus visits used to equate to typically higher enrollment rates. Keep in mind ways you can still provide a personal connection since real life opportunities are fewer.

Reallocate your marketing budget and change the message

For some of your audience, traditional media may not be as effective. For others, they may have deleted Facebook but are still connected via other social channels. That’s why it’s important to pivot your messaging and move around your marketing budget to connect with your audiences where they’re currently at—especially, online. Here are some digital marketing areas to include:

  • Digital ads
  • Social media—both organic and paid
  • Email marketing

Think again about your target audiences and where they receive information. If you’re trying to reach parents, maybe opt email. Prospective students? Typically you’ll find them on the gram and TikTok.

For messaging content, consider focusing on topics such as:

  • Student safety plans for if and when they return to school
  • The universities response regarding COVID-19
  • Information on new programs and changes at the school and where to access them
  • Promotion of community and connectivity and how students can get involved virtually
  • Continue to speak to the value of higher education and tap into students and alumni to tell their success stories

It’s important to re-imagine how you talk about the value of your college or university beyond the on-campus experience. What will relationships with professors look like? What will hands-on opportunities like labs or internships be handled? How do you differentiate your brand and assure prospective students you offer more than, arguably, an expensive live-streaming service? If you can’t answer these questions easily, you may want to take a look at your brand positioning overall.

In Conclusion

Despite the intense and painful effects COVID-19 has had on the higher education industry, the changes are likely to remain prevalent and necessary well beyond the pandemic. Taking action, making changes, and remaining flexible and adaptable now will only benefit you in the future. As always, AOR is here to help with any of your higher education marketing and strategy needs and we’d love to hear from you.

Stories can change the world. And, Andrea is obsessed with creating stories that connect brands with their customers and their employees.

Andrea started her career as a graphic designer and a drug counselor, which turned out to be a great preparation for an ad career spanning 24 years. She spent most of that in Chicago and Milwaukee before moving to Colorado. As an integrated Creative Director, Director, Executive Producer, Creative Producer, and Strategist she has focused on industries such as healthcare, hospitality, financial, education, pharma, and agriculture for brands like as Chipotle, Verizon, Marriott, Northwestern Mutual, CNH, Colorado State University, Gilead, and LPL Financial. Passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion in advertising and film, she has worked with The 3% Movement, Greater Together, and other organizations, helping to drive strategy, direct content, and change the ratio in the advertising and media industries in front of and behind the camera.

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