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Bringing Innovation to the Higher Ed Forefront: WFH Edition

Bringing Innovation to the Higher Ed Forefront: WFH Edition

Sarah Cygan

empty seats in an auditorium

How higher ed marketers have adjusted their way of life during the coronavirus pandemic

The higher ed industry is certainly feeling the effects of the drastic shifts in how we live and work. As marketers, we get our energy from problem-solving, dot-connecting and offering fresh ideas. In helping our clients navigate this complicated, fast-moving crisis, we’re finding that we’re continually pushing new limits. It’s a chance to change how higher education approaches innovation, both today and tomorrow.

Because our clients are scattered across the nation, we already do most of our work remotely, so the way we interact with our clients hasn’t changed much; virtual meetings and presentations are still the norm. What has changed is the kind of work we’re doing, and the emphasis of that work—offering bold, immediate solutions to the problems that college marketers are facing right now, and for the foreseeable future.

Here are some of the things we’ve learned in the past five weeks.


Don’t Be Afraid to Pivot—Often

Much of what we’re all experiencing is out of our control. And there’s so much information coming from all directions. There are countless articles and new studies to read, Zoom calls to participate in, more messages than ever to respond to—and many also have families to care for. Work and home aren’t just blurred anymore, they’re one. How can we possibly keep up with everything?

One lesson we may take from this health crisis is to embrace the fluid nature of the world. What better time to experiment? If your admissions team is building a social media campaign and the team isn’t sure what students will respond to, test it and change if necessary. Pivoting means you make an educated decision to stop, reassess the original idea or plan and then move in a new direction. It doesn’t mean that the original idea failed. You’re just considering new options until you nail it.

Get Gritty

Colleges and universities are racing to fill the class of 2024 without campus visits—even as they create memorable virtual commencements and find authentic ways to support their current students remotely. More than ever, it’s time to lean in to things that normally make you uncomfortable. If a designer on the team happens to also be a good writer or strategic thinker, have her help build the strategy. Get over your fear of trying something new and different and take chances in hopes of a bigger reward. Our best work occurs when we hunker down and dig in deep. If your marketing team has the tenacity to make things happen, regardless of obstacles, you have a great opportunity to truly set your school apart.

Double Down on Collaboration

When everyone is forced to stay at home, collaboration becomes harder and feels less efficient. But now is not the time to abandon it. You can’t afford to. Great work happens when people get together, get messy, riff on ideas and push each other to new places.

Schedule virtual brainstorms. Create a Slack channel where your peers can post cool things they’ve found that could apply to higher education. We’re facing challenges we haven’t faced before. Success will involve everyone: strategic thinkers, big idea creators, masterful executors, diligent project managers and so many others. Try new ways to jam, new tools for sharing ideas and get comfortable in virtual settings. That kind of collaboration can still bring energy and excitement to what you do, and it’s invaluable.

Reimagine Your Process

In a situation like this, there’s no playbook for how to work from home and still offer insight and value to your clients. This new environment does force people to think differently. And it may mean putting your processes to the side and focusing instead on exactly what you need to achieve. Once you identify that, build a new process for it what works now. For example: we can’t visit campuses as part of our discovery process, and neither can our clients. But that hasn’t stopped us from figuring out how to replicate that experience to keep our work moving forward.

Our video team has been affected the most by the school closures. Suddenly we can’t film on campuses, but we need to create new content to bring virtual experiences to life. We’ve had to get creative and think about new ways to get what we need—like having a college president record footage on campus with her smartphone, asking students and faculty to film from their homes, or using existing video assets to create something new. Try a different process: You just might be surprised at the results.

Trust Your Partners

We call our clients partners, and that’s not just feel-good language. They hire us to stand alongside them as we tackle their problems in tandem. We can offer them innovative thinking and different perspectives, to help move them out of their comfort zones—that’s our expertise. And they know their students, faculty, staff, donors and alumni better than we ever could. With everything we’re facing together now, our partnerships will require even more trust than usual.

If you’re going to succeed, you have to break down any barriers to great thinking. You must remain open to answering questions, trying new things together, and learning from mistakes. It’s the only way that you’ll develop solutions to the new and pressing challenges you’re encountering today.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

Sarah Cygan is the chief experience officer at Ologie, a branding, marketing and digital agency.