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Marketing the Reality of Student Life in a Pandemic

Marketing the Reality of Student Life in a Pandemic

Steve Heisler

illustration of rows of tables with computers

Higher ed institutions that communicate honestly about campus life in a pandemic can put students’ minds at ease

College is typically one of the least socially distanced times in a person’s life. Students pile into dormitories and dining halls, rally at football games and clump together on the quad. When the pandemic first hit the U.S., it put a damper on in-person campus life, with many schools quickly moving classes online and sending students home.

The new school year has seen scattershot strategies. Some schools have opted to remain fully online. Others have partially reopened to a portion of their students to keep classroom and dorm numbers low. Still others have fully reopened, but with distancing regulations in place. 

Even schools with the best-laid plans have encountered hiccups: Some have had to cancel or delay reopening plans, or quickly close campus after outbreaks. As a result, higher ed marketers again face uncertainty in how to best communicate with prospects on what student life is like on campus—one of the greatest selling points of heading off to college. Student clubs are meeting virtually, dorms are empty or at minimal capacity and many sports programs are on hiatus.

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“There’s no crystal ball—we don’t even know what next week will look like, let alone next semester or even a year from now into the fall,” says Ali Nicole Santander, assistant director of marketing and communications, housing and residential life at the University of Arizona. “I don’t like to use the word ‘safe’ or dangle those carrots saying, ‘Everything’s fine here!’ because that’s just not the reality right now.” 

But even if there’s uncertainty, Santander and others say students will understand. Yes, campus barely resembles what it looked like a year ago. Yes, the future remains hazy. But as long as communication with prospective and current students remains open and transparent, the focus will be on how schools are enabling as robust a student life environment as possible—not on what’s lacking.

Tell It Like It Is

Andrew McDaniel, associate director of student affairs, marketing and communications at the University of California, Davis, suggests marketers anchor their communications in state and county regulations. Students appreciate this level of transparency because it provides an understanding of how and why universities are putting together in-person and remote learning plans. 

Ultimately, McDaniel says current students are the greatest resource in relaying this messaging—incoming freshmen inherently trust students to be honest about their experience. He recommends asking students to produce high-quality, one- to two-minute videos on their phones or via video chat software. 

UC Davis developed a guide on filming best practices— how to best frame a shot, tips on conducting interviews with other students and an outline of the story beats in an effective two-minute video—and created virtual backgrounds that highlight areas around campus. UC Davis also provided some professional flourishes, such as the school’s logo. 

“Many of the tools are pretty simple, but we want to make sure we’re able to empower [students] to feel confident doing it on their own,” McDaniel says. 

Even though things may be different this year, that doesn’t mean all student life marketing collateral needs updating. McDaniel says materials from previous years can remain available as long as they are equally unambiguous. For example, UC Davis wanted to screen its general welcome video from years past but was worried it would set unrealistic expectations. They updated the content with a message to viewers that the video was filmed before the pandemic. 

Another key component of an open relationship with prospects is the ability to offer real-time updates. Schools can build a centralized hub on their website for students to learn about modified reopening plans or receive warnings about any outbreaks on campus. For maximum transparency, Betsy Holloway, VP for marketing and communication at Samford University in Alabama, recommends refreshing this dashboard on a daily basis with new case numbers. 

Build and Share Resources

Many typical recruitment tools for student clubs have been rendered null and void. Colleges are opting not to run activity fairs, students living remotely can’t see posters announcing events and shows from performing arts groups have gone dark. 

Jenn Vaughn, senior brand manager at UC Davis, says the best thing a school can do is rely on its current students to gin up excitement and be honest about remote student life. “Sometimes, it’s up to us to stay out of their way in order [for them to] form these natural connections,” she says. 

A centralized, online database of student clubs points incoming freshmen in the right direction. This can include the name of the group, contact information and the extent to which they are operating in person versus remotely (if at all). For best results, let students update this info themselves to ensure it’s current. Encourage new students to dig into what campus life has to offer and to contact group organizers to learn more. 

Vaughn says allowing students to lead the way can breed new recruitment strategies. The UC Davis marching band put together a concert over multiple Zooms to provide incoming freshmen with as close to a live experience as they could, and campus a cappella groups joined together for a sing-off over Instagram stories. 

Look on the Bright Side

Rather than focusing on what’s missing, emphasize the benefits of distanced student life. Vaughn says remote engagement allows schools to offer services to students who may not spend as much time on campus, such as commuter students or those with full-time jobs. In fact, UC Davis’ tutoring and career services haven’t experienced a participation drop-off. Moving traditionally offline services online has also provided more students with access to the school’s mental health resources. 

There are no capacity limits online, either. Concerts and events can take place over video without worrying about spacing out attendees for appropriate social distancing. Holloway says that when Samford had to choose between holding its annual battle of the bands in a 3,500-person venue that could only safely fit 150 attendees, or hold the concert online, they opted to have the bands perform on stage and stream the event—removing the cap on capacity. 

As for dorm life, those friendships are still being forged—even if students are in the dorms but quarantined from one another. Santander suggests leaning on resident advisers, who have likely been trained in leadership and communication tactics. Ask them to set up social media accounts specific to each floor where they can post updates and host virtual events, such as Instagram Live Q&A sessions about student life—as long as they make no promises on in-person activities. 

“Set those expectations, be transparent,” Santander says. “[You can say,] ‘We don’t have all the answers, but we’re going to provide opportunities for you … to thrive—a little differently than it has been done in the past, but [you’ll] have those engagements virtually [and] feel that support available from your dorm staff.’”

Steve Heisler is a staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at sheisler@ama.org.