Marketers from small and large higher education institutions weigh in on how the coronavirus shutdown has affected their work
Part of the Marketing News Higher Ed Marketing Special Issue
Every industry is feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and higher education is no exception. As work has moved off campus and students, professors and staff wonder what happens next, higher ed marketers are tasked with communicating those changes and offering some semblance of normalcy to the audience. We asked marketers from small colleges and large universities about their challenges and successes thus far.
In the immediate term, what’s the biggest challenge your team is facing?
We have a responsibility to communicate essential information while balancing the need to still tell [our] story in a meaningful way. It’s about maintaining a balance.
Making sure that our event marketing is effective and [successful] despite having to change all events to online.
Trying to spark … creative energy via Zoom. We might not be able to gather around the whiteboard, but I’m constantly impressed by how our team is able to bring their innovative ideas and creative solutions to the challenges we’re now being faced with in this new setting.
A spending freeze has been put in place. We are splitting our time between developing and utilizing no-cost marketing ideas and contacting advertising representatives to try to terminate some [signed] contracts for which the tactics have not yet been implemented.
Effectively brainstorming and coming up with a strategic plan through virtual meetings. So much of our process prior to COVID-19 included getting in a room with a whiteboard and letting our ideas flow until we narrowed in on a plan of action. Far more difficult through a laptop camera from our basements.
Keeping everyone connected and informed. Coordinating work that is even busier than ever, and at a distance, while our team members have families to worry about, employment concerns, technology issues and many unknowns for the future. It’s hard to keep up.
Planning for the unknown. It’s challenging to forecast what marketing initiatives will be most needed as we approach our new normal. When at-home orders were implemented, many of us thought it would be for just a couple of weeks. As that has dragged into a couple of months, we’ve needed to strategically engage stakeholders who are disappointed and frustrated.
How is your school communicating with its audience about the changes it’s implementing?
We’ve used both internal and public-facing channels such as email, intranet and social media. To ensure accurate and consistent information during a rapidly changing situation, all of our messaging related to COVID-19 has pointed back to a landing page on our website.
Email communications and a separate webpage dedicated to COVID-19 responses for each of our programs. These sites are continuously updated regarding admissions, testing, events, etc. We’ve also included banner alerts on every page on our website with a direct link to our COVID-19 response efforts.
Social media has been our primary channel and our PR team has been working nonstop to communicate the changes, initiatives and new programs at breakneck speed. Our social channels are augmented with longer-form, timely and consistent updates from our president, which we’re then able to integrate onto our main landing page for COVID-19 updates.
The emails have received positive reactions and our president has personally created weekly updates of the university’s reaction and plans for the future. He’s a rock star, so those are always welcome with our audiences.
We created several [videos for students] to let them know how we support them. Professors and staff created instructional videos for other faculty on how to [transition] courses online. Traditional marketing outlets such as info sessions and print material are not as effective right now, so we are switching many tactics to digital platforms. Many of these adjustments just accelerated the direction we were going anyway.
To easily explain a seemingly complex new pass/fail grading option available to our students, our college created a video that was shared with students via email and on our website. What were once monthly executive team meetings with our dean, department heads and senior staff have now become weekly Microsoft Teams meetings. At the university level, we have a weekly “Keep in Touch” newsletter that our university president sends out campus-wide that highlights all we are accomplishing even while remote.
We are using every channel at our fingertips: email, website updates, video, paid and organic social content, texts, traditional media advertisements and earned media.
Which of your marketing skills is most crucial right now?
Adaptability. As with all schools, we had to quickly pivot from business-as-usual to crisis communications to overhauling our content strategy entirely.
We’ve noticed a positive response rate with personalizing communications to our audience based on programs they’ve noted as an interest. We steer clear of bombarding prospective students with information about a program they’ve no use for. Our goal is not to over-communicate or have our emails fall through the cracks with the vast amount of COVID-19 emails going out. Segmenting emails is key.
Hands-down, the ability to be nimble. The agility with which the marcom team has handled the influx of new initiatives the university has strategically implemented to deal with the impact of COVID-19 is nothing short of miraculous. All higher ed institutions are figuring this out, together, as we go.
Soft skills. Discussions with upper-level administrators regarding marketing theory, ROI and other analyses, budgets and tactics, as well as talking with vendors about making adjustments to contracts and marketing plans that are already negotiated, signed and in place.
Having the right messaging strategy is always key to differentiating our university and academic programs, but especially now when the concept of campus life across the country and the world has taken on new meaning. Being nimble and working as one team. We’ve implemented digital and direct marketing tactics to help move prospects through our enrollment funnel in different ways than ever before.
Listening and communicating. Our internal partners are having a hard time knowing how they can best interact with their audiences, and we’re here to help lead them in the right direction.
Marketing strategy is critical right now. This is uncharted territory but we can make educated guesses. Our audiences are even more engaged right now and [we] need to keep that conversation going and find them where they are. Data seems to be working because leads are pouring in.
What changes are you implementing right now that you think will outlast the coronavirus?
Within the first month of our campus closing to visitors, we launched virtual visits, a digital viewbook and an online community for admitted students. These are ways to engage current and future students wherever they are, and we’ll continue to offer options like these even after this crisis ends.
We have created campaigns around the application deadline using email marketing and paid advertising—among other strategies—that have helped nurture the leads we have in our funnel. We also will implement more virtual events.
Brainstorming and collaboration among marketing and recruiting professionals to develop new ways to reach potential students outside of the pipeline and working more diligently with those already in the pipeline.
The push to be online is happening in our classrooms, too. We need to be innovative, adaptable, open-minded and connected with the data. The challenges are not insurmountable. It’s just a lot of work.
Working remotely. It’s become pretty evident that we can all do our jobs on the marketing team remotely to some extent. We’ll never be a fully remote team, but it’s logical to believe that we’ll shift our work schedules to allow the team to work from home as a part of their regular schedules.
Our temporary shift into the virtual space has pulled us out of our comfort zones and required us to quickly learn the ropes of remote instruction and online collaboration—skills that will continue to benefit us long after stay-at-home orders have been lifted and in-classroom courses resume. We have learned new ways to reach broader audiences of prospective students, supporters and fans.
We’re experiencing that not everyone has to be in the same physical space to achieve success, complete projects and be creative. The lessons learned through our analytics from the digital strategies we’ve implemented and our use of video will continue to guide our marketing strategy moving forward.