COVID-19 and Student Outreach: Fostering Genuine Connections

Carnegie Higher Ed Apr 14, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

Are your students—current and prospective—accustomed to hearing from you regularly via email? Are they checking their inboxes (and your social feeds) for updates regarding COVID-19 and their education? Most importantly, are you meeting their communication expectations?

As higher education marketers, we’re not used to reaching out to students just to check in (without any ulterior motives). At present, we’re all caught up in what we can’t do, such as meet prospective students at college fairs, teach classes in actual classrooms, and host on-campus events (e.g., campus tours, orientation, and commencement). What you can do, though, is offer reassurance and tangible assistance during this strange time—which is what the overwhelming majority of high school seniors expressed they were looking for in our COVID-19 student survey. That alone will spark a connection between students and your school that will remain at the forefront of their minds long after the COVID-19 crisis is over. Unsure of where to start? We’ll walk you through it.

Don’t decrease spending

“When times are good you should advertise. When times are bad you must advertise.”

Now is not the time to decrease ad spend or forego your SEO and social presence. Doing so puts your search visibility and organic rankings at risk (now and later). While aggressive marketing on the brink of a recession may seem counterintuitive, McGraw-Hill Research found that in a study of 600 B2B companies during the 1981–1982 recession, those companies who maintained or increased their advertising expenditures averaged higher sales growth during the recession (and in the subsequent three years). Moreover, by 1985, sales of the “aggressive” advertisers had increased 256% over those who had reduced spending. There have also been a number of studies dating as far back as the Great Depression that demonstrate the advantages of maintaining or even increasing ad spend during tough times.

Reframe your campaigns

Search traffic is down, particularly on mobile—probably because most people, especially students, are spending all day and night at home. This shift in device usage should have you reviewing your PPC strategy. To adjust campaigns for less mobile traffic, home in on your device bid adjustments and make tweaks as needed (such as increasing bid adjustments on computers and tablets where applicable based on conversion volume). Don’t forget to add new negative keywords too! 

Review your messaging

You need to be conscious of the tone you take in your communications if you want to maintain positive relationships with students. Now is not the time for insensitive or aloof messaging—nor is it time to be wasteful, filling students’ inboxes with useless information. Most students, regardless of age or status, spend a good chunk of time anxiously waiting for updates and information, replies from friends and family, etc.—so be conscious of that.

Frustrating as it may be to realize, this pandemic isn’t simply an inconvenience; it’s a global crisis that’s impacting human lives (and livelihoods) in major ways. Your COVID-19 messaging should acknowledge that. With that being said, it’s no use to you or your students to further create fear—focus on facts while remaining compassionate and supportive. Here are some cut-and-dried do’s and don’ts:

COVID-19 messaging do’s

  • Provide clear and digestible information, sending out updates as often as needed (but no more) 
  • Be helpful, patient, and kind
  • Stay abreast of the status of the outbreak, local ordinances, etc.
  • Be aware of false information that may be circulating among your students and work to combat it with accurate information (e.g., “Coronavirus is spread by 5G radiation”). 

COVID-19 messaging don’ts

  • Make promises you can’t keep
  • Be vague about processes or precautions your institution is putting into place
  • Send the same message(s) to everyone—continue to segment your audience and personalize messaging

Be present

Let students know how things are changing or adapting in light of the pandemic. How are you acting to protect your people? This includes current students and their families, faculty, and staff. Encourage conversations about anxieties and uncertainties brought about by COVID-19, and be forthcoming in answering questions or concerns they may have. 

As far as pertinent information about COVID-19 goes, be a resource to your students when you can, but offer outside resources when applicable—such as those available on CollegeXpress. In addition, be sure to direct students to reputable sources for advice and news (e.g., The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s website).

Center on community

Community engagement and outreach are incredibly important during a public health crisis. The Carnegie Foundation defines community engagement as “collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.” What does that mean in the midst of a pandemic? Can your institution set an example by providing reputable information to the local community about COVID-19? Depending on the resources available to you, this may take shape in many different ways. Some simple options include creating fundraisers for local businesses or charities, hosting virtual support groups, and having students participate in making cloth face masks for distribution to community members.

Keep it tactful

Has a marketing email ever rubbed you the wrong way? Before the outbreak was widely understood here in the United States, March was just another month. My content team was working on various Women’s History Month stories, and marketers across industries were doing the same. On March 3, I received an email from a brand that touts “cool and unusual gifts for any occasion.” The subject line? “Susan B. Anthony would love this necklace.” I scoffed, shook my head, and deleted the email. A long-deceased social reformer and women’s rights activist who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement would “love this necklace”? Talk about a marketing snafu. 

What can we learn from such tacky ecommerce moves? Simple: Don’t exploit or take advantage of the situation, and please don’t push prospective or current students to take actions they aren’t in the headspace to take. Deadlines, decisions, and other steps to commitment may need to take a back seat for now. 

Above all, remain calm

COVID-19 has compelled school closures at every level of education. While enrollment from international applicants may drop this fall, there may be an increase in local enrollment. As such, competition among local universities may grow stiffer. Reaching out and letting students know you care—along with a strong, adaptive digital strategy—will help push you to the front of the pack.

Check out our other resources on how to keep your community engaged and informed during COVID-19. You can also follow us on Twitter as we continue to post updates there as well. Questions or concerns? Don’t hesitate to reach out to us!

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