Higher education institutions all around the country are facing uncharted waters and uncertainty in the face of COVID-19.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, students have had to evacuate campus housing with little notice and possibly nowhere to go. Faculty are scrambling to figure out how to ensure their nursing, physical therapy, and other health care students can still get the hands-on experience they need to pass their upcoming licensure exams. Science majors no longer have access to labs to do their research. College athletes just had the rest of their seasons canceled.
And we can’t forget about the high school students who can no longer visit campuses in person or meet other students at accepted student events this spring as they try to decide where they will be enrolling for fall 2020 and beyond.
As someone who has managed social media presences for a number of colleges and universities in the Greater Boston area, I’ve faced my fair share of crises that changed the course of how I was able to do my job—the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt, lockdowns and fires, blizzards and hurricanes, the Madoff Ponzi scheme, and young adults doing things on campus they just shouldn’t be doing, to name a few.
While these experiences have never been to the scale of what we’re dealing with now, there have been some lessons learned on how to adjust the best laid plans that can be applied to what we’re facing in the coming weeks and months.
Keep communicating with students
This has been the most important thing I’ve learned during a time of crisis, and this is where your institution’s presence on social media can shine. Continue to provide any necessary updates your campus is taking in the fight to lessen the impact of this virus through your main social media channels such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.
In fact, it’s even okay to communicate there are no new updates; what matters is that you aren’t going dark and you’re being as open and transparent as you can be. Prospective students and their families are scared, concerned, and uncertain about all of this, and they want to know that your institution is paying attention to the developing situation, even if there’s nothing you are able to do or change at this moment.
It may not make sense to post about that obscure holiday-of-the-day, but that doesn’t mean you can’t share content outside of just these updates. Highlight how alumni are using their degrees out in the world. If your faculty have been tapped by the media to contribute to the coronavirus conversation, repurpose that content on your own channels. Post #TBT photos of the changing seasons on your campus. Evergreen content can supplement these stories if there isn’t any new content being produced right now.
Do a pulse check on your campus community
While you want to make sure prospects and their families are getting the information they need, you should also be checking in on your internal community. While this group is probably following your main social channels, don’t ignore the smaller, already established networks that exist to check in on your students, faculty, and staff.
Most schools have dedicated Facebook groups for parents and alumni. If your school hasn’t created them as official groups already, someone else (a student, an alum) probably has, so I would encourage you to track down the owner and see if they can grant you access. Be an active listener and see what their top concerns are, then bring these concerns back to your team and see if there’s a solution you can provide.
Look beyond Facebook groups too. What is your community saying on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Reddit, Tumblr, etc.? If you don’t have a social listening tool in place currently, you’ll need to manually check these platforms to see what’s being said. This is a great project to assign student interns, even if they’ve gone home. They will already have a pulse on what’s being said from their fellow classmates and can provide additional anecdotal context.
Get creative in your event delivery
Consider doing a virtual commencement ceremony
Commencements across the country are being canceled, and while you more than likely won’t be able to offer your graduating class a way to get together in person and celebrate, that doesn’t mean you can’t get creative in other ways. The commencement speaker you booked probably doesn’t have much else on their calendar—why not see if they would be willing to do a live stream with the Class of 2020 on the day they were going to graduate? They will still have a powerful message to send off these newly minted alumni as they begin the next step in their lives.
Set up virtual campus tours
Prospective students may not be able to physically visit your campus anymore, but what about offering them a virtual tour? Consider setting up a webinar-style presentation that would cover the same type of information that someone would get when they came to campus for a tour. Pepper the informational parts with previously recorded videos from athletic events, student organizations, and general campus B-roll. Encourage participants to join this virtual event live, but make sure to record it for anyone who wasn’t able to tune in during the scheduled time. This type of format can be used in the future too—we all experience some form of inclement weather where we live that can impact event attendance, so getting familiar with this format now will pay off in the long run.
Connect prospective students with current students remotely
Since overnight visits are out of the question too, I’m sure prospects would love a chance to connect with current students who are majoring in a program they’ve been considering or play on a sports team they were hoping to try out for. Set up a virtual space that future and current students can sign up to join. The type of technology isn’t the important piece here: you just want a way for students to get their questions answered by someone who’s been in their shoes.
Offer virtual alumni get-togethers
Alumni events are also being canceled and most often, these are valued by that group for the networking aspect. Why not offer virtual happy hours? Segment these by industry or topic and let people opt into the events that make sense for them. No moderation is needed—just provide the “space” to let people hang out together in these times of social distancing. This will help build your affinity with your alumni long after COVID-19 has passed.
User generated content will be your best friend
Allow your students to do social media takeovers
Okay, I know this one can be scary for a lot of institutions, but hear me out. As I mentioned before, your audiences will begin to seek out other campus stories too. Enlist the help of current students who would be willing to “take over” your social channels and share their experiences. Just because they aren’t physically on campus doesn’t mean they can’t share what it’s like to be a student—they still have stories of what it’s like attending classes, how it is to live in the residence halls, what student organizations are like, etc.
The key to these takeovers is being able to repurpose the content long after it ends. Make sure to download and save these takeovers so you have access to share them across a number of digital vehicles. For example, if you’re running a takeover through Instagram, you can:
- Turn the Stories being shared into a “highlight” so anyone who visits your Instagram profile can access these videos post-takeover
- Download the full “highlight” video and upload it to YouTube so it becomes content that can be discoverable on the second-largest search platform
- Embed this YouTube video on your website
- Link this YouTube video in one of your drip email marketing campaigns
Participate in AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions
Have you heard of AMAs? These are scheduled “ask me anything” question-and-answer sessions that can be run through a multitude of digital channels, with Reddit being the most popular. The individual who's running the AMA will answer any questions the audience poses. I’ve seen a lot of schools have success doing these with faculty, admission deans, college presidents, and even student leaders. As marketers, we have to give up a bit of control here and let the host answer in their own voice, but it brings an element of human connection to the AMA since those participating know it’s not just a marketing professional answering the questions behind the screen, which is often the case when they’re getting our emails and reading content on our websites.
Higher education social media marketers have a tough task before them as they try to navigate how to communicate with students during school closures. No one could have predicted that just three months into 2020, this is what our new realities would become. But we have to remember that we’re all in this together, and we will find a way to fill prospective student pipelines and make sure our communities are taken care of.