Leveraging Digital Marketing With Student Prospects During COVID-19

Carnegie Higher Ed Mar 25, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

As we continue to navigate the unchartered waters of COVID-19 with our institutional partners, one thing has become very clear to me—the collective creativity being used to pivot and serve prospective and current students’ needs has risen to the forefront like never before. Dozens of calls with enrollment and marketing professionals in our industry have brought us together, finding solutions and evolving plans. After all, in every challenge lies an opportunity.

Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed the large industry-wide shift to digital marketing with access to information through seemingly limitless channels at our fingertips at any time. Thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak, we have classes online, perhaps more flexible schedules, stay-at-home orders…oh, and we don’t have sports to watch. Students are, almost by default, spending even more time online, with an even greater ability to digest long-form content such as articles, blogs, and longer videos. While it’s hard to find a silver lining in the midst of a pandemic, this increased screen time does answer our most burning question: It’s 10:00 pm (or am, or anytime, really)—do you know where your students are? Yup: online. So how can you utilize your digital strategy to make the best of the situation?

Get out in front of them

Because of the opportunities to engage and communicate, this is not a time to go “dark” in the market. Telecommuting and virtual learning mean that high school and college students, parents, and working potential graduate and adult students are significantly increasing their screen time. The critical importance of a strong digital footprint right now extends to all areas of campus learning. 

Keeping up your marketing presence reinforces your brand and encourages them to research further—something they now have time to do given the loss of athletic and music practices, dance club, and the state basketball playoffs. Search volume remains strong on education keywords, and institutions need to respond by adding specific campaigns into the market to ensure their presence on search engine results pages. 

Additionally, streaming media advertising, music services, and streaming TV can place your message in front of a very captive audience. The increase in consumption is expected to continue. According to Nielsen, Seattle teens home from school exhibited a 104% increase in total TV usage (including streaming) from March 4–11. This is now nationwide, so if anything, it might mean allocating your budget and strategy radically differently given the loss of facetime on campus and the increase in screen time at home.

Control the narrative around your brand

If your brand is not visibly present, your story will be left to be interpreted by others. Getting out in front of the narrative, active in marketing and communication, will allow you to set the tone and ensure that accurate information is disseminated to your prospects. Colleges and universities that are in front of them will stay top of mind, demonstrating that they remain a strong choice for education needs. Use your communication platforms to ensure that prospects know how you are responding. 

Focus on your website

Students and families are continuing to investigate school options with an even greater need for updated information. Examine the content on your website to ensure that it is still relevant and accurate. We’ve seen many schools that have yet to update event pages where open houses and spring tours that have already been adjusted or cancelled are listed. Additionally, add new content that shows your institution remains focused on their needs. Not doing so can send the wrong message about your stability and responsiveness. 

If you utilize a web personalization tool such as Carnegie Clarity, take the opportunity to adjust the content in custom interactions to be responsive to your different audiences. The more custom the content can be, the better. 

Maximize social media

Through your organic posts and paid advertising, keeping your social media presence fresh shows that your institution is still functioning and that you’ve put a priority on continuing to provide information for current and prospective students. Outdated content and lapses in posting will cause them to create their own reasons why. 

Social distancing means students are feeling isolated from their traditional social environments, leading to even greater engagement on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and Reddit. The consumption of content on these platforms is expected to continue to rise while students also become more creative in how they use these platforms.  

Facebook has put in place their response to content needs on their platform, including Instagram. Snapchat has partnered with the World Health Organization to offer coronavirus-related content such as safety tips and guidelines. As more content is consumed on these platforms, it presents an opportunity for us to provide thoughtful content to help our prospective students. 

Alter your calls to action

Utilize virtual tours, live chats, video-based information sessions, and viewing of video assets as calls to action in your marketing. You have a unique opportunity to send prospects to landing pages with CTAs that pivot to the current capabilities. Make sure that any references to attending events or on-campus visits are altered to reflect your schedule changes. Continuing to offer options to engage with you is mandatory. If students at Boston Conservatory & Berklee College of Music can hold a virtual orchestra, certainly we can engage in a digital environment with our prospects.

Use long-form content

In the digital marketing world, we have all read about the short attention spans of today’s students. This has led to the creation of shorter videos and blogs/articles with lower word counts. Screen time right now is not competing with busy activity schedules or even sporting events on TV. This is an opportunity to promote the longer videos you have and write content with greater depth. They have the time, so maximize it to tell your story. 

Be the calm (despite the storm)

The 24-hour news cycle of negativity is everywhere. Take this opportunity to be reassuring in your messaging. Think of it as “comfort messaging” in an uneasy time. Answer anticipated questions, provide chat opportunities, and write content that showcases how you’re responding and caring for your current students. It’s easy for a school to look great when all is well. Just like in all relationships, it’s the hard times that can really build trust and affinity. 

Adapt to the current situation

As we all look to technology to gather virtually and communicate our messaging, this is the time for higher education to be especially vigilant in how we stay in front of our future students and their families. We have an obligation to use the added screen time to make a positive impact on our reputation and recruitment. Whether yield is in doubt, summer melt just multiplied, or your next year’s cohort is affected, COVID-19 has injected a multitude of complex, real-time challenges into the higher education landscape, and now is not the time to freeze up. Rather, we have to adapt our strategy to follow the eyeballs. At Carnegie Dartlet, we are working tirelessly to advise our partner institutions, students, and the overall higher education industry in order to achieve short- and long-term success together. 


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