It’s All Marketing

(All of it.)

May 08, 2020  

In the old days (two or three months ago), admissions departments leveraged a diverse mix of strategies to woo and attract the next class of students: printed materials, in-person campus visits, meetings with local alumni and a whole host of other ‘traditional marketing’ approaches.

Now, since COVID arrived, what may have never been considered marketing before, suddenly is. It just looks different.

The way you’ve communicated about campus closures? Marketing. How you’ve handled online classes and support? Yep, marketing. Distribution of federal emergency dollars? That’s marketing, too.

When I wrote about the new day in higher ed admissions in March, colleges and universities were still thinking about how 2019’s NACAC decisions would impact the admissions landscape. Now, we have another layer to add: a pandemic that is fundamentally restructuring the higher ed industry.

So, what does it mean when schools are allowed to fight harder for fewer students, during a global health crisis? It means that every single message, tactic, and decision carries more weight than it ever has before. Consider these examples:

Communication — During a crisis, over-communicating is nearly impossible. People value prompt and accurate responses in times like these, whether you’re using technology like chatbots or regular old email. And by doing so, you’ll provide not only necessary information, but also a little peace of mind. Proactive, comprehensive, and helpful communication is a marketing tactic: it informs your audience about important matters and offers opportunities for feedback. Done right, it can also leave a favorable impression in the minds of your entire campus community — as well as your prospects and their parents.

Suggestion: Everyone is continually updating their visit pages and admissions sites. How can you do so with current, relevant information that sounds more approachable and less academic, and meets the student where they are? By dedicating some space to the issue — something more than a “COVID banner” at the top of your home page — you signal that you understand the toll this is taking on your audiences and that you truly see them. In other words: be human first. (Here’s a great example from Bowdoin College.)

Student support — The Hechinger Report recently posted an article suggesting that when an institution exhibits kindness in its response during this time, students have a better perception of their school. Student support is a broad term that can include a great variety of actions: paying the way for a student to travel home, say, or access to basic needs like food and shelter. These are the efforts that students, staff, and faculty will remember, and they’ll contribute to your institution’s reputation.

Suggestion: How might you provide extra support to your students? Could your department or college call students to check in on them, and see how they’re dealing with the upending of their education? It might seem impossible, but efforts like these could pay off in the long run when it comes to retention.

Federal stimulus disbursement — As schools await guidance for distributing their share of funding from the federal CARES Act, they may be missing their chance to provide a financial safety net for the students who need it most. It may sound odd, but these emergency grant dollars not only function as a way to provide assistance for students’ basic needs (like food, shelter, and technology), but could also be thought of as small investments in your school’s retention plan.

Suggestion: The distribution of this grant money could be a great opportunity to tune in to some of your campus’s most pressing needs. Are you receiving a lot of requests for emergency funds that deal with food insecurity? Maybe it’s time to look into creating a campus food bank. Are you hearing about technology needs and broadband access? Maybe there’s a hotspot lending program that you can develop to meet those needs.

These are indeed uncommon times. As colleges and universities continue to navigate these challenges, everything they say and do is being keenly monitored — not just by students and their families, but also by the media, other schools, and state governments. And since everything these groups see is a reinforcement of your brand — that means it’s truly all marketing.