Forging Ahead through New Challenges in Higher Ed Marketing

April 30, 2020

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Every industry and vertical is grappling with the current environment in its own way. For those in higher education, challenges are varied and complex. 

How should we communicate with current and prospective students, as well as alumni? How should we be balancing short-term realities with long-term enrollment goals? How different will things look in a few weeks?

There are no easy answers, but one forward-thinking leader in the space was kind enough to share with us his experiences and perspectives, in hopes these insights can provide helpful context and guidance for others trying to determine how to proceed. 

Adapting to New Circumstances in Higher Ed Marketing

One thing we’re hearing pretty clearly from folks we talk to in the industry is that it’s not advisable to hit the brakes on higher ed marketing initiatives. While things are in flux across the world, people are still going online, researching, and thinking about their futures.

With this being said, it makes sense for most organizations to reassess and make adjustments. For a deeper exploration of the strategic nuances in play at this time, we asked CMO Brad Frank about trends, emerging best practices, messaging recommendations, and finding the right goal-setting balance while steering through this unprecedented situation.

Brad Frank, Chief Marketing Officer, Collegis Education

LinkedIn: What trends are you seeing in the current environment?

Brad Frank: There will be three different phases with the COVID-19 disruption.  

Phase 1: The shock. During this time, thoughts of planning for future education were largely crowded out by basic needs – stocking up on food, caring for family members/kids, and adjusting to a new schedule for work, school and home. Inquiry and application demand cratered during this time. We are through this phase, and are in the beginning of what I see as a V-shaped recovery, but there could be some secondary shocks nationally and regionally.  

Phase 2: Thinking ahead. This phase will happen over a longer period of time and will vary drastically based on the scenario an individual or family is dealing with. Undergraduates are contemplating whether they will return to campus, stay online, or transfer to a different institution. There is a bit of a wait-and-see attitude, but over time there will be a greater bias to make a decision. For adults, a lot depends on if they are working. For those out of work, this phase is happening now. For those working, the focus is likely on the current period. As unemployment rises, more people will be forced to think ahead. For many, education will play a role. This could be a degree, a certificate or upskilling (through online learning tools or via apprenticeships or rotational programs). There will be a bias for educational content that provides the most direct route back to work. 

As unemployment rises, more people will be forced to think ahead. For many, education will play a role. This could be a degree, a certificate or upskilling...  

Phase 3: The new normal. Demand will come back, and it will likely be stronger given the counter-cyclicality of education, but it will not look quite the same. Some campus-based students will prefer online learning and will choose not to return to campus, or consider staying closer to home. Smaller and rural schools may benefit, as students may be apprehensive to attend larger schools. Program mix and degree mix will be different. I think there will be greater interest in helping professions such as healthcare and education.    

LinkedIn: What are some emerging best practices in higher education (or other industries) that you are seeing? 

Brad: Now is the time to assess marketing messages and media mix, and be very mindful of the needs of your prospective students. Align your efforts to support what they need at the time they need it. Assess what you are projecting to the market from the perspective of your prospects. 

Also, focus on your current students. These students already chose your school once. Give them every reason to return. Reach out in many ways, and understand their issues and concerns about their education and the current environment. Address these needs directly. Your prospects are watching how you treat your current students as well. Your efforts of support today will impact your future pipeline.

Being online is no longer optional, but neither is simply offering online courses. Online is so much more than how a course is delivered. You must think about the student and faculty support needed to be successful. Assess how you want to approach this and what it takes to be competitive in this arena. Try to find a partner whose goals align with your institution’s to support you in creating a frictionless experience in this new learning modality.  

LinkedIn: How should schools approach messaging in light of the current situation? 

Brad: Be true to your brand and relevant to the time. If you pivot away from your brand too far, prospective students and your own students will know. During this time, price sensitivity will play a larger role in students’ decisions. Institutions – particularly those with higher price points – will need to effectively and clearly communicate their value propositions. This disruption will only enhance the consumer market mentality that higher ed has had to manage and respond to over the last several years; therefore, schools have to prove their ROI by articulating the competitive advantage they distinctly provide to the student

Be true to your brand and relevant to the time. If you pivot away from your brand too far, prospective students and your own students will know.

LinkedIn: How should schools balance short-term enrollment goals with long-term brand building

Brad: This is always a tricky balance, and perhaps more so during a market disruption like this. Now is the time to define what long-term brand building means for your institution. You likely have ways to lean into this with direct channels that are not as costly as media. 

That said, for many institutions it will be mission-critical to have a good fall start. Don’t only rely on tried-and-true methods to complete your class. Test out new ways to reach and engage your prospects through the integration of marketing, admissions, and technology. Now, more than ever, it will be important to break down internal silos to build a cohesive strategy across these three key areas of your college or university.

Forging a Path Forward in Higher Education

When navigating uncharted territory, there is no map to follow — only good advice. To summarize some of the informed guidance above, here are Brad’s key recommendations for marketing leaders during these challenging and uncertain times:

  • People are still online and engaging with content, so don’t back away from your marketing activities. Focus on building and maintaining brand awareness so you’ll be well-positioned for Phase 2 (thinking ahead) and Phase 3 (the new normal).
  • Be extremely mindful about tone and messaging, with respect to the stresses in play for individuals and families around the world.
  • This is a good time to reconnect with current students and reinforce relationships. Brad’s sage words bear repeating: “Your prospects are watching how you treat your current students as well. Your efforts of support today will impact your future pipeline.”
  • At a time where price sensitivity may play a larger role in decision-making, place an emphasis on conveying the differentiating value propositions for your institution.

For more information on LinkedIn tools and resources that can assist your efforts, we invite you to visit our Higher Education Marketing hub.

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