It’s a truism in higher education: getting prospective students to visit campus significantly increases the likelihood that they’ll accept an offer of admission. But what to do when campuses are shut down, staff are working from home and critical enrollment-related events are being canceled or moved online? This is the question that colleges and universities around the world are asking as admission season heats up at the same time COVID-19 related closures explode. Already schools are facing the daunting reality of what this might mean for them financially, including some that have had to return millions of dollars in room and board funds to students who have been required to leave campus months before the typical end of the academic year. Pair that with the specter of not recruiting enough students for the fall semester, and the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is both large and long-lasting, especially for colleges and universities that don’t have large endowments to soften the blow. So what is a college or university to do as the calendar flips from March to April and enrollment-related stress grows more acute? How can schools enroll the number of type of students they need to stay financially and academically viable when the most successful tactics in their enrollment marketing arsenal are no longer an option? Here are five things to keep in mind as you face unprecedented uncertainty:
- Keep a clear focus on your brand story. Given all the moving parts right now, it’s easy for your brand – one of the main things making prospective students consider you in the first place – to get lost in the shuffle. Take a step back and remind yourself and your teams that while the COVID-19 outbreak is (hopefully) temporary, your brand is forever. Use it as a lens through which you make all of your decisions – from the messages you post on your website to the phone calls you have with prospects, and everything in between.
- Make it simple to connect with a human being. Speaking of phone calls - now is the time to bring down any unnecessary walls between you and your prospects. Rely on personal, human conversations rather than nurture emails distributed automatically by your CRM. Give your admissions counselors a list of prospects to call while they work from home. Pay students to proactively reach out to connect with people considering your school. Encourage faculty to take a break from getting their courses online and reach out to prospects who’ve expressed interest in their programs. This human touch at a moment when people are feeling very disconnected from each other will pay unexpected dividends for years to come.
- Utilize whatever creative assets you have to convey your experience. It won’t be possible for most colleges and universities to develop custom videos for admitted students or have new photoshoots that convey the student experience. So instead of focusing on the creation of brand-new enrollment marketing assets, now’s the time to mine your archive of videos, photos, and stories to tell the story of your institution. Repackage photos into a new photo gallery. Write new articles on interesting topics (e.g. “Our school has been around for 150 years. Here’s how we’ve responded to crises before.”). Write a “top 10 student research projects of all time” list and share it with your prospects. Edit pieces of existing videos into exciting new finished products. You already have lots of creative assets at your disposal; now’s the time to think of them in new ways.
- Use technology to close the gap. Since your prospects can’t get to you in person, meet them online in fun and interesting new ways. Arrange virtual hangouts with multiple prospects moderated by an admissions counselor. Update your virtual tour or build a fast-turnaround new one so they can get a better sense of what campus is like. Offer them a free online course so they can get a taste of what it’s like to learn online. Create new social media communities solely for the purpose of connecting prospects to you and each other. We can’t be together in person, but technology has connected us in so many new and exciting ways; let’s find even more.
- Celebrate how this crisis is bringing out the best in your community. College is about so much more than the physical spaces on campus. It’s about the community and culture of your institution and how people connect with it over time. Let your prospects know how that uniqueness is coming to life even in these challenging times. Perhaps your students staged an impromptu graduation in case their regular one can’t happen. Or maybe your dorms are being converted into emergency hospital rooms so the sick can get the care they need. Or maybe they’re fast-tracking COVID-19 research to help slow its spread. Seek and share these stories so your prospects immediately understand what you’re doing in these challenging times to make things better.
The fact is that your prospects are feeling the same anxiety that you are about this process. They’re about to make a life-altering decision without the typical opportunities to explore campus, experience its culture and meet its people. The good news is that your institution has everything it needs to help your prospects make their decision; it’s just a matter of focusing first on what makes you special and bringing that reality to life clearly – and quickly.