Higher education marketing in a pandemic: rules of engagement

How has higher education marketing changed in response to Covid-19? We ask the specialists

Attracting students to a university is always a competitive business, but throw a global pandemic into the mix and the challenges around higher education marketing become even greater.

After all, choosing where to study isn’t just about the course, it’s about the whole student ‘experience’ beyond the lecture halls. It’s about the campus and living in student accommodation, it’s about the clubs and societies and leisure facilities on offer and it’s about the chance to expand horizons and make new friends. But with seemingly ever-changing restrictions on travel and face-to-face interactions making events like in-person open days more or less impossible, higher education marketing strategies have had to adapt to not only showcase everything that their institution has to offer, but also offer reassurance to prospective students. And it seems that the solutions are primarily to be found online.

Students need to know that they will matter to their university and are more than just a number

Piero Tintori, CEO of Terminalfour – a web content management and digital engagement platform for higher education – explains more.  “Online is the key right now,” he said. “People are realising that it’s the only game in town.

“We have seen two big shifts – the first one is more technical and that’s the move to the cloud, and we have been so busy with that type of work. The second is more from a digital marketing/digital experience point of view, and how universities can not just market courses online but focus on what can actually be delivered online to a high degree of quality. For example, there’s a university in Vancouver which has created a really nice experience so you can book a single course, or a group of courses. And they have developed courses on teaching online and remote working, which are really relevant to what’s going on right now. Another example is Prince George’s Community College in America, which set up a website just for their online programmes. It’s working out really well for them because the story is just online and it’s not getting diluted with everything else going on there.

“And then, moving on from that, we are seeing those organisations that are agile and can react and adjust quickly using progressive marketing techniques such as content personalisation and content targeting. So, if I know someone on the website is interested in online studies, I adjust the content to talk to them. It’s the marketing techniques that are used in commercial settings being applied to higher education. What we are seeing is that the agile are succeeding and the agile universities are pulling away from the others in terms of success.”

Some universities, especially in the US, are not being clear about what the university experience is going to be like this year, and that’s going to come back to bite them and hurt their brand in the long term

Teamwork at Teesside

Teesside University (TU) is one of those that has increased its focus on digital engagement as director of student recruitment and marketing Dave Hudson explains. “During the pandemic, and particularly during the national lockdown, selecting channels which ensured positive engagement with our markets was a key priority. Our increasing shift to digital engagement continued, particularly given the limited effectiveness of out-of-home media sites with reduced footfall in key areas.

“A focus on digital marketing solutions has been our main focus for advertising spend. A variety of platforms has ensured our key messages have remained visible through the uncertainty of Covid-19. As the situation continues to develop, we are constantly reviewing effectiveness and monitoring platform engagement to adapt our strategies.

“Teamwork and collaboration are key TU values and during Covid-19 we have further developed our Team Teesside concept. We have collected stories of colleagues and students who have gone above and beyond to support each other, the local community and the wider national effort, and celebrated these through a vibrant campaign. We have provided opportunities for our prospective students to engage with us to ask questions and seek reassurance on a variety of platforms. Understanding the optimum methods of engagement enables universities to responsibly market courses and the student experience to our audiences.

“In addition, a more interactive marketing approach has been adopted, providing opportunities for our markets to engage, ask questions and seek reassurance. This has been particularly effective through Instagram Q&A sessions and the development of our online open days.”

While many universities may have already had at least some degree of online learning on offer, for many, virtual and online open days are a brand-new development.

Sophie Palmer is senior account manager at Revolution Viewing, which works with higher education marketing departments to create virtual experiences.

“Pre-Covid, 70% of prospective students expected universities to have a Revolution Viewing virtual tour,” says Sophie, “and we think this figure will have increased significantly as they are now more heavily reliant on these platforms to understand a university offering. Over the last four months, we’ve seen some tours gain a 60% increase in the number of unique visitors and a 75% increase in the number of pages viewed.

“Over the past 16 years, we’ve seen universities becoming more progressive in terms of online presence and digital resources, but despite this, for many universities, there has been something of a ‘scramble’ to introduce digital marketing solutions that adequately replace physical events,” she said.

“All universities know that they will become even more reliant on digital tools and, from speaking to more than 50 universities over the past six months, our clients tell us that the reliance on digital is here to stay.

“Unsurprisingly, we’ve seen a huge increase in enquiries for our virtual experiences since March. As physical open days and applicant days have been cancelled, it’s no surprise that our clients have found that the events we produce provide the perfect way to present a holistic view of universities to prospective students.

“Our new Virtual Experience, launching in January, combines the best of our sector knowledge and experience with research insights and product development. It will be an important step in developing the way that students interact with universities online.

“When it comes to running online open days and live events the most important piece of advice we can give is not to simply replicate your physical events online. As one of our clients commented recently: the experience of visiting a supermarket versus an online shop isn’t the same, you don’t virtually walk down the aisles picking out your items! Moving experiences online provides an opportunity to remove risks associated with actual events, run them in a more efficient and cost-effective way and crucially, provide relevant and personalised information to visitors faster.”

The agile universities are pulling away from the others in terms of success

Higher education marketing and the law

While higher education marketing materials will naturally shine a positive light on a university, it’s vital, perhaps now more than ever, that the image that is being portrayed is authentic. And not just for ethical reasons. Universities have to be mindful that the picture they are painting is a realistic depiction of what’s on offer since what higher education institutions promise their students is subject to the requirements of consumer law and promotional information on the website or in materials such as brochures and handbooks may form part of a binding contract if relied upon by students. This means that publishing misleading information could result in calls for tuition-fee refunds.

“One of the ways that it’s not going right for people is around authenticity,” said Piero. “Some universities, especially in the US, are not being clear about what the university experience is going to be like this year, and that’s going to come back to bite them and hurt their brand in the long term.

“It’s important to be open and authentic because that will stick with your brand. It’s about supporting students and being upfront with them about how it’s going to work. We’re seeing universities updating images on their websites, for example, so there aren’t those standard pictures of students hugging or socialising in large groups, because that’s not what it’s like right now.”

And authenticity has been a key consideration at Teesside University, as Dave explains. “Our student recruitment marketing always aims to be authentic, featuring the real stories of our students, and addressing the concerns we know applicants often have. During Covid-19, this compassionate and proactive approach has become ever more important. Students need to know that they will matter to their university and are more than just a number. Through student storytelling and involving our current students in social media live Q&A sessions, we have ensured we continue to take a personalised approach to engaging with prospective students.

“Throughout our planning for the return to campus, we have ensured our marketing and communications provides reassurance, not just to students but to parents and the local community. Consistency, clarity and honesty have been key.”

You might also like: OfS Annual Review: Don’t mislead students with ‘false and misleading marketing’

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