Just as enrollment leaders were starting to see deposits roll in and their fall 2020 class beginning to take form, the coronavirus hit the United States. Soon, students were sent home, faculty and staff were working remotely and “business as usual” was nowhere to be found. Many colleges and universities found themselves with tunnel vision as they scrambled to move their classes online and set up remote versions of essential student services.
Even in the midst of this crisis, enrollment leaders know one thing all too well—we can’t lose sight of the fact that we have a new class to recruit. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve heard a lot of questions from anxious enrollment departments: How do we do this with no admitted student events, high school visits or campus tours? What processes do we need to adjust? Which marketing tactics should we lean into? To help address these concerns, we’ve compiled a guide to enrollment marketing in the wake of COVID-19.
1. Work the Phones
This crisis came into full swing right at the peak of high school students’ senior year. Proms, sports championships and graduations have been canceled, and students are left at home staring at one (or all) of their multiple devices, trying to find something to look forward to. And guess what? They’re actually picking up the phone!
From what we’re hearing, prospective students are now more inclined than usual to say, “Sure, I can talk. I’m stuck in the house.” Use that to your advantage. Now is the time to call your students, encourage them to submit their deposit or take the next step needed for you to make an admissions decision.
2. Implement Texting
Texting is a great option that allows you to connect with students in an informal way while giving them the opportunity to provide instant feedback. However, you should still respect the type of content students want to receive from schools. Text communications should be limited to personalized, short and clear messages. Effective messages include encouraging them to set up a time to talk to their admissions officer by replying to a text, to announce that registration is open (see #7 below) or to prompt them to send in missing documents. Many CRM or texting tools also allow your admissions counselors to have one-on-one conversations with those students who aren’t willing to pick up the phone for a conversation.
3. Focus on Email Marketing
Creating relevant email content is something we’ve always believed in, and applied to all our higher ed clients here at Echo Delta, but now is a great time to really ramp up your email marketing efforts. Overall, email engagement stats across all our clients are up in the weeks since campuses closed. Open rate averages have increased from 35% to 41%, click-through rates are holding steady and unsubscribe rates are down by more than 2%. All of this tells us that people like relevant content and want to keep receiving it—especially now that they have time to read it.
To make the most out of this opportunity, make sure you’re creating the kind of content prospective students are looking for. We’ve noticed three themes that seem to be driving the highest engagement lately:
- Info about thriving industries offers hope in uncertain times
Unemployment for the first week of the COVID-19 pandemic came in at a staggering 3.3 million people (source). In the midst of this crisis, prospective students are watching which jobs are still going to work. Many may even be considering changing their plans to study in one of these fields. Nontraditional students may be truly open to the idea of a new career for the first time. One email we created to showcase the high job placement rate of a college’s nursing program is boasting a 66% open rate right now.
- Students are eager to take control and move things forward
Right now, there is so much out of these students’ control. Activities are canceled, they’re stuck at home and they can’t even find toilet paper! We’re seeing that short, simple, clear messages prompting students to submit housing preferences, fill out a short survey, submit a deposit to secure their seat or even register for classes are performing remarkably well in terms of student engagement. And it makes sense why: Offering the opportunity to make a decision or complete a task helps students feel like they’re back in the driver’s seat again.
- Personalized, well-tailored messaging is more important than ever
Now is the time to button up your email segmentation and personalization strategy. Send messages specific to each type of student (adult, traditional, transfer, international, domestic, athlete, etc.). Send messages specific to each student’s program of interest. Send messages specific to student life preferences such as on-campus housing, clubs and events, or intramural programs. When these relevant personalizations are called out in subject lines, we’re seeing open rates climb northward of 50% and click-through rates that exceed 35%.
4. Step Up Your Social Efforts
Prospective students are, overall, more engaged on social media now. In fact, we’re seeing them visiting the actual school’s profile instead of just liking new posts in their feeds. This is not a big surprise. Teens are on their devices all day long while they’re quarantined at home. This means they’ve seen everything in their feed and are ready to dig deeper. Schools need to be poised to continue to provide them with new content and to respond to engagements with all posts, including older posts they’ll find as they explore more deeply than before.
Current students are engaged, too. Many are tagging their schools, complementing their response to moving online or sharing photos of them in their school gear as a way to connect with their college community from home. Schools can leverage this content to give prospective students a view of the great relationships, community spirit and school pride that exist within the student body.
5. Don’t Go Dark
A knee-jerk reaction to stop all paid media can be tempting in a time of uncertainty, but it’s the last thing that should happen right now. We’re not seeing any decline in engagement with digital media right now. In fact, some digital media is seeing an increased engagement for colleges and universities. Again, students are at home. They now have time to dream, research, apply for scholarships and finally send in those transcripts you’ve been requesting for months.
However, you should carefully audit all your messages to ensure there is nothing that appears opportunistic or insensitive when put in the context of a nationwide health and economic crisis. An audit is also a good time to ensure ads are targeted appropriately using custom audiences, geo-targeting, retargeting and behavioral targeting. Finally, take a moment to check your landing pages to make sure they have accurate information, functioning forms and are set up appropriately to guide students to their next step.
6. Take Your Events Online
Campus visits and yield events are anchors of any great enrollment marketing strategy. In fact, this crisis has happened right as yield season is in full swing across all our schools. These events being canceled due to current restrictions does not mean these strategies should be scrapped entirely. In fact, they’re still critical factors in your recruitment equation.
All different types of visits, from individual daily visits to large yield events, can be reimagined to provide the same experience online. There are many tools available to your team, from Zoom or Skype for individual visits, to social live videos for campus tours, to more sophisticated online events utilizing an online events platform.
7. Open Registration Early (Now)
Seniors are grieving as their high school career has ended abruptly. During the time of year that they’d normally be hyper-focused on their senior-year experience, they’re bored and looking for something to be excited about. This creates an opportunity to redirect their attention. They’re primed to take the next step.
I had the opportunity to speak with Reggie Hill, Vice President of Marketing and Enrollment at University of the Ozarks, who shared this advice:
Enrollment teams should partner with academic teams to open registration early. Now is the time to anchor the students who are engaged into your university. Then, your enrollment team will be freed up to work the phones and move on to filling the second half of your class.
Want to know more about how the University of the Ozarks is responding to COVID-19 across the university? Last week, we spoke with President Richard Dunsworth of the University of the Ozarks about the impact of COVID-19 on his school on our Higher Ed Marketing Lab podcast.
8. Reassure Students (and Parents) That You’re Ready for the Fall Semester
Schools and enrollment teams need to find a healthy balance between showcasing their great response to the COVID-19 quarantine and providing prospective students the opportunity to envision their freshman year proceeding as planned. Avoid bringing these unusual times up unless they do. This may not even be a concern on their mind. Allow yourself, and your prospective students, to stay positive, excited and looking forward to the fall semester.
To be ready, teams should have talking points ready about how you’ll keep students safe and healthy when everyone returns. Questions may come from parents seeking assurance that your distance learning is going well and, should anything like this happen again, you’ll be ready to make sure their student’s college education doesn’t skip a beat.
Parents have always been concerned about how their student’s basic needs will be met, and this concern will likely be heightened in light of recent events. As time goes on, restrictions are lifted and what life in August will look like becomes clear, make sure you proactively communicate to the parents of on-campus students about the safety and well-being measures you have in place.
COVID-19 has introduced a number of unique, but not impossible, challenges to the current enrollment cycle. If your school is struggling as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re here to help. Drop us a line and a member of our team will be in contact with you soon.