It’s a uniquely challenging time for those of us who think about enrollment marketing strategy. With the COVID-19 pandemic still unfolding across the country and the globe, it’s a safe bet that conventional assumptions about student and parent behavior will no longer hold.
Many practitioners wonder whether students or their parents are even prepared to be thinking about school next year right now, since their lives and daily routines have almost certainly been upended.
In search of answers, we reached out to our educational clients to see if one indicator of prospective student engagement—traffic to virtual tours—has changed across the past several weeks.
Virtual tour traffic up
As the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country, schools have seen a significant spike in virtual tour traffic over the span of several weeks.
Many students and parents suddenly have less to do than they expected, and a good number of them are spending their newfound free time exploring potential schools and considering their future options.
Still, even if students (and parents) are continuing to participate in the school search journey during this time, should we alter our approach to engaging them?
It’s hard to say for certain, because much will continue to change, but we have developed six strategic principles to guide the enrollment marketing work we do with our clients.
1. Don’t overcorrect
In conversations with partners over the past week, we have found that in some cases, their first instinct was to shut off marketing altogether. We believe that is not the best course of action.
While some messages will need to shift, particularly those related to logistics and deadlines, the essential steps in the prospective student journey—engaging students in the consideration process, driving them to apply, and supporting their decision to attend—remain as relevant as ever. Colleges that go silent this spring risk doing long-term damage to their enrollment funnels, reducing the size of their inquiry pools in a way that could take years to correct.
What’s more, we have been doing a broad review of campaign messaging across our partners in light of today’s environment, and our read-overs suggest that the vast majority of our partners’ emails, display ads, print mailings, and even text reminders are just as appropriate during a time of widespread disruption as they have ever been.
A coworker recently shared another piece of evidence to support the proposition that enrollment marketing communications, broadly speaking, remain relevant and acceptable: our team that monitors student “replies” to email campaigns reports no change in the volume or nature of student responses across the past week, even after the coronavirus situation spurred school closures and schedule disruptions.
2. Prioritize yield-related marketing
Since enrollment teams need to focus their scarce resources, we recommend that they (and we) spend time first on the activities most likely to yield students for the entering class of fall 2020.
Among all prospective students in the enrollment funnel, the set of admitted-but-not-yet-deposited students have the strongest relationship with the school they are considering attending; influencing their decision whether to attend will have the biggest impact on near-term fortunes of any marketing intervention.
3. Invest in the “inbound” experience
As the virtual tour traffic data suggests, when prospective students have less structured time and more travel restrictions, they’re more likely to be on the Internet exploring—which means that they are even more likely to find you on the web.
This is a great time to enhance a virtual campus tour if you have one or create a virtual tour if you don’t; it is possible to do either with existing photos and/or video footage. It’s also more important than ever to ensure that your school’s website provides a welcoming experience for prospective students.
4. Keep everyone up to date
Many of the questions that prospective students and families are asking right now are about how processes, events, and timelines are going to change.
It’s important to make sure that all your communications, across all channels, reflect the most recent decisions that you have made. At least one Thor Social | Digital Marketing Agency client institution is taking this imperative one step further by creating a comprehensive “Virtual Admissions” microsite that compiles all “coronavirus-era” updates in one place.
5. Don’t forget about the long term
Enrollment leaders could be forgiven for focusing on the here and now, given everything they are contending with. But at least a fraction of their mindshare needs to be reserved for what comes months and years down the road.
Leaders need to carve out time and mental energy for themselves and their teams to plan for the long term, even as immediate priorities clamor for their attention.
6. Put students and parents first
With all the uncertainty that students and parents are experiencing, the best thing that enrollment teams can do is to apply empathy to everything they’re involved in, including marketing and communications.
For instance, a number of institutions are considering changing their enrollment deadline from May 1 to June 1, but some of them were thinking that they would not change the deadline publicly, but rather would just extend the deadline a month behind the scenes and communicate the change in one-off settings. Our team’s opinion was that in these stress-inducing times, it would be a more family-friendly alternative to announce the change publicly, so that more people have more clarity that they can get deadline relief.
The only certainty: Change
We are confident that no matter what else happens, those six principles will stand enrollment teams in good stead as they react to the coronavirus crisis. However, like anyone else who has been following the news lately, we are also sure that our plans will need to evolve more in the coming days and weeks.
Keeping in close touch with student and parent engagement at every stage of the enrollment funnel is critically important; likewise, so is staying abreast of what other schools are saying and doing.