6 Opportunities for Higher Education Marketers During COVID-19

So here we are looking at the crisis market of higher education. In our previous article, we talked about the challenges that higher education institutions face in digital marketing. The global COVID-19 pandemic was just part of the story. Even before that, universities were already experiencing market decline due to a host of other trends, ranging from being out of touch with the modern digital-native student audience to students having declining faith in the economic feasibility of a degree.

Since then, well, spoiler alert: things have gotten kind of worse. It’s tough just scrolling through the Twitter feed in the morning anymore. “Pessimism” is the over-riding theme.

Since readers are likely tired of all this pessimism, let’s look at things in a different way. We’re not out to paint silver linings on any clouds. We’re not an intervention group. But we can take a step back and put the post-COVID-19 market into some much-needed perspective!


What You Can Learn From Industries Shaken Up Before

In the United States alone, we’ve gotten used to a cycle of boom-and-bust periods. We’ve all lived through a few recessions and have seen whole industries rise, fall, and sometimes reinvent themselves.

The very platform we’re publishing on here nearly crashed at the turn of the century with the bursting of the Dot-Com Bubble. Huge fortunes were wiped out, young tech pioneers saw their garage start-ups collapse, and a wave of eager young techies who had counted on a career found themselves back in the unemployment line. Yet the Internet industry survived, persevered, and rose to far greater triumphs that made those fledgling Silicon Valley fortunes look like chump change.

Today, the video game industry is the highest-profit entertainment industry out of all media. Even the revenue of Hollywood movies pales next to the income of top video game studios. But in the 1980s, the Great Video Game Crash threatened to shut down the market industry-wide. For a while there, it looked like video games had only been a fad as if everyone burnt out on them. As we know today, that was not the case.

Just a few years ago, the new phenomenon of cryptocurrency became an investment bubble that saw crazy market spikes—literal millionaires were made overnight—before an equally dramatic crash. We still have cryptocurrency and the base technology behind it, blockchain, because both technologies still have a use.

And finally, slowly over time, we have the creeping decline of big retail. The eventual fate of our suburban shopping malls remains uncertain presently. But we know malls have lost their mainstay attractions like JC Penny and Sears.

In each of the above examples, a whole industry saw its fortune wiped out and had to take a long hard look in the mirror. Those businesses within those industries had to choose whether to bail out, downsize, or radically pivot their business model to adapt. We can see examples of these reactions in each of the above scenarios. Dot-com investors learned to reign in their expectations, video games saw a dramatic improvement in quality, cryptocurrencies went back to being humble utilities, and some malls have converted to office space, apartments, and other mixed-use functions.

And now…


It Is Higher Education’s Turn To Adapt

It’s been a struggle, but schools have begun the process of adapting. Schools have an advantage because education is a product that still experiences high demand. The problem is merely one of logistics. Some are switching to online learning, some are attempting in-person reopening of campuses with precautions, and some are adopting a mixed approach.

Reviews have been mixed, and we might be looking at an adjustment period.

So it’s too early to tell how we’ll fare with this plan. Right now, the most important thing to do if you’re a school is to stay abreast of the news cycle and learn from other schools’ mistakes as well as their triumphs. No industry reshapes themselves in a day!

So finally, we’re studying the higher-ed landscape and looking at what works. Here are six areas we have found where any school can improve its performance while weathering the Great Academic Storm of 2020:


1. Maintain Streaming Communication

Above all else, this is the most important time for your school to keep the communication channels open. Report changes as they happen, listen to your students and faculties to address their concerns and try to be the responsive problem-solver. This isn’t the time for stuffy puff speeches carefully balanced for P.R. Be frank, be transparent, take leadership.

This is a time to freely admit to problems when they happen. It’s OK to stumble. We’ve all been hearing doom and gloom in the news for the whole year so nobody expects the academic world to work perfectly right now. Be prepared to pay more personal attention to individuals and their unique issues. Students will appreciate one-on-one problem solving at a time like this.

Your institution should be openly communicating:

  • Plans for the future, whether next week or next year
  • Newly launched initiatives and programs
  • Updates about ongoing issues and what you’re doing to fix them
  • Personalized program updates
  • Live video streaming from school administration
  • If possible, live Q&As over Zoom or the equivalent

Focusing on your current student body and making sure they get the most out of your school is the best way to manage your reputation right now. Refer back to those students above with a positive experience. Good news is hard to come by right now, so any student who is impressed with their experience will be motivated to tell the world for you.


2. Put Technology To Work For You

While schools are limited in what they can provide and are forced to funnel most things through an electronic screen, this is the perfect time to enhance that digital experience as much as possible.

As we might have expected, technology companies are rushing new academic service apps to the front lines. Modo Labs’ Modo Campus app is one example. Think of it as project management software for remote education.

Campuses can also stand to investigate some of the remote working tools that the business and recreational worlds have already been depending on for years. A time like this calls for creativity, and there are tools out there that can be put to new uses. Some examples:

  • Discord: The leading instant messenger and voice app
  • Skype: A mature standard for text / audio / video conferencing
  • Telegram: Another VOIP and chat platform
  • Twitch TV: Video streaming normally used for games and entertainment, but students are very familiar with it, so why not use it to host your next lecture?
  • InVision: A suite of collaborative design software, with apps such as Freehand, a digital shared whiteboard
  • Trello: Project management software mostly useful for inter-team communication, but may have other creative uses
  • Google Drive: Probably needs no introduction here, but it’s an easy and accessible way to share documents
  • Asana: Team communication software which is also nicely suited to handing out assignments and sharing documents
  • Book Creator: Easy software for creating lesson plans, offering special support for remote learning
  • Kahoot: A game-based learning platform, offering a free premium version to schools
  • Lumen5: A multimedia creation tool – sort of like turning a blog post into a slideshow, here’s a tutorial and demo

That’s just a few places you can start. Remember that when we’re integrating all this cool software into our existing infrastructure, we have to keep in mind those with lower income, disabilities requiring accessibility assistance, and people who are just all thumbs when it comes to technology. We’re looking at you, too, teachers!

The bottom line is that we need apps that are free or at least inexpensive, portable to a wide range of platforms, and as “liberated” as possible. By “liberated,” we mean that in the “libre software” sense, either open source or at least not beholden to a board of investors who will yank your platform out from under you six months after you depend on it. You want tools to be as flexible as possible. When you’re in a crisis, you want tools so flexible that they can be used to craft other tools.



3. Flaunt Your Distance Learning Capabilities

Maybe you’re not completely on the 100% remote-learning plan yet, but the demand for distance learning is going to continue to grow. Now is the time to build up those telecommunication skills, make sure the IT department is amply funded, and trumpet your virtual school experience to the masses. Maybe we can even dare call it something like “enhanced learning”? After all, some students are finding that they take to remote learning like the proverbial duck to water.

It is crucial that you assemble some kind of team dedicated to remote learning. Build a task force that has at least one each of:

  • Administrator
  • Teacher
  • Student liaison
  • IT technician
  • Parent liaison/advocate
  • Marketer

Once the top five put the plan together, the marketer’s job is to bullhorn the plan out to the masses. That’s what marketers do, they communicate. Marketers are naturally born noisy. That’s why nobody can stand to be around them in the morning before the first cup of coffee.

Get that plan launched and keep sharing your every success on social media and other digital marketing channels. Yale College pulled off virtual pre-orientation this year and dutifully reported it as a win. Baby steps count here.


4. Form a Course-Sharing Alliance

We seem to have forgotten this time, but the original purpose of the World Wide Web was to assist universities in collaborating online. No really, it says so right here. Renew this tradition by developing collaborative online courses now.

You might even know that many universities have already been sharing their courses freely for years. MIT Open Courseware is one great model to follow, as they were among the first to adopt the program. All these universities have followed suit. Open Courseware is designed to be freely shared and adapted, under a Creative Commons license. Technically, it is even possible to use programs like MITx to get certified distance learning for certain subjects.

Currently, the Big Ten universities are banding together in a course-sharing alliance. Your school can follow suit by sharing course content with other colleges at your level. This enhances your reputation dramatically, as students are looking for universities to provide the best educational content available.


5. Expand Relationships With Community College

The Great Academic Storm of 2020 is a time when you could use all the friends you can get. Community colleges are another collaboration opportunity where you can score points for your school’s reputation and get in some brand exposure.

During uncertain economic times, students tend to opt for community college more often. It’s a temporary solution and a halfway point for students who need to work full time or have other commitments. Community colleges are also a quick fix for those in the workforce who have had to transition or adjust their academic credentials to meet a changing job market.

Their chief concern is to make sure that those credits transfer. Your school can reach out to community colleges and offer easy enrollment and credit transfer. Several schools have thought of this:

Partnerships between universities and community colleges are nothing new, whenever the relationship is advantageous for both parties. The community college gets improved enrollment because students appreciate the affiliation with a major university and a seamless transfer, and universities get a reputation and brand awareness bump from the casual enrollments at community colleges. Even your students will appreciate the flexibility knowing they can have more courses to pick from while banking their credits with you. In stressful economic times, students appreciate the willingness to accept community college credits and will speak favorably about your brand.


6. Display Awareness of Cost Issues

Finally, let us look at the elephant in the room. Let us soberly regard it, drag it out to the middle of the floor, and kick it. Scold it for being a naughty elephant trying to hide behind the nightstand.

Your school costs money. It costs a lot of money. It costs so much that students have to take out loans sometimes. Those loans are so huge that they become burdens to shoulder for half a lifetime. A student loan is such a huge concern that presidential candidates have nearly won primaries based on relief from it.

Yes, we agree, it is painful to look at and listen to Bernie Sanders. But he has a point here. Over little more than thirty years, college tuition and fee prices have inflated to the tune of 1412%. If a degree in 1977 cost $20K, the same degree with the same credits would go $300K+ now. This is, not to mince words, nuts. And we know that a degree awarded in 2020 means that you know a lot more than you would have learned from the same degree in 1977, but still. 1412%!

This is a good time to get out your communication bullhorn (again), and have a frank, transparent conversation about finances, with students, parents, and anybody else writing the checks. Of course, colleges have already, for years, offered counseling, financial aid guides, grant directories, and alternative enrollment options.

Just be aware that money is a big, major concern for your students like it never has been before. So be sure your marketing addresses this, puts easy access to resources online, and makes that financial aid counselor easily accessible.

Student concern for money isn’t only because of the high price tag, it’s also because of the uncertain job market. Whole industries are crashing out there. Others, like yours, are going through that rapid change of pace. If your school really wants to win good branding points, be transparent about future job prospects per degree. At the same time, beefing up your career counselors and perhaps directing your curriculum towards greater career feasibility can’t hurt. If you’re doing these things already, pump that message into your marketing.



In these trying, uncertain times, We must all unite.

We’re actually past such insipid and dreary verbiage. We’re in the thick of the storm now. We have no time to feel sorry for ourselves. In fact, we’re actually eating this thing. There are colleges, universities, and schools that are forging forward already. It’s not easy, but they’re doing it, and after they keep doing it for a while, they will be the heroes who inspire the rest of us. And then we’re all going to pick up the pieces after the COVID, the derecho, the hurricanes, the wildfires, the riots, and then we’re going to put this country back together.


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