While the rest of the world scrambles to adapt to a post-COVID-19 economy, let’s take a moment to look at the situation from a graduate student’s point of view:
- You’re preparing for a professional career
- You’ve picked a career path with some high commitment
- You likely made your career decisions before the pandemic broke out
- Your previous assumptions about the economy or job market are now questionable
- Your present source of income might be disrupted or have an uncertain future
We have all been launched into the strange new world of a global pandemic market without a map. Young adults who were on the cusp of launching their careers now have this unexpected complication. Some of them may put their academic plans on hold, others might be in a blind panic to finish their education as soon as possible.
More than a few students might be feeling a bit resentful of their bad timing. We’ve seen Millennials and Generation Z complain before about the 2007 subprime recession, an event that threw their career paths into chaos. Some young adults might also be critical of the infrastructure of society right now, feeling that the “powers that be” let them down. Admittedly, they may have a point. The conversations we’re having right now should have happened in the spring of 2020, but of course like every industry, we didn’t know what was going to happen.
If it’s a rough time to be a college-age student right now, primary school is having its own crisis. We have yet to see what the long-term effects will be when this generation graduates (?) high school!
The point is: empathizing with students scores high for their confidence level right now. The biggest asset we can currently give a young adult is an older adult to work with them one on one and help them sort out their concerns.
What Higher Education Students Plan To Do
McKinsey & Co. has recently posted surveys on higher education enrollment plans amid the pandemic. When it comes to graduating high school students, little has changed in their enrollment forecast overall. About the same percentage of students still plan to attend, with about the same number changing their mind not to attend as to attend.
However, a full fifth of all students have swapped out their first-school choice.
Notably, in the reasons for switching, about a quarter of those who have changed their school preference are trying to dodge pandemic hotspots. So we see the impact of the pandemic directly on student plans. One more number we’d like to point out is that the least of the reasons why students are switching is due to concerns about remote learning. This could indicate that students have a fairly optimistic attitude about the “remote” part of learning working out, regardless of where they attend.
The picture changes when we compare graduate students. Forbes’ read on a new survey from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that the number of graduate students who plan to attend has actually grown. For graduate students enrollments, the numbers are:
- Master’s students – up 6%
- Doctoral students – up 2%
- Post-baccalaureate – up 24%
- Graduate certificates – up 3%
- First-year professionals – down 2%
As we pointed out, being heavily invested in an academic path already makes students more determined not to bail out now.
There could even be a motivating factor in the pandemic itself for students’ career choices. WSJ reports that medical school applications are soaring by a factor of 17% compared to last year. Clearly, when the world is in a medical crisis, it’s logical to conclude that the world needs more doctors. The medical profession has never been at a loss for job security, even before COVID-19.
Graduate Student Marketing: A New Playbook
Getting to know your potential students, the new challenges facing them, and their new concerns and priorities is a key factor in this new academic landscape.
We’ve talked about marketing personas extensively before. This is the practice of researching your market and drawing from that research to produce a portrait of “John (Jane) Q. Customer,” the ideal patron of your business, whatever that business may be.
In light of the new academic terrain, you might find that this situation calls for multiple student personas. We’ve indicated a few ideas above for different students with unique drives. Some might be responding to a crisis with an altruistic motivation to change the world for the better. Some might be scrambling to look out for their own future. Some might be struggling with doubts about their previous plans.
Creating these personas and addressing their different needs can help you tailor a set of campaigns to reach out to each individual unit of your future enrollees.
Websites Are Still Important
Your university’s web portal, as always, needs to be mobile-optimized, efficient, and attractive to visitors with a system that’s intuitive to navigate. We’ve covered this ground already in our guide to general higher education marketing best practices.
What is different now? Now students have new concerns, and will look for new things on your website:
Here’s one story of students not feeling safe at their school. Worse yet, a student working as a teaching assistant felt her lab accommodations were insufficient for social distancing, but when she went to her professor about the problem she got false reassurance that “the air circulation in the room was top-notch.” The article further goes on to cite a survey that shows most of a thousand students surveyed say they would feel more comfortable with a remote semester.
How to do better:
Obviously, if you have a remote learning infrastructure in place, tout that on the front page of your website. But even the best virtual learning setups still require an on-campus visit from time to time. Be proactive in putting safety first, for your students and staff. Then market that upfront too. This is a good time to post a special notice from the faculty, affirming your commitment that not one student will be exposed to risk unnecessarily.
Every student coming to your school’s website should be made aware of your commitment to a COVID-free campus, measures to limit contamination, safety accommodations, and remote communication options. Don’t let the occasional stories of reckless student parties fool you; the majority of students are level-headed people who don’t want themselves or a loved one to become a statistic in a pandemic.
Student mental health:
Does COVID-19 have you feeling worried, stressed, or anxious? That’s how your students are feeling too, only they have the additional stress of trying to plan their whole future around what feels like an apocalypse. University World News reports an alarming rise in student distress and suicide. Not only is there the threat of the pandemic itself, but the side effects of stress from financial insecurity, isolation, concerns about family, and an uncertain future, are all eating away at young adults’ mental state.
How to do better:
Put your campus mental health services, counseling, and resources to seek help front and center on your site. If your school has the resources, maybe investing more in student support services during this time can help your institution show its caring, nurturing side. While campuses are great at hammering in the “diversity” message regarding gender and race, try putting more emphasis on “neurodiversity.” Your site should reassure students that you can accommodate their pre-existing conditions like ADHD, anxiety, depression, or autism spectrum.
You wouldn’t ordinarily think that students prioritize “mental health resources” when choosing a school, but this isn’t an ordinary time. In normal times, we can handle our challenges one at a time. In the current pandemic, students already under a stress load can only handle a couple more minor annoyances before they fear snapping.
Social Media Counts More Than Ever
If you thought Facebook ruled the world before, get ready for more of the same now. Social media usage is up since the pandemic. Fewer options to socialize in person drives people to seek their social outlets online. People who used to enjoy office chit-chat around the water cooler now work remotely and feel isolated. We’re even canceling Halloween, so the only costume fun anybody gets this year is to dress up at home and post their clever cosplay on IMGUR. The year 2020 is just the bummer that keeps on giving, isn’t it?
Prospective graduate students want to know if graduate school is worth the cost and if it’ll positively impact their futures, especially now. Develop social media campaigns that highlight the success of your graduates. Where has their career taken them? How has it changed? They’re not immune to the pandemic, so show how they’re navigating this time and how your college prepared them for these new challenges. Video testimonials are effective ways to communicate this and have strong engagement on social media channels.
If you don’t have a student ambassador program, now’s the time to implement one and ensure that you have current graduate students as part of the team. If you do have one, they’d best be on Twitter and Instagram. Post early and post often. Make sure you have a university branding resource where all of your marketing staff can be on the same page, providing a united message.
Consistent branding is important to universities, to show the culture and character of your school. At this time, we suggest that your social media messages emphasize the warm and friendly, human side of your campus experience. Go for a little more humor where you can, share some personal messages from the staff, reach out to students and tell them you understand their struggles. Above all, be empathetic in all your messaging.
PPC Advertising and Branding
SearchEngineLand points out that branded content PPC marketing has been on the rise across all markets. Branded content PPC (pay-per-click) campaigns are ideal for industries that already utilize educational and informative content. Universities have that market cornered already! Now add a spice of creativity and don’t just blandly flash your logo before the student’s eyes, but engage them with something funny, interesting, inviting, or informative—as long as it’s memorable.
In our case study about our digital marketing strategy for Trinity School of Medicine, we mention that part of our strategy is building the brand and exposure. In that case, we added a targeted PR campaign to get their brand in front of their ideal market and then used PPC advertising to ensure they appeared at the top of Google for targeted keywords.
Marketing for universities is a different ball game from usual consumer marketing. Nobody sees a commercial for a college and jumps right out of their chair to go call the number and sign up. Instead, students weigh the decision carefully, plan their financial resources, poll their friends, discuss it with their mentors, Google up a Forbes’ article. Maybe they even go on a backpacking trip to find themselves and meditate on a rock by a stream, especially if they’re Liberal Arts majors.
The point is, your PPC campaigns have to be long-term, with consistent branding and a recognizable logo. Your graduate student candidates need to be able to recall your school’s name when the time comes for them to make a decision. This is especially important for maintaining relationships with the students that decide to defer their education for a year or two.
Content Marketing and SEO
We’ve gone over quite a bit of the message you should be delivering to postgraduate students in the points above. We’ve mentioned blogging and social media, which also counts as content marketing. Even PPC ads, as we’re pointing out, are turning to branded content.
In a recent article, we have also addressed how to meet your students’ queries with the perfect answer for search engine optimization (SEO) purposes. Outside of that, search engine optimization for your website works the same as for any other industry: you plug in keywords that Google will mine to answer queries and hope to target student queries.
The difference is in what they’re searching for now. We’ve mentioned that going forward, students are likely to be more concerned about COVID-19 safety and mental health safety. Add to that the specific concerns that both postgraduates have in the normal course of matters—job market, tuition, programs, accreditation. Some of these are stickier points in a post-COVID-19 world. The graduate recruitment market is likely to raise some concern, for instance.
Your content marketing and SEO can proactively address concerns by voicing them first. Instead of the student searching the web to find the most pessimist news, intercept searches like “recruitment market,” “career placement,” and “graduate jobs” with research from your own institution, looking for the bright news that aligns with your offered courses. Find the fastest growing markets and point out where your courses align with those careers. Prospective graduate students will appreciate that you’re looking out for their future and trying to help them make the best decision possible.
Is this going to get better? Obviously, there should come a time, perhaps years down the line, when this is all behind us (and there had BETTER be a block party when that happens!). But in the meantime, there’s no objective reason why the academic industry should be as disrupted as it is. Why is remote learning so hard to adapt to when we’ve had laptops for 30 years now? Why is the antisocial generation that grew up staring at a phone suddenly having so many issues with social distancing?
All of us know what to do to make this work, at the macro level. No matter what COVID-19 does, there should not be this much economic impact. The fact that we do have economic impact means that it’s not so much the pandemic, but the shock and uncertainty, that is sapping the economy. And while we may not know whether this pandemic will end this year or this decade, the shock factors should go away eventually as we all buckle down to deal with it.
To weather the COVID-19 storm, higher education institutes need to focus on their students and help them navigate these difficult times. How you communicate and the resources you offer will ensure your brand comes out stronger than ever.
Founder and CEO
Alex Membrillo is the CEO of Cardinal, a digital marketing agency focused on growing multi location companies. His work as CEO of Cardinal has recently earned him the honor of being selected as a member of the 2018 Top 40 Under 40 list by Georgia State University as well as 2015 and 2016 Top 20 Entrepreneur of metro Atlanta by TiE Atlanta, Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2016 Small Business Person of the Year,and the Digital Marketer of the Year by Technology Association of Georgia (TAG).