Don’t look now, but the COVID-19 pandemic is still wreaking havoc on the entire higher education industry. The higher education industry was already facing a challenging time with many factors conspiring to put schools in a tough spot in recent years. Then the pandemic came along and made everything worse. Schools now have an uphill battle for enrollment, many of them having to turn to aggressive marketing for the first time.
Today, we’re going to look at a different factor in marketing to the modern pandemic-era student. Because we see one problem which affects all schools, is not frequently addressed, and is relatively easy to solve, given nothing much more than imagination and creativity.
Students Miss Your Campus!
Of course, academic standards are high on the list for every continuing education student. Of course, students want to know that your institution provides a quality education, a prestigious degree, and a path to career success. That’s still a big consideration, one which your marketing team is doubtless striving to convey in your marketing campaigns.
But even the greatest university, academics-wise, is lacking something which students miss. Simply put, it’s the campus experience. The day-to-day life of campus has changed to a dreary blur of daily temperature checks, mask mandates, social distanced interactions, remote learning with a side effect of tech glitches, and constant anxiety.
Most people from past years will tell you that their college years were the most fun time of their lives, at least up to that point. They’re not talking about “partying” either. Campus life for many is their first taste of adulthood, the first time they get to leave their hometown culture and mingle with people from all walks of life.
We don’t usually focus on this much, but there are dozens of little moments from the campus experience you never forget. The first all-night “bull session” in the library where you debated philosophy with other fresh young minds. Your first initiation into a fraternity or sorority. The first time you got a chance for a one-on-one with a professor and gained inspirational insight. The energetic hijinks with people running everywhere. Your first campus prank. The first time making a friend who had read all the same favorite authors you like. The interaction between youthful energy and intellectual stimulation.
There is more to an education than what you get out of a book, or what an adjunct diagrams on a whiteboard. There’s a spiritual side where you discover your purpose in life or hone your resolve if you’ve already found it. There are the things you learn about plain old life and other people.
How do you replace all of that?
One University of North Carolina, Asheville, student observes that the campus looks like a ghost town, and says “It’s not easy to be able to thrive in this environment where it’s your first year in college, your first experience in the real world and having to do it in such an isolating way.” Also in Asheville at Warren Wilson College, a freshman describes “a general sense of dread hanging over us” and that he finds online learning alienating.
The New York Times declares “the first semester of college has never been stranger,” with students finding it difficult to meet people, resigned to dining alone. For example, you can get to know somebody in Zoom and then not recognize them on campus because they’re wearing a mask. A Brigham Young University neuroscience professor underscores this point, “We’re receiving recommendations and restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the virus that also limit our ability to connect with others.”
Students at Syracuse University are anxious enough to seek out counseling, and even then it feels different from regular counseling. “It’s definitely not what it’s like in person, where you can feel that bond of trust. It’s very hard to be vulnerable over a screen because it just feels like you’re talking to a robot and not a real person.”
In a survey about post-pandemic education outlooks at the Stanford Daily, one student replied “The six months I was on campus were the six happiest months of my life. I will miss everything.”
The Exponent has a much longer and in-depth examination of the stresses impacting students and faculty alike. Along with the pandemic isolation, hybrid learning and remote learning involve more busywork. Students click from video to video, where they have to absorb a rushed 2-hour lecture at a time. There’s very little time for professors to answer each student’s questions. Meanwhile, the stress and sense of dread eats away at students’ concentration levels. Those of you who are likewise spending 15 hours per day on a laptop in an endless Groundhog Day loop can relate.
Marketing the Post-COVID19 Campus Experience
What we’ve done here is the first step in the marketing playbook: identify a need. Next, we need to fulfill that need, and then advertise our solution. What is our problem exactly?
- Missing out on a normal experience
- Lack of stimulation
- Life feels flat and virtual, not real
Schools all over the world are trying to come up with clever and innovative ways to combat the pandemic blues. What answers can we find?
Reach Out With An Understanding Message
One of the first things you can do is acknowledge that this is the toughest year that your students have ever faced. An axiom you might try to convey is “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Offer some leniency for pressured students, perhaps backing off exam dates and deadlines. Implement a new counselor or advisor program for students struggling with virtual learning. Tout your school’s mental health facilities and run awareness campaigns so students know that they always can talk to someone, and be heard.
Nailing it: The University of Arizona has a great example in their Campus Health section: “Coping With Stress Related To COVID-19.” They have a video from the psychiatrist explaining stress and ways to cope. They have a list of resources and mental wellness infographics to toss around on Instagram. This is a textbook example of stress-handling resources, something every major institution should be doing.
The marketing plan: If your professors, counselors, and administrative staff are reaching out and sharing resources with students, make sure you’re also developing complementary marketing campaigns. Don’t operate in a silo. When you cooperate with other departments, you can develop campaigns more efficiently, while promoting a consistent university message. The stress-coping tips that a psychology professor shared on social media could be turned into a blog article. Resources from the health services department should be incorporated into your content marketing plan and promoted widely. Videos from your mental health professionals can be repurposed as blog posts or social media posts. If you have any kind of wellness programs, such as yoga classes, virtual outings, or group therapy, put that up front and get the word out.
Get More Hands To Share the Work
We have all been touting electronic media for how much more efficient it is and how much time it saves. But maybe we oversold that idea. It turns out that sometimes we just make more busywork for ourselves with all our gadgets. Ironically, we tend to expand work to fill all the available slots in our Trello boards and spreadsheets.
We know there are school cutbacks and layoffs out there, but this might not be the time to reduce staff! The demand for school will always be there, and students are going to seek out university anyway, COVID-19 or not. The best strategy might be hiring more lower-level workers for basic student interactions. Advisers, coaches, counselors, or tutors can all help with the student cognitive workload. We’re looking at that Exponent report back there, with students overworked while struggling with stress. Perhaps, maybe, take a sidebar with your instructors to make shorter, more concise videos?
Nailing it: A University of Toronto public policy professor has helped author a paper studying the efficacy of tutors in the new hybrid learning model at the grade-school level. He’s excited about the results, which show that even lightly-trained tutors are having a huge impact on student learning. If you remember that students are struggling with a workload and not getting one-on-one or small group time with a lecturer, this makes tons of sense.
Also nailing it: The University of Pittsburgh is leaning heavily into student ambassadors. Student ambassadors are already a hot trend that all the higher ed institutions use. There has never been a better time for them to shine! Again, they don’t have to be miracle workers. They can act as student assistants and guides, or just be somebody students can ask for help. Stress makes us want to reach out. Sometimes it may help a lot to just be the person who listens to your vent for ten minutes. Students are missing not just contact, but somebody with the time to listen to problems.
The marketing plan: Your school’s new name is “We Support U!” This is a good time to post a group staff photo. Show off the raw number of support staff, emphasize people (we know you have computers already). Flaunt your support staff. Spotlight campus heroes, share their achievements, and show how they’re stepping up to handle the pandemic challenges. If you have student ambassadors, get them geared up in branded masks like U of P has, then get them for a group shot. Try to have more than three.
Show More Campus
It’s hard to feel like you belong somewhere when you never go there. Overwhelmingly, students in remote learning express that they miss the campus experience.
So the thing to do is to bring as much of that campus experience into the virtual realm as possible. Bands can practice together over Zooniverse. Student groups can stream social club events over Zoom or Twitch. Social media groups are more important than ever in bringing people together. Give your groundskeeper a GoPro and they can be a virtual tour guide. Think creative, out-of-the-box, and throw every idea at the wall to see what sticks.
Nailing it: A virtual open house at Saint John’s. It’s quite an undertaking to broadcast to 1400 students, but the plucky Vice Provost and Chief Enrollment Officer with a resounding declaration that there’s no place like their school. Of course, student ambassadors were part of the event, again virtually. Professors were on live stream to present their academic schedules and take a Q-and-A. They make it sound like a blast.
The marketing plan: Get your virtual open house together, and then have a virtual tour, a virtual mixer, and schedule an extended virtual open house for the people who missed the first one.
More campus on camera! Show off every program and their lab rooms, studios, gymnasiums, and lecture halls. Get your most cheerful staff to make tuning in feel like it’s New Years’ Eve. Save the recordings and keep blasting the clips on TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter, and extend upcoming event invitations to your local community whenever you can.
Bring Back the Fun
We usually don’t put fun first. We’re in a pandemic, it’s a crisis, who has time for fun? But the massive stress and pressure, the atmosphere of foreboding doom, the eerie silence of isolation, all of this has to crack sometime. Fun creates culture, busts stress, and makes students forget their million-and-one problems for a second.
This is another opportunity to get creative. Tap your students for ideas on this one, maybe open up a social media “suggestion box” which students can submit to. Give some liberty to a few wild ideas if you do this. There are plenty of recreational activities you can still host during a pandemic:
- One socially-distanced activity that still gets you outside is geocaching.
- Drones can be remotely deployed in simple games between dorm windows.
- Your students probably miss the food they would be getting at social events. How about some catering?
- Fire off social media challenges for your student body. Teenagers make up their own all the time. Don’t make them dangerous or embarrassing, but do make them silly and creative. Or jump on to the latest trend and invite your student body.
- Relay races are an athletic competition where people mostly stay apart.
- Watch parties are movie-watching events with streaming chats laid over them, hosted by the likes of Netflix and Amazon.
- Bring back the campus scavenger hunt.
- ESports (competitive video games) might become a popular way for students to compete without having to be face to face.
The point here is to keep students engaged, give them some variety from the gray monotony of COVID-19 reality, and build that sense of community back up through the bonding experiences.
Nailing it: Swarthmore is one of the few campuses we’ve seen paying attention to this particular issue. They state that while they took care of the necessities and obligations, “the college has failed to allow students the opportunity to have safe, fulfilling social engagements, which jeopardizes their mental health.” Wow! So they have arranged a system of community guidelines and restrictions which allow for some social interaction in small groups. In addition, the plan looks forward to creating pods, which are groups of uninfected students that are cleared to hang out together. Rigorous testing and access control are required to pull this off, but it is possible.
The marketing plan: Oops, I guess you just need to capture these events on video and hope somebody doesn’t accidentally leak them online. Who could think of fun at a time like this? How long has it been since we saw a student smile or even laugh as they enjoy being part of campus culture again? Can you imagine the scandal if footage of your campus game went viral all over Instagram?
All jokes aside, you need to get the word out about these new events. Use your student ambassadors to engage students and encourage participation. Spread the word on social media and through SMS messaging alerts. Update event boards and send special email invitations to ensure students know that there’s a way for them to participate and engage in campus life—even if it looks a little different.
“The New Normal”
For all of you, faculty, admin, and students alike: It’s OK if we’re making mistakes right now. We are learning about our new society. The rules have changed and we have to go back to square one and rethink things. A lot of the issues we’re all experiencing right now are just freshman problems, things that we’ll smooth over as we get the hang of this. Nobody is perfect on their first flight, nor do they forget their first landing.
That goes for us marketing people over here, too. We’ve pulled so many rabbits out of our hat since the Coronavirus hit, we don’t even know where they’re coming from.