The higher education space has been a beacon of hope and future-building for centuries. But with universities facing an unprecedented level of pressure paired with equal parts uncertainty and hesitance, what's a college brand to do to amid a global pandemic? And how can it continue to project that feeling of stalwartness that's so difficult to hold up when there are so many question marks? Much of this is in how you speak about your circumstances, your intentions and your newly revised goals for the immediate and long-term future.
There's more than one way to make your campus a beacon during uncertainty—here's a starter guide.
Honesty & Authenticity
One particularly strong tactic is one that's been in motion well before COVID-19 arrived—that's leading with authenticity. You've heard the pros of leaning into user-generated content. You've heard how being genuine and honest with your end audience can set you apart and work wonders for your brand. Well, the rule still applies. And frankly it's even easier than ever before.
With college and university brands forced to address the obstacles at hand—from lack of students on campus, to restricted ability to create and produce new marketing content, to uncertainty about when this might change and how long it will take—higher ed marketers virtually have no choice but to approach with authenticity. This can take the form of video content filmed remotely and adaptation of common admissions services, such as campus tours and meeting with professors and counselors. And all of it contributes to one key overall recognition.
We understand this is hard. We understand this is a change. And our heads aren't in the sand about it.
Take a look at this example of responding to the COVID-19 crisis that our own team at Epicosity spearheaded. By getting to work early and responding quickly, South Dakota State University was able to talk honestly and openly about what the pandemic means to an institute of higher education and the people impacted by it. And it was able to do so without admitting defeat nor being pie in the sky. Resilience and passion bubble to the top when you are able to have an honest conversation about what's really at hand.
While your brand's messaging needs to deliver, at its core, a feeling of authenticity and strength, there's also a lot of power to be demonstrated in your ability to adapt what you do as seamlessly as possible and passing the paint points on to the end consumer—your students—as minimally as possible. We've seen higher ed brands step right into this role with ease while others have struggled—it's about being able to see what truly makes your campus special and digitizing it. It's capturing the essence of what makes you unique and adapting it for a remote world.
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently conducted a study in which they winnowed down college choice among high school recruits as falling into seven key areas of importance—these include the price tag, a feeling of belonging and academic reputation. So as a higher ed marketer, ask yourself: "How can we demonstrate these qualities in a digital format? And how can we take what are typically multiple campus visits and repeat face-to-face interactions to a remote place?"
The key is being adaptable. Your message can still be powerful minus the person-to-person physical connection.
For starters, lean into video content that relies on your best and brightest students, professors and alumni—how better can you speak to what it feels like to be on campus, take a class or weigh the costs of your particular university than directly from the source? Let the participants speak for themselves. And in lieu of campus tours, get your best student ambassadors pounding the pavement and giving in-depth walk-throughs of your most engaging physical spaces on campus. In lieu of a stagnant photographic tour, offer a POV experience with guidance from a student who understands what it's truly like to trust your instincts in the college-selection process.
This one can be one of the hardest to achieve, but it goes hand in hand with authenticity—tackle the obstacle of the pandemic and the tough calls that come with it with a realistic attitude. Is there a chance the campus experience may be drastically different (or in some cases nonexistent) for the time being? Will your students feel the effects? Take a hard look at what aspects of campus life will see the biggest impacts once students return, and be honest amongst your team members what that means.
But then identify ways you can lead with confidence by making them adaptable and ease that pain point.
Say for instance that your campus's provider of food service will have limited ability to provide for your students in the coming semester. Maybe buffet-style eating poses risks that your administrative team isn't willing to take. Use the time you have now to address the issue—develop an on-campus contactless food delivery scenario, or outfit your cafeterias and food-service spaces with branded social-distancing guidelines and signage. Imagine if your college's student portal or app had the ability to book times to grab a bite at the cafeteria to effectively limit capacity.
The more you can get out in front of these hurdles that will realistically occur and preemptively plan sensible, user-friendly and technologically savvy ways to address them (all while leading with a strong brand presence and personality), the less the impact will be felt by your students. And the less they'll see you sweat.
One way that university brands can appeal to Generation Z and show that their beacons of strength for their respective communities is really putting their money with their mouths are and helping. This goes beyond the campus and into the greater community. From using their scientific resources to encourage public-health research and support, their student groups to spread awareness of safety measures and precautions, to donating funds to make life better for the surrounding community, offering help and giving back is at the core of appealing to student recruits, COVID-19 or not.
Assess what your campus has to offer—then offer it, and tell that story to potential students.
Brainstorm ways your strengths can become strengths for a cause—be it student-led or administration-led. Though monetary donations might be off the table for some, a visible show of support with true action behind it can go a long way to making yourself the resilient beacon you strive to be. Promote graduate research that fights disease, challenge students with a competition to develop new method and technology for vulnerable people to stay safe amid a pandemic—be innovative and take as much of the self-serving angle out of the equation.