Marketing in Uncertain Times


By: Eric McGee Mar 31, 2020

Marketing in Uncertain Times

When is the right time? What is the right message?

As the world comes to grips with the challenging new reality
shaped by COVID-19, it can sometimes be a struggle for all of us to figure out
what we should be doing professionally. As marketers, how do we approach our
work and add value to our schools, communities and society on the whole? Many
of the tasks that seemed so important just a few weeks ago feel less important
today. As we start to adapt to work-from-home, it can be difficult to identify what
we should focus on and where we can start to market again.

The first thing we need to do is acknowledge that every
situation is unique and different, and the situation is constantly evolving. What
is right for one school or program may not be appropriate for others.
Authenticity is key right now. Whatever path you choose, it has to be authentic
to your brand.

We don’t yet know how this will impact our schools and communities in the long-term. We’re only a few weeks into this and experts suggest that we will likely be dealing with this for an extended period of time. It is still too early to make any definitive statements about changes in long-term enrollment strategies. With that in mind, we put together a few suggestions on how you can continue to make a positive difference with your marketing efforts while evaluating the long-term implications on higher education and higher ed marketing.

Market Internally

Hopefully, you are consistently marketing your school and department brand to your internal customers on an ongoing basis. After all, employees are the cornerstone of your brand. Continue to build honest, authentic relationships with staff, departments, and faculty across your school. Take a moment to reach out to colleagues from other departments with whom you may know through networking groups, inter-department projects, or campus life. It is always a good time to “check in,” but with our shared isolation and its attending anxiety and stress, now is a great time to reach out for no other reason than to say “hello.”

Offer your assistance. What skills do you have that
could ease the burden of others? Offer to write communications and plan social
media posts to maintain engagement with students, staff and the community. In
an all-hands-on-deck environment, your help with a student email or social
media post may be a huge help for a struggling colleague.

Share your knowledge. If you work in continuing
education, online education or serve working adult students, you likely know a
lot about the challenges that students face when studying online. Adult higher
ed professionals focus on overcoming these objections every day. Your marketing
messaging may benefit the larger institution. Could your messaging be edited
and updated to speak to a suddenly-online student population?

Shape expectations. This isn’t going to be perfect,
or likely even really good, right away. The learning experience (and teaching
experience) will hopefully improve in the summer semester, but there will still
be bumps. Share the extensive experience your team has with online and
non-traditional education and share some lessons learned that might help
accelerate the learning curve for the rest of campus. Consider sharing that
story about the time you forgot to turn off your camera in an online class
environment. Hearing that others have made mistakes along the way helps ease
the anxiety that many faculty and staff are facing. Additionally, it is
important to regularly communicate that this experience should not be seen as
an evaluation or assessment of online learning in general.

Engage Prospective and Current Students

Effective marketing is about building relationships. The
relationships you have developed with current and prospective students require
your ongoing attention and care in the best of times. Thoughtful communication
that is appropriate for your ongoing relationship with current and prospective
students may be welcomed.

Accept the possibility that it might be necessary for students
to take some time off or delay entry into the program. Many will be impacted in
ways that you aren’t aware of. When possible and appropriate, ask permission to
re-engage with them at a later date. If your CRM and marketing automation
processes don’t already allow you to pause engagement, now may be a good time
to develop a thoughtful strategy to manage pausing and re-engaging prospects as

Focus your marketing on awareness and consideration. For
most programs, prospective students are less likely to make a “big” decision,
like submitting an application or committing to a program, right now. However,
there are still people gathering information as they continue their searches or
start to consider their next steps. And, while application starts have slowed
for many programs, others have seen a much less dramatic decline. Provide
information about your school and program, and remain ready to have a
conversation when your prospects are ready.

We sometimes forget about the value of remarketing to our
existing students. At times like this, your students may feel overwhelmed and
may consider taking time off. While that may be appropriate for their
individual circumstance, your encouragement and marketing may be the spark they
need to continue their studies or get over a personal hurdle. Here are a few
messages that may help your current students:

  • Offer encouragement. Your students are
    almost certainly feeling the same things many of us are feeling—anxiety, fear,
    and uncertainty. Some may be dealing with sick relatives and friends. It is OK,
    and even appropriate, to acknowledge this directly in your communication.
  • Offer congratulations when students
    accomplish milestones.
    Almost everyone is struggling to deal with work and
    life. Your students are successfully navigating all of this AND school—that is
    a huge feat that should be recognized.
  • Offer resources. Are faculty and or staff
    making themselves available to speak to students? Are there provisions or allowances
    that are available to students?
  • Provide hope. Stay positive and assure
    students that we’ll get through this together. Things will eventually get better.

Audit Your Marketing

If you have not already done so, your next step should
almost certainly be an audit of your current marketing plan and content. Wording,
phrases and images that were perfectly acceptable and effective just a few
weeks ago may be considered insensitive today. Taking the time now to review
your messaging to fit today’s environment will go a long way toward maintaining
and building relationships with prospective and current students.

  • Review scheduled email communication. And
    check nurturing campaigns for subjects and content that may not be appropriate
    or appreciated in the current environment. This might include the elimination
    of messaging like “now is the perfect time…” or it might be an entire email
    that communicates your preparations for “when disaster strikes.”
  • Update autoresponders. You have likely
    updated your autoresponder emails. Have you also updated Messenger scheduled
    responses, SMS autoresponders, Voicemail boxes or other automated communications
    that need updating?
  • Review scheduled social media posts and ads.
    And increase your monitoring of social media mentions, messages and comments.
  • Employ images that reflect today’s reality.
    Consider moving to images that fit social distancing recommendations. Eliminate
    images that show people embracing or shaking hands.
  • Check alignment with your school’s broader
    Provide clarification when needed. We have seen messaging intended
    for traditional campus-based programs that never considered the impact the
    message would have on online programs. For example, many schools are moving
    campus-based programs to pass/fail grading for the semester. Will this also
    apply to online programs? Monitor your larger institution’s messaging and
    communicate how it relates to your programs, students and faculty, if at all.

With so much change happening at an ever-increasing speed,
it is difficult to know exactly what higher education marketers should be doing
today, let alone next week. At times like this, there can be value in slowing
down and being thoughtful about your approach to marketing and communications.
Above all, it is more important than ever to apply authenticity to everything
you do. Modern higher education marketers are always building and growing
relationships with students, faculty and staff, and the larger community.

Whatever happens next, those relationships are a more
important part of our job, now more than ever.