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The Top Dynamic Shifts in Higher Ed Marketing Amid COVID

Women in masks having a discussion in front of laptop

As challenging as COVID-19 has been on the higher education industry, it’s probably fair to say that the pandemic has also presented some positives—opportunities that give us marketers a chance to rewrite some pages in our playbooks. That said, COVID-19 has also accelerated several inevitabilities. The virtual classroom and online programs are here to stay and grow out of necessity. Once debated between academics and administrators on everything from quality and outcomes to a basic lack of desire to teach in a non-face-to-face modality, online education is planting deeper roots. In a similar way, how we transform our marketing efforts, assets, messaging, and channel selections are evolving. This is, of course, the result of several external market forces, but it pushes the need to reach prospective students in ways like never before to the top of every marketers list. Here are our observations and recommendations to help you succeed in the “new normal.”

Rewrite your narrative

If the pandemic has taught us anything about recruiting Generation Z and the fall 2021 class, the need to assess your school’s brand alignment to shifting individual and societal needs has reached a new level of importance. Inside Higher Ed1 reported about the emergence of purpose-centered brands and that nearly 75% of consumers age 18 to 39 wanted organizations to take a stand on issues they were passionate about. Social awareness and issues of diversity and inclusion, as well as taking care of not just the world but the people in it, are now amplified significantly. Knowing where your institution stands on these issues and making this a part of a narrative that connects with your prospects emotionally is key. This goes beyond the traditional video testimonial of students talking about why they love your school or their favorite student organizations. We’re talking about human-centered stories that articulate what you stand for, whom you stand with and how your values align with students’ individual needs and desires. We at SAI Digital guide clients through Mission Experience transformation that helps them identify how they fit into and operate within a purpose-centered brand framework.


This one word says it all. It’s how your students and prospects predominantly engage and consume content. On-screen time is increasing as prospective students are going to school online, playing more online games, and consuming more online entertainment content. Video is king and your potential students crave it. They scroll right by static messaging and content. Leverage as much video as you possibly can across as many channels as possible. Current video marketing statistics show that about 40% of people who watch a video online take an action like sharing it with a friend or clicking on a related link3.

Among the 18-34 – both undergraduate and graduate student segments combined – digital consumption is higher than any older age group. A recent media consumption report2 cites that, on average, college students spend 8 hours a day online mostly consuming social media channel content: Facebook, used by 86%, followed by YouTube at 71%. Between 40-60% of this audience uses Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram. Men use YouTube at higher rates than women do, while women use Facebook at higher rates than men.

Change the Channel

Shift your advertising to more digital channels, especially those where you can leverage your increased video content. Again, your prospects are spending more time on small and larger screens than ever before. Pare down direct mail and reserve it for special in-funnel prospect messages. Increase your digital retargeting efforts. Begin controlling the narrative with your prospects at the point of search and augment your SEO capabilities. Move away from traditional mass branding options like out-of-home (billboards and public signage). Shift your radio away from terrestrial stations and instead marry your spots to your digital campaigns through streaming channels like Spotify, Pandora, and even YouTube (animated GIFs with broadcast audio). Even if you like a local terrestrial radio station and use them for your virtual open house advertising, it might be time to pause it and examine how much more granular your audience targeting can be through Spotify or Pandora. It’s time to conduct a full audit of your integrated marketing channels and make some informed but hard decisions.

Re-evaluate high-value web pages

Assuming you’re moving deeper into digital marketing channels, do a deep dive on your campaigns’ landing pages. Ensure that there is a clear message that ties back directly to your campaign. If you’re using a third-party provider or platform for creating the pages, they must support your brand’s look and feel. The digital ad that leads a prospect to a landing page must appear to come from the same school – even the nuances like design elements, logo treatments, and hero images should be complementary. Even if you have little to do with the actual page development, examine it across multiple devices and especially make sure that in mobile the content and elements stack properly and keep your prospect from scrolling through it and bouncing.

Leave nothing to chance with your prospect’s user journey. Make sure it’s intuitive and engaging once your marketing leads visitors there. Know what your conversion pages are from landing page to application and everything in between. The more screen time students and prospects rack up in general, the less patient they will be with a website journey riddled with potholes. Close the gaps to discovery and conversion on your website.

Flaunt your online program chops

Distinguish the strength of your online program/course modality. Due in part to COVID, online education has finally come into its own. This is your opportunity to say what makes your online experience better.

If you’ve been delivering online programs for a decade or more, you are highly experienced compared with some others. Your faculty isn’t new to this world and they present lessons in an engaging way. This is your chance to call attention to this expertise and leverage it against competitor schools who are newer to the delivery method.

On the flip side, if you are new to online delivery, perhaps you have unleashed the latest tools that make your learning environment superior and conducive to better success. This is just one way to distinguish yourself from your competitors in the virtual classroom.

Marketing requires governance

While marketing management is a necessity in all industries, this seriously applies in higher education right now. With the floodwaters of layoffs, furloughs, and downsizing unfortunately rising, a documented governance plan is your life raft. It allows you to stay informed and nimble at a time when things are shifting rapidly. The approach considers your annual marketing plan but adds monthly or quarterly assessments to your campaigns’ performance, website, messaging, channels, and in-funnel communications. It also provides you an opportunity to A/B test ad creative and CRM emails to make a better impact, based on the benchmark data you gather through your analytics process.

The “new normal”

There’s really nothing normal about this “new normal” for higher education. But the challenges do present new opportunities to strengthen your brand and engage prospects through revisioning how you market to and message them, develop and test your assets, integrate new channels, and oversee the process beyond a marketing plan on a spreadsheet.

How are you adapting your school’s marketing to meet changing goals amid COVID-19 and beyond? I’d be happy to discuss your successes and challenges. Email me directly at Stay safe. Be well.

Inside Higher Ed1 – “Creating a Brand Story for the Times

Media Consumption Report2 – “Media Consumption in College Education”

Render Forest3 - “44 Video Marketing Statistics 2020”

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