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5 Things Higher Ed Marketers and Communicators Can Do Right Now to Strengthen Their School's Digital Brand During COVID-19

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If we’ve learned anything since February, COVID-19’s impact will have more lasting effects than we may’ve first thought. Still, our goals as content creators and marketing strategists in higher education remain. In fact, the stakes are now higher. In addition to virus- and crisis-related messaging and community mindfulness, improving your institution’s digital brand for the post-COVID world should be at the top of your list.

Here are five things you can do now to help your school achieve both short- and long-term brand success:

1) Market Ethically – Like other schools you probably have healthcare and STEM programs whose professionals are in the thick of trying to turn the tide of the pandemic. Be careful how you market these and similar programs. Avoid the perception that you are insensitively trying to capitalize on the situation. Over-saturating digital channels with messages for these programs can hurt your brand reputation.

  • Best Practice: market them as you normally would during non-crisis times and message with the programs’ traditional selling propositions. Of course, it makes perfect sense to promote a STEM program that relates to major achievement or research breakthrough from student and/or faculty researchers in a particular field.
  • Example: Students in the Johns Hopkins Biomedical Engineering program launched a COVID-19 Virtual Design Challenge to share possible solutions at a time of great need. Among the designs that the school has guaranteed to fund and bring to fruition are a 3D printable ventilator splitter to deliver oxygen to more than one patient at a time and a filter to prevent cross contamination. Marketing and communications could include information like this in their marketing messaging because it supports the strength of the program and the JHU brand without appearing opportunistic.

Website screen shot of a Hopkins University news item detailing Biomedical Engineering student research to help solve COVID-19 challenges.

2) Strengthen Your Website’s Program Finder – In good times or challenging ones, making sure a prospect can find their program(s) of choice on your site – from any page – is critical. Now that people are spending even more time online doesn’t mean they’ll have more patience looking for degrees on your site. They’ll bounce just as fast as before and spend more time engaging on your competitor’s site if their experience is more immediate and successful. Both crises and economic trends elevate program awareness and viability. Don’t keep a budding epidemiologist from finding your school’s public health, biology and math programs.

  • Best Practice: Put yourself in the place of your prospect. You yourself have strong opinions about what makes for a good website experience when you’re looking for something. Let this help guide you. Also visit other schools’ sites you are not familiar with and run them through the “findability test.” Evaluate how other sites succeed or fail. Then, arm yourself with website analyses using Google Analytics and/or custom or third-party tools if you have them. Learn what your most popular program pages are and how visitors are finding them. Examine your less popular programs and see if they are as findable. Track page paths to programs from not just the homepage but also other referring pages. Understand how visitors are navigating to your overall programs page and individual program content. If you discover navigation gaps, fix them. If you don’t use one currently, consider adding a program finder search tool.
  • Example: Both DeSales University in Pennsylvania and Howard Community College in Maryland feature robust program finders on their homepages (pictured below). We created each as part of the school’s website redesign, but developed them based on the school’s goals, personality, and user journeys. For instance, the DeSales finder utilizes a keyword program search feature, while the Howard Community finder allows visitors to also add “career options” to their search.

College program finders from various college websites

3) Audit Your Digital Ecosystem – Your website and SEO, various social media channels, and email workflows are just a few properties to assess RIGHT NOW. Look at your user journeys – follow the prompts as you would expect a prospect to, identify gaps or dead ends, and set a plan to address them.

  • Best Practice: Let’s say you launch videos or podcasts from a social media profile that link to third-party platforms other than your website (i.e. Facebook to YouTube or Soundcloud). Make sure the logical next steps are clear when a person finishes with the video or audio asset. Are they prompted to click through to your website? Is there a link to check out related content that deepens engagement? Can they immediately request information on your website or landing page? Can they reach out to a real person via chat or email if they need to? These are areas we should evaluate regularly – especially as our colleagues add new content. This is when friction points and journey gaps are magnified the most. Once you’ve completed the assessment, develop a road map that lays out priorities and the steps required to implement changes. The road map becomes a proactive tool to identify projects, clarify IT needs and inform budget decisions.

4) Optimize your media spend – Don’t whittle down investments, per se. But instead, re-examine your campaigns and their budget lines to make sure you’re not allocating funds in channels that may not be as beneficial right now. Additionally, if you paused your campaigns in light of the pandemic, now is a good time to evaluate when it may be a good time to restart existing campaigns, or adapt your messaging and targeting in response to shifting demand for online programs.

  • Best practice: While the PPC and social marketing portion of your media mix is probably safe, some schools still use transit and subway advertising. If you’re in this category, and if these modes are way less populated – less eyes on – consider pausing your campaign. If your message is electronically displayed that’s pretty easy to do. But if yours is printed like a train platform poster, you should negotiate a discount or make-good strategy for when things pick up again. Money you save in one channel can then be reapplied to strengthen another channel, like perhaps testing a new digital tactic like Over-the-Top-Television.

5) Be Genuine and Transparent in all Communications – The hope is that we are already doing this in our digital content, emails, ad messages, videos, and audio assets. But take a closer look and flag areas where you can do better. Maybe your virtual tour video needs to be closer to, if not part of, your homepage. Maybe your student tour guides can record and post videos from their homes to relate to prospects who are facing the same quarantine-like challenges.

  • Best Practice: If you’re able to help leadership communicate better through virtual means, offer your expertise. If you think a message might be taken the wrong way because of the public’s sensitivity during COVID-19, rewrite it. Expand your web content to include your college’s or university’s current situation amid the virus, update it regularly, and make sure the same information is communicated clearly in your admissions funnel emails. Use plain language. Your audiences will respect you for it.

Illustration of wi-fi, hash tag, like, and email symbols

As higher ed marketers and communicators, we already understand how important it is for us to move our school’s mission forward every day. But especially now, we should take a hard look at our school’s digital ecosystem and sure it up where possible. Without the benefit of in-person campus tours and personable tour guides our websites, social profiles, and marketing strategies need to work harder than ever before. These tips can help ensure that we are serving prospects, parents, and students, as well as the campus community at large, as we tend to the business of higher education. Sometimes it takes the unexpected challenges we are facing to adjust our digital presence into sharper view.

How are you handling your marketing and communications during COVID-19? I’d be happy to discuss your successes and challenges. Email me directly at eneenan@saidigital.com. Stay safe. Be well.

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