Let’s not beat around the bush… the last few weeks have been difficult. In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread invisibly across the United States, it brought with it a cascading tsunami of unexpected change. Suddenly, everything about public life that we took for granted came to a crashing stop.
New words abruptly sprung up into our daily lexicon – terms like “social distancing,” “shelter-in-place,” and “PPE.” Familiar daily routines were altered and replaced with new, unfamiliar ones. Office parks were left drained of workers, streets largely desolate and classrooms forlornly empty.
But, despite our country grinding to a near complete halt while we deal with an indiscriminate, silent attack, we’ve fought through the fear, embraced the new reality, and established our new, temporary way of life. In these last few weeks, we’ve all worked hard to create our new normal.
Our colleges and universities are also facing unprecedented challenges, striving to find a handle on enormous changes, and managing it all on the fly.
How has the pandemic affected college campuses and millions of students, parents, faculty and staff? We spoke to a couple of our clients in higher education to get a sense. Here are four actions that Husson University and the College of Southern Idaho took in response to COVID-19.
4 Higher Ed Adjustments to COVID-19
Even for people who paid attention to the news and understood that the virus would create disruptions, the pace and breadth of the changes, once they began to unfold, was surprising. By early March, opinions, analyses and recommendations all seemed to change by the hour. And, every college campus is equipped with an over-abundance of all three.
1. College Websites Get the Word Out
In times of crisis, clear, concise and straight-forward communication is imperative. And, the most effective way to get the message out is online. So, one of the first things administrators set out to do was to provide reliable information to the campus community.
“We put an alert up on the site every time an announcement was made, which was pretty much every day for the first week or so, because everything was changing so quickly,” says Matt Green-Hamann, Director of Digital Communications at Husson University in Bangor, Maine.
The experience was similar in Twin Falls, Idaho.
“Things started changing on a week-by-week, and then day-by-day, and then even an hour-by-hour basis,” recalls Kim LaPray, College of Southern Idaho’s Public Information Officer.
As the situation changed in each of their locations, both Husson and CSI were able to keep students, faculty and staff informed, helping to preserve public health on their campuses.
As part of a comprehensive approach to crisis communication, the Husson digital marketing team created a COVID-19 landing page to display all of the latest information. The page continues to be one of the most heavily visited on the site. At CSI, Kim LaPray’s public information team coordinated social media messages with daily website updates and email blasts.
Once campus closures were enacted, school administrations had to figure out how to continue with the semester. And, once more, the school website was the called upon workhorse.
At Husson, the school was able to move all of its 700+ classes to online learning. No small task. But, they did have the benefit of a few extra days, thanks to a one-week extension of Spring Break.
Moving classes online was the first big initiative at CSI, as well.
“There were a lot of hurdles,” notes LaPray. “You think technology is everywhere, and it’s easy to use, and everybody knows how to use it.”
But, the reality is, not everyone is working with the same level of tech proficiency, and not everyone is working with the same technological resources. Everyone isn’t even guaranteed a reliable internet connection.
That’s why, at Husson, the administration allowed students to petition to stay on campus despite the school closure.
“We weren’t just sending them out on their own. We were there to help them,” says Green-Hamann.
3. Moving Events Online
There’s more to a college campus than just classes and labs.
“We’re really a hub of our community,” says LaPray. “There’s a lot going on on our campus.”
College campuses hold a lot of events: meetings, conferences, rodeos (if you happen to be in Idaho). The truth is, these events not only bring life to the campus, many of them also drive revenue and increase the school’s public profile. So, salvaging events by moving them to a digital setting is another action higher ed institutions had to consider.
“One of the biggest changes that we had to go through was moving all of the events that we planned to host on-campus to virtual sessions,” explains Green-Hamann. “It was a big rush and moving those events took some planning, not only because we had digital ads that were placed for events like our open house, but all of that messaging had to be changed too.”
4. Taking Recruiting Virtual
There are immediate concerns, and there are long-term imperatives. No one knows for sure when pandemic mitigation efforts will end. But, colleges and universities have to plan for next year. And that means adjusting how they approach prospective students in today’s social distancing reality.
Campus visits, a reliable recruiting tool in simpler times, are not an option for the immediate future. A better strategy for the present is meeting the audience where they are. Schools are accomplishing this via detailed social media plans and targeted digital campaigns. They are also pivoting to virtual tours and live chat options.
For Husson’s digital communication team, this required a collective effort to overhaul the messaging in their paid search campaigns.
“All our digital ads had to be revised and put back up as quickly as possible,” recalls Green-Hamann.
6 Things Schools Should Be Doing with Their Digital Marketing
If you work in higher ed, you can certainly be forgiven for wanting to catch your breath following some pretty big changes. In fact, promoting your school may feel like the absolute last thing you should be doing right now, especially with no students on campus. But, remember, social distancing is bound to end one day. How quickly your campus fills back up with students depends on how well you manage your school’s public profile today.
A retreat in your digital marketing efforts will not help your school recover. In fact, with internet use reportedly increasing anywhere between 20-50% during government-imposed lockdowns, pulling back on your digital marketing efforts may be a strategic mistake. With so many people using the web for so much more in their daily lives, the more prudent plan might be to leverage your digital marketing program to speak to a more captive set of audiences.
So, how can institutions of higher knowledge do this? We asked Beacon’s web developers, SEO gurus and Paid Search experts for suggestions. Here’s what they had to say:
- The pandemic has proven how essential it is to have a robust emergency communication system. Make sure your website is prepared to implement your crisis communication plan via emergency alerts, pop-up banners, special landing pages and social media messages.
- Build or improve upon your virtual tour experience.
- Expand and promote your online learning capabilities.
- Meet your prospective students where they are via paid search and social media campaigns.
- Provide immediate online help via Live Chat features for students and faculty pursuing online learning.
- Many people are losing their jobs due to the economic slowdown associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 22 million have filed unemployment claims in the last month. Some of these people will look to go back to school in order to improve their chances of finding a new job. Expand your marketing efforts to include this newly formed audience.
Beacon Is Here to Help
Our team at Beacon is still here and ready to help. We’re here to help answer your questions. We’re here to help you parse the data and identify actionable insights. We’re here to help you frame a message that resonates. We’re here to help your website stay not just competitive, but impactful.
We’re here. And so are you. Let’s work together to set the stage for an epic comeback.