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Customer Panel: Shifting Strategies for Higher Ed Marketing 

by Tara Arnold
January 7, 2021

student in cap and gown attending a virtual college graduation ceremony

Customer Stories on The Pivot to Digital 

In a year like no other, Mediacurrent’s higher education partners were challenged to shift strategies. We recently welcomed a customer panel of seven marketing strategists to share their stories at our company retreat. With voices ranging from two Ivy League universities to an online college, the panel reflected on how the pivot to virtual tours was an ambitious undertaking. So too was the need to rethink student communications and reassess the metrics that matter most.

The following is a transcript of a virtual roundtable by Michael Silverman of Mediacurrent with a panel of seven digital leaders in higher education. It was conducted in December 2020 at the Mediacurrent company retreat. Some of the questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.

How has your recruitment strategy changed with COVID-19? What works now for student enrollment marketing?

For this digital director at a private catholic university, COVID-19 drove his team to imagine creative alternatives for events and approach their marketing funnel in a new way: 

There's been the need to be more creative to reach our target audience. We had to find different ways to engage prospective students. One thing we did was to host a socially distanced drive-in event where prospective students came to the college and watched all about our college. We’ve also moved to more virtual events (I can tell you because I entered over 300 events on our Drupal site!) for new and returning students. We look for different ways to connect with them, to make sure that they stay engaged with the university.

We had a habit of focusing on top of the funnel brand awareness and it was harder to get prospects into the funnel. So we had to make a more concerted effort to reach the students that were already in the funnel, getting them to apply and then put their deposit down. We were working with a smaller pipeline and we had to be more efficient in speaking to it. 

According to this director-level digital strategist for a major state university in the northeast, highlighting the value of a local education was a successful tactic:

When we were being able to get people onto the campus, 70% of people who came to visit ended up applying. Because we were missing out on that, moving to virtual visits, we had to change our messaging quite a bit. 

We found that people were more likely to want to stay at home or stay local. Because our biggest audiences are in-state, and we have 19 campuses across the state, that's been a big point for our message. We really focus on the campus and that local education rather than that “big brand” messaging. 

On a campus of 2,000 students in the Great Plains region, this marketing expert saw how small group tours are more personalized than before:

After shutting our campus down for the spring and summer, we were able to get back to a model that allows for individual family tours. That personal touch has helped us a lot. In October, we hosted more individual tours than any group tour of previous years. Our admissions counselors really take pride in fostering relationships with prospective students through personal interactions like texting, calling, or writing letters.

Aside from campus visits, what were some other leading indicators for applications? 

Prospective students had a high need for information about how the school was reacting to the pandemic. This state university (the same referenced above) saw the opportunity for retargeting campaigns:  

We’ve started to focus more on people coming to the admissions website and just reading through some of our COVID information. Our focus groups found that given the uncertainty, people wanted us to be able to proactively communicate what was going on and what we were planning to do with student enrollment moving forward. So we drove a lot of people to that information. If we saw that people were reading that and clicking over to one of our conversion actions, we would set up retargeting campaigns towards them and get them further down. This was a new strategy because we had never really used any of our PR materials within our enrollment advertising. 

We had never really done retargeting before for trying to get people to accept their offer of admission. We've started to build up some scores in our Slate CRM for the probability of enrollment. We've been able to figure out the people that are most likely to enroll and are able to retarget them at the beginning of the funnel with lookalike audiences and Facebook. Then we’re also retargeting accepted students who are still in the funnel. 

Where do you see the biggest change in measurable goals for your organization due to the changes brought on by COVID-19?

This CMO of an online college for holistic health was able to boost enrollment even as the competition for distance education was skyrocketing:  

We didn't see an enrollment drop-off at all. In fact, we've seen an increase in enrollment. Back in February, I pulled all of our pay-per-click marketing. I had a feeling that if this hit, every single on-campus entity would need to go online and we wouldn’t be able to compete. That strategy saved us. 

We stopped focusing on trying to attract people to enroll. We knew that everyone else was trying to attract them as a consumer. We started doing educational wellness webinars to help people to grow their skills, inviting them to engage with us on an entirely different platform. 

Has your institution been forced to cut costs or reallocate resources? If so, how has that affected your group?

This web strategist for a small university in the midwest weighed in that she faces uncertainties in the upcoming admissions cycle. Looking ahead, her department budget will be geared toward third-party community platforms:

We’re a small school and we were able to pivot pretty well...until now. Our students come because they get to co-op the entire time they're here as a part of the degree requirement. So we're now starting to see it going into this admissions cycle, but we're being very creative because obviously, you're not having your large scale visit events on campus.

For my role, which is running the main site, there probably will be some dollars pulled from me in order to focus on some third-party platforms that are focused on building a community with potential students. Not necessarily budget cuts, but I’ve seen the shifting of money to focus on some of these ongoing virtual things that will continue. 

Without the in-house IT resources to launch a new website, this project director at an Ivy League school relied on Mediacurrent for support:

We hired Mediacurrent prior to the onset of the pandemic to create an online platform that would be useful in the event of a future financial crisis. Two months later, we found ourselves potentially in the midst of that financial crisis.

Our IT department needed to focus on making it so that our students could all attend class online from all over the world. All of a sudden I was in the middle of a Drupal website project, and frankly, I'd never heard of Drupal before this. 

What are the biggest pain points from day to day related to the technology and management of your website?

The crisis forced us to go digital in many ways. It's incredibly important for our websites to stay accessible. Mediacurrent has done a good job of understanding what matters to our stakeholders and helping us navigate accessibility. That’s a huge priority.

This is where working at a school that has a lot of name recognition can bite you. We may not have had to do as much outreach or aggressive marketing as some other schools. So we were extremely behind the curve when we changed to virtual info sessions. We were able to get our information sessions up and running in a way that's decentralized so I didn't have to manage all of that. We could train other staff to get them up and running and host them on their own, which we do through Slate. 

Having virtual information sessions and other digital channels is something that definitely will continue going forward because it allows us to get our message to a broader audience. We're able to share what the school community is like, and what our financial aid can offer.

Marketers from a state school and a small private school both shared how Drupal empowered them to quickly adapt the digital experience: 

On our current site, the back end user experience is really difficult. We have no flexibility to change things when our strategy changes. It's a mess. So what we're building now in Drupal 8, we are very, very excited about. We've been working very closely with the team at Mediacurrent to improve the user experience for our authors and also being able to adapt to changes quickly. 

This year is nothing but pivot. I’m constantly making changes to the website. On our previous Drupal 7 site, I had a hard time adding blocks of content. Now, with Drupal 8 and Layout Builder, I’ve got everything that I need in my tool kit. I can go in on the pages to move around what I need to move around. I’m able to change the content up on a dime. 

What has been your experience working with Mediacurrent? 

All of our panelists agreed that finding the resources to launch new digital campaigns was a steep challenge. This Ivy League marketer summed it up best:

Staff in higher ed are stretched very, very thin. And at this moment, I'm finding that it's harder for us to be forward-looking. The availability and transparency with the Mediacurrent team have been wonderful. We’ve had many Mediacurrent developers working on our team over the past couple of years and as well as user experience and project managers. They’ve not only helped to find ways to improve our site and make the experience better for prospective students and current students but also to keep up with the necessary bugs and Drupal security features. 

The panelists also thanked the Mediacurrent team for being a reliable partner in uncertain times:

It was an enormous blessing not to worry about the development of our platform given everything else that was going for our school in response to the pandemic. I had complete trust in the Mediacurrent team and you didn't let us down.

I’ve needed things more quickly to adapt our strategy this year. As a digital agency partner, Mediacurrent did that. It’s made the difference between sinking and swimming.

What areas of your digital strategy do you see remaining post-pandemic?

An Ivy League project director reflected on how lessons learned from virtual learning may carry over to the classroom:

The particular program that I'm involved in is a specialized master's program targeted specifically overseas. In addition to all of the other travel-related concerns associated with the pandemic, there are also visa issues, et cetera. By necessity, we've been in this mode of, rather than bringing students to campus to sort of convince them to ultimately enroll, needing to do that in a virtual way. As with the classroom experience, we're hoping ultimately to get back to a non-virtual experience. But there are pieces of the virtual experience that we would think about trying to preserve, even in a nonvirtual world. 

We're anxious to get back into the classroom but there are pieces of the online experience that we've enjoyed and have started to think about how we can bring some of those elements into a physical classroom. Something as simple as the ability to interact with students via the chat function in Zoom. How do you think about taking that functionality and applying it in a physical classroom? And I don't know that we have any great answers yet. But it's very much something that we're thinking about.

This private catholic college sees a data-driven website in its future: 

Partly because of COVID, my marketing department was moved into admissions. It's been great because we've had access to more data, so it's allowed us to be more targeted and granular in our advertising. Now I know down to zip codes where my most likely students are to come from. 

So it's been a real benefit in a time where we've had to be more efficient with what we're doing, what we're spending, what we're advertising. And it's kind of also the direction for where I want to go with the website. And that's making sure that all of my analytics, all of my CRM pieces, everything is hooked into Drupal and doing what it needs to do so that we can be efficient even after COVID.

Now What? Rethink Your Digital Focus 

Whether the goal is to boost enrollment, improve student retention, inspire, educate, or engage learners, your website plays a critical role. See how other institutions adapting their digital experience in our upcoming webinar. Join experts from Mediacurrent, Siteimprove, and Pantheon who have helped some of the best-known colleges and universities deliver engaging digital experiences. We hope to see you there! 

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Save a spot for the webinar: Reimagining Your Higher Ed Web Strategy

 

Meet team member, Tara Arnold

In her role as Senior Marketing Content Strategist, Tara drives the creation of resources to promote Mediacurrent as a thought leader in the technology space. She thrives on the small business imperative to work smart through strategic marketing automation, digital marketing, and creative brand building.

Prior to joining Mediacurrent, Tara spent five years sharpening her inbound marketing skills in the higher education technology and publishing industries. Her specialties include inbound marketing, event marketing, webinars, blogging, and marketing automation. She holds a BA in Communications (Public Relations focus) and minored in creative writing.

Learn more about Tara >

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