The COVID-19 pandemic has upended many sectors, and higher education is no exception. Many of the nationwide shutdowns of campuses happened right around spring break 2020, and most universities remained closed through the semester for in-person classes and events. More significantly, recruiting strategies had to shift as well as universities looked ahead to the 2020-2021 academic year.
We surveyed our university clients’ marketing teams in June 2020 not only because we serve a large number of university clients, but also to understand how they took their recruitment season virtual and evaluated the trends that emerged from the survey results. What we uncovered aligns with data from the Nielsen Norman report on higher education website best practices and strategies that have a better ROI in a virtual setting.
As a note, participation in the survey was limited due to the marketing teams at universities facing an overwhelming amount of extra work and activities related to planning for reopening campus, recruiting, and other initiatives. Nevertheless, the findings present a unique opportunity to analyze how the teams did and what kind of trends we may see going forward when it comes to the recruitment process.
What Metrics Matter to Higher Education?
Strategically, it is important to think about the goal at the heart of university recruitment. When asked about the metrics universities were measuring to see successes in their virtual recruitment strategies, many teams looked to attendance and views of their content, panels, webinars, and other digital ways they connected with students and their families. However, increased enrollment remained an important metric overall to see if strategies were working.
With campus visits no longer part of the recruitment equation, participation in online experiences, as well as the recruitment numbers following such events, served as a benchmark to determine if efforts paid off. “We'll be closely watching attendance at online events, as campus visit numbers have always been important for us,” one survey participant said.
It is crucial for universities to have a sense of their enrollment numbers prior to the school year, and closely monitoring them at the onset of the pandemic remained critical in considering how the digital experience was performing.
Virtual Tour Strategies for University Recruitment
Respondents tried many different types of strategies to communicate with prospective students and their families about the school experience. From newsletters to videos to virtual Q&A sessions, university marketing teams created several types of campaigns to closely model the virtual campus experience with the in-person experience.
The data from the survey underscores the importance of a content strategy that focuses on the user’s intent—in our case, students wanting to find answers about common questions usually answered during an in-person tour—is integral to creating a user experience that meets the needs of prospective students and allows university marketing teams to meet their recruitment goals.
Typical vs. Evolving User Journey in University Recruitment
A typical user journey for the family and student looking at colleges may include not only word of mouth referrals from those they trust but in-person visits to campuses, brochures to read, and websites to experience. However, one definite outcome following the COVID-19 pandemic included the uncertainty among students and their parents on what sources to trust and if their plans would continue on as normal.
In a McKinsey higher education survey conducted in April 2020, 8% of prospective students said they were no longer interested in enrolling in a full-time bachelor’s program; instead, 49% of those planned to attend a part-time or two-year program.
Also at that time, 37% of responding students were confident that things would return to normal by the end of summer. As we have seen, however, COVID-19 cases continue to remain part of the public discussion when it comes to what students and families plan to do for the fall semester.
As of the time of this writing, many universities have begun to reopen with some delaying start dates. Uncertainty about the right course of action was also a major theme when asked about school reopening in our June 2020 survey, with responses varying from exact dates to planned reevaluation of reopening plans as the semester approached.
In order to transition from prospective to incoming students, parents and their children experienced a variation of the typical research process. However, families facing the decision of whether or not to enroll for the fall 2020 semester had to take extra steps to ensure they could trust their decision was the right one for their child. For many, the website experience could make or break their decision in moving forward with applying to a university, so those first impressions became even more important as it became apparent to marketing teams that they couldn’t approach recruitment with a “business as usual” mindset.
High-Impact Strategies That Paid Off
Some ways survey participants tackled the difficulties of continuing to recruit in a virtual way while also sharing information with families was to update existing content with FAQ sections to better cater to their needs.
Penn State, for instance, created an FAQ list for the incoming class on the undergrad admissions website. Their team understood that they need to take the content a step further, however, and built pages specific to pandemic communications as well. Front and center on their university experience page, Penn State also included links to virtual resources since their team knew that regardless of the outcomes for the fall, they would likely have students with a need to access materials online.
Additionally, this strategy is something that researchers agree is crucial in the admissions process.
“The websites [in the Nielsen Norman report] that had the highest user satisfaction were those that anticipated users’ top questions and made it easy to move between sections of the website.”
Direct communication through email with students and parents became “more important than before,” as one respondent to our survey said, and personalized sessions also allowed teams to better recruit students and answer parent questions along the way. Some respondents said that the one-on-one opportunities to connect with families through Zoom calls, webinars, email communication, and by coordinating panelists to answer questions allowed families to feel comfortable with the decision they were making and allowed students to better understand the community they were joining.
One unique opportunity Penn State uncovered was to provide weekly town halls to answer applicant questions for the freshman class of 2024. If applicants missed a session, the university provided recordings of the archived meetings for them to watch later so they could feel included and have questions answered.
What Recruitment Strategies Didn’t Work?
By contrast, some types of video content were not as effective at driving recruitment numbers when measured against other types of strategies. This aligns well with research on university website admissions content in that findings which show that “for prospective students, videos that show the school, activities, and location are more compelling than interviews with university officials.”
The user experience consulting firm also used eye tracking studies that found users of all ages, not just the incoming students, responded poorly to interview style videos. Their findings showed that long interview videos “waste an opportunity to introduce new visitors to the university experience.” The findings from the survey show that it’s not just what type of content you produce that matters, but the substance of that content and the user’s intent.
While interview-style videos have their place in the recruiting process, students and families want to understand the real-world experience they are investing in when their child is part of a new program. Effective recruitment addressed their pain points through consistent, regular communication opportunities as well as videos with their core needs in the center.
In addition to the video experience, some marketing teams that responded to our survey had less success with adding chatbots to their website and using paid advertisements on social media to drive conversions.
There could be a number of reasons why these strategies were less successful than more direct means of communication, but it is important to note for future campaigns how to tailor each of these platforms in a way that engages users. Testing and using an iterative approach focused on improvement may allow for some methods to be abandoned faster while those that are more successful to be enhanced further.
Content Strategies for Existing Students
Although marketing teams likely focused primarily on new student enrollment, current students remain an important part of the makeup of a university. This becomes essential to consider in the midst of a pandemic where marketing teams are treading uncharted waters with their campaign strategy.
Some survey respondents recognized the need to cater to existing students and offered online, credit-bearing courses both to admitted students and existing students so that they could continue their education virtually. The respondent described the online courses for admitted students as “a big success” that contributed to them meeting their enrollment goal. Content about the fall semester and what to expect also remained an important part of what existing students sought out from the university’s website.
The Nielsen Norman report touches on regarding keeping information front and center. Their findings uncovered that college students aged 18-24 move fast when seeking information. They also tend to miss information and give up quickly if finding information is too complex and “appreciate simple designs and interactions.”
In the midst of a pandemic, it can be easy to focus on only one audience. However, universities can’t afford to leave out their existing student base, so their content has to be clear enough and easily accessible even as information changes quickly.
Additional Trends for Higher Education Post Pandemic
In more typical recruitment periods, marketing teams could depend on families relying on surveys, reports, and employment statistics about graduating students to build credibility for the data.
However, because we are not in a typical year, data about jobs is going to become increasingly important to students as many universities have had to shift to remote learning and job opportunities have changed in the few months of the pandemic. While this is unlikely to be a long-term change, the priority of job outcomes is likely to have risen among young job seekers hoping to have a leg up when it comes to their careers.
Some typical ways that families and students seek out information on job outcomes include looking to alumni, the website’s About Us page, and Google. Auditing existing content and ensuring it gives the full picture will be crucial as the job markets shift over the next few years.
There are many lessons to be learned about the future of university recruitment and what kinds of strategies teams must apply for the foreseeable future. Digital marketers will need to evolve their role beyond the campus gates and think critically about what the user journey looks like when applied to a digital experience.
Many marketers learned that what works for physical gatherings and tours doesn’t always translate to a parallel online experience. Though the 2021-2022 school year is far off, many teams are thinking about how to make the digital experience palatable for families who have become accustomed to gathering information and making decisions based on online sources.
How Mediacurrent Can Help
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