Rethinking Your Student Recruitment Plans for a Post-COVID-19 World
Date posted: April 15, 2020
If your student recruitment activities have been put on the backburner in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, you are certainly not alone.
During these times, your most immediate concerns have no doubt related to ensuring the health and safety of your school community and their loved ones, as well as the challenges of continuing to deliver education to your enrolled students.
And with so much uncertainty over when and how things will get back to normal, not to mention the financial impact the crisis has had on many schools, it’s perfectly understandable if you’ve adopted something of a ‘wait and see’ approach to attracting new students.
However, with no end in sight and new semesters looming for many schools in just a few short months, the time has come to move forward. While none of us knows exactly what the future will hold, one thing is certain: the schools that will be best-placed to succeed will be the ones that have taken the most proactive approach, and positioned themselves to thrive in all possible scenarios.
This means working to maintain a steady flow of qualified applicants, ensuring your courses can go ahead as planned in any environment, and most of all, visibly showing that your school is working hard to provide what its students need.
Here are some things you can do right now to start heading in the right direction.
Communicate (and Listen!) to Keep Your School Community in the Loop
Put yourself in the shoes of a prospective student that is interested in your school, and think about the questions they might be have right now. They may be asking themselves:
- Is your school still open for business?
- How seriously have you taken the crisis, and what has your school done to ensure the safety of students?
- Have students been able to continue studying with you through the outbreak?
- Will courses still commence as planned?
- What is your contingency plan if the lockdown is still in place when classes are due to start again?
- Are their online alternatives in place for your classroom-based courses?
- How sophisticated are your online learning programs?
- How well are your faculty and staff adapting to the new environment?
The best way to reassure these prospects is to clearly and frequently communicate your response to the COVID-19 crisis across your digital channels. Many schools have been extremely proactive in doing this, creating specialized sections of their website and posting frequent updates for both current and prospective students.
Example: The University of Manchester’s new Coronavirus Information pages include helpful advice and information about the university’s response, as well as a video message from the President and Vice-Chancellor.
Seeing that you have acted quickly and decisively to minimize disruption and take care of the health of your community will make a world of difference to prospective students’ perceptions of your school.
When developing your communications strategy, keep in mind that tone is more important than ever. Your content should emphasize the safety and health of your community and the support you provide above all else, and be empathetic, supportive, and appropriate. Now is not necessarily the time to go for a ‘hard-sell’ approach with prospects, and your team should keep in mind the principles of inbound marketing to ensure the content you provide is useful and relevant, rather than purely promotional.
Example: INSEAD Business School’s Twitter account has captured the right tone in its crisis response, offering empathetic, helpful content like this Tweet. The posts have consistently attracted positive engagement.
Listening to feedback from your online community is also crucial. You can use social listening tools to track any mentions of your school and its response to the crisis across different digital channels. You made find that students, parents, or even staff feel improvements could be made to your online course delivery, student support services, or other aspects of your response.
Take this feedback seriously, and ensure it is relayed to relevant people in your team. You’re all working under tremendous pressure, and it’s likely not everything you have done so far has been perfect, so keep trying to improve.
Refine Your Online Course Delivery
At the time of writing, it’s impossible to say whether your school will be back to delivering on-campus programs as normal come September, or whether you will need to shift your courses online. While there has been positive news of some countries and areas lifting social distancing restrictions, others are still far away from approaching the peak of the outbreak.
This means that your team essentially needs to prepare for both possibilities as it moves forward. It’s a difficult task, and one that brings more than its fair share of challenges.
On a positive note, the speed and efficiency many schools have shown in moving their classes online has been fantastic given the circumstances. Instructors and staff have been extremely resourceful in quickly assembling an infrastructure to transition to online delivery, and have provided valuable continuity for current students by allowing them to continue their studies at a difficult time.
However, experts have warned against a possible backlash against this mode of online instruction. Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Huron’s Peter Stokes and Innosight’s Mark Johnson relayed a story from a colleague which indicates some are starting to question the quality of education they are receiving:
“By day three of our vast national experiment, one dean told me, an angry parent had reached him by phone to let him know that he wasn’t paying tuition so that his kid could watch videos of professors giving lectures. The parent wanted “real” online learning.”
Simply put, as admirable as the response from schools has been in the past few months, expectations will be higher next semester. If they are accepting the possibility that classes may need to be taken online, both your new and continuing students will expect a robust online learning infrastructure, complete with digital resources, easy communications tools, and a virtual classroom experience that facilitates interactivity.
If your school already has previously established online learning courses, they are likely much more fully realized than those that have been improvised in response to the crisis. You should use them as a model to bring your traditional classroom courses up to speed over the coming months, and also ask your online instructors to help train faculty who are inexperienced in this area.
Example: The John Hopkins University Carey Business School offers a highly regarded online MBA degree. Having existing courses like this in place can only help your school in developing your in-class programs for remote delivery.
Of course, if your school has had no experience in online course delivery up until now, this whole situation might feel even more daunting. With a little hard work, however, your team can still rise to the challenge. Our recent blog provides a number of resources you can use to both find the right learning management system for your school, and train and guide your instructors through the transition.
Even if social distancing has eased and you are able to reopen your campus by the end of summer, investing in enabling online course delivery can still be worthwhile. Learning remotely was becoming more popular even before the crisis, and offers a number of advantages to prospects – such as flexibility, self-pacing, and the ability to study from anywhere – which could be especially appealing to prospects whose circumstances and needs have changed.
Shift the Focus of Your Student Recruitment Plans to Promoting Your Online Programs
Regardless of what the landscape will look like in a few months, any prospective students who is looking for education options right now will be looking for online courses, and that what’s your school should be focusing on in its student recruitment strategies.
This is especially pertinent if your school has not offered online classes before, or if they have previously been only had a small portion of your digital marketing resources devoted to them. If this is the case, it’s likely that your visibility in searches that relate specifically to online courses is very weak.
Example: A Canadian Google search for the term ‘online MBA’. As you might expect, the two schools that number in the top rankings, Athabasca University and the University of Fredericton, have been delivering their programs online for some time.
Even schools with very strong reputations can suffer in this situation. If prospects don’t associate your school with online learning, they may already be considering looking at options elsewhere.
You should take the time to evaluate your current visibility in relation to online learning searches, which will be indicative of how much work there is to be done. HEM has begun offering schools express SEO audits specifically for this purpose, a service that can provide a quick yet comprehensive snapshot of where you stand.
Improving your rankings in these searches may require concerted efforts in targeted SEO content creation, which can take time. In the short-term, however, investing in paid advertising through Google Ads could help you to overcome this hurdle, and ensure your new online offerings are seen by prospects.
While the budget of your school may have tightened as the impact of the crisis is felt, devoting at least some funds towards this could be necessary. Google Ads are also very cost-efficient when it comes to generating leads for schools, meaning the investment could prove to very worthwhile.
Another aspect of your marketing for online courses that should be looked at is how well they are presented on your website. You should update your program pages so it is clear what courses are available online, and you should also provide as much information as possible about your online learning approach and the platforms and tools you can use. Again, incoming students are going to be looking for schools that offer high standards in this area, so conveying that they can expect a quality education in this format is a must.
Example: The University of Fredericton’s MBA program page explains its online learning system clearly and impressively.
On the other side of the coin, schools with a long history of providing quality courses online may actually experience more traffic and interest than before. If you are in this situation, devoting more time and resources to your marketing efforts could pay serious dividends.
Equip Your Admissions Team to Manage Your Pipeline Remotely
At this point, your admissions staff are most likely working remotely, and you may also have had to downsize your team, depending on your school’s situation. And as much as your existing staff will no doubt be trying their best to be as productive as possible, the stress of the situation, together with the disruption in their daily routines, can make this a big ask.
These factors can make managing your pipeline of prospective students a lot more challenging. Following up with a variety of leads at various stages of the enrollment journey requires a lot more than just a few Zoom calls and some emails, which is why the value of CRM and marketing automation tools in this situation cannot be underestimated.
A CRM system will allow you to manage your team’s appointments and daily tasks through a shared calendar, log notes and calls with specific contacts, and track what stage of the enrollment journey they are in.
Example: The calendar in HEM’s customized Mautic CRM and Marketing Automation system can be used to track your team’s activities, and even to assign tasks to specific staff members.
Marketing automation can also be very valuable, allowing you to automate and scale your communications at a time when your resources are stretched. You can create email workflows that will help to nurture your prospects towards enrollment, use lead scoring to prioritize potential applicants who are more likely to be interested in moving forward at this time, and segment your contact lists to facilitate appropriate communication.
Example: You can create campaigns in HubSpot to track the impact of your COVID-19 communications efforts.
One thing that your team should keep in mind at this moment in time is that your admissions funnel is going to look very different for the foreseeable future. At present, many people whose careers and future plans have been upended by the COVID-19 crisis might be very much considering pursuing further education as a solution to the problems they face. However, the vast majority of these new prospects will be dealing with a great degree of uncertainty in their lives, and may be reluctant to dive headfirst into a commitment until it becomes clearer what the world will look like in a few months time.
In essence, the Awareness Stage of the enrollment journey is going to be a bit longer across most areas of the education sector. For instance, the Graduate Management Admissions Council recently reported that the number of preliminary leads in its GMASS service had increased by 6.3%, but that most of these candidates had left their profiles incomplete. This suggests a heightened interest in graduate management education – great news for business schools – but also that it may be a while before all of these new leads are ready to take the next step.
You should be revising your follow-up processes with this in mind, adjusting your workflows where necessary, and possibly advising your staff to take a somewhat softer approach when contacting prospects, even if this may seem counterintuitive at a time when enrollment numbers are suffering.
When these prospects are ready to pursue a course, you want your school to be the one they turn to, and the best way to ensure this is to be empathetic, understanding, and helpful, rather than trying to push them towards a decision before they are ready.
Replicate Your Admissions Experience Online
Of course, there are certain aspects of your student recruitment strategy that are harder to do remotely. Schools that place heavy importance on open houses, campus tours, recruitment fairs, and other physical events will find themselves struggling to replicate the results they would normally see in a regular recruitment cycle, while qualifying candidates through exams and interviews also becomes a lot trickier.
However, it may be possible to recreate some aspects of these experiences online. If you want to showcase your campus remotely, you can use video and virtual reality to do so. Information sessions can be hosted through webinars to allow you to reach students in their own homes. And virtual environments can be created to interview and test candidates who apply to your school.
Example: UC Irvine hosted a virtual open house event for future students.
Putting some of these measures in place will enable prospects to discover and explore your school in much the same way as they would in normal circumstances. If your school works to make the experience as intuitive as possible, it can even benefit you after the crisis, making you more equipped to handle inquiries from prospects anywhere in the world.
Example: HEM has developed a new Virtual Admissions Assistant tool to help schools take their admissions process online through an intuitive, step-by-step interface.
Digitize Your School’s Application Process
In addition to managing inquiries and nurturing prospects towards application, your school will also need the capacity to process applications remotely. Whether it’s arranging payments, gaining physical signatures, or allowing students to select supplemental services, many schools still rely on physical activities to complete their enrollment process.
In cases where online application facilities are in place, they can often be disjointed. For instance, some schools might allow schools to apply online, but require them to arrange a bank transfer themselves to pay tuition fees – something which, while not impossible, is going to be more difficult in the immediate future. Likewise, your school may need students to sign off on terms and conditions to finalize enrollment.
Example: HEM’s Student Application Portal facilitates e-signatures, payments, document uploads and other tricky aspects of the traditional application process.
If you are looking at securing in-class enrollments beyond the current crisis, you may also find that certain aspects of your processes are less than optimal. Students may need to apply for accommodation separately, for example, or register for activities.
Ensuring that your application process is not only fully digitized, but done so in a way that makes the process easy and intuitive for your candidates, is therefore an essential part of a post-COVID-19 student recruitment plan. In much the same way as students will begin to expect a higher standard of online instruction, they will expect a higher standard of application experience – one that is fast, frictionless, and in line with the processes of other online businesses.
In fact, perhaps the best way to figure out how to approach this crisis over the coming weeks and months is to think of your school as just that: an online business. After all, whether you are moving your courses online or just trying to ensure that your enrollment numbers are steady when the time comes to reopen your doors, that is what your school is for the foreseeable future. By setting yourself up to operate as smoothly as possible in an online space, you will be in a position to deal with whatever comes in the future.