Delivering an experience at a distance
For six-plus months, Jaime L. Hunt has seen the look of utter exhaustion on the faces of her colleagues and friends in the higher education space. It has been, for all intents and purposes, a segment in full-blown crisis mode. And from where Hunt, VP, CMO and Communications Officer at Miami University, sits, there does not seem to be an end to the situation anywhere in sight.
In a time when colleges and universities should be wooing students to their campuses, emotions are running high. The conversations that Hunt is having with people inside and outside the higher education world mirrors the discussions on campuses across the country: These are different days.
While maintaining optimism and fostering creativity can be enormously challenging right now, it is happening. The good news is that the innovation and flexibility over the past six-plus months has allowed higher ed marketers to play in spaces they may not have been able to before. “I am amazed at my team’s ability to continue to be creative and thoughtful despite all of this. We have had to rethink everything. This is a great opportunity to stop doing things the way we always have and re-evaluate our approaches and strategies.”
“The schools that don’t look to the future and begin defining a recovery plan will be behind when we come out of this. Crisis comes with opportunity.”
— Jaime L. Hunt, Miami University
As many colleges and universities delve further into online or hybrid models of teaching, staying connected will have its challenges. Some of this starts at the engagement stage. Dealing with students and prospective students obviously has taken a new turn—a situation Hunt says marketers must stay in constant step with.
“Remember that their lives are as torn asunder as yours is,” Hunt says. “They likely have Zoom fatigue; they are stressed and anxious about the future, and they may be facing financial challenges. We need to be prepared to answer new kinds of questions, and to meet them in new places and in new ways.”
Right now, what we know for sure is that today’s higher education landscape is at an inflection point. The pandemic—and the fact that we are still trying to maneuver ourselves up, over and around it—has not only created an uncanny set of mitigating circumstances for today’s families, but also a sea change in what students seek when selecting a college.
“Initially, I think we feared that students would find the remote experience to be preferable to an on-campus one,” Hunt says. “We are now seeing that students are hungering for a return to in-person and face-to-face interaction.”
One challenge that all college and university administrators is facing is how to deliver that warm, welcoming, personal experience in a remote or socially distanced environment. “I think the most important thing for all of us in higher education to understand is that we cannot be entirely focused on the ‘now,’” Hunt says. “The schools that don’t look to the future and begin defining a recovery plan will be behind when we come out of this. Crisis comes with opportunity. To thrive, we have to address the here and now while also defining our future.”
Prior to joining Miami University, Hunt was the strategic communications and chief communications and marketing officer at Winston-Salem State University, a historically black constituent institution of the University of North Carolina. In her 16 years working in higher education, she has been part of three university re-brandings, four website redesigns and the development of an integrated marketing communications model at two institutions.
Nothing she experienced could prepare her for this. “At my previous institution, we were like many schools and extended our spring break, and then began remote education for the spring semester,” Hunt says. “While we didn’t know how long we would be living with COVID-19, we suspected it would be longer than we would like and made plans accordingly.”
Hunt says the shift to online and remote learning left many students feeling disoriented. “When we left our campuses, we weren’t sure when we would be able to welcome our communities back. That uncertainty continued to linger throughout the summer as the pandemic evolved. Staying connected to students helps them feel a part of the community.”
The pivot is the pivot
The University of North Dakota (UND) is in hybrid mode. As cases began to grow across the country, the university, like scores of others, quickly determined to go online the week before its spring break. This allowed faculty, staff, students and parents time to prepare for the remote learning and working situations.
Right now, UND offers on-campus and in-person classes, and also a full menu of online courses. School administrators have been well positioned from the beginning of the pandemic to offer high-quality programming with both offerings.
Meloney Linder, VP of Marketing and Communications, says many of UND’s already were fully available fully online, which made for a quicker transition for its faculty. “It is important to stay engaged with students to understand what is working for them and what needs improvement. This can range from the classroom experience, on-campus living, and student life to physical or mental health issues they are facing during the pandemic.”
By staying engaged, Linder says you can better support their experience and help them continue their academic pursuits successfully. “We have put a great deal of resources, and focus on centralized advising and student affairs support. It is a daily effort, and communication is key. We believe it is working. Our enrollment numbers are maintaining, and we are receiving very positive feedback from our students and their families.”
“We have put a great deal of resources, and focus on centralized advising and student affairs support. It is a daily effort, and communication is key.”
— Meloney Linder, University of North Dakota
In today’s hybrid landscape, UND finds that using a mix of communication channels is key to reaching its students. Faculty has discovered that their students need to hear and read information in different ways through different platforms. It is not—and never can be—a one-size-fits-all strategy. Currently, UND engages with its students via social media, direct mail, and video along with interactive, live video meetings.
“The fluidity of the situation is the most challenging part of this pandemic and no one knows when we can anticipate a return to what was ‘normal,’” Linder says.
What will be the biggest lesson moving forward? Linder says that higher ed marketers must continue to build links to students to learn how they want and need to be communicated to before a crisis happens. “The crisis has changed how we interact with individuals, and our communication and marketing will need to adapt. Texts messaging. Creative and platforms. You have to be in a mindset of continuous learning.”
In a time when the world changed overnight, colleges and universities had to flip the switch and get creative. It is lesson that keeps on giving for higher education marketers.