On the Horizon

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Higher ed marketers discuss what lies ahead

By Kaisha Jantsch

It’s no class secret—higher education marketers are being tested. Over the last few years, they’ve struggled to find solutions for changing demographics, budget cuts and competing models of schooling. Now, COVID-19 is forcing them to take on their toughest question yet: “With the issues already plaguing higher education, how does the higher ed community continue to keep learning alive in the midst of a pandemic?”

“This is the toughest time I’ve ever seen in my higher ed career,” says Lynda Oliver, the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. During past crises, she says, “We didn’t think it was a question of if we would return to normal, but a question of when. Now, we’re navigating uncharted waters without a compass.”

According to Oliver, the pandemic has made it difficult for schools to recruit and retain international students, caused the cancellation of events, in-person activities, and travel abroad programs, led to budget reductions, and created uncertainty around future forms of instruction.

But all is not lost.

While COVID-19 has greatly affected the academic and economic landscape, it has mainly accelerated existing market trends and challenges already facing the industry—trends for which higher ed marketers have been preparing.

“The non-traditional and online student markets had previously been the areas of focus for many colleges pre-COVID-19, due to the projected decline of traditional-aged students,” says Amy Luethmers, CMO at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. With the virus still spreading, she said those trends are expected to continue.

“A down-turned economy tends to favor working adults seeking a career change that requires additional degrees and certifications,” she says. “As long as the virus is still active, many people may also remain leery of on-site educational opportunities—even if they are available—and may seek online programming options instead.”

Oliver agreed that placing emphasis on online programs makes sense for higher ed marketers during the pandemic. Pre-pandemic popularity of these programs caused them to pop up in colleges and universities worldwide, and their abundance forced program improvements.

“With increased competition, programs were challenged to be far superior than what they once were,” Oliver says. “Now, the top online programs, like Tepper’s, are carefully tailored and highly produced. Even though they are primarily online, today’s best programs still offer customization, group interaction, travel abroad, and in-person networking opportunities—benefits once only available in traditional on-campus programs.”

The Way Forward

But online programs may not be the only way forward. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, Oliver noted another rising trend in academia—one-year specialty and graduate programs.

“Around the world, we’ve seen increasing interest in specialty one-year programs in which a student can get a masters [or certification] in their area of choice—finance, business analytics, product management, etc.—in one year, versus two years,” she says.

These programs are attractive to students because they cost less time and money, and according to Oliver, they typically attract a younger crowd.

“More and more one-year program participants choose to attend business school immediately after they graduate from their undergraduate institution,” she says. “Schools may need to target college juniors and seniors, instead of graduates with two to five years of work experience.”

But how do schools and higher education marketers reach college juniors and seniors interested in one-year graduate or specialty programs? Or working adults seeking a career change? And how do marketers reach those individuals when they’re struggling to stay safe and healthy and financially stable?

One way, according to Luethmers, is to pay attention to their needs and attitudes, and respond accordingly.

“As the pandemic continues to evolve in waves, so too will various populations’ interest in different types of higher education messaging,” Luethmers says. “For example, at the onset of the outbreak, blatant advertising not only fell to deaf ears, but was frequently considered inappropriate to many on various channels. Informative, engaging, helpful or encouraging messaging was the only messaging that met its mark.”

“As the pandemic continues to evolve in waves, so too will various populations’ interest in different types of higher education messaging.”
— Amy Luethmers, CMO, University of Wisconsin-Stout

Anyone with a television, smartphone, tablet or even newspaper saw this change. Brands stopped pushing products in their ads and pushed people instead. Commercials thanked first responders, and offered viewers messages of comfort, togetherness and hope.

But that’s already starting to change.

“As people begin to long more and more for a sense of normal, typical advertising messaging will likely be more widely received,” Luethmers says. “However, if an additional wave of the virus begins to impact peoples’ lives, there will definitely be a corresponding impact around the type of messaging that will resonate.”

Her advice goes beyond the pandemic. While the spread of COVID-19 continues to be a significant issue that impacts how most people respond to marketing campaigns, it is not and will not be the only one.

“I am a strong believer of reading the room,” Luethmers says. “Even with the numerous years of experience I have in the field, I still second guess every theory I have. I always make sure I have some initial data to point me in an informed direction before launching a campaign to make sure I’m not off the mark on meeting the audience’s needs.”

Her message for higher ed marketers right now? Stay vigilant, data-driven, and proactive.

“Marketing, as a discipline, always requires agility to outpace competitors and continually enhance brand strategies,” Luethmers says. “Innovative and data-based decision-making is essential. You always have to be one step ahead as a marketer.”

“Today’s marketers also have to be nimble and cost-efficient,” Oliver adds. They need to find ways to personalize campaigns and highlight their schools’ unique offerings.

“Students are eager to learn how your school fits in with their values, personality, career objectives, geography and budget. Marketers must figure out what sets their school apart and lean on that area of differentiation hard. Otherwise, it’s a sea of sameness,” Oliver says. “We all teach leadership. We all want to help build the next generation of game-changers. But what makes your school a better fit for students who thrive at your institution versus another?”

And how do you communicate that to potential students without blowing the budget—especially now, when budgets are tight?

“Students are eager to learn how your school fits in with their values, personality, career objectives, geography and budget. Marketers must figure out what sets their school apart and lean on that area of differentiation hard. Otherwise, it’s a sea of sameness.”
— Lynda Oliver, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Carnegie Mellon University

“I measure cost per lead/acquisition,” Oliver says. “Regardless of the media mix, tactics should be mutually beneficial, and cost-efficiency should improve over time. To measure accurately, it is critical to have direct line of site to the response metrics. Without them, you’re operating in a vacuum.”

In other words, it’s possible to do this. It is possible for higher education marketers to communicate effectively and responsibly and bring their schools out stronger on the other side of COVID-19.

“I always tell my team: ‘this too shall pass,’” Oliver says. “Meanwhile, we are being tested like never before. That challenge can lead to some really exciting changes for this new landscape. Out of crisis comes opportunity, right?”