Less is More

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How to achieve objectives with fewer resources

When Susan Jenkins sits down to map out her marketing playbook for 2021, there are myriad notes she will make on what she’s learned. Some of those things will be ones that in a normal time would not have surprised her. Others, however, are the ones that will stick forever.

There is no hiding the fact that the unprecedented uncertainty presented by the pandemic has forced college campuses to plan for three scenarios: in-person classes and activities, online classes and activities, or a hybrid of the two ways. And even if you decide to operate one way, the situation is so fluid that it could change from one day to the next. And it has—several times over.

So, from where Jenkins, Assistant VP of Marketing Communications at Shenandoah University, sits, you need to be in a constant state of pivot. Located in what historians recognize as a geographic location of great importance during the Civil War, Shenandoah University is a private university in Winchester, Virginia. With some 4,000 students across more than 200 areas of study in six different schools, attracting prospective students was never an issue.

“We need to be ultra-prepared, and reassure prospective and
current students and their families that students will be safe
in their pursuit of a quality education.”
— Susan Jenkins, Assistant VP of Marketing Communications, Shenandoah University

But, as every college and university across the country is finding, the game has changed. “The biggest challenge is safety on campus and all other challenges stem from that,” Jenkins says. “We need to be ultra-prepared, and reassure prospective and current students and their families that students will be safe in their pursuit of a quality education. Higher ed marketers need to have a fearless, can-do attitude to be successful in the current climate.”

At Shenandoah, administrators felt prepared and confident in the plans they instituted for the fall semester, which gave its students and their families some solace in a time when solace was hard to find. Part of that solace came from the fact that Shenandoah was luckier than most universities in that it had a balanced budget and the marketing office wasn’t impacted by cuts and layoffs. “We are careful, as always, to put our marketing dollars where they will make the most impact,” Jenkins says.

Today, the university continues to raise its overall visibility by pushing out a series of success stories that make it stand out, including things like having the highest-ever fall enrollment; in-person convocation and graduation ceremonies (plus a virtual commencement); a plan that allows learning to occur both in-person and online, simultaneously, if needed; and the development of a process administered by the pharmacy school to administer saliva tests for regular asymptomatic surveillance testing.

Building for the future

As she looks at what’s in store for 2021, Jenkins says driving enrollment will require building a reputation to show that a campus is safe, the quality of the education is top notch, and the activities/campus life is engaging and fun.

“We are building on our success in 2020 to show that Shenandoah was strong before the pandemic and will continue to get stronger in 2021,” Jenkins says. “Everyone going online in 2020 was a game changer. Students who wouldn’t have ever considered taking online classes were forced to do so and they may have found that it suited their learning styles. Faculty who never taught online may have discovered they enjoyed it. So, I think we’ll see a lot more options for online and hybrid programs—and more people engaging on online platforms.”

About 50 miles northwest of Sioux Falls, Dakota State University sits in Madison, South Dakota, home to a number of enticing options for students looking to embrace the hometown feel of college life, including scenic lakes, hiking trails, two state parks, and miles of rolling prairie.

And while Dakota State University continues to maintain high expectations and goals for its students, Kelli Koepsell, Director of Marketing and Communications, says how those goals are achieved may look different today. “Marketing an on-campus experience became extremely important, even though on-campus life looks and feels different than it did a year ago. We need to elevate online options for those who may not be ready to return to campus, but want to continue their goals of a college degree.”

The pandemic isn’t over. That means there still is a lot of ground to cover, even with vaccinations starting to roll out. While Koepsell maintains hope for next fall, she says the university is trying to embrace the new reality that it just experienced.

“I think we will continue with virtual weeks and activities,” Koepsell says. “I think we will continue to develop marketing materials that tell our story in a way it hasn’t been told before. All the while keeping the safety of our faculty, staff, and students front and center. Maybe as time goes on, and the situation evolves, we will move to a hybrid of these newly developed strategies melded with the old tried and true. We will continue to evaluate, review return on investment, and make decisions and adjust accordingly.”

One of the things that shifted immensely during the uncertainty of the pandemic was what recruitment of prospective students would be like. To meet strict safety guidelines, recruitment efforts shifted all online. There were no college fairs, no high school visits and no booths. In addition, printed materials spoke much louder than they had in the past. “Communication and our content strategy had to adjust to sell the university without face-to-face meetings and conversations,” Koepsell says. “Some students chose DSU without even visiting.”

The turnabout was a welcome addition in a very difficult time. “Not being able to attend in-person high school visits, college fairs or college events was a tough challenge,” Koepsell says. “We had to be strategic and diligent in making decisions. We had to be more creative. We had to offer more ways for prospective students to learn about Dakota State.”

“Marketing an on-campus experience became extremely important, even though on-campus life looks and feels different than it did a year ago.”
— Kelli Koepsell, Director of Marketing & Communications, Dakota State University

That meant partnering with Admissions to implement a program the university deemed “Discover DSU” days. The program included virtual weeks, game nights, safe one-on-ones and smaller on-campus visits. “We are investing in a more interactive campus map so people can see more of the campus without being in South Dakota,” Koepsell says.

In the end, what schools like Shenandoah University and Dakota State did was push forth their “can-do” attitudes. By rallying together, they embraced the premise that while there is nothing they can do about a global pandemic, they can choose to push forward enthusiastically.

“We have to accept it, focus on the good, and continue to do our jobs to the best of our abilities,” Koepsell says. “That means providing a positive and safe campus experience for our students currently enrolled, and an appealing, worthwhile educational experience for future students. You can no longer count on one message resonating with everyone. You must have the right message, to the right audience, at the right time. Sell them on the experience.”

If you follow the data, their strategies are working.