9 Ways to Make Your University Stand Out as Students Stay In

5 min read

Benjamin Boivin


2020 may be the perfect time to rethink your competitive advantage as a university.

It was not so long ago that universities could easily rely on on the pull of phrases such as “state-of-the-art facilities,” “tight-knit campus communities,” or “dedicated faculty who can answer questions during on-campus recruitment events” to entice prospective students. Now with many campuses across the world currently shutdown due to COVID-19 safety measures, many of these physical advantages are unavailable.

Universities must work extra hard to stand out with their student outreach and be creative with their marketing strategy. While these changes may not be permanent, the situation at hand presents an excellent opportunity to evaluate what other elements drive your university's competitive advantage and to think outside the box.

Higher education professionals are resilient and adaptable. While some may be more technologically savvy than others, there are numerous opportunities to put in the extra effort while your prospective students stay home and search for college virtually. Here are nine ways to stand out as an institution as we transition to the “new normal” global society:

Use powerful, relevant words in your email subject lines.

Acknowledge the situation at hand. The majority of the world is dealing with the same issues caused by coronavirus. Email marketing strategies of the past are less likely to be effective as students (and their parents) express concerns about social gathering on campus.

Be upfront about how your institution is handling upcoming semesters and write topical, nurturing emails rather than transactional, standard-response/request emails.

Show your support openly to your potential and current students with communications that demonstrate understanding. 

Subject line words that have boosted open rates during COVID-19: Free, Home, Today, Bored, Remotely, WFH, Virtual. (Source: Worldata)

Provide insider information to accepted and enrolled students. 

Students (and their parents) like to feel exclusive. Keep them in the know by sending information they cannot find on your website or social media channel. This will make them feel like they are a part of your community before stepping foot on campus.

How to do this: Plan a campus reopening celebration for incoming and returning students and only send the schedule to those that have submitted a deposit. This may intrigue prospective and accepted students. Make sure to also communicate the relevant safety aspects regarding celebrations for those concerned also. 

Offer different ways to connect.

For many traditional admissions offices, the Spring semester is the best time to welcome families to campus as they finalize their college decision. Spring 2020 saw a record number of Zoom conferences, phone calls and emails as the option of on-campus meetings and events did not exist. Remember that not everyone is a fan of emails and many Gen Z students do not prefer telephone calls, so start planning alternative communication options such as messaging and social media into your messaging strategy.

How to do this: Give your students off-campus communication options. Phone calling, virtual face-to-face communication, text messaging, emailing, social media messaging, or even group sessions.

Ask students how they feel.

The period that occurred during the first part of 2020 was a time that most high school and undergraduate college seniors will never forget. In the blink of an eye, three or more years of hard work (or more) culminated without warning, preparation, or celebration. The start of university for many students is a new chapter in their academic journey, but this year’s incoming class never got the change to close their previous chapter officially. 

How to do this: Create more engaging, nurturing, open-ended content in your communication plan. Reward students for survey submissions or run a contest to find out what students are doing as they shelter-in-place. Interact regularly across your school's social media channels!

Scale up online promotion and reconsider print marketing 

With physical restrictions in place across the world, the internet is an easy bet when it comes to reaching potential students right now. By ramping up your online and digital marketing strategy, you can help to offset the impact of the pandemic and reach students directly as they search.

Also, when bearing in mind that most people are home right now, you can also consider other traditional forms of marketing. Consider physical mailboxes which have a 100% open rate (far better than an email or digital ad). If you have removed print from your communication plan in recent years, it is time to give it another shot. Send a postcard about campus health and safety. Send a reminder about family weekend or a calendar of Fall semester events. You can even create a welcome package (depending on your budget) to get incoming students excited about their first day.

How to do this: Reallocate on-campus event funds and consider shifting spend towards boosting online marketing. Also consider investigating mailouts and other print activities that will reach your student database at home.

Update your virtual tours. 

Campus may be shut down, but your students are still looking to explore their future home. While virtual tours are not as impactful or popular as the real thing, it is currently all there is to offer. As every building is currently vacant, this may be the best time to take photos or shoot footage of your “state-of-the-art” labs or historic locations.

How to do this: Have your creative marketing team work on updating the campus map or hire a drone videographer to create a 360-view of campus. Perhaps even recruit some students to "go live" or do an social media takeover also when it is safe to be on campus. 

Utilize social media. 

While TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are free to use, many higher education professionals do not have the time to create and post content. As many campus employees are currently working from home, now is the time to implement a social media marketing plan that will reach your students across the world.

How to do this: Designate one or two social media managers on your team. These employees should keep content professional, yet engaging, and have a deep understanding of each platform. Work together to coordinate a plan and share content and post regularly.

Create more YouTube content. 

Prospective students are much more likely to watch an informational video than they are to read a page on your website. To make life easier, devise a webinar schedule, record the webinar, and post it on YouTube for viewers to watch.

How to do this: If you have the time (and budget), hire a professional videographer and scriptwriter to record new COVID-19 relevant material while campus is empty. Looking for a free alternative? Have your staff record fun, light, and personable videos using their smartphones or video equipment to show that working from home is similar to college searching from home.

Start a podcast or share a Spotify playlist. 

Podcasts can be an excellent way to provide information to listeners, while Spotify playlists are a fun way to show off your office’s personality. Chances are, at least one member of your staff is an avid music fan, podcast enthusiast, or musician that can connect to students on a sonic level.

How to do this: Similar to social media implementation, designate one or two podcast creators or Spotify DJs on your team. These employees should keep content professional, yet engaging, and have a deep understanding of each platform. 

The moral of the story is that students want you to check in.

Be as nurturing as possible and remind first-time undergraduate (and graduate) students that the upcoming semesters will feel new to everyone. Avoid coming off as transactional or disingenuous, instead reach out and provide support at a time where incoming students need it most. Be there for them!

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