Brain Trust Recap: Graduate and Online Enrollment Marketing

On March 26, 2020 we convened close to twenty of our clients and friends in higher ed to discuss the challenges and opportunities around graduate and online enrollment marketing in the time of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) health crisis.

To start, we shared some (encouraging) data that we’ve compiled across higher education, capturing digital engagement in mid-March. The good news is that while impression volume has slowed, conversions are stable or even up for some institutions’ graduate and online programs, as prospective students spend time navigating their future options in this uncertain world. 

What were some of the first steps that graduate/online marketing teams took at the start of this health crisis?

  1. Audit all creative: Many graduate/online schools (including us on behalf of our clients) reviewed all creative in-market, to ensure that messaging was sensitive to the current situation and the world. Try to pause or edit any ads related to booming markets/economies, debt/salary outcomes, or promotions/progressing career paths. 

  2. Remove global/international aspects of programs: Given the uncertainties around international travel restrictions, these may impact programs’ global requirements. Some schools have elected to remove any mentions of global projects from their marketing. 

  3. Pause or delay out of home (OOH) initiatives: With public transportation and travel on hold as well as recommended movement restrictions in effect, some programs have paused or delayed OOH campaigns to be most efficient with their spend.

  4. Explore new digital awareness tactics: To replace those OOH initiatives, budget can be shifted into digital advertising tactics within the virtual environment that impact awareness, such as streaming services.

  5. Revisit direct mail campaigns: With more folks spending time at home, direct mail campaigns are worth an audit, and perhaps a new strategy to incorporate into lead nurture and yield efforts.

  6. Moved to virtual events and campus experiences: Similar to colleagues in the undergraduate marketing world, spring events have been cancelled, postponed, or moved entirely online. In addition, like undergraduate programs, full-time programs lean heavily on campus visits. Schools are enhancing content related to exploring the campus on their website and through organic social media. 

How are schools adjusting and optimizing paid media efforts?

Generally speaking, no schools we talked to in the Brain Trust have paused or pulled back on budget for recruitment campaigns. Rather, financial relief is coming from other budget lines, with a “business-as-usual” approach to enrollment marketing — “we have classes to fill.” 

We have seen many schools reducing national or out-of-state campaigns, and deploying a local targeting strategy to capitalize on their strong brand awareness in their regions, with the goal of appealing to prospective students who want to study close to home.

In a different strategic approach, some schools have elected to reallocate dollars to online programs, pulled from in-person programs.

That being said, will online programs flourish in this new normal?

With employees everywhere moving to online/virtual formats, and with traveling restrictions uncertain, we may see a positive impact on online enrollment. Through this situation, people may become more comfortable and familiar with the online learning format, and thus more open to investing in online degrees and certificates. 

Will online programs then cannibalize in-person graduate programs? 

Time will tell, but our attendees leaned towards no. There will always be a market for the face-to-face classroom experience. Perhaps, through this experience, professionals will crave the opportunity to learn in a physical classroom again, placing high value on the connections that an in-person program creates. We’ll watch closely as the inquiries, applications, and commitments flow.

Additional Resources

Two Weeks Later...

We reconvened attendees from previous Brain Trusts to see how things are going, what's working well, and that are some challenges still being faced. We learned that requests for virtual hubs are increasing, and not just for admissions. With everyone working remotely, departments are wanting to centralize their communication efforts and bring everything in one spot for their audiences to more easily find. Some schools are thinking through ways in which they can incentivize their admitted students to deposit early, while others have decided to eliminate the need for a deposit.

Can We Help?

These are uncertain times for higher ed and we'd like to offer a half-hour strategic 1:1 session with Rachel Reuben Senor, our VP of Account Strategy. We can discuss enrollment and yield strategies, digital marketing plans, or just be another set of eyes on your new landing pages or admitted student microsite. Schedule a call today.

This post was updated on April 10, 2020