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Why Colleges Need to Pivot Their Advertising Strategy to Applicants Post-COVID-1

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By Janine Pollack

Director, Integrated Marketing

Last week, MNI Targeted Media hosted a session on the virtual college campus as part of its Got:20 series. This session focused on all the latest college reopenings that are happening now. With schools like Notre Dame, UNC Chapel Hill, and Michigan State pivoting their reopening plans within days of back-to-school, it may be worth looking at the implications for the 2021 school year and beyond. You just have to look at your news feeds and social media to see the chaos going on around higher education.

Campus life in the COVID-19 era is underway, but is it worth it? That’s a big ask. According to a report on CBS This Morning today, 40% of freshman likely won’t attend in-person classes this fall, and one out of three upperclassmen may also take a pass. It’s not an easy time for anyone, as one student said as he was packing up to go home just days after arriving, “I wish they told me this last week”. 

The Impact of COVID-19 on College Enrollment in the Coming Years 

A steep drop-off in college enrollment starting around 2025 is anticipated. Enrollment—in the Northeast and Midwest especially—is expected to shrink by as much as 15% by 2025, and the fiscal repercussions from COVID may worsen the decline.

What variables are impacting student enrollment? While the concrete numbers aren’t known just yet, the following factors are greatly deciding the future of college enrollment:

  • Out-of-state enrollment is an unknown quantity.
  • International enrollment is a major variable.
  • Households are facing significant fiscal challenges, with many having at least one primary earner out of work or furloughed.
  • Students crave the traditional college experience and are willing to wait for it.

What Does the Class of 2021 Think About Online Learning?

The class of 2021 prefers real life. Let’s just say that students are over online learning:

  • 3-out-of-5 juniors said an in-person experience with a prospective college has “a lot of” importance to them.
  • Juniors don’t want to take course-work online.
  • Only 11% were strongly considering online courses, while more than a quarter would not consider online education at all.

These numbers are not that different from those collected before the pandemic, but they’re significant, which makes me think that if there’s one constant in these changing times it’s that students want what they imagine to be the traditional college experience, not a virtual replica of it.

Of course, as many colleges and universities opt to have most or all of their classes online, students and parents are pushing back on the cost. Why should they pay the full price for tuition if their child is learning from home? And for students who are lucky enough to have some or all of their classes in person, the vast majority of campuses have eliminated or severely curtailed their extracurricular activities, from sports to Greek life to clubs. These activities are what make the college experience complete, and without them, it is fair for schools to continue to charge the full tuition?

Student Laptop

How Marketers Can Drive College Enrollment with Safe Messaging

So, how are you going to drive consideration?

What follows is a short list of things marketers can do to establish meaningful touchpoints with students, parents, and guidance counselors. As we move ahead, consider all with an ear to what students want to hear in messaging, however it’s served.

From our data, students clearly want to be reassured that they can return to a safe learning environment. Returning college students:

  • Want schools to let them know they can be trusted and depended upon
  • Want empathy and to know they’re not alone in figuring out the new normal
  • Want assurances that their achievements—even delayed scores and suspended extracurriculars—are fully appreciated

Above all, they want to know that they’ll will find the college that’s right for them. If it’s your school, they want to know that your team will work with them to figure out how to pay for it—they want to hold onto their dreams and aspirations.

Wherever Students Research Colleges are Viable Channels for Advertising

Take a moment to take in where students are learning about colleges.

  • 75% college website
  • 72% virtual Tours
  • 51% personal emails from colleges
  • 46% virtual Q&A sessions
  • 40% print materials from colleges
  • 37% virtual college fairs
  • 37% 1:1 virtual meeting

Source: Arts & Science  Group, July 2020

Most of these touchpoints aren’t new. However, usage is growing. It’s safe to say these tactics will stay in play even after pandemic restrictions lift because, let’s face it, rare was the student who drove to every school on their list even pre-pandemic. In fact, most only visited a short list of accepted schools (this is what we did in my house and I have drawer filled with socks from a variety of schools to prove it.).


“Email didn’t kill print. Social media and video didn’t kill email. Virtual tours didn’t kill real ones. And the mesh of virtual tours, CRMS, customized college websites and events, and leads from surveys and students’ information requests won’t eclipse what went before. They all remain, layered and adjusted as circumstances require.” —The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Next Enrollment Challenge


Personally, I think the word ‘pivot’ is at risk of being overused in marketing jargon, but there’s a reason why it is used so often, especially now—being nimble and having agile marketing plans is an essential truth to advertising—those who do best have teams that keep them not just in the moment but looking ahead.

During the COVID era, colleges will need to concentrate even harder on that virtual presence, combining first-rate websites and polished online tours with informative webinars and breezy, frequently updated videos on social media.

So, use the tools you must to deliver key messaging when and where it’ll make the most impact. Just as schools have core curriculum, any outreach strategy should have data at its core. It is the essential tool in all communication.

Multi Screen

If you have it, use it and build on it. If you don’t have it, figure out how to get some.

Data is what fuels search and the college experience—more than anything—starts with search. 70% of students go straight to colleges .edu pages. If colleges aren’t prioritizing what comes up on a search-engine results page, that’s going to be problem.

Why Video Messaging is an Essential Touchpoint for College Students 

According to Carnegie Dartlet COVID-19 Junior Prospect Report, Students are eager to speak with people at college campuses. Help them make the connections they crave, including:

  • Admission counselors
  • Enrolled students
  • Administration (dorm managers)
  • Faculty
  • Alumni
  • Sports Coaches
  • Advisors
  • Medical Staff

Video is a great way to start the conversation. Our current environment has caused increased media usage. The simple fact is video consumption, which was already trending pre-COVID-19, is growing exponentially since the onset of social distancing.

Quick, immersive videos give a snapshot of daily life. Nielsen studied the growth of media consumption during crisis and found that staying home can lead to an almost 60% increase in the amount of content watched.

New technology doesn’t cancel out the importance of the personal touch. A phone call and direct mailings, like Cover Wraps, complement digital marketing.

Why Cover Wraps are an Essential Part of Your College Advertising Strategy 

Did you ever see the move The Blind Side? Remember when the coaches come to the house to personally sell Michael on why he should go to their school? That’s the power of 1:1 marketing, and in lieu of an admissions officer meeting with a student, a Cover Wrap is a solid alternative to the 1:1 meeting.

Cover Wraps mailed to homes are a great way for schools to show they care and to convey key messaging.

  • Your school’s creative is the cover image, wrapped around coveted magazine titles like PEOPLE, TIME, and Fortune, and delivered to potential students and their parents. It’s a hands-on way to make a lasting impression.
  • A Cover Wrap campaign can be sent for as long or short as you’d like—in short bursts around key times or educating your audience over a longer period.
  • And if you’re feeling ambitious, layer in Augmented Reality, which will empower students to experience immersive content.

There’s no doubt that finding the balance between safe, in-class learning, online learning, and hybrid options this fall are happening in real time. And there’s no denying it’s heartbreaking for many—but for colleges to thrive it’s likely a good move to navigate these turbulent times with an eye to 2021 and beyond, to drive enrollment.

It all comes back to that core class you took freshman year—Data 101: Use data to reach prospective students who have not yet applied, or to reach students who are accepted but not yet enrolled, where they are anytime, anywhere.  To learn more, download and watch our 20-minute webinar, Got:20—The Virtual College Tour, or contact insight.lab@mni.com.

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