After rapid transitions to online learning models and months of crisis communications, marketers in higher education are all ready for the pandemic to be over…though it’s unfortunately still evolving.
Despite these challenges, universities are determined to find a way to forge ahead. The question becomes: how can higher education continue moving forward amid massive and often unpredictable change? We sat down with Elise Perachio of University of Washington and Kristine Faxon of New York University to discuss the hurdles that higher education is currently facing and how they are faring through it all. These are the top take-aways from this candid conversation.
Lesson #1: Consistent Messaging
It’s easy for processes to become scrambled when timelines are rushed, but it’s also a recipe for costly errors and inconsistent messaging. The University of Washington addressed this by pulling together specific tools for university communicators.
“Not everyone had all the information, so we wanted to create a single source of truth for our internal staff and faculty. We created a communications FAQ page that gets updated as needed. We also created toolkits with graphics to be used on social media, as well as an equitable language guide,” said Elise. “These pieces allowed us to be consistent with the known information at the time, and gave people in communications roles the confidence that they had the right details.”
Kristine’s team at NYU relied on weekly university-wide department lead meetings to problem-solve and address communication issues.
“We have our schools and departments that we work with, as well as the other departments across NYU– it’s incredibly complex. So, consistent messaging across it all is a huge, tall order,” Kristine emphasized. “We use a matrix that includes all departments and details what messaging is going out as well as the priority of all that messaging. It helps us to see if there are any overlapping issues ahead of time.”
Crisis Communications for the Masses
Then, there’s the issue of specific messaging to different populations. Both UW and NYU have had to navigate vast, complex communities with a variety of needs, effectively leveraging audience segmentation and personalization tactics.
“We have several hospitals, and of course frontline workers who have specific information needs. And then we also have students with international status and their families who have different concerns from those of U.S.-based students and their families,” said Elise. “Because of this, communication can get incredibly complex, but this is where segmentation allowed us to deliver more specific and appropriate messaging to different communities.”
Kristine also emphasized the importance of a decentralized model for swift action during this time. “Our email marketing manager really worked on the templates and the Center of Excellence that we have in Marketo and also in Jeto. Between offering the right templates and messaging guidance, we empowered those working with external communication to send out the right messages with consistent university branding,” she said.Between offering the right templates and messaging guidance, we empowered those working with external communication to send out the right messages with consistent university branding. - Kristine Faxon Click To Tweet
Lastly, social media has played an important role in connecting with large populations, distributing updates as they became available and serving as a listening opportunity, to hone in on specific needs and requests. In fact, since the pandemic hit, interactions on the University of Washington social media channels have been at an all-time high.
Lesson #2: Storytelling to Engage Alumni and Donors
It’s no secret that universities rely heavily on donations as a core aspect of funding. Yet, with so much uncertainty, the ask is a bit more delicate. While some donors are eager to give, others are experiencing financial hardships of their own. Not to mention, in-person events have been wiped from the calendar for the foreseeable future – previously a major source of alumni and donor engagement.
Universities can’t afford to halt all donor activity. And, truth be told, halting donation activity isn’t even necessary. The real need is for a different approach. That’s why the content strategy has pivoted to leading with storytelling, highlighting the rich stories of the university and alumni communities that are constantly unfolding.
“We created a campaign of ‘Faces from the Frontlines,’ to tell the stories of our alumni and community members in the fight against the pandemic– whether that be in hospital work, or donations of personal protective equipment. If people are moved after reading some of these stories and feel compelled to make a gift, we then want to make sure that’s easily accessible by offering the ability to donate at every touchpoint,” said Kristine.
Elise emphatically agreed. “Shine a light on the stories of community members responding helpfully during this time, and also share various volunteer opportunities that alumni and donors can participate in to help the university community,” she said. “These are great ways to include community members who may not be able to donate financially, but want to contribute by volunteering their time.”
“Many people are searching for any and all forms of connection right now and want to make an impact on the communities that are near to their hearts – donating time or money are simple ways to do just that.”Many people are searching for any and all forms of connection right now and want to make an impact on the communities that are near to their hearts – donating time or money are simple ways to do just that. - Elise Perachio Click To Tweet
Lesson #3: Position to Pivot
Lastly, “Can universities stay open?” This is the big question that everyone in higher ed is asking right now, yet no one can definitively answer.
Nonetheless, universities are tasked with planning for the upcoming semesters during what has already proven to be a turbulent and unknown future. The key is to build plans that take current circumstances into consideration, while allowing space to pivot quickly if needed.
When building an actionable plan, both Kristine and Elise recommend incorporating the following steps:
Listen to your audiences. As the world quickly changes, so may the needs and top concerns of your audiences. Make a renewed effort to understand and serve them correctly through segmentation and personalization.
Dive deeper into your reporting. There has been a radical change in day-to-day operations, which has also translated into a radical change in marketing. Use your data and measurement pieces to inform the new tactics, and learn what works in today’s climate.There has been a radical change in day-to-day operations, which has also translated into a radical change in marketing. Use your data and measurement pieces to inform the new tactics, and learn what works in today’s climate. Click To Tweet
Try new things. You’ve been granted a fresh perspective – use it! Try out different directions with content, and then measure and learn from these efforts.
One thing is certain: the concept of “normal” has become near irrelevant during this time. However, that doesn’t have to be entirely a bad thing. Even during a global pandemic amid an onslaught of crisis communications, there are silver linings and lessons to be learned. If universities are able to capture the right data, use the right tools, and implement the right processes, there is a great opportunity to pivot quickly and even uncover new ways of communicating.
If you need help pivoting your marketing operations, contact us. We’re happy to discuss your current strategy and processes, and how we can help.