As the fall approaches, students are incredibly uncertain about their future on college campuses. After an abrupt end to spring semester, it’s more important than ever to build strong relationships with current students as they return to campus for the first time, as well as with prospective students in upcoming classes. The key is to be up front, clear, and use data appropriately to keep your finger on the pulse of your campus as things continue to change around us.

We partnered with RNL to bring you 5 tips for effective virtual engagement in the wake of COVID-19. 

  1. Leverage all communication channels: The upcoming fall semester will be unlike any the higher education industry has seen before. More than ever, students are concerned with the cost and quality of their education, as well as the availability of certain majors, and the overall campus atmosphere — something that will be in flux on every campus. To combat this, make sure you’re making use of all of your institution’s communication channels: email, text, phone calls, direct mail, and chat functionality, to be sure you’re maximizing the strengths of each platform. At the end of the day, especially this far into the pandemic, you don’t want to be contributing to the noise.

    It’s also important to keep in mind that different groups of students — incoming freshmen, graduate students, and parents — will want to be communicated with differently. It’s critical to ensure that communications are more than just a checklist of requirements and deadlines to complete. Students and their families may be going through emotional and financial upheaval at home; in an uncertain time, your communications should be considerate and direct, helping ease the stress and uncertainty rather than adding to it. Here are a few ways to think about the platforms you’re using during this time:
  • Email
      • Subject Lines: They’ve always been important, but you may want to use subject lines that are straight to the point and hit the heart of the email to increase open rates.
      • Remember that parents are important: Engaging with parents is equally important, especially right now, when safety is a top concern. Build a parent communication plan or host virtual parent info nights to make them feel more comfortable and in the loop about what’s going on. Sometimes students do not open an email immediately.  We have been working with Schools that are seeing student not opening their emails immediately, rather they stay in their inbox or are not deleted and then are opened when a student wants that information. 
  • Print/Mail
      • This is where you can truly engage the parent.
      • Mail used to be the main way we communicate with families and it was in question for a while if it was successful.
      • Think about what you are sending out to students and families and when.
      • Mail can be another extremely valuable tool in this season.
  • Phone
      • Traditional undergraduate students had been using the phone less and less, where grad students were slightly more engaged. 
      • Students of all program levels and types are being more receptive  and open to phone calls and texts.
      • They are at home and are probably feeling isolated, so this can be a valuable tool
      • This allows for a personal touch, addressing their needs
  • FaceTime and Zoom Meetings
      • This could be a great way to drive connection with your students while they’re at home
  • Social Media
      • This is another avenue of communication and a way to bring current student voices into the mix.
  1. Reimagine On-Campus Events: By now, we’ve come to know that virtual events can’t completely take the place of on-campus events, but they can be just as informative and helpful if they’re reimagined properly. Consider the length of your events: most students and their parents are already online the majority of the day, either attending classes or working; hitting key messages up front, or producing a series of “mini” events may be the best course of action during this time. Current student voices are still important to share as well as faculty and staff.  Break up your traditional all day campus visit event and make it easy for students and families to tune in for what is most relevant to them. You can even record your sessions and make them available afterwards. We have seen a lot more questions come via virtual events from students and families, so make sure to have a way for individuals to ask questions or have side chats.

    Parents and students alike want to be kept in the loop regarding ongoing plans for COVID-19. From the impact on the academic experiences to safety procedures and changes, it’s imperative to hit on these topics at your virtual events. Additionally, the incoming class of 2021 is more worried about paying for college than the class of 2020, which means that events around tuition and financial aid are probably of interest to prospective students as they begin to make their decisions.

  2. Leverage Accurate, Real-Time Data: Knowing what is and is not working in your recruitment efforts is more critical than ever before, since there is no true comparative data in these unusual circumstances. Pay close attention to each student type in your funnel and quickly identify trends where a particular group may be lagging and act on it. s,. Having systems, including a CRM, in place, is critical, as managing multiple systems and data sources without the help of a CRM can often be a huge lift and strain on resources. You can see how your institution is handling data by asking yourself these questions:
  • Can you efficiently load data from key sources? (Web inquiry forms, online applications, search sources, etc.) 
  • Can your team record personal contacts and schedule the next follow-up?
  • Does your CRM have a student portal for easy access to a list of required documents for the application? 
  • Can you facilitate event registration, reminders and follow-up? 
  • Can you routinely export import data for use with key marketing partners? 
  • Are reports easily understood and measuring what matters?

    4. Mobile Friendly is No Longer Optional: For a long time, the industry-wide recommendation was to make sure your website was “mobile-friendly” for incoming students who do the majority of the college research from their cell phone. Now, however, “mobile-friendly” is no longer optional. In fact, “mobile-first” is proving to be critical. Is your website built and optimized for mobile devices? Is it SEO-friendly? Is your application and admissions process mobile first? Prospective students spend hours on their phones each day, and some students may not have access to a laptop or desktop computer.. Meet them where they are by ensuring that your events, application, and website is fast, easy to navigate, and accessible on a mobile device.

    5. Be Human: With things as uncertain as they are, communicating with current and future students is one thing above all else: human. Think about blanket statements like, ‘I hope you and your family are well’ and instead use one on one messaging and phone calls to show care, listen and help find solutions. This is all new territory for campuses, families, and staff alike so don’t be afraid to relate and listen. Families are overwhelmed by everything going on in the world and adding in the college experience is another worry.  Families are questioning if it is safe on a college campus, if they have the financial means to afford it, what a virtual college education looks like, among other things. Remember: they are not higher education insiders, and they likely don’t know exactly which questions need to be asked to get the answers they need.

    Put yourself in their shoes and try to anticipate the questions and information that is most critical during this time. Use short and concise videos to give a clear idea of what campus will be like, engaging with campus leaders, students, and faculty to share messages with prospective and current students and their families. Keeping these messages as clear and on-brand as possible is also something that is important to focus on.

Students entering the fall 2021 semester are facing even greater uncertainty regarding their ability to pay, the availability of financial aid, and the ever present test-related issues surrounding admission and scholarships amid COVID-19. Being as clear and forth-coming as you can, as soon as you can will only help you in the long run. 

Want more tips? Check out the full webinar!