The global COVID-19 pandemic has forced all HE institutions to reach new prospects online. But even before the crisis, the trend of using online marketing to drive student recruitment was reaching the point of ubiquity for universities.

Where there are challenges, there are always opportunities. What’s clear is that the HE industry will change forever as a result of the pandemic. Alongside the shift to virtual learning, recruiting from overseas may become more difficult. But by thinking innovatively about online marketing, you can highlight your competitive edge to overcome these barriers. Right now, universities across the world are finding new ways to connect with prospects’ future needs while differentiating their institutions as one that can thrive in the face of uncertainty.

So, what should you be doing to show off your value in the digital marketing landscape? And what can you do to stand out and engage with prospects on a personal level?

Ramp up your social media, SEO and PPC efforts

Open campus days and face-to-face meetings with students, peers, and academics are off the table as marketing options for now. Even as the crisis eases, it’s likely that many prospects will feel uneasy visiting densely populated cities. Perhaps more relevantly, a lot of your prospects are searching for universities online, meaning you need to make sure they can find you.

Ideally, your SEO, PPC, and social media campaigns should be aligned. It’s not just about consistent branding – it’s about making sure you always have content to pass readers onto when they find you via the search engines, adverts, or social media posts.

Engaging with your audience is crucial. Always analyse your audience and their needs to create personalised messaging. Also, examine what your competitors are doing to identify areas where you can outshine their strategies. And, don’t forget to remain active on social media. Prompt responses mean everything to a student that’s choosing where to the next three years.

Make full use of virtual marketing channels

Making your institution stand out requires more than just increasing your ad spend, remaining active on social media and implementing a long-term SEO strategy. Now more than ever, you need to demonstrate the value of your institution to your prospective students. It’s imperative to create content that helps students make smart decisions for their future.

How can you demonstrate your value in a world of increasing uncertainty?

One of the most effective ways to engage with students is to embrace virtual tours. These useful tools go beyond the panoramic images of campus facilities that most UK universities have already had published on their websites for years.

Consider hosting virtual open days and tours, where students can interact with academics and educators as well as view the facilities you offer in real-time.

According to WorkCast, a popular virtual tour hosting platform, virtual tours can be beneficial in more ways than one. Its statistics suggest that:

  •       You can increase open day attendance rates by up to 75% by hosting them online
  •       As many as 90% of university applicants prefer to engage online before visiting a campus
  •       People are more likely to ask questions at a virtual event
  •       It’s likely that people consume more content when they have the option to download information, speak in real-time with staff and view your facilities via live video

By embracing virtual tours, you can extend your reach, personalise your marketing strategy, demonstrate your value to students, and analyse a range of data points to optimise your future campaigns. Virtual events are also cost-effective, often eliminating the need to hire venues and pay for catering.

What are HE institutions already doing?

Almost all UK universities offer some form of virtual tour to prospective students. On the UCAS website, you can view a complete list of universities and colleges that offer virtual tours. But some institutions, such as the University of Manchester, have focused their online campaigns on the COVID crisis to highlight the impact of its research, teaching and social responsibility activities.

The University of Manchester’s COVID campaign has generated over a million impressions on social media as of May 20. Its website has received 34,000 hits, with visitors tuning in from across the globe.

This campaign is one example of how well-crafted marketing strategies that address the needs of society, a changing world, and the requirements and anxieties of students can reach prospects far beyond our own borders, even when travel restrictions threaten international students.

Never forget that, in today’s connected digital age, your entire university is a marketing agent. You can always find new ways to leverage your partners, staff and students to highlight your value. Check out these examples of how individual staff members can broaden your brand reach. 

Every contact point you can deliver to a prospect brings them one step closer to your university brand. The more you can make that process personal, experiential and supportive, the more likely they are to connect with your institution. To do that, you’ll need to master the traditional tools of online marketers as well as embracing new modes to create an innovative marketing stack.