With college classes across the globe having to quickly make the move to online courses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education institutions needed to rapidly transform their approach to digital services and readily communicate a plan of action to students, faculty and family members. Embracing this new digital reality meant higher ed leaders needed to be agile in their approach to technology while also considering the long-term industry shifts that may arise from this situation. Acquia recently spoke with Jason Smith, founder and managing director of OHO Interactive, on how the higher education industry is adapting their digital experiences to maintain strong relationships with current students and staff and improve their enrollment strategy.
Proactive Digital Communications
At the start of the crisis, OHO held a series of “brain trust” meetings where they assembled vice presidents and leading members from over 20 higher ed institutions to discuss the challenges and opportunities they were experiencing. “We used these conversations to help our clients pivot their digital presence both in terms of the immediate response to the crisis and for the impact on the summer and the upcoming academic year,” said Jason. “The first big challenge was working quickly to communicate the action plan for getting students home and setting up the resources needed for online learning when people are dispersed all over the world.” From a marketing and communications perspective, the ability for schools to quickly launch microsites detailing their response to COVID-19 was critical.
While universities developed their own digital framework for transitioning both students and faculty to online learning, they needed to reimagine most pathways for communication to engage potential students without the traditional means of campus tours, orientations, or college fairs. “Digital marketers need to be more involved at every touchpoint, whether that’s digital advertising, email, social or text messages.” Without the potential of in-person events, schools are facing steeper challenges to stand out among competitor schools. “Staying top of mind and keeping a prospective student’s interest is more difficult now,” said Jason. “A family that buys a flight ticket to a week-long orientation or drives to an open house has made a commitment. Yet, registering for a webinar is much simpler, and it can be easier for the students to forget or ignore it.”
To drive stronger digital engagement, OHO recommends higher ed organizations invest in data-driven personalization that will let them track user behavior on the website and serve repeat visitors the most relevant content to their needs. “Understanding all of your customer data helps brands focus on optimizing each of their touchpoints and personalize their calls to action,” Jason explained. “We use personalization tools like Acquia Lift to segment prospects into categories like repeat visitors or international students to make sure we can target them with the right content and stay top of mind.”
Designing New, Dynamic Web Experiences
As higher education leaders transition to an online learning model, they need flexible technology that empowers staff to create efficient, easily manageable workflows. “We like to think about the website for higher ed as building a publishing platform for everyone involved in the school,” said Jason. Unlike a one-off corporate website, the content creation and distribution is continuous and often involves up to a hundred people building out profiles, updating course descriptions and tweaking and reusing copy across multiple locations. “Drupal is a strong tool for managing and repurposing content in a decentralized manner. Our clients have the ability to design dynamic content that can be reused across different locations on their sites and distribute it quickly without the need to get developers involved,” he said.
While the coronavirus shutdowns present difficult obstacles for all industries, it also opens opportunities for higher education leaders to invest in their digital ecosystem and experiment with new targeting and messaging. Often in times of economic trouble or uncertainty, more people will turn to education. “Now’s the time to pay attention to shifts in the market and invest strategically in your digital presence and overall web strategy to reflect the trends people are searching for, whether that’s post-grad career opportunities or graduate programs and certifications,” Jason advised. “It comes down to optimizing the full digital footprint. Every place our clients are running ads and interacting with prospects, it will ultimately lead them back to your website.”
Creating Campus Connections with Visual Storytelling
Personalization is also a huge initiative for universities hoping to communicate that sense of cultural identity and school pride without a physical campus. “There is a need for better technical infrastructure that supports that global reach and keeps people connected to the school at every touchpoint,” said Jason. Similarly, especially now, OHO is recommending higher ed digital marketers invest in multimedia resources. Virtual tours with interactive elements that give prospective students the freedom to explore different areas of the campus keep people on the site longer and better replicate that sense of excitement and community at in-person visits.
Schools are learning to use video and virtual reality (VR) technology to host commencement ceremonies. With many students feeling a sense of grief over the loss of such a milestone event, the pressure is on the schools to make their online graduations feel as special as possible. “We recommend paying attention to your student data. Now that everyone is back at home in different states and countries, marketers need to pay attention to things like time zones when they send invitations and reminders for these events to make students feel like you’re listening to them,” said Jason. The digital transformation of higher education will continue into next fall and those institutions that succeed will be those who take a creative approach to their online experiences and continue to use data to learn to deliver the kind of flexible and modern experiences staff and students expect.