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Reevaluating your prospective student communications in the time of COVID-19

June 8, 2020

Institutions face an array of overlapping issues now as they navigate communicating with and engaging their prospective students. We are in a time of unprecedented isolation and uncertainty due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which leaves prospects largely unable to visit campus and to engage in traditional ways with your institutions, but with additional time to scrutinize your actions and communications. We are on the brink of a major recession, causing financial stress and likely increased affordability challenges for a significant pool of incoming students. There is uncertainty about what college, as well as life in general, will look like across the next year. 

In this context, there are elements of your communication strategy that are more important than ever to double down on, and others that must be reconsidered or added. There are simple ways even well-meaning institutions can go wrong, and the stakes of getting it wrong are high. EAB is here to support you through this process. In addition to the guidance outlined below, we have developed a robust Prospect Communication Hub with resources to support institutional communication efforts, and an enrollment communications audit, to diagnose your greatest areas for improvement, and identify the most relevant resources.

Where to double down

Some longstanding best practices for prospect communications remain just that. For one, students and families still want regular, relevant outreach. There was an initial temptation with the onset of the pandemic to pull back the frequency of communication, but if anything, prospects now have more time to read and digest your messaging, and they want to be kept up-to-date now more than ever. Similarly with relevance – while there has always been a focus on sending messages that feel personalized and targeted, with timely calls to action, this is even more critical in a time when there is more information out there than most people can reasonably consume.

Readability is also paramount. Making communications streamlined and accessible, and using them to move prospects smoothly along the funnel, is something EAB has been advising for years. Learn how to audit your outgoing communications for clarity and readability using our Jargon Reduction Audit.

Another enduring guiding principle is authenticity. Institutions are increasingly learning that this generation values authenticity over polish, and originality over standardization. Smart institutions are prioritizing that genuine feel and direct communication style as a way to emphasize the trustworthiness of their brand, as well as build a sense of connection with the institution. One way to do this is to empower current students to share their experiences on social media, and create more opportunities for informal, live connections online. For further tips on how to operationalize this, see our resource hub.

Finally, all communications should be value focused. Questions about return on education and rising prices have long been putting pressure on institutions to highlight the value of an investment in their degree, but these pressures are even more acute now. Many families will struggle to finance a degree in the coming years, and it will be critical that institutions can tell the story of why that investment will pay off.

Where to place renewed focus

But the most successful enrollment shops will not be satisfied to simply uphold their current communications standards. These are unprecedented times, and they call for renewed efforts to engage students and increased thought to be put into strategy.

Where to start? First, with a focus on expedient and up-to-date information sharing. In an environment with a lot of uncertainty, and things changing quickly, it is confusing and stressful for students to try and keep up with what is going on. Institutions need to provide centralized, easy-to-assess, and frequently updated information on all pandemic-related changes and updates, through an enrollment lens. Think through – or even better, crowdsource – all of the questions your prospective students likely have, and provide a portal to answer them. What is the status of campus reopening? What should they do if they don’t have a test score to submit? What is the latest deposit deadline? This information should be easy to find on your website and marked explicitly as for “Prospective Students and Families.”

Also critical is proactive communication about your institution’s commitment to affordability. While affordability and price sensitivity have been top of mind for some time, the reach of the current crisis’s impact is broader than any economic event in recent history, and the amount of uncertainty around employment and financial recovery is compounding the stress. Institutional communication must adopt a compassionate tone and communicate understanding of prospects’ likely financial circumstances, as well as highlight ways the school can support them during these trying times. Reiterate your commitment to affordability – to all students, communicate your willingness to reconsider financial aid appeals, and be sure families are aware of all the resources you do already provide.

Lastly, recognize the role that virtual communication must now play in helping build affinity and connection with the institution, campus, and student body. Whereas before, we widely assumed that prospective students would visit campus at some point and have the opportunity to connect live with current students, that is no longer the case. Think about how to highlight student voices to share authentic perspectives of your institution and build connections. Prospects will largely turn to social media for this; be prepared with tools and guidance to help your current students to take the lead on these efforts.

Next Steps

EAB is committed to helping our partner institutions navigate these difficult times. Our new Prospect Communication Hub outlines the most important components of an effective communication strategy, and provides concrete advice and examples to help optimize your institution’s communications.

We have also developed a short audit institutions can use to evaluate the current state of their communication efforts. Our experts will walk a member of your team through it during a 30 minute phone call, and in follow-up, provide a set of recommended next steps to optimize your strategy.  Contact your Strategic Leader to initiate an audit.

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