Sarah-Jane Spooner13/11/2020

In our conversations with universities over the last few months, we’ve noticed a number of recurring themes. Many of you want to continue reaching out to students and are keen to overcome difficulties or sensitivities around marketing at this time. Here are the key concerns we’re hearing at the moment as well as some thoughts on this. We’ve discussed these with clients, our team, and against the backdrop of insights from our research programme.

What to do about showing a ‘Covid campus’

Is it safe to bring non essential suppliers to campus? Won’t that annoy current students?

What do we say to prospective students about unknown employment prospects?

Parents have become more vocal influencers – what should we say to them

Two key touchpoints for us – applicant days and UCAS fairs – are not happening. What can we do?

What to do about showing a ‘Covid campus’

Universities are unsure of how to approach the issue of campus being different to normal at the moment. Some are worried that showing campus now will have quite negative perceptions. Others wonder if they should be showing the campus to reassure students and parents (current and prospective) about how they are handling the situation.

Students still want to see campuses, and want to see them as they are now and as they will be (maybe) when they start university. Being selective about what you include is important. You need to strike the balance between honestly showing the space and reassuring students that it’s not a total ghost town (don’t do anything like the above)!

When we spoke to prospective students about Covid, they overwhelmingly wanted to be communicated to. They wanted to hear from universities, understand about student life and know what precautions were being put in place. So our answer to this conundrum would be to make sure you keep communicating but be selective. An empty swimming pool is going to look really depressing, don’t show that! Do film/photograph the areas that are open with precautions – like libraries or students’ unions. You can show the entrance, the hand sanitiser points, students using spaced out desks or students having lunch together with each group safely distanced from the next. You can show that you’re balancing taking restrictions seriously and also trying to maintain student experience.

Current students and their parents will benefit from this too. You’re also marketing your Covid approach to students who will be returning for second or third years in September. Content can be produced as retention as well as recruitment pieces.

Is it safe to bring non essential suppliers to campus? Won’t that annoy current students?

It is safe to bring suppliers to campus as long as everyone is sensible! At RV, we’ve put a Covid-specific risk assessment in place to protect staff and clients. We’re sure other suppliers will have done the same. The government guidance focuses on restricting socialising but has always encouraged work to continue. They are obviously keen for businesses to continue to operate as normally as they can.

About your students – yes, it may annoy them. That really depends on the situation where you are. It’s a call you’ll have to make. We did a shoot recently that was sensitive to the issues and focussed on a central protagonist – a happy student. On the other hand, a client recently cancelled a shoot with us because there was quite a lot of annoyance among their student body about the restrictions. That client felt that to bring a film crew onto campus in those circumstances might have antagonised things. They were probably quite right. So it really depends on the situation where you are and what you’re trying to show.

A workaround to consider in the short term if you are struggling with undergraduates but still want to share an authentic voice might be to interview alumni. We can provide workarounds to most situations depending on how keen you are to create new materials and their objectives.

What do we say to prospective students about unknown employment prospects?

Concerns about employment prospects are clearly paramount for young people. No one wants to invest in an expensive degree and then graduate into a recession. There are a few points to make here, to give prospective students a new perspective.

Students are rightly concerned about their future employment prospects. It’s up to you to convince them that this should not be a reason to abandon their plans for a university education.

The recession will not last forever

In the last hundred years in the UK, there have been 9 recessions, not including the current one. The longest lasted for about 3 years. The average duration was 1.2 years. The backdrop of Covid is arguably more serious than many of these. However, the last hundred years does include recessions after two World Wars and the Great Depression after the Wall Street Crash. Also pretty serious. Following these figures, the economy will be in recovery by the time the average undergraduate finishes their three-year course.

Competitive advantage

It seems rather defeatist to respond to an increasingly competitive job market by reducing your employability. Which is essentially what someone who was planning to attend university, but has now changed their mind, is doing. Abandoning the decision to study for a degree due to a worry about prospects makes little sense to me.

What’s the alternative?

Get a job

Many of the entry-level jobs that a school-leaver would do are the kind of jobs that are currently unavailable; there’s a reason that unemployment among the young is so high. Many also don’t directly relate to a student’s eventual chosen career. If a student can get a good job in a relevant field with good prospects that sounds like a golden ticket. However there’s a reasonably high chance that students following this option are going to be ‘treading water’, waiting to see what happens and then ultimately applying to start their undergraduate course in a few years. If DataHE have taught us anything, it’s that in a few years, we are heading for a boom in 18 year olds. There will be likely more applicants than university places. I’d want to get in before that rush.

(Don’t) travel

In the past, students had the luxury of delaying their decision-making and their growing up by gallivanting around the globe. Gap years are great. There’s a lot to recommend them. Gap years during Covid and with massive and ever-changing restrictions on global movement – probably less appealing.

Listen to marketing about careers

With that going on in the background, I suspect students will be pretty keen to hear something positive about careers and prospects. Which marries nicely with the fantastic support that universities offer. Now is clearly the time to shout about it! If you have a careers centre offering support (including after you graduate); have links with different industries; your teaching imparts the perfect transferable skills for the workplace, then now is the time to make sure this information is getting in front of prospective students as a priority.

Parents have become more vocal influencers – what should we say to them?

A number of clients have told us that they are having far more parent contact than ever before. They are keen to make sure that current comms cater for parents as well as students. We have previously met with parents as part of our primary research programme and found out that ultimately, the needs of parents are very much aligned with the needs of prospective students. They shared similar interests and concerns, so the good news is that your marketing is working for both. One thing parents worry about more than students is safety. That worry has heightened this year given the risk of the pandemic. So make sure you address that. This links back to the ‘Covid campus’ point – careful and considered footage of safety measures will probably go down quite well.

Another thing we learnt from parents of students from widening participation backgrounds was that they were concerned about university as a prospect. Finance and future employment worried them, as well as concerns about their son/daughter ‘fitting in’. Information on financial support, long term salary benefits and showing a wide range of undergraduates in your marketing materials will speak to them.

Universities are reporting much more involvement from parents this year. They are even more keen to be included in conversations and decision-making so it’s important that marketing addresses this.

Two key touchpoints for us – applicant days and UCAS fairs – are not happening. What can we do?

As a company that makes virtual experiences, our answer is of course to do more online! That’s not just self-serving advice though – universities were holding online events before the pandemic because they worked well. They are working even better now that there’s no physical alternative. Overall, online events cost less. There’s no venue hire, ticketing, travel or expenses to consider and they have great longevity. Once they are built, they can be reused over and over again. They are more convenient for your visitors, who can usually join in at a schedule that suits them (or catch up later if they missed something).

If you plump for something like Revolution Viewing’s virtual experience then you’ll find you have a seamless user journey from a tour of your university to an event like a taster lecture and back again, just like at a physical open day. I know that was a pretty shameless plug. We usually avoid them on blogs but it’s hard not to when this experience is the perfect answer to the lack of applicant days!

If you are trying to reach students at the top level awareness stage, driving knowledge of your brand and traffic to your website, it may be necessary to consider your other resources. What are your Outreach Officers up to at the moment? Perhaps you could replicate what they do digitally. You could also try to deliver key messages in new ways. For example, you could interview the outreach team and promote these videos online where students are. You could also change the video GVs post-Covid to improve longevity.

There’s an opportunity to move events online or to reallocate marketing budget from offline events into the digital space. With some careful thought and creative planning, it’s possible to take a new approach to lead generation and conversions.

In conclusion…

Covid has changed marketing, and challenged processes and approaches across all sectors. It’s led to uncertainty for many. The good news is that everyone is in the same boat, we have really similar conversations with many different clients. Prospective students don’t know what’s going on either. They’re struggling to make decisions and they don’t know what to expect from universities because everything has changed. So now’s a great opportunity to step up and stand out. Making a little effort to reach out and to address key concerns in marketing messages is likely to go a long way.

If you have any other questions or concerns about HE marketing - let us know. We'd love to hear from you and we think it's important to carry on the conversation.