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Pivoting Your Higher Ed Strategy to Accommodate Online Learning

John is a Campaign Optimization Manager at StackAdapt. He has experience managing programmatic, paid search, and paid social advertising campaigns for a number of industries and brands, including academic institutions. 

Programmatic advertising has expanded the opportunity for educational institutions to reach prospective students. As part of the student journey, higher education institutions used to employ location and ISP targeting as a means for engaging and attracting students to campus networking events, open houses and education fairs. Using proximity as a gauge to reach the right target audience gave advertisers a level of confidence that they were targeting individuals with a higher intent of pursuing an education at their institution. COVID-19, however, has caused institutions to rethink how they will attract students, as the opportunity to make connections personally was no longer an option and the foot traffic around the schools greatly decreased the targeting pool.

Given the current situation and suggested physical distancing practices, prospective students do not have the option to visit campuses and connect face to face with school representatives, while some students are opting to attend institutions that are closer to home. In order to now reach prospective students, educational institutions are required to shift their strategies and re-evaluate their advertising message.

A Shift in Advertising Higher Education

After the escalation of COVID-19 and the mandatory closures of businesses—including post-secondary institutions in North America—the mindset and perception of post-secondary education has waned. Prospective students are changing their plans, with some choosing colleges/universities that weren’t their first choice. There are doubts and hesitation as to how long post-secondary institutions will remain closed and no certainty as to when they can re-open their campuses.

How did COVID-19 affect the decision making process of prospective university/college students? And how can advertisers and post-secondary institutions shift their advertising and digital initiatives to address the new norm? It’s time to focus on the why—why a prospective student should attend your institution—instead of only focusing on what the programs are about. Too often, educational institutions focus their messaging on their program offers without emphasizing on how they can benefit prospective students.

According to the Art & Science Group, more and more students are hesitant to pursue post-secondary education due to current economic situations. To respond to this, advertisers need to shift the message and build a campaign based on empathy—specifically, how the programs can benefit prospective students. Are your programs accredited by professional associations? Are your programs proven to accelerate alumni careers? Adjusting the messaging used will better position your institution as one that understands the needs of the students.

How To Pivot Your Digital Strategy

Now that you know a shift is needed to adjust to the current climate and needs of prospective students, we’ve compiled a list of ways you can shift your programmatic strategy.

1. Retarget

Take advantage of retargeting campaigns to re-engage website visitors. You can either target existing pools, or build new ones based on COVID-19 related content, if you have any. For example, if you have a page specifically for information any impacts on admissions, classes, or general updates, you can retarget new visitors to that page.

To leverage your existing retargeting audience pools, you will want to adjust your messaging. Shift from solely discussing the programs available, and offer the opportunity to connect with the university staff and current students—even if that is done digitally. A survey done by Carnegie Dartlet indicates that 80% of students want to connect with academic counsellors. Offer students a glimpse of what they can expect from your programs—you likely have existing presentations and offerings available, so it’s time to leverage them and make them accessible.

2. Share Content Digitally

Repackage all the professor talks, campus walkthroughs, student experience panel, and admission 101 sessions. Prepare a virtual walkthrough to show students the facilities available to them once campuses start to re-open. Use your existing orientation programs—modify them and highlight them on your advertising creatives. Consider unique ways to serve ads and provide information at the same time. For example, you can do this by utilizing Contobox creative units to allow prospective students access to information in just a click of a button. Using Contobox’s capabilities, you can offer engaging and expandable display ads to users. When users click on a Contobox display ad, an interactive window will pop up and present additional information without leading them away from the page they’re on.

With this solution, prospective students can go through the available programs. By offering ease and accessibility to information, you can gain a competitive advantage against other advertisers. 

3. Run Native Campaigns

Consider targeting email lists of prospective students or a retargeting audience with a native campaign to educate students on your online initiatives during this pandemic. Write a blog on how your institution is adapting to new tools that help remote learning or answer the most frequently asked questions surrounding COVID-19, then leverage programmatic native campaign strategies to attract users and drive engagements to your website.

By building program credibility and establishing initiatives to address COVID-19, educational institutions are able to gain more interest and prospective student inquiries. Another tactic to consider is to highlight tools available to prospective students in this time of crisis. Have you recently partnered with an e-learning partner and are fully prepared to onboard students to their virtual classrooms? Is your staff training to use these teaching tools? If so, write about it and take advantage of native ad formats to let prospective students know that the quality of your online teaching is on par with face to face teaching. A well-planned native advertising campaign can easily answer questions and quell student doubts or hesitations. Once your messaging becomes a message of support, prospective students are more likely to engage and look further into your programs and your college/university.

4. Inform Your Prospects

Prospective students are curious about how universities and colleges adapt their teaching and foster collaboration within courses. Will courses be supplemented with tools beyond instructional videos? Will instructors and professors utilize video conferences to simulate classroom collaboration? With all the virtual offerings and distant learning, it’s important to let prospective users know the accessibility and availability of support outside class hours. These support offerings might include: technical support, instructor office hours, academic counselling, and many more. These might seem overwhelming but most educational institutions already have these offerings—all you need to do is highlight them with your advertising efforts. Below is an example of what that might look like.

5. Consider the Student Journey

It’s important to think about how your advertising campaign takes users through a journey. The marketing initiatives of higher education clients used to rely on in-person conferences, complemented with geo radius and email retargeting strategies. In-person events are beneficial in establishing the first impression and creating a relationship with prospective students. Since that is no longer possible, relying on 1st-party and 3rd-party audiences will help to expand your digital presence to reach new prospective students.

Now more than ever, user experience should be a priority—from the first touch point (ad creatives) to your landing pages, and to your main website, consistency is important. Be mindful of your landing pages, and ensure the messaging aligns with what the brand stands for. If you’re trying to establish that your online offerings are as high quality as traditional classroom teaching, your digital presence needs to prove that to prospective students.

6. Personalize Your Approach

You need to prioritize personalization. The current situation is unlike any other and it can be overwhelming implementing multiple layers of personalized advertising creatives. However, you need to ensure that your advertising messages make prospective students feel heard and valued. Your creatives need to push messaging that appeals to the personal interests and unique behaviours of prospective students—especially as there has been a shift in what that looks like. Not sure where to start with personalization? One thing you can do is take advantage of StackAdapt’s Creative Tactics to ensure certain creatives are served to specific audiences, with ads that are specific to certain programs. For example, serve a native ad creative about the top psychology career paths to users who searched for an online psychology program or serve customized display ads for users who live in certain cities or geos. There are several ways you can personalize our creatives and strategies based on different factors.

Although advertising in today’s climate can seem challenging, there are several opportunities for advertisers to focus on that areas that perhaps always existed, but were not necessarily in the spotlight. It is also a way to demonstrate how efficiently and effectively your institution is able to pivot!

Tune in to our podcast How Agencies Thrive, to hear how schools and colleges are pivoting for today and tomorrow, with John Miller of the Vermont Law School.

If you require insights or assistance with your higher education campaigns, reach out to your StackAdapt Representative.

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