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Higher Education: The Time for Reinvention is Now

The last several months have turned higher education upside down. The rules and expectations have suddenly changed, leaving the industry to react to circumstances outside their control. At Primacy, we believe the time for reacting to the pandemic is over. It’s time for marketers, communicators, and enrollment teams to be proactive and seize the opportunity to create their new normal.

A couple of weeks ago, I was leading a discovery session with a senior executive at a large public university, and I asked her how the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted her short- and long-term strategic planning.

“Where are you placing your bets for the future?” I asked.

“The fact that I’m talking to you right now tells you everything you need to know about where I’m placing my bets,” she replied.

We were hired to develop a digital strategy for the university, and her response told me that, despite being in the thick of a pandemic that was fundamentally reshaping her institution, her focus was on the future – on creating a digital experience that would bring their brand to life in compelling ways and attract even more people to the university.

Her enthusiasm for embracing the opportunities brought on by the pandemic has stuck with me. At a time when we’re many colleges and universities are retrenching – canceling, pausing, or scaling back on marketing and communications projects – she is stepping forward and seeking reinvention.

I think it’s a lesson we could all benefit from.

The impact of the pandemic on higher education can’t be overlooked, and the speed with which the industry has been turned inside out is breathtaking, but the time for being passive recipients of that change is over. It’s time for marketers and communicators to own the change, to place their bets on the future, and proactively create their own new reality.

Photo showing a professor putting a graduation cap on a graduate.

College students have had their educations – and their job prospects – turned upside down by COVID-19.

So how do you do it? Here are seven ideas:

  1. Focus on Your Brand – Now more than ever, colleges and universities need to be clear about who they are and why they matter in the world. If you haven’t already, go through a process of defining those things and conveying them in clear, simple ways that people can quickly understand. And if you have a clear brand position already, now’s the time to revisit it and see if it will still hold true in this new COVID-19 world.
  2. Reimagine Your Digital Experience – In a separate discovery session, another senior executive at the university told me he didn’t want their new website to look like any other site in higher education. “I’m interested in the art of the possible,” he said. It’s another quote that has stuck with me because it captures the idea that now is the time to imagine what might be. The old rules are gone. It’s time to decide what the new rules will be.
  3. Communicate Clearly and Honestly – There are a lot of unknowns right now as schools try to figure out plans for the fall and beyond. But as we learned in our recent surveys of prospective and current undergraduate and graduate students, regular communication from schools – even if there are not yet any clear answers to the big questions they’re asking – goes a long way toward calming frayed nerves and building trust in your brand.
  4. Put Outside-In Storytelling at the Center of Your Experience – For too long, higher ed has communicated with the world with a very inside-out approach. Think: “Let us tell you what we want you to know about us.” The pandemic has turned prospects and other key audiences into laser-focused information seekers, so think critically about your audiences and information with help them make one of the biggest decisions of their lives. Then build your whole content strategy around delivering that information in a clear, compelling, actionable way.
  5. Re-Think Your Target Audiences and Their Journeys – With so much tumult in higher ed, it’s likely that different people are looking at your institution than ever have before, and it’s likely they need different things from you. If you have existing prospect personas and journey maps, now’s the time to review and update them. If you don’t, now’s the time to create them.
  6. Reshape Your Enrollment Marketing Strategy – The ways that prospects evaluate your institution have changed, so take the time to look at your enrollment marketing approach and evaluate ways that it may need to change too. Remember that it’s the lifeblood of your institution; makes sure it’s up to the complex tasks of the new higher ed.
  7. Put a Focus on Measurement and ROI – As the enrollment environment gets more complicated, now is the time for schools to finally pivot to data-driven decision making. This will involve a clear and focused approach to each of the areas in the previous six bullets, but with budgets tightening, the ability to measure the ROI of your school’s marketing investment will put you in the position to help your institution grow while others shrink.

If your institution needs help with any or all of the work above, Primacy can help. We’ve developed a series of high-value, quick-turnaround marketing accelerators that will help you help your institution place its bets on the right initiatives so you can start to imagine your own “art of the possible.”

Contact education@theprimacy.com to learn more.

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Author: Matt Cyr

As the Managing Director of Education, Matt helps our clients build their brands, communicate their strengths, and market their academic offerings in order to succeed in the ever-changing education landscape.


Published June 2020

Category Education

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