Chris Mechanic, co-founder of WebMechanix, held another insightful virtual roundtable discussion, this time bringing together chief marketing officers who work in higher education. These virtual meetings allow like-minded professionals to connect with each other in an era of social distancing and to share their perspectives on how COVID has affected their businesses.

Each attendee is encouraged to share at least one idea so that everyone leaves with something useful. Based on previous roundtables, we tested a smaller meeting size to give people more time to talk; this session featured six attendees, including Chris Mechanic and Jarrett Fleagle of WebMechanix. Here are the highlights from this week’s discussion.

Chris Mechanic

I started as a direct-response marketer and helped co-found WebMechanix. We have about 60 full-time employees now, and we haven’t had to lay anyone off because of COVID. In that respect, and many others, we’ve been very fortunate. We’re still seeing an increase in attention online and a decrease in buyer intent, so one of our top priorities right now is to extend the duration of our remarketing lists in preparation for a post-COVID world.

CMO of an IT education company

I’ve been with our company almost since its inception in 2008, back when we all went through the infamous financial crisis. Fortunately, we were small and nimble enough to redefine our products without going under. Since many people struggled to afford even basic necessities like food, they certainly couldn’t afford student loans. So we offered our courses with a lower loan threshold than before, which helped us to survive and grow rapidly once the economy began to rebound.

Last year, we had 5,000 students, and we expect to sign on even more this year. We started as a brick-and-mortar institution, but we’ve been transitioning to virtual since 2016. Now, half of our students are online—and, fortunately, this has allowed us to survive COVID-19. Currently, we’re also offering our prospects virtual tours to prevent sharp dips in our enrollment rate.

We initially saw a drop in leads during the first week of COVID, but things have since then picked up. We’re currently seeing a surge of interest, possibly due to people being laid off.

In terms of our marketing efforts, we’ve had to make big changes. Ordinarily, we would advertise through a mix of radio and digital—YouTube, podcasting, Pandora, and other methods—on sports broadcasts like ESPN. But now, there’s not as much sports content for people to watch due to COVID, so we’ve re-allocated our budget to news broadcasts.

Our admission advisors have started doing virtual group consultations. We shied away from that in the past since it takes a one-on-one relationship to close a prospective student, so I’m interested in seeing how these will work. The advisors who are used to working virtually are doing fine, but the ones transitioning from a brick-and-mortar institution are struggling a bit.

Director of Digital Communication & Marketing for a Colorado university

I have a healthcare background, and there’s an interesting synergy between that industry and higher education.

We have a decentralized marketing process with many teams contributing. Our 12,000 students are a 50/50 mix of graduates and undergraduates. And we’re very much a brick-and-mortar institution, so it’s been a shock for a lot of faculty to transition online. We had a learning management platform in place with Canvas, but no one ever had to use it in the past. Luckily, we were able to take advantage of finals week when people weren’t on campus to move our curricula online and get the ball rolling.

We were afraid that there would be a drop in enrollment due to COVID, but we’ve actually seen great numbers. People have remained enrolled, and new users are still enrolling.

Like most professionals, many of our faculty have had to adjust to working remotely. We’ve taken our events online, and our alumni advancement team has put together lots of Zoom events for the community that have been successful. We’re certainly seeing lots of interest and attention, as Chris mentioned, and we’re reaching and engaging more people than we did before.

I don’t think you need to be a brick-and-mortar to be a successful education institution. I would really push our leaders to understand that and to see that education isn’t what it was six weeks ago. Now’s a great time to assess our identity and strategy.

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CMO of a locally owned university in Texas

This is our 50th year in business, but we weren’t expecting this kind of celebration, to say the least.

I’m relieved that we’re not the only ones going through this. We have a small community that’s accustomed to face-to-face enrollment, and the competition is very aggressive here in the education space, so we’ve faced a number of challenges in going virtual.

Certain curricula—like our business program—have been easy to teach virtually. On the other hand, programs that require manual work have presented unique challenges. Unfortunately, about 85–90% of our programs are those kinds of hard-trade programs, like mechanics, welding, physical therapy, massage, and so on).

Our IT team had to step back and figure out how to provide the necessary equipment and resources for virtual students. We did have some infrastructure in place already with Canvas, but we had to figure out how to move from one day a week to five days a week.

A majority of our students haven’t been too happy with this move. They don’t want to be stuck behind a computer all day. The challenge with virtual education is keeping students engaged and ensuring that they continue to attend our programs. Our leaders are constantly communicating with students to make sure their needs are being met, and we’re providing the theory portion of their work online to help accommodate them during this transition.

Fortunately, we haven’t had to lay anyone off. Our institution’s leaders are confident that we’ll get through COVID since we’ve been around for 50 years and have experience dealing with challenging times like these.

We’ve also shifted our messaging from “Celebrating 50 years” to “Become an essential worker. Now is the time.” It’s that kind of shift that helps you resonate with people right now.

Many students are going to be essential workers, so we’re working with the local community to get them their certifications as soon as possible, which is tough since schools will remain closed for the rest of the year. We’re trying to plan a schedule where certain students can show up on a certain day to do their hands-on training so they can get their certification once we start opening up.

As far as marketing, we’re putting out more content on social media than ever before. We’ve done Q&As with our CEO and campus presidents. We’ve shared financial aid info. We’ve shared content on what our programs offer and how COVID has affected the industries for which we prepare students. We’re doing Facebook Live sessions and uploading those to our YouTube channel to keep people posted.

Rather than cut our budget, we’ve reallocated it to prioritize digital advertising over traditional methods. Our lead count has dropped because we’re in a transition period, but the silver lining is that we’ve seen our conversion rates increase.

CMO of traditional arts Jesuit university in Ohio

I handle all the services and contracts on campus and work with prospective students. And unfortunately, COVID-19 has completely shut us down.

We had considered supporting virtual classes even before COVID-19, but we never actually took that decisive step. Now, we don’t really have a choice. We’ve extended our spring break by a week to give us time to move our classes online. Unfortunately, we’re beginning to realize that we aren’t as prepared as we should be for supporting remote work.

Our university ran into a major service issue because none of our international students could head home, and many of our athletes were just returning from a tournament in New York. Many of our teachers had never used Zoom before, so it’s an entirely new learning process for them.

About 70% of our campus is out of state. Based on our governor’s order for everyone to work from home, we had to notify people and give them 72 hours to pack their stuff and head home. We ran everything out of our dining hall since it’s one way in and one way out. We have a few students that are still staying on campus because they’re international or because of autoimmune issues that make the campus the safest place for them to stay.

That said, we have made some strides. Our rec sports centers have transitioned many of their classes, like yoga and core fitness, to Zoom, and we’re doing whatever we can—including holding online bible studies—to stay connected with our students.

Even with the challenges we’ve experienced, we’ve seen an increase in prospective enrollment. But existing parents and students hate online classes and want things to return to normal. They chose our university because we offer in-person classes and are a Jesuit institution that works with our community.

We’ve had to cut our budget, but we’re driving those dollars in a different light. We’re sending out swag packs that include water bottles, PopSockets, scrunchies, and postcards with students’ admission letters printed on them.

This week’s higher ed theme gave us a fascinating look behind the scenes at the industry’s current situation. I’m excited to see what themes and strategies arise in our next session. Stay tuned for more virtual roundtables and marketing discussions around COVID-19.

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