Try a little tenderness: Craft your higher ed. marketing strategy with empathy for a COVID-scarred world.

There’s nothing the pandemic hasn’t wrinkled in the higher ed. space, including how you approach your recruitment and retention strategies.

On one hand, you’re facing intensified competition because students can go to school online from anywhere. And on the other hand, you’re trying to get your existing students, staff, and faculty to stick it out with you. And that’s not even the half of it.

Using metrics and quantitative data to inform your marketing strategies is a normal approach. But recruiting and retaining in a pandemic-permeated world requires a softer technique: one infused with empathy and compassion.

Research tells us that 27% of adolescents have experienced anxiety and 15% have experienced depression as a result of the pandemic. How your higher ed. institution addresses this reality in your recruitment and retention messaging is more important than ever.

Bolster your recruitment campaigns with messages of support and encouragement.

Starting a post-secondary education is intimidating enough for new students. Throw in a global pandemic that has upended their world and you’ve got a whole new level of anxiety on your hands.

Now is not the time for prospective students to hear platitudes about their future and campus life, glossing over the effects of the past two years.

What they need to hear from your institution now is “We see you. We hear you. We’re here to help.”

That kind of messaging fosters resilience, growth, and community — getting through this together; qualities no higher ed. institution should shy away from promoting.

As you craft your marketing campaigns, choose to call out the reality of students’ fears, anxieties, and complex emotions — and how your institution plans to address and alleviate them.

Not only will it get you a lot farther than trying to sweep the last two years under the rug. It will also establish your institution as a safe place that’s there to guide and empower, not just gather tuition and increase enrolment numbers.

Prove your institution’s compassion through student wellness campaigns.

Your marketing messages of support can’t just be for show. You have to walk the walk! Not only will prospective students be able to see this happening if they follow you on social media, but they’ll also be able to trust what you’re saying in your recruitment messaging is real.

One big way to support your students is to dive into digital wellness.

You can’t ignore the impact of COVID-19 on our day-to-day reliance on all things digital. And with that comes a lot of anxiety, fatigue, and questions about what’s next.

Though members of Gen Z are known to be digital natives who practically live online, that doesn’t mean some don’t have online test anxiety. Or, some struggle with online learning altogether. This is an opportunity for you to tap into their needs and meet them in genuine ways.

To do this, analyze what your students are experiencing when it comes to digital (un)wellness.

  • What insight can you gather from student groups?
  • What would a digital wellness survey tell you?

From your findings, craft and promote resources that offer relief.

  • Dedicate a week to the awareness of too-much-digital.
  • Encourage time away from laptops and smartphones and provide alternative events and activities (following current COVID-19 protocols).
  • Offer data-backed tips on how to combat online learning struggles.
  • Connect students to your campus’ mental health resources for those struggling with online test anxiety. 

Thinking outside of the digital box, what other resources are desperately needed on campus as a result of COVID-19?

If your prospective students have only seen your campus through a virtual open house, connect them with seniors who have experienced campus life. Prospective students can learn a lot more about what their experience may look like by talking to other students who were once in their shoes.

Beyond all this, ensuring your mental health offerings are robust and promoted is key — and doesn’t go unnoticed.

Embrace your higher ed. institution’s opportunity to lead with empathy.

This message of empathy and being an encouraging place doesn’t just matter to your students (who, ahem, have the potential to become lifelong advocates for your brand!) It matters to their parents who may be footing the bill. They care about how their kid’s well-being is nurtured at school, too.

On top of your prospective students (and parents), you have your current students, prospective staff, and even prospective donors that are hearing these messages, too. Each of these stakeholders expects you to be a place that leads.

What are your messages saying about the way you’re doing that?

As a higher ed. institution, you have the unique privilege of leading the next generation of students in a new direction after a tumultuous time that’s left everything upside down.

Lead with messages of support and compassion and you’ll be rewarded in the years to come with higher enrolment rates, stronger retention, and a donor pool that supports your stance.

Inspire your students to dream of the future beyond COVID-19.

Maybe you need this reminder just as much as your students do: This is all going to end. Sure, things may look different. But we won’t be under certain restrictions forever.

Eventually, we will be able to toss our masks, hug each other without a second thought, and gather together without feeling anxious.

In the same Unicef study that revealed anxiety and depression levels, about 37% of young people reported feeling pessimistic about the future.

Your students need to know there’s more beyond this pandemic and it’s your job to show that to them. After all, they’re either at or looking to come to your institution because of their future. They need to be reminded that it’s still there, still brilliant, and still bright.

If your higher ed. institution doesn’t deliver that reality to them, who will?

You have an important opportunity: Market your higher ed. institution as one that recognizes where your students and staff are in their struggles, and that you will support them every step of the way as we emerge from it.

Your messaging going forward will say a lot about how you care about them as human beings. Prove to them that you do.

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