Speaking during a PIE Webinar, a panel of marketing agency specialists and institutions in North America discussed how the coronavirus crisis has encouraged a shift towards alternative models of marketing and forced institutions to start thinking strategically about how they can best make impact and where they can get the best ROI.

“Every institution has its own selling point, so to speak. But I think now they’re really struggling to articulate them”

Murray Simpson, chief growth officer at Akero & Net Natives, explained that a lot of focus for the student specialist marketing group is currently around helping institutions re-articulate their value to students.

He pointed out that a lot of institutions stand out on the community aspect and the experience of being on campus, and that’s not always possible when it comes to online programs.

“Every institution has its selling point. But I think now they’re struggling to articulate them, particularly with the shift to online,” noted Simpson.

“I would say a lot of institutions are just chucking courses out there: they say, ‘we’ve got a new course, let’s put some money behind it and advertise it’. So it comes down to asking, ‘what value will be providing students? And how does that differ for our online programs’?”

In addition to rethinking the value proposition of course content, a shift to more digital marketing tools has also been noted during Covid-19.

Simpson explained that there has been more “zero-based marketing” happening, particularly in relation to online programs.

“Essentially, what this means is you should know how much you’re willing to pay to recruit a student – whether that be advertising, whether it be through an agent – what is the profit? This is the reality that a lot of us are dealing with now,” he said.

“And the way to get to zero-based marketing is to be able to track what your current cost of acquisition is, and from that, then start to model it out. But so many institutions will say to you, ‘you’ve got a budget of X amount, spend it’, rather than the other way around.”

According to Faby Martinez, director of admissions, marketing & communications at Canada Star Secondary School which caters for grade 8-12, the Vancouver-based school has shifted focus from relying on agents and fairs towards direct digital marketing.

We have changed our website completely. We added landing pages in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese so that we can attract those students, and the parents especially that don’t speak English,” she explained.

“We are also refocussing our social media. So Facebook and Instagram for Latin America and Europe, and WeChat for China, for example. And our journalism club students are going to take over our social media so that prospective students can see student life through students’ eyes.”

One “marketing hack” that has been working for Canada Star, Martinez pointed out, is the addition of a chatbot feature to the website.

We are getting a lot more leads that way,” she explained. “A lot of people don’t want to write an email or don’t want to pick up the phone and call because they are nervous about not speaking good English. So that helped us to get more enquiries for sure.”

“It’s also free from many providers, and we use it through the HubSpot platform, so we are also able to track those leads.”

The role of agents was also a topic for up for discussion, with the provost of International Affairs at San Mateo Community Colleges District, Jing Luan, noting less activity from agents in recent times which was partially due to concern over the rising number of cases of Covid-19 in the country.

“But I am fairly hopeful that things will be different next year, and agents will come back and rallying around us in that sense to help us get more students into the United States,” he said.

However, while agents are still imperative to the student recruitment landscape, Simpson pointed out: “For so many reasons, [institutions] want to have direct conversations [with students]. And so I think that’s definitely what we need is a step towards institutions wanting that direct response.”

A direct marketing campaign run by institutions but involving their agent partners to facilitate direct engagement with students can also work well, panellists agreed.

“We work with agents, but I think direct recruitment, it’s really important, especially when you’re working with parents [for] high school,” agreed Martinez.

“They want to see the school, and they want to see what we offer. They want to contact someone there to make sure that they are going to be okay.” 

With more institutions looking towards online direct student advertising, the marketplace is expected to become even more competitive, highlighted head of tech solutions at Akero, Alex Calder.

“As more and more institutions offer more courses – and courses delivered in certain ways –  there is going to be a greater level of competition,” he said.

I think people are going to be savvier and smarter with the data points that they’re looking at because the cost of acquisition will be accessible by a much broader range of marketers.”

“I think we’ll see a lot of negatives, but also significant positive changes”

Simpson added that in the future, a lot of institutions need to start thinking more strategically about where they can get the best ROI.

“I think with Covid-19, while it’s produced challenges and this shift towards online and digital, I think we’ll see a lot of negatives, but also significant positive changes which I am excited about.”

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