18.Aug.2020

Suzanne Grigalunas
Enrollment Marketing Strategist

Planning to Pivot

Communications Planning in the COVID-19 Era

Successful university communication offices have always been well-oiled machines. They move against predictable patterns and rely on time-proven expectations. They are the ones who hit every mark, from recruitment cycles to academic calendar notifications—in step all the way through convocation and graduation. At least, they used to be that way.

Then March 2020 happened.

COVID-19 has disrupted our lives on every imaginable scale, and communications teams have not been spared. In the past few months, the industry has had to learn quickly that the most successful communication teams are the ones that are able to let go of the tried and true and operate in an entirely new landscape. We’re living in a new world of unknowns, and campus communicators must plan to pivot in an instant.

The wind will shift again. And when it does, you need to anticipate audience needs and be ready with the right messaging, so you can deploy the right strategy quickly. Operating in this way requires a little precognition and a wider view, but it’s more than worth the extra effort. In fact, it’s essential if you want to hold your own in the face of uncertainty. To make sure you have a plan to pivot, ask yourself:

Is your messaging in line with market expectations?

COVID-19 has changed the higher education market in dramatic ways—more ways than I can possibly list. Families are left considering college options much closer to home. Affordability has become an even greater concern, and many are weighing the value of an online education against standard tuition costs. Seemingly everything has changed, and yet many colleges have not adapted their messaging to speak to these new concerns.

Do you know how your markets have changed—and do you understand what these audiences need to hear? In the context of your cost, is your value proposition adapted to your current and future audience/prospect base? Are you conducting primary research, student surveys, and social listening exercises to gauge prospects’ mindset? Doing this can ensure that the messages you put into the market resonate with maximum impact.

Does your marketing plan support an entirely new recruitment environment?

List-buys, in-person college fairs, and high school visits are on hiatus—and without them, admissions offices have lost reliable sources of prospective student names. To find new ways to attract these students, you need to shift gears in short order. More than ever, paid media will be an essential tool for building the top of your enrollment funnel. Is your paid media strategy ready to support this essential work? Are you working with your admissions office to ensure you are targeting the right markets and delivering a seamless user experience?

Is your media plan ready to sprint?

Yes, we are hunkered down for a marathon. But as far as your paid media plan is concerned, think in terms of sprints. Planning out a full year of paid media activity isn’t plausible this year, not when changes can happen overnight. When COVID-19 hit, many institutions had to scramble to adjust messages that were once relevant, but suddenly came off as tone-deaf. And as you are likely having to shift media dollars around, you may need to build a new understanding of your core audiences and their media consumption habits.

Think about designing your plan in terms of sprints so that you have built-in checkpoints to evaluate your messaging and content flow. This will ensure that messages remain timely and calibrated to your audiences. Also, remember that your creative and messaging strategy should work hand in hand with your paid media plan. Map them all out together, so that you will know in advance which messages were supposed to happen when, and which (if any) need to change in order to remain suitable.

Are your reporting tools organized to help you pivot?

You can’t act on what you don’t know. Most communicators rely on some combination of metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) to inform decisions and investments—but if those metrics are decentralized across different systems or departments, or if KPIs are not timely, it can hamper your ability to keep the big picture illuminated. Having a real-time performance dashboard with actionable data will help you understand when a pivot might be appropriate, and will be a crucial piece of the puzzle as you navigate the many twists and turns that likely lie ahead in the coming months.

If your communications plan isn’t as nimble as you’d like, there’s still time to adapt. Email us at info@lipmanhearne.com to schedule a conversation, and we’d be happy to help you develop a more pivot-friendly approach for the coming months.