When a “Sense of Place” Must Go Digital
Maintaining Sense of Community During Times of Separation
When I visit a college campus for an intake session, the first question I ask students is “Why did you decide to attend [insert school name here]?” Their answers may vary, but inevitably I’ll get comments related to a sense of place, such as “When I visited campus, I fell in love,” or “The community and people that I interacted with here made a huge impact on me.”
My colleague Kirsten Fedderke has posted previously about how physical space plays a significant role in a prospective student’s college decision-making process. As a digital strategist, I’ve always tried to bring some physical “sense of place” elements into the online space too—whether it be through beautiful photography, or faculty introductions, or virtual tours…
But fast-forward to March 2020. Who would have thought visit days and campus tours would be impossible? As we all figure out how to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s more relevant than ever to discuss how we can provide a sense of place to prospective students in different, more virtual ways.
Focus your content on current students. Prospective students will take notice.
As a high school junior, I’m paying VERY close attention to how colleges I was interested in are treating their students right now. I‘ve already taken one off my list because of a lack of support for their students in these difficult times.
— madeline graham ⛈🌍 (@madelineelisaa) March 19, 2020
Yes, the interests and concerns of your prospects (and their parents) are very different than those who have already committed to your school, but your prospects are paying attention. How you talk to your current students online directly impacts how prospective students view your institution.
The way you connect with current students—the topics covered, the sentiments expressed, the degree of transparency that comes through—are all important touch points for prospects as well, as they demonstrate how you’re likely going to deal with their interests and concerns once they arrive on campus. How you speak to current students now reflects how prospects should expect to be treated once they enroll.
For example, according to Nielsen Norman Group’s University Website research, the most successful student life pages are oriented toward current students. Because prospective students want to picture what it would be like to be a student at the university, these pages become a great resource for both current and prospective students. They’re helping communicate a sense of place to prospects in your community right now.
The University of New Hampshire’s Instagram Story below is a great example of how to “show” empathy and care. It gives the community up-to-date information, from the president’s message to FAQs. And while it’s primarily intended for current students, prospects unquestionably get a sense of the kind of “place” that UNH is.
User-generated content can strengthen your sense of place—even when the users are at home
A sense of place isn’t just about your physical campus, your buildings, or your surrounding neighborhood and community. It’s also about your people—the students, faculty, and staff who are essential to the college experience. So it makes perfect sense to work on getting your community more involved in communicating their own personal perspectives on what makes your institution such an important and satisfying place.
Some of your community members may share photos from their past time on campus, or they may share experiences that provide a richer sense of “place” than any building photo could ever communicate. And realistically, all of your community members are cooped up, spending a lot of time online and looking for the bright side of things, so it may be far easier than you expect to motivate some of your contributors. Leverage your community!
For example, Northeastern University—known for their experience learning—is putting a spin on their existing #NUexperience hashtag and creating a “Huskies from home” special edition.
And Brigham Young University created a video compilation of faculty messages—a great way to show how their faculty is networked together and supporting the institution.
View this post on Instagram
Utilizing the benefits of being a part of the BYU community is a vital part of our BYU experience, perhaps now more than ever. Even though we’re physically separated right now, President Worthen has encouraged us to find different ways to stay connected in this community. Enjoy these messages from faculty throughout campus, staying connected by offering messages of encouragement, hope and help during these new and different times. #BYU
It’s OK to resurface previous content for sense of place
Prospects and their families are fully aware of the evolving COVID-19 crisis and understand that enrolling in college will be a very different process in 2020 versus in past years. And while there are alternatives for communicating a sense of place online, most students still want reinforcement that the “place” they select for college is still in reality a great “place.”
That’s why it’s time for you to bring back the tried-and-true content that’s worked for you in the past. Let it shine again! Do you have spring campus shots from last year that you can use to inform prospects about how beautiful your campus usually is? Or perhaps a funny April Fool’s post from years past that reflects your campus culture? Reshare them. It’s OK to repurpose this content, both to give your community something pleasant to recall and return to, and to generate excitement from prospective new students. No one will fault you for giving your content a repeat performance.
Bowdoin College said it perfectly in their recent Instagram post:
View this post on Instagram
Let’s take a quick time out. Students of Bowdoin College: what a week. This isn’t the spring semester that any of us had in mind. Here in Brunswick, every single person on campus is working like crazy to support you in the coming weeks. But most of you aren’t here. And it’s not the trees or the buildings or the Bowdoin Logs: *you* are what we love about this place. We are also anxious and worried. We're thinking about our seniors. Our scholars, performers, athletes, and artists. Those of you who know this place inside and out, and those of you who were just hitting your stride. In short: we miss you, Polar Bears. So now what? Now we work hard to stick together. We’ll be sharing things to make you laugh, to help you study, and keep you connected to each other. We’re going to share what’s working, and talk about what’s not. We will not pretend that everything is normal. But we’re also not going to pretend that Bowdoin is simply a location on a map. This place is not just beautiful background scenery for what happens when you’re here. Bowdoin is bigger than any one crisis; it’s also somehow small enough to fit in a Skype window. You’re it. We’re it. And from all over the world, we're in this together.
Take a moment to celebrate yourself and your peers
The COVID-19 crisis has created remarkable challenges for everyone in higher education, so don’t forget to celebrate yourself and all of the higher ed communicators working around the clock to provide students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the entire community with relevant information. You are the connectors for people in these difficult times. We can all support each other and our fellow higher ed communicators by sharing best practices and remembering that we’re all in this together.
I’d love to hear from you about the types of content your institutions have been using to communicate your sense of place online! Please reach out and share when you can at firstname.lastname@example.org or @michikog on Twitter.