Before you share your story, listen to theirs.

Institutions across the U.S. have adjusted just about every aspect of their operations as they respond to the effects of COVID-19. How they market themselves must change, too. Here’s how to adjust your college’s content strategy for the new recruitment season. 

The most effective form of marketing connects the stories of a school’s brand to what is in the hearts and the minds of its future students. This has always been the case, and it is even more true in today’s COVID reality. Though the challenges are many, there are also numerous opportunities for connecting more meaningfully with current and future students.  

This volatile year has put enormous stress on every institution’s marketing and enrollment teams. Since the spring of 2020, the rapid pace of communications with students and their families about online instruction, campus safety, and plans for re-opening has blurred the vision for how to approach marketing for the next recruitment cycle. This is completely understandable given the enormity of the challenge, the escalation of multiple new priorities, and the unfortunate reduction of teammates due to furloughs and layoffs.

There is a positive takeaway from this, though.

All of what has been learned about how the different groups of current students are respectively coping with COVID provides insights that can inform content and recruitment marketing strategies going forward.

Here are some examples of how to extract insights from the data that your institution may have collected:

Many (if not all) institutions have conducted surveys of students asking about the effects of the pandemic on their lives. In the findings of those studies, it is important to look at the trends among specific cohorts. For example, did the effects of COVID differ based on the location of a student’s home? Did students’ willingness to return to campus track along the lines of whether their hometown was a hot spot or a location relatively free of COVID? Or, whether it was a rural or an urban area? [See how Jon Boeckenstedt mapped out that information to inform the reopening plan for Oregon State University.] Knowing this information equips an enrollment marketing team with insights that can directly inform its content strategy (personas and audience journeys) and how stories should be developed and deployed.    

From surveys that probed into how students coped with the switch to online learning, do findings show if there is a correlation between levels of wifi access and the ability to learn online? Did the home situation, such as the number of siblings and parents (who may also have been adjusting to being at home during the school and workday) factor in? Trinity Washington University found that in their student (and staff and faculty) poll, that “[s]tudents expressed a good deal of concern — 42% — about online classes and needing assistance.” This suggests that in future communications to prospective students who fit a similar profile to this cohort of respondents, Trinity could highlight messaging about how faculty participated in “intensive training for online instruction” over the summer and how, as the University reports, its faculty are “entering the fall with greater confidence in their ability to teach online effectively.” [See President McGuire’s August 24 blog about this study.

If your institution has this data, use it to understand how the COVID pandemic has affected distinct clusters of students who share similar demographic and lifestyle characteristics. And take these insights into account when communicating with the corresponding segments of prospective students. Doing so—with empathy for their respective situations—will build a bridge of trust and confidence that will benefit your recruitment process for years to come.


~ Josanne is a founding principal of Cognitive Marketing, in Rochester, NY, a premier provider of brand and content strategy for educational institutions. Cognitive strives to make our content delightful and useful to educational leaders and marketers, increasing their sense of confidence and productivity so that their schools can meet enrollment goals and raise more revenue. Her twitter feed, @JosanneDeNatale focuses on #CollegeAccess and #EducationalEquality. She proudly serves on the board of the Horizons Student Enrichment Program at The Harley School, which provides summer learning and enrichment programs that help students from low-income Rochester families succeed.