The pandemic has fundamentally impacted the way universities communicate with students as well as students’ expectations from the universities. Higher Education marketing teams must adapt their approaches and develop digital strategies to attract new students. The Office for Students has emphasised this need for change by highlighting the importance of reaching out to a diverse range of potential applicants to ensure higher education is accessible to all.[1] Universities need to adapt their marketing strategies to appeal to this wider range of students.

Vicky Pearson is the Head of Corporate Communications at the University of Reading. She has 15 years’ experience in communications and PR spanning strategic communications planning, internal communications, staff engagement, crisis handling and stakeholder relations across education, central and local government, preceded by a decade in law and policy development. She shared with us some of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on communications and marketing in higher education, and how universities can adapt current strategies to meet these new challenges.

As a communications professional during the COVID-19 pandemic, I have said, written, typed and heard the word ‘unprecedented’ a truly unprecedented number of times. But how else do you describe the last two years?

Now, as we learn to ‘live with COVID’, we cannot simply assume that we can pull out our old communications and marketing plans, dust them off and get back to business as usual. So how do we respond?

Don’t assume you still know your audiences

It is a communications and marketing truism that everything starts with knowing your audience. And those audiences have changed – or more particularly, their priorities, expectations, routines and behaviours have. How we relate to those audiences needs to fundamentally shift too.

With the increased levels of anxiety and instability caused by the events of the last two years, there is even greater need to engage our audiences from a place of genuine empathy. This means we need to look at our audience journey from the perspective of what they need, not what we want. This has always been best practice, but it is now essential. It’s particularly important in higher education, where the young people we are seeking to recruit have had a vastly different schooling experience from their pre-pandemic predecessors. A whole generation has come of age during lockdown.

What we do not know yet is which changes are transient and which are more durable. As an example, universities do not really know what a ‘normal’ recruitment cycle looks like anymore. In the last couple of years, applications have been coming in closer to the deadline. Currently, we don’t know if this will be a permanent trend that will continue once the disruption of secondary education eases, so we have to be flexible and ready to respond to any changes.

Pre-pandemic information that underpinned our old approach can’t be relied upon to understand our audience. We treat our pre-pandemic audiences as new audiences in many respects and remain agile enough to adjust our communications and marketing plans if seeming norms change yet again. This means a wholesale review of things we may have taken for granted –reviewing our audience personas, the imagery that resonates with them, when it is best to reach them on social media, and so on.

Using data to understand changes in audience behaviour

This places a greater emphasis on regular, proactive use of data, insight, testing and evaluation. Maybe SnapChat was not the best platform for you before the pandemic, but that may well have changed. Regularly getting new data and testing your campaigns in the ‘living with COVID’ world is the only way you’ll know for sure what strategies are working.

What does seem fairly certain is that the balance between online and in-person activity has changed in a more permanent way. The New York Times recently confirmed what we already intuitively knew, that coronavirus has “changed the way we behave online. [2]

While people are embracing the opportunity to interact face-to-face again, the fact that people have spent the last few months living online has fundamentally changed our comfort levels with this form of engagement, not least given the convenience it brings. As marketers and communicators, we undoubtedly need to ensure we continue to combine the best of the virtual offer that we developed during the pandemic with a return to face-to-face activity.

Lead with our values

Continuing this theme of audience change, recent research by EY has shown that the pandemic has changed consumer priorities.[3] Compounded by the cost-of-living crisis, people are simplifying their lives and are less likely to spend on things they do not truly value. This only highlights already existing generational shifts, with youth research business YouthSight emphasising that Generation Z expects brands to openly live by their values and do good in the world.

This shift towards values and interconnectedness was a central theme of the pandemic. We were asked to think and act for others, to see ourselves as taking individual action to protect everyone. This influenced what people expected not just of each other but the institutions and businesses they support. During the pandemic, for example, the American Association of Advertising Agencies found that 56% of consumers liked learning how brands were helping their communities through the pandemic. I would guess the sentiment is similar in the UK.[4]

This acute sense of community over individuality will no doubt shift again – in fact, it already is – but not all the way. It will have long-term implications for the already sharpened focus on sustainability and social responsibility, particularly amongst young people. This makes communications and marketing less about selling a brand but more about using authenticity to build goodwill and long-term loyalty. We must create connections through genuine stories of living our values.

What do the changes mean for marketing and communications?

All of this together blurs further the already hazy boundary between marketing and communications. These disciplines need to work together to create a more integrated approach to brand and reputation building based on integrity and trust. Communications and PR techniques are needed to raise the university’s profile and visibility so that its marketing effort lands in fertile soil.

Again, in a university context, much of our job will become about demonstrating the value of a university education and of universities themselves, rather than simply persuading prospective students to sign up to our course versus someone else’s. Young people want change and they expect universities to be part of that.

Undoubtedly, many if not all of these changes were already underway, but the pandemic has accelerated them and given them a greater sharpness and urgency. I welcome that. Comms, PR and marketing have too long been perceived as little more than sales – a bit too slick to be truly trusted. This shift towards authenticity is a real opportunity to bring the ethics of our collective professions to centre stage and for us to act as advocates for our audiences and for the brand transparency and accountability that they increasingly demand.

That really could be an unprecedented change.

[1] Office for Students, (2020), Supporting disadvantaged students through higher education outreach
[2] New York Times (2020), The Virus Changed the Way We Internet
[3]EY (2022), Future Consumer Index: People are reconnecting with their deeper values
[4] American Association of Advertising Agencies (2020), Consumer Sentiment Towards Brands During COVID-19

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The pandemic has fundamentally impacted the way universities communicate with students as well as students' expectations from the universities. We heard from Vicky Pearson, Head of Corporate Communications at the University of Reading about how the pandemic has impacted university marketing and communications, and how universities can adapt their strategies to meet these new challenges.

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