How can colleges engage accepted students and how can fundraisers strike the right tone during COVID-19?
CASE District I wishes to thank Sametz Blackstone Associates for their generous commitment as a silver conference sponsor and for their sponsorship of this year’s registration packets. Sametz Blackstone Associates has supported CASE DI for three years.
If you’re a development professional, jump directly to our thoughts for you and for all communicators, you may skip to the section for communication professionals. If you’re part of an admissions team, read on directly below, and then check out our thoughts for all communicators.
For admissions professionals
Colleges and universities are laser-focused on the current crisis created by COVID-19—students sent home, graduations evaporating, teachers and students struggling to move learning online, tuition and housing refunds, and navigating wider financial fallout.
But if you work in enrollment/admissions, you’re experiencing an additional challenge in the days ahead, even as some of these other issues are slowly beginning to be sorted out: achieving your yield goals and assembling your desired class.
Some schools are moving decision dates forward from May 1 to June 1, in the hopes they’ll be able to strengthen yield numbers with just a little more time. However, most seniors still won’t be able to visit campus to get a sense of your school’s culture, to meet students, and to participate in accepted student days—and there are even questions about whether classes will start in-person or online in the fall.
So what can you do to help accepted students make their decision in your favor, given the current situation?
Put your social media and digital tools to work: to continue reaching out to accepted students who are in decision-making mode, to regularly direct both current and accepted students to your pandemic resources and updates—and to continue building a strong brand to back up your admissions and enrollment teams with each digital step you take.
Some ideas to get you started:
- Elevate virtual campus tours to the front page of your website, and link to them regularly across your social channels to give potential students a sense of place and connection. Yes, it’s not the same as an in-person tour, but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good—give your accepted students the best sense of campus culture you can, with the resources you have right now. Which brings us to another key resource…
- Enlist student and alumni ambassadors to offer video or typed chats with accepted students via Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, or similar. The virtual tour can offer a great foundation, but accepted students are probably looking for more: first-hand experience of your campus, students, and culture. Your ambassadors should first listen to prospective students talk about themselves, then respond, using each student’s interests—and your brand attributes and messaging—to make a pitch on your school’s behalf. Make sure each volunteer is chatting “with” a prospect and not “at” them, and remember that communicating with a would-be soccer star is different than interacting with a prospect who cares about opportunities for theater or dance. Ambassadors, too, can be featured on your homepage.
- Post a daily, front-page address from your president, provost, or a favorite dean or faculty member, shot simply via their web camera or phone and shared across main social channels. Don’t worry about being high-tech or overly produced; focus on being timely, empathetic, and engaging.
- Share a series of dean/faculty welcomes to accepted students from particular schools and departments—also shot simply and posted on the appropriate landing pages. Encourage your deans and faculty to extend a warm welcome, to acknowledge the current uncertainty, and to direct students to your resource page, or any department / school-specific updates.
- Collect a series of alumni welcomes to accepted students, in video or via a personal note shared by the alumni on their own social channels (which you can then share) or directly from yours. Gather them across majors, and across career and life paths, to present a diverse range of people with whom your potential students could identify.
- Share entertaining or heartfelt posts from department, club, or team accounts on your primary social accounts, to keep the drumbeat of reciprocal support alive—and to remind people of the good during a stressful time. You could even create a “#<yourschool>inspired” (or similar school spirit hashtag) to link them all.
- Link back to your main resource page from each of your school accounts regularly, including department, club, and team social channels, to ensure everyone is as informed as possible, from every angle.
- And because there won’t be any on-campus accepted student days and programs, package some of the above—and any additional interactive programs—to create an accepted student “quad” where prospects can gain an as-real-as-possible experience of your school.
As you create all of this content, keep in mind that many folks are stressed, frustrated, and concerned about the future. This is your opportunity as an institution to make it clear that a) you understand that students and families may be feeling scared and up in the air; b) you understand that prospective students are making a big choice in a confusing time; c) you’re here to help—and committed to supporting your community in the midst of this uncertainty as much as possible.
Also, remember that your accepted students will not only be looking at how you communicate with them, but how you treat your community as a whole. As nervous parents weigh options along with their freshmen-to-be, the schools that both communicate well and care about their students’ wellbeing will be better positioned for decisions in their favor.
Your leadership and trustees are navigating thorny issues around tuition and room/board refunds. Your faculty and students are trying to figure out how to finish their semesters thousands of miles apart. The teams around you are struggling to say the right thing at the right time—and you, in the midst of all the chaos, are tasked with raising money… probably from the corner of your bedroom or basement.
It doesn’t help that the economy has been upended by mass layoffs and unemployment, that businesses are facing a cross-industry uphill battle, and that in-person events of any kind—fundraising or otherwise—are on the back burner for everyone’s safety. Your donors’ and prospects’ heads may be inclined toward you, but both health and financial concerns may also envelop them. To break through, your only venues for connection and communication are print, digital, and social media channels for now.
So how do you make the most of the tools you have available? Here are some tips for striking the right tone, and the right balance:
- Focus on initiatives geared toward immediate needs. If you’re moving to provide support to dislocated students, online teacher training, or to provide additional financial aid for accepted students who have lost funding from now-unemployed parents, your outreach will make immediate sense to your donors. If the ask is critical to the survival and wellbeing of your institution and community, now is the right time to make it.
- Make your outreach as personal as possible. One-on-one calls and handwritten notes will have a special resonance for your constituents right now and offer you the opportunity to “check in” before you make an ask—or to check in without making an ask at all. How is your donor doing right now? How can you show empathy for the tough situations and choices they might be facing? How can you connect your needs with what they care about most? Take the time to listen, learn, and strengthen relationships. A handwritten note will be a welcome break from screen time—and will augment your digital efforts.
- Use email and your social channels to tell stories about the lives of students, faculty, and alumni who are making a difference right now through their efforts, whether they’re coordinating support for your community, or playing a leading role in efforts beyond your campus. These stories could come from medical professionals, nonprofit workers, teachers, or business leaders—but the thread through each one should be the character and spirit shown by individuals with a strong connection to your school.
- Embrace the virtual event. If you depend on a series of events or a gala to make your fundraising goals, it’s time to get creative. While this may not be the right strategy for every donor, Zoom-hosted cocktail house parties with welcoming hosts, streaming concerts from acts that might have performed at an in-person event, and upbeat virtual giving gatherings like online auctions, offer you the opportunity to make a timely connection, build connection and spirit—and keep all your constituents safe.
- Be realistic about goals and deadlines. While it might seem like embracing defeat to move out a campaign deadline, to break out your campaign into smaller phases and goals, or to place an initiative on pause, it’s the right choice when you’ve got limited resources to expend and a donor base in flux. It’s your job to embrace what’s possible and put your all into making those possibilities happen.
- Remember to thank donors and prospects who’ve shown an interest. With so many large numbers flashing across our TV screens, it’s essential to take the time to acknowledge individuals.
If you don’t already have one, set up a single web page where your COVID-19 updates and links will live, including extended dates for student decisions, alumni functions, and the like.
This is a straightforward, tangible way of your community know you’re anticipating their need for information, and that you care enough to be on top of those needs in an intentional way—and it will send an equally important message to prospective students and their families about how you handle a crisis.
Some ideas for your resource page:
- Ensure that it’s clearly organized, either alphabetically or in terms of institutional priority.
- Be sure to direct it clearly toward your critical audiences with anchors for current students, faculty and staff, prospective students and their families, etc.
- Make sure it’s easy to scan for needed information, all of which should be communicated succinctly.
- Before you share, make sure your resource page is link-checked to a fare-thee-well, regularly, as things are being added. There’s nothing more frustrating than a dead link when you’re desperate for information.
If you have a UX strategist on your communications team, get them to take a look and suggest how you can improve your page’s user experience—and then implement them.
Some schools may even opt to place these links on their homepage so users get them upon arrival, but at the very least, have a bold link near the top of the page, or a simple pop-up that greets visitors at your website.
One more quick consideration: be sure to provide users with accurate and updated contact information for each resource or department, alongside any specific information for that department.
Here are some examples of effective update pages:
- UMass Amherst Response to the Coronavirus
- Harvard University Coronavirus Updates
- Simmons College Coronavirus Updates
Of course, informing all of the above should be your brand positioning, storylines, and key attributes. Share these with your communicators, review your positioning for your own reference, and check what you’re sharing against your foundational brand precepts regularly.
If you’re in admissions, your goal should be to “live” your brand through all communications—crisis-related and non; when a prospective student can’t be on campus, what your school means can influence them to decide in your favor.
One last thing: not all of your accepted students will be struggling or concerned. In fact, many of them may make their decisions confidently, following through on the choice they’ve wanted to make all along. Fortunately, all the positive, welcoming content you put out there will help confirm their decision for them… at the same time that you’re helping others make their big choice.
If you’re in fundraising, your clear, cogent, and calm communications will give your donor community—longtime friends, alumni, and new givers alike—the confidence they need to make a contribution during a challenging time. They, too, are influenced by your brand meaning, so ensure communications are both tactical and brand-strategic. And stewarding a crisis well will translate to stewarding their donations well. The support of your community—large and small gifts, together—will be critical for you in the months to come, so take care to forge even stronger connections today.
About the author(s)
Roger Sametz is CEO and founder of Sametz Blackstone Associates, a Boston-based, brand-focused strategy, content, design, and web consultancy celebrating more than 40 years of helping mission-driven organizations successfully navigate change.