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Virtual Engagement, Take 2

It’s been a very challenging cycle for admissions professionals. A profession that was heavily reliant on in-person, face-to-face interactions via college fairs and high school visits shifted in 2020 to be completely reliant on virtual platforms to facilitate these experiences.

This fall we encouraged road runners (the affectionate term given to admissions officers who travel to make these in-person experiences happen) to “not Zoom.” The recommendation was rooted in what we learned in spring 2020 — you cannot simply replicate in-person experiences online … something that back-to-back Zoom sessions or virtual college fairs tried to do.

The results? At many institutions, applications for admission are 20 to 40 percent behind a year ago. And data from the Common Application indicate an overall decrease in applications of nearly 10 percent nationally.

The Same Old Hasn’t Worked

One thing is certain — pursuing the same old strategies in a virtual environment has not worked. Leveraging Zoom (or Webex or Slate) alone, whether for one-to-one sessions or webinars, does not get the job done. Institutions must take a multichannel, multiplatform, multitouch approach to engage and support prospective students.

Recent research from Eduventures, the research division of ACT/NRCCUA, indicates that enrollment professionals need to take a close look at the type of content we’re providing in a virtual environment and rethink what we deem truly important. While Eduventures reports 72 percent of students would have liked to visit campus before applying during the COVID-19 pandemic, the reality is that this was not an option and is likely not an option for the Class of 2022 either. In fact, this recruitment class is the first where virtual was the first option, not the last, when it came to exploring potential choices for higher education. So it’s time that we embrace virtual events as a normal part of the recruitment process, not an afterthought.

Prepare to Put Virtual First

In the spring of 2020, students were more forgiving of content and platforms that were clunky and not quite aligned with their expectations. Everyone understood that we were all doing our best to adapt to a new reality forced upon us by COVID-19. Today, however, virtual events have become a normal part of a student’s interaction with institutions, so it will take careful content planning and execution to stand out.

Fresh research from indicates that students not only accept virtual events as a means of gathering information, but they also expect them to be a main driver of their college search. Of particular note: half of prospective students are more comfortable with virtual options over in-person events when it comes to learning about an institution.

Other insights from the recent Niche study indicate that institutions have a unique opportunity to rethink how and when their admissions officers need to be available to support students. Nearly 70 percent of students say they are interested or very interested in attending virtual events or information sessions from colleges, with nearly 85 percent indicating that when they do participate in virtual sessions that the content is helpful or very helpful.

Do Virtual Right

Niche’s study does a great job of helping guide strategic decisions with respect to content. Generally speaking, students want to see:

  • Student life/activities
  • Financial aid
  • Application Q&As

Additionally, they want to see content from students and admissions counselors … not necessarily administrators or even alumni (of course, that content is great for parents!).

When crafting a virtual event strategy, it’s important to look beyond the data and weight experience. All good enrollment managers know that sometimes students say they want one thing, but all of our experience tells us to dig deeper. Data with uninformed analysis can lead to poor decisions.

One example: Niche reports that students would prefer weekend events over weekdays. Students, and parents, are used to visiting campuses and attending events on weekends, so they believe weekends are best. But they may prefer to attend virtual events on weekdays: data from PlatformQ Education indicate that there is a 60 percent decrease in attendance of virtual events on weekends. Of course, these data include pre-COVID events, so perhaps there’s a middle ground when it comes to staff resources and commitment.

In the same study by Niche, more than half of students preferred virtual events that were a combination of prerecorded content and content they felt was live. This means that your admission staff can create a live experience with prerecorded content.

Now Is the Time to Apply What You’ve Learned

For better or worse, we’ve been living with the reality of virtual events as the first (and last) opportunity to reach and engage our prospective student audiences for almost a year. Now is the time to apply the lessons we’ve learned to create a memorable and meaningful experience for our student audience. This includes:

  • Accessible content aligned with your institution’s brand
  • Digestible nuggets of content that are easy to access live and on-demand
  • Easy-to-navigate content that doesn’t require your staff to work 24-7-365

Data, analytics and student feedback have created a unique opportunity to build on the experiences of the past year to reimagine the college search in a way that adds value to your audience while not draining the morale and time of your staff. Make the most of this opportunity now, and it will pay dividends for years to come.

A leader in enrollment marketing strategy, Gil Rogers has published numerous studies on digital student engagement and presented at dozens of national conferences on enrollment strategy. He currently serves as executive vice president at PlatformQ Education.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2020
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