Gone Digital: 5 Ways COVID Changed Higher Ed Marketing & Communications for the Better

Print is on the wane in all aspects of marketing collateral and on-campus operations.

By: Melissa Horvath

It’s hard to believe that we have reached a full year with the COVID-19 pandemic. We have faced many challenges and have had to change, adapt – and in some cases, innovate – very quickly to survive. Even as life returns to some state of normalcy, it is clear that some of the things that have changed won’t change back.

Some of the areas that have changed at my institution – and you may well be seeing this at yours – that have changed permanently are print communications and in-person experiences that have since gone digital. The online and virtual versions of these tactics that we shifted to in 2020 have proven to be more efficient, effective, and affordable ways to reach prospective students.

These are the marketing and operational practices that have changed at my college that will never be the same again.

1. Printed Marketing Materials Have Moved to the Website

One aspect that has dramatically changed is a shift away from relying on print materials to reach prospective students. The switch to remote working, learning, and interacting and limits on in-person events drove this shift. Admissions counselors were unable to visit high schools and in-person college fairs where they usually distribute print materials to prospective students and guidance counselors. Compounding the need for that shift was a desire to reduce costs during uncertain financial times; cutting the costs of printing and postage was an easy choice.

To bridge that communication gap, we created a dedicated website for prospective students that reimagined an online hub for all of the information and interactions that they would usually have in-person and in print.

Image of a website with the headline 'Welcome to Your Interactive Ramapo Experience'

There’s a greater benefit here than mere cost savings and logistics: In many ways, a website is a far better recruitment tool than a brochure since it can be linked to from social media and emails, can boost your visibility in online search, can help us learn about our audience’s needs and preferences, and can reach many more people than a printed brochure with limited distribution. And, yes, it has the added benefit of being much more cost effective than printing thousands of copies of a printed piece, which has a limited shelf life and can’t be updated.

2. The On-Campus Printer is Getting Used Less

Staff communications and campus marketing are both going far more digital at my college, even as we staff and students return to campus. No longer will we tax office printers to run off reams of meeting agendas, meeting notes, and other internal documents. Instead, we’ll rely on email and online collaboration tools like Google Drive and Docs. Meanwhile, the campus “print shop” will no longer be charged with stamping out flyers, announcements, and other campus-pointed marketing collateral that can just as easily be promoted on social media and posted on our website.

Many institutions were already moving toward a print-free or paperless model before the pandemic in an effort to save money and for sustainability reasons, but this shift has made it much more important and relevant. We expect to see cost savings in supplies like paper, printer ink, equipment maintenance and consolidation, etc. This is a positive step that will have a broader, more lasting impact than just responding to the pandemic.

3. The College Magazine Has Gone Digital

Many institutions had already made the switch from a print magazine to a digital product before the pandemic. But many smaller schools had not – at Ramapo College, beyond posting a PDF version of each issue online, our magazine was still print-only. We were already discussing this potential switch before the pandemic, but the pandemic made it apparent that this was the approach we should embrace. Reducing costs wherever possible during an uncertain financial situation became necessary, and the print and postage costs of the magazine were an easy target – and we recently launched our first fully digital version of our magazine.

Other college magazines have gone digital during the pandemic, and for us, this is a change that likely won’t revert back. Again, this is another form of digital communication that has the benefit of reaching a wider audience and can also further extend promotion through social media and other digital communication avenues. Plus, it supports our sustainability efforts.

4. Websites Are Way More Interactive

Many of the websites at my college were updated during 2020 to support more digital communications and marketing materials. In-person recruitment events, fairs, and tours were cancelled or switched to virtual events, and we needed to adjust how we engaged with students online. So we added information that was previously only in printed brochures to existing websites and provided downloadable PDFs of some printed materials.

Opportunities for people to connect through email and chat were added to some sites. We created a number of videos of college staff and students talking to our audiences when those conversations couldn’t happen in-person, including each of our admissions counselors sharing video messages on social media to their admitted students, and we also created more ways for students to interact with admissions counselors by scheduling virtual appointments. All of these things were in place before the pandemic, but they have become emphasized and their importance is much clearer now in a heavily virtual environment that likely has changed expectations for online communications permanently.

5. Virtual Tours Are Here to Stay

Due to the pandemic, on-campus visits were scarce, and tours were canceled or limited. In response to this, we created a different kind of virtual tour. Instead of using one of the major virtual tour production companies, the marketing department worked with an outside video agency, The Macallan Group, the admissions department, and Ramapo students, to create a skateboarding video tour of campus, providing a unique and fun experience for those who weren’t able to visit campus in-person.

Visitors can follow around a skateboarding student to get a look at the beauty of campus and learn about what the college has to offer. To support the skateboard tour, academic-focused videos and facility/building-focused videos were also created to provide more information. Even when on-campus tours go back to a more regular schedule, these video tours will continue to be a valuable and creative way to provide a glimpse of campus and support students’ exploration of the college.

While we are all hopeful that we will soon be able to be fully in-person again and return to as much pre-pandemic normalcy as possible, there are a lot of changes brought by the pandemic that will have a lasting and positive effect. Many of the ways we work and create marketing materials and experiences have changed permanently. We are focused on the future and the future is now.

Melissa Horvath

Melissa Horvath

Assistant Vice President of Marketing & Communications

Melissa Horvath is the assistant vice president of marketing & communications at Ramapo College of New Jersey. She holds a PhD in educational communication and technology from NYU. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on social media and college choice, access and transition.

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