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Planning Effective Higher Education Events in the Post-Covid Era

Open days and other on-campus events have long been part of the life-blood of university marketing and recruitment activities, as well as student engagement programs.

But, like so many other things, these activities have been disrupted or transformed over the past 18 months due to the impact of COVID-19 on the higher education sector in general, and on students in particular.

According to the UCAS End of Cycle report, 77% of higher education applicants report being personally impacted by COVID, causing UCAS to recommend institutions prioritise catch-up arrangements such as online programs, and offer flexibility in the student experience wherever possible.

The effect on marketing in the higher education sector has also been significant. In our
experience and from talking with customers, the major impacts include:

  • Constrained budgets and resources
  • The switch to remote work
  • The need to offer virtual and now hybrid virtual/physical events
  • Increased need to be agile and responsive to rapidly changing circumstances.

It’s now clear these are not transitory effects; rather, they are part of the ‘new normal’ to which higher education marketing teams must adapt.

Together with numerous clients in the higher education space, Outfit has leveraged its brand management expertise to help develop practical strategies to help universities better transition their event planning and marketing activity for a post-COVID era:

Constrained budgets and resources

More with less is the mantra of many higher education marketing teams around the world as international student enrolments have tumbled, even as local area enrolment has increased, and budgets are squeezed.

The upside is that there are often a lot of efficiencies that can be gained -- leading to resource, time and budget savings -- with a little planning.

This is true of all higher education marketing activities, but particularly events such as Open Days, which require input from all faculties and schools, and are subject to long planning cycles and numerous line-up changes in the lead-up to the event. You might consider:

  • Reassessing the need for bespoke event branding

It may be visually impactful to use specific Open Day branding on all related marketing materials, for example, but does the benefit outweigh the cost and resources required to create it? Instead, see if you can leverage your master brand, in the process maximising
its exposure among prospective students. We have an entire webinar on how you can dothis, click here to see it.

  • Using evergreen content wherever possible

Avoid event-specific branding on marketing materials -- such as directional signage -- that don’t actually need it. Developing and re-using evergreen marketing collateral will ensure you don’t waste resources re-creating things that don’t need to be re-made.

  • Complementing print resources with digital
Take advantage of our global comfort with QR codes to take a minimalist approach to printed materials, complementing these with online information instantly accessible via scanning the QR code. For example, don’t include speaker information in Open Day printed materials as it is often subject to change. If you must include it, put it online, where changes are easier to make.

  • Templating all repeatable materials

Anything you are likely to use again in the future should be templated so that they can
be updated in minutes rather than created from scratch. This will improve brand
consistency as well as generating efficiencies into the future.

  • Self-service marketing collateral

Take a self-service attitude to providing marketing materials to your internal stakeholders. Provide access to your on-brand templates in a centralised location and watch them create on-brand marketing materials in minutes rather than adding to the existing marketing request and approval queues.

Remote work

Most university marketing teams are now used to working remotely, but inefficiencies can creep in, particularly when it comes to marketing review, amendment and approval loops. It’s worth considering:

  • Short daily standups rather than lengthy WIPs

Focus on quick updates and constructive approaches to identifying and solving blockers
rather than lengthy virtual meetings

  • Active communication channel management

With workflow, project management and messaging tools, as well as intranets and email,
it’s important to know where to look to find the information you need. Actively manage
your communications channels, for example, by creating event-specific messaging
channels, but keeping creative approval production in your approval tool.

  • Keeping creative approvals in one place.
If you’ve ever had to search through emails, message boards, texts and the like, looking for the latest amendments to apply to a creative project, you’ll know how time-consuming it is. Keep creative approvals in an approval workflow tool, so everyone who needs toreview and provide feedback does it all in one place, and can see previous comments. It’s a huge time-saver.

Hybrid event planning

As we learn to live alongside COVID-19, events are increasingly becoming hybrid -- not restricted either to the physical or virtual realm, but combining the best of both worlds. We’re seeing this in Open Day schedules that combine in-person and online activities. For these to be effective, it’s important to:

  • Actively engage the online community

Most webinar platforms offer a range of live online polls, chat, and Q&A features. Incorporating direct call-outs to online participants will encourage them to participate as much as those attending in person. Incorporate multiple moderators to feed questions to your host and respond to online participants.

  • Consider live-streaming your events on social platforms

Bring the immediacy and urgency of a live event to the online space with live streams on your social platforms. This not only creates a sense of occasion but will help your events rank higher on your social platforms, most of which prioritise live video.

  • Mimic the networking opportunities live events offer

Provide chat rooms or links to virtual forums in which your online attendees can interact
one-on-one with your expert speakers and academics after the event.

  • Train your speakers in the art of presenting virtually

Many presenters used to addressing full lecture halls struggle to engage an online
audience. Train your presenters in techniques for engaging a virtual audience, where
they must generate all the energy and enthusiasm.

Increased need to be agile and responsive

If we learned one thing in 2020, it’s that nothing is set in stone. The ability to be agile and responsive to rapidly changing circumstances over which you have no control is essential for all marketing teams, and higher education teams in particular. With this in mind, consider:

  • Automating what you can

Save your personal attention for strategically important activities and reduce the manual work that slows many marketing teams with the judicious use of tools that can integrate with your existing tools to automate repetitive tasks.

  • Avoiding bottlenecks caused by an over-reliance on one team or channel

Establish workflows that are not dependent on just one person or channel, such as group approval processes and mobile approval tools to avoid the work grinding to a halt if the senior approver is away

  • Establishing agile test-and-learn processes based on data

Short work cycles, a constantly prioritised backlog, experiments assessed with data and retrospectives to capture learnings and feed them into the next event planning cycle are a great way to ensure the continual improvement your institutional marketing and events are expected to deliver.

Keeping these strategies in mind will help your higher education marketing team adapt and prosper when planning events and other activities in a changeable, hybrid physical-virtual, cost-conscious, post-COVID world. To learn more, you can find us at the Higher Education Marketing Conference 2022, taking place in central London on 28th June: 

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