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This past weekend, during my Sunday evening ritual of perusing Instagram, I found myself hyperaware of the number of paid and sponsored posts I was seeing. While I’ve never been good at scrolling past a well-executed ad, I could chalk up my Sunday awakening to the fact that I’m a marketer who is trying, like many of you, to sort through the challenges of the current global crisis.

But now that we’re spending more time in our homes and on the web, it’s natural that brands may be looking to their digital channels to reach their consumers.

And it’s working. While overall digital ad spend is down, social media engagement on channels like Facebook and Instagram is up. As brands across all industries wade through the uncertainty of the moment, there seems to be a universal truth: they will likely be looking to their digital platforms to support their marketing efforts.

For those of us in higher ed, how can we remain connected to our current and prospective students during this period, when they’re consuming more digital media than ever? Here are a few ideas.

Encourage Engagement

We’re all still figuring out the best way to thoughtfully move our communications efforts forward. What your audience needs to hear may differ from institution to institution, but one thing is certain: now is not the time to go silent on your social media pages.

This is a moment to encourage authentic engagement. Balance necessary institutional updates with content that’s inspiring and emotive. Keep a pulse on the latest social media trends for opportunistic content. Connect with your audience on a human level and share content that gives them a sense of community and belonging within your institution, as opposed to posting “just to post.”

Since social media engagement is up, use your social media channels to build stronger relationships with your followers. These efforts can be the foundation today for effective results in paid social media later.

Bring the Campus Experience to Them

Understandably, current students are unhappy that their spring semester has been cut short. Admitted students are disappointed that their admitted student days are canceled. If your students can’t be on campus, consider how you can bring the campus experience to them.

For prospective and admitted students, lean in to options to make your existing visit experiences virtual. Tours, Q&A sessions, advising sessions -- with the right technology, these can all be done online.

Your existing students may be engaging with one another via distance learning, but don’t forget about the broader campus experience. Give them informal opportunities to connect with one another, without any expectation for academic output. Talk to your staff and student leaders about ideas for bringing your institution’s community together, even when they’re apart.

At the end of the day, the community is at the foundation of the campus experience. Even virtually, you can still rally students around the moments that make your institution unique. In the long run, you may actually build relationships with more students, more frequently, through digital efforts.

Be Smart With Paid Digital

Many brands are taking a pause on digital ad spend as they attempt to understand what’s coming next. It’s still too soon to understand the long-term shifts in costs and trends that will result from our present situation. At one end of the spectrum, brands are making significant cuts to their marketing budgets. At the other end, brands are looking to digital channels to supplement their previously planned efforts in experiential marketing. It’s a bit of a digital wild, wild West at the moment, which means it could be a great occasion to revisit and optimize your strategy.

If you are currently activating paid digital tactics, pause and reflect on the effectiveness of your efforts in today’s digital landscape. Regroup with your team to determine your best use of paid digital spend at this moment. If you decide to pause on ad spend, find opportunities to shift those dollars toward optimizing your internal channels.

If you’re not currently using paid digital media, consider how you might begin building a data foundation to drive future efforts. Look at your website analytics data to better understand your audience and inform your targeting strategy. If you’re building a plan for paid digital media, be sure you have a clearly defined goal and frequent optimization touch points. When trying to reach a highly specific audience, consider using email lists to streamline your targeting, or, if you have enough baseline data, use lookalike audiences.

By using data to inform your approach, regardless of when you plan to activate, you can be more strategic with your spend, reach more of the right audience and get the most impact for your investment.

Don’t Be Afraid to Go Analog

In a world where everyone seems to be leaning digital, don’t shy away from taking it analog.

Consider sending your current students a “we miss you” note, paired with some branded swag. Welcome deposited students by sending them a yard sign so they can proudly display their decision to their community. Give graduating seniors a proper farewell, with a celebration kit that brings campus a little closer in their final weeks as students. These analog moments will find their way to digital platforms as these individuals share their excitement -- and they’ll showcase the connections you’ve built as a result.

It’s a challenging time to be a marketer. But from great challenges come great opportunities. There’s no better moment to gather your team (virtually) and discuss your path forward. And since digital marketing is unlikely to lose momentum, we can all be smarter in blending our digital and analog efforts to connect with our students more authentically.

Amanda Gibson is associate strategy director at Ologie, a branding and marketing agency in Columbus, Ohio.

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