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The last few weeks have been a whirlwind (to say the least) for enrollment managers. With recent changes to NACAC’s CEPP guidelines, the meaning of May 1 was truly up in the air. However, if there’s one thing that is certain for most admissions offices, it’s that those final April admitted-student yield events are crucial to predicting where an institution will land with respect to their enrollment targets for the fall.

So … what do you do when you (alongside every other college in the country) cancel your marquee campus events at the same time? The easy answer is to go virtual. The hard part is how.

How do I go virtual to best support my target audience?

For decades most institutions hosted an accepted-student event and/or some type of an open house. Most host campus visitors and tours.

The differentiator has always been who has done it better. At a physical event, institutions can get caught in an arms race of sorts. Giving T-shirts to students or social media takeovers, “Proud Parent of” stickers, water bottles, pop sockets … You name it and it’s likely been handed out at an accepted-student day or open house.

Virtual events are different. And after this recruitment cycle, they will be normal. Just like there was a time when everyone was launching their website or deploying a CRM for the first time, virtual events will forever be part of the admissions landscape. The ones who do it well, just like traditional events, will be the ones who win and stand out.

Shifting from Event to Series

A traditional admitted-student day (or fall open house, for that matter) follows a pretty standard sequence and lasts anywhere from half to a full day. There are large group presentations and smaller focused programs by majors, complemented by presentations from groups like housing, financial aid and student activities.

An online event does not (and should not) have to be a full day. Imagine the experience of sitting through three-plus hours of content in one sitting (and it not being an Avengers movie) … Now, imagine your staff having to pull all of that off. It doesn’t create a good user experience for your audience, and it results in a lot of guesswork for your team. Consider creating segments of content that students can engage with live, while also incorporating meaningful on-demand content and live chat capabilities to ensure consistent interaction. This ensures your prospective students have the opportunity for meaningful live interactions (i.e., a current student panel sharing their perspectives) while also gaining access to a Netflix-type library of important content you want them to know (i.e., financial aid workshop).

Build a Positive Digital Experience

Even with the best content plan, a poor user experience via the channel(s) you use to distribute your virtual content can do more harm than good.

Before you launch a webinar, ask yourself five questions:

  1. Did I effectively market my content to my desired audience via email and SMS?
  2. What safeguards do I have in place to ensure quality video that rarely buffers or times out?
  3. Do my prospective students have to jump through hoops like downloading an app or a browser plug-in, or worse, filling out additional forms?
  4. What happens to my live content afterward? Is it immediately archived in the same place or do I have to download it and then re-upload it somewhere only to have to re-promote the content on another channel?
  5. How do I measure the ROI of my efforts? Can I know who viewed my content both live and on-demand in the same place? What about chat interactions?

Additionally, it’s important to remember that your virtual tour alone and your YouTube channel are not admitted-student events. They are great on-demand distribution channels, but they are not a strategy.

Bring It All Together

A solid virtual student-engagement strategy (be it an admitted-student program, online orientation, open house or even a daily information session) combines a solid content plan alongside a robust marketing cadence. This plan drives students to a meaningful combination of live, on-demand and pre-recorded content that makes the most of your staff’s effort while also ensuring a positive student experience. Don’t take the quick and easy way out on your most meaningful interactions. A focused strategy starts with understanding the right content and ends with leveraging the right software to reach the right students at the right times with the right message via the right channel (a lot of rights to get right!).

Looking Ahead

The way students and schools connect and engage has constantly evolved since the advent of technology in the admissions process. The arms race to build a website was followed by building effective email campaigns. Eventually, social media came into the mix and evolved from “building an audience” to “social listening” and advertising. Now, more than ever, a virtual component to your student engagement strategy will become paramount, because to your prospective students, virtual engagement programs will become the new normal by the end of the summer.

Every college has a website. Every college is on Instagram. Every college will have a virtual engagement option.

We are rapidly approaching the time when we have to stop thinking about how we’ll replicate our spring admitted-student days in a virtual environment and start thinking longer term about daily visits, open houses, focused conversion events and more. Leading institutions will adapt and integrate continuous and consistently available online content into their overall recruitment and marketing campaigns.

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.