3 Ways to Adapt Your Messaging to Changing Student Needs

Student needs change in normal times, but the pandemic has forced schools to be nimbler than ever before in altering their messaging to address rapidly shifting conditions. From the perspective of recruiting, clear communication to prospective students is important, but seeing enrolled students being served well by the institution matters too. To be attractive to high schoolers during uncertain times, all departments need to practice transparency and trustworthiness. Flexibility is the name of the game, and there are some principles to implement that will help your messaging flex with the times.

Interactive and Relevant Nudging

Though there have been mixed results in studies of “nudging” students—gently prodding or encouraging them to take action—the pandemic seems to have changed the equation. Short, upbeat messaging encourages prospects to continue on their journey of investigating your institution, applying, and eventually making it through enrollment and beyond to a successful academic experience. Nudging can take the form of targeted advertising, text messages, emails, social media interaction, or even calls and physical mailings. Generally, the idea of nudging is to remind students to take action, but with all of the uncertainty, it is more thoughtful to back off on the pushing and offer more open-ended messaging.

Nudging shouldn’t necessarily require a reply, but allow for one. Whatever method you choose to communicate, make sure there is an easy way for students to reply and get an actual human to help them with their concerns. Be it admissions counseling, financial aid, housing assistance, or even mental health services, making one-on-one interaction part of your campaign demonstrates that you can meet students’ individual needs in a timely fashion. In addition, nudging with interaction builds trust in your institution and helps students feel that your institution is interested in them as individuals. But remember to use messaging that is useful, short, and encouraging.


Prioritize Individual Student Needs, Not Necessarily Demographic Groups

Non-traditional and adult students are increasingly crucial to meeting enrollment goals, as are underserved and first-generation students. Keeping your focus on the students and prospects that you have and helping them succeed in applying or graduating requires not just flexibility but listening to the diversity of needs.

While you may have standard ways of communicating, the changing student populations, changing world situations, and changing educational landscape all seem to cry out for more targeted messaging. Yet you don’t want to take that too far. One experiment showed that targeted messaging to underrepresented students could decrease engagement, possibly because it can be seen as trying to meet “quotas” rather than seeking to include potential students in the conversation. Students from diverse backgrounds don’t want to feel like they are merely adding to the diversity enrollment numbers, but that they are being included as an integral part of the university community. By assuring that the support services and initiatives that make inclusion successful are present and addressing students as individuals with varying needs, your messaging is less likely to create the impression that your institution is targeting a group to make the university look better to the world.

Different students have different needs, but those needs may cross over to vastly different student populations. For example, while adult learners may have had job losses during the pandemic, younger students may have had financial concerns that caused them to lag on their college enrollment plans too. Nudging with the possibility for students to continue the conversation can allow schools to help individual students with varied concerns, from financial aid to health services. It can also yield data to help understand the needs of student populations so you can shift messaging when you see trends developing. As the world is changing, there is no better way to find out what students need than by including them in the conversation. Find the platforms, social media sites, and communications channels that work for your prospects. Offer value in your interactions so that your contact with them doesn’t come off as transactional but instead builds relationships.


Data-driven Decision-making

There are various tools to track how well your message is getting through. While looking at open rates on your emails is one way to discover if your messaging is working, more sophisticated tools and analysis will give you better insight. By exploring your prospective students’ needs, you can inform your planning to reach your target students where they are. You can use surveys to find out the needs of high school students in your orbit, or you can keep tabs on your current students to help you predict what will work for future students.

Data timeliness can also help you shift your strategies more quickly. Having the data accessible in a format that allows for easy analysis and discussion of developments is the promise of our current age of big data. Data, when well digested, can help break out of assumptions, shift our thinking, and facilitate change in real time. Raw data can be misleading, and good analysis to tease out trends will support sound decision-making about messaging. The analytic strategies employed should consider the unique situation and the different populations studied to develop the most applicable and actionable conclusions to assist in communicating effectively with prospective and current students.


The Upshot

Students are changing. The world is changing. Your messaging needs to change too. Interacting with prospective students allows them to apprise you of their needs and enables you to gather data that can drive your messaging and recruiting efforts. The messaging has to match the reality on the ground, so communicating student needs throughout the institution can help many departments to adapt to changing conditions. Colleges can use this data productively in real-time for the insight they need to change their messaging—and their programs—to best meet evolving student needs.

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