Welcome to our perspective on the year 2020 and what it means for the digital marketing industry as applied to higher education. We will have some bad news, some good news, and a digital marketing roadmap for colleges and universities for the second half of the year. First, let’s address some challenges presented by the current situation:


The Coronavirus Impact to Higher Education

The big story of 2020 is the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the academic industry. It has become apparent that COVID-19, with its worldwide impact and disruption of nearly every aspect of society, is going to be a far-reaching event that will leave an indelible mark on the history books at least for this year and possibly future years as well. In its wake, nearly everyone is scrambling to adapt.

The academics industry is affected in a very basic way: people congregating in large numbers is a vector for the virus to spread, so campuses worldwide have been shut down. This has applied not only to universities but public K-12 schools as well, while also cutting off athletic events, speaking engagements, graduation ceremonies, religious services, workshops, and many other communal activities.

This brings us to the first and perhaps most important trend in 2020:


Navigating The Pandemic and The Online Classroom

Academic institutions and their students have been thrust into a new reality and are responding as quickly as they can. The best alternative to classroom learning is remote learning, which is what schools of every size—and at every level—have turned to. As the saying goes, desperate times call for drastic measures.

Higher education institutions are rapidly deploying remote learning and transitioning the curriculum to the digital space. Right now, there’s a transitional period going on while not every student has a laptop or stable internet connection and traditional teaching methods are being adapted to this new channel.

higher education marketing trends 2020 include the virtual classroom

The remote classroom is going to be the new norm for the foreseeable future, and you need to have a plan for the 2020 and 2021 school year to promote your university’s solution.

It’s been difficult for all parties involved.

To smooth the transition and to instill trust in your academic institution, you must communicate your COVID-19 response and your plan for the future. Every college website needs to have an action plan right upfront. To be sure, we have visited dozens of school websites recently and almost every “.edu” domain we’ve seen has put COVID-19 announcements somewhere on the main page, so perhaps that measure has been rolled out.

The action plan should address all possible issues with transitioning the classroom model to an online experience.

It’s important that universities and colleges market themselves with the message that they’re “COVID-ready” and able to smoothly transition the educational experience to a virtual, remote environment. This is going to be an event that tests every school’s network and IT department, to say nothing of the creativity of the faculty in adapting the former in-class paradigm to the new quarantined standard.

What we’re concerned with is the digital marketing end.

Your COVID-19 digital outreach should include:

  • Announcements addressing student issues and complaints with canceled classes and inconveniences.
  • A clear “FAQ” for students at this time.
  • A statement from administrative staff detailing school policy changes in light of COVID-19 – admissions changes, new methods of handling student interviews, exam procedures, etc.
  • Step-by-step instructions for continuing with activities, programs, and classes where applicable
  • Timelines for when “on hold” schedules will resume.
  • Contact information for handling special issues as they come up.
  • Information about new virtual learning capabilities and available support.

It’s unclear how long the pandemic will be plaguing the nation and how long stay-at-home directives will be in effect. Communicate the steps that you’re taking not only now, but what you’ll do in the future. We could be in this for the long haul, and you need to have a plan for the 2020 and 2021 school year.

Don’t forget to listen to the concerns of current students, as well as the incoming fall 2020 students.


It’ll Become More Difficult to Recruit

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, student enrollments were slowly shrinking, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The 1.7% drop is attributed to the simple math of population ebb; we didn’t have much of a baby boom at the turn of the century. The impact of the coronavirus and social distancing requirements are unknown at this time, but the 2020 fall semester will likely look different than any other year.

Campuses are starting to cast a wider net using social media rather than relying on local media advertising to draw in students. This is more of a market-wide effect, as marketing is going online in ever-increasing numbers. But along with that, virtual learning is a growing trend, which is now being pushed along by necessity. Harvard Business Review points out that the post-secondary education market is ripe for disruption, and current experiments with online courses might show the way of the future.

What this means for the academic industry is that marketing is going to have to work harder to win new students. The arena is getting more competitive.

Aside from dealing with the pandemic crisis, let’s take a look at a few other higher education marketing trends for 2020:


Increase of Chatbots and Virtual Assistants

In past years, chatbots had a bad rap. The technology wasn’t there to make them anything more useful than a canned response generator. But new advances in AI and language parsing have evolved virtual assistants into a sophisticated way to provide efficient self-service. Government agencies such as the UK’s Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency deployed chatbot assistants on its website and clocked in a 90% customer satisfaction rate while handling up to 30% of customer queries without needing an adviser.

higher education marketing trends 2020

Now is a great time to implement chatbots to answer incoming students’ most pressing questions.

Chatbots are relatively easy to deploy. As one might guess, they’ve also seen their greatest adoption among the younger generation, which is the higher education market’s intended audience. We have a whole post up about chatbots since they’re increasingly being deployed across several industries

Since we have a big push towards remote learning and increasing reliance on digital education methods in light of COVID-19, this is an excellent opportunity to deploy virtual assistants on your university website. An admissions chatbot can field incoming student queries. Pages specific to course schedules can deploy a chatbot to address changes and transitional logistics. There might even be room for a “virtual tutor” model in the future as higher education goes mostly-digital.


More Video Content

Video consumption is a huge part of web traffic, with YouTube being in the #1 spot for the most-visited website in the world. Younger generations have embraced online video to the point where Netflix now rivals Disney in terms of the stock price. A “cord-cutters” movement has arisen as users cancel their home cable and satellite TV service in favor of video streaming and video-on-demand.

Education institutions are surprisingly thin in the online video mix. Just a little over 50% of all universities have an official YouTube channel, according to uniRank. This is most likely because most universities haven’t become aware of the importance of video content in their online branding. Having a professional video production staff on hand is also a daunting budgetary allowance that some schools might not think necessary just yet.

But the institutions that have embraced YouTube are thriving. Here are a few examples of what universities are doing with their YouTube channels:


The above is a well-rounded course of inspiration. We see professor lectures, student compositions, and straight marketing material all promoting the brand and bringing in an audience. This goes to demonstrate the potential of video content marketing and promotion. Even if the marketing budget doesn’t allow for a full production studio, a couple of iPhone recordings thrown up on a channel is still a great starting point that’s worth exploring.

Going forward, remote learning is likely to create even more demand for video content. Anything that can be recorded can become virtual: campus tours, university lectures, administrative announcements, and more.


Influencer Marketing Investments Increase

This is one of the most recent trends in digital marketing. An “influencer” is any popular individual who is active in social media, who is able to steer an audience towards making buying decisions.

An influencer can be a celebrity but is more typically a blogger with a wide following who acts as a “guru,” gaining the audience’s trust. An influencer is usually branded as an expert in their field, with a long-standing reputation of publishing informative and inspirational content. In some cases, a product endorsement from an influencer can garner thousands of new conversions.

Why is influencer marketing so important on the education front? Because young people trust their peers more than adults. The youngest generations in the US follow influencers at a rate of 66%, with half of those saying they make buying decisions based on an influencer’s recommendation.

Some examples of influencer marketing in action might include:

  • A competitive eSports player recommending a game controller
  • An author of make-up tutorials touting a cosmetic product
  • A cooking and recipe blogger plugging a brand of seasoning
  • An artist recommending a specific brand of oil paints

When it comes to campuses, they have a ready source of influencers right there: the student body! Encourage your own top-ranking scholars to blog and share their experiences at your higher learning institution. There are some examples of this being done already back there in the video content section. Often one only needs to provide the student with a platform and some guidance. Students also gain some exposure for their future career prospects, so it’s a win-win.

Influencer marketing is a higher education trend in 2020

Influencer marketing can take many forms. Australia’s Northern Territory uses official student ambassadors on Instagram to attract prospective students to the region. On the right, is a more casual approach that shares an influencer’s personal #campuslife experiences.

Influencers in college and university marketing are sometimes called “student ambassadors.” They share tales of following their dreams and finding success through an institution’s educational programs. Here’s one student ambassador in action for the University of Colorado.


Higher Education Embraces Social Media

As most of the world has moved onto Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, social media is obviously here to stay. What is changing is the way universities are using these tools to reach out to students.

Nearly every university, college, and academy we can find have accounts on at least one of the following:

  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • YouTube
  • Pinterest
  • Tumblr

In addition, blogging on WordPress or other content management systems (CMS) like Drupal or Joomla has become a 2-way street. Teachers blog lessons, students blog assignments, administration blog announcements, and even the sports team blogs its latest game results.

As remote learning becomes more of a standard, expect increased reliance on social media and blogging channels. If you get a little creative, it’s easy to see where the academics industry can make greater use of these platforms in integrating them with existing learning methods.

Can a psychology class experiment be performed entirely on Twitter? Can an exam be conducted over streaming video? How effective is a political science debate over Instagram? Can you conduct panels, conferences, and lectures over teleconferencing? If they’re doing dance classes remotely, who knows what else we can do?

In digital marketing, it’s a simple matter of “go wherever the kids go.” Use social media channels to reach prospective students and increase brand awareness. Share your victories and treat the current year’s challenges as opportunities to show off your school’s ability to adapt and utilize technology.


Remember Who Your Audience Is

We’re taking the precaution to just say “young people” here rather than refer to “Millennials,” “Generation X/Y/Z,” or “Zoomers,” and we suggest you do the same. Those terms have been burned out by mass media in recent years to the point where everybody rolls their eyes at them.

The young people of today are all 100% digital natives, as even the oldest of them have never known a world without mobile internet access. They are more comfortable navigating social media than any other medium. They may go to see the latest blockbuster movie or follow a trendy TV show, but the time they spend this way is dwarfed by the hours they burn on TikTok watching each other’s funny dog videos. As digital natives, they are the fastest to seek out information on the Internet.

The young people of today are all 100% digital natives. If your university wants to attract them, you need a strong digital media presence.

Young people of today are careful in considering their career path. They’ve grown up used to the idea of a global market, have seen a recession or two play out, and have heard their parents’ “war stories” about being laid off and having to switch careers. They seek a stable income with a long and promising future. Since student loan debt is a big headline-grabbing issue, they are also wary about leaping into too much debt and will “bargain hunt” for the best possible tuition.

Students in the mid-20th century are likely to focus on enduring industries that will keep them close to technology. STEM fields, medical occupations, and careers in media arts are all attractive to them. Their heroes are less likely to be athletes and movie stars, more likely to be politicians, scientists, and CEOs. They want to be “people who get things done,” seeking a role in the progress of society.

Your higher education institution is the path to realizing those dreams. In recruiting new students, you should always focus on working together with those students to empower them to shape our future.

Alex Membrillo Cardinal CEO

Alex Membrillo

Founder and CEO

Alex Membrillo is the CEO of Cardinal, a digital marketing agency focused on growing multi location companies. His work as CEO of Cardinal has recently earned him the honor of being selected as a member of the 2018 Top 40 Under 40 list by Georgia State University as well as 2015 and 2016 Top 20 Entrepreneur of metro Atlanta by TiE Atlanta, Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2016 Small Business Person of the Year,and the Digital Marketer of the Year by Technology Association of Georgia (TAG).