Marketing Your Business School During a Pandemic: 4 Tips

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Monday, April 20, 2020
By Marco De Novellis
Photo by iStock
Rather than stop your marketing efforts, adapt your messaging and highlight your school's strengths to attract candidates looking for a new opportunity.

The coronavirus pandemic has been disruptive for business schools and candidates alike, closing campuses, changing admissions plans, and moving learning online.

Business schools naturally are wrestling with many questions about continuity of their programs during this time, such as whether they’ll be able to offer in-person classes in the coming semesters, or how they can enhance their offerings to offset enrollment declines. But some questions are less obvious, and perhaps more delicate to broach, like, How should we market to candidates during coronavirus? What content should we share? Should we change or pause our marketing activities?

While candidates’ priorities and study preferences are changing because of coronavirus, the pandemic has not impacted the number of people interested in graduate management education. According to a recent Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) survey, 95 percent of candidates still plan to go to business school, even if their plans are a little delayed.

People are at home in lockdown on their computers. In this period, traffic to the BusinessBecause (a subsidiary of GMAC) website has doubled, and we are seeing consistently high returns from business schools using Facebook to market to candidates.

Stopping your marketing activities during this time is downright counterproductive. It’s never been more important to promote your business school, stay present in this difficult time, and keep your brand top of mind for prospective learners.

The trick is to adapt quickly to the changing situation and find the right balance in your messaging, adjusting what you say and how you say it.

Here are four tips for marketing your business school during the pandemic:

1. Understand Your Audience’s Changing Priorities

Knowing who your audience is and what they’re interested in is crucial in any marketing strategy. In the current climate, think also about how your audience’s priorities, interests, and behaviors are changing. Think about how people are consuming your marketing content—whether that’s a change in the time of the day they’re online or whether they’re using mobile or desktop devices.

We’ve found that webinars are an increasingly effective way to engage with candidates, who may have a little more time on their hands now and are getting more accustomed to video calls and online meetups.

More people are opening admissions-related emails. According to GMAC, 92 percent of candidates say email is where they’d most like to receive information from schools interested in their profiles.

It’s also a time when social media posts with the right kind of messaging can go a long way, with communities engaged and active across social media channels. LinkedIn, Facebook, and YouTube are the most popular channels for MBA candidates researching schools, according to the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC).

For business school candidates, the journey to submitting an application is complex, with multiple influences and decisions needed along the way. Coronavirus only adds to this complexity, so be sure to adapt and stay engaged with your audience throughout.

2. Rethink Your Messaging

The vast majority of consumers do not think brands should stop advertising during coronavirus, according to market research firm Kantar. Instead, they expect brands to keep them informed of what they’re doing, set a positive tone, and communicate brand values.

The message: You should not be afraid to continue to promote your school to candidates during coronavirus, but you do need to be conscious of the climate you’re doing it in.

Obviously, what won’t work as well now is to promote the benefits of your school’s location, campus experience, international trips, or face-to-face experiential learning activities. Instead, share how your school is dealing with the crisis—how you’re engaged with the local community or if you’re at the forefront of online learning.

Communicate the long-term value of the degree. Show how, in previous times of economic crisis, for example, going to business school helped students advance or change their career paths.

Get expert faculty to share thought leadership content related to the crisis. Create timely, useful content for candidates, like tips on how to succeed in video interviews or the new GMAT Online Exam, for example.

Above all, create content that offers value and is relevant to your target audience. This genuine, less directly promotional approach is what distinguishes content marketing from advertisements and makes it an especially useful tool during coronavirus (see point 4).

While the coronavirus crisis is temporary, showing that you are in tune with your target audience and understand their changing needs can help instill a lasting sense of trust and value.

3. Be Transparent

Coronavirus is presenting a lot of new challenges. Some full-time MBA students have signed petitions asking for reduced tuition fees and refunds. Plenty of candidates are uncertain about whether to still apply this year or hold off, and many are unsure about the changing admissions requirements and shifting application deadlines.

It has never been more important to be honest and completely transparent with your audience. Address these issues head-on with clear communication, answer candidates’ questions, and do not be afraid to talk openly about the challenges you face in your marketing content.

Everyone understands that this is a difficult time and the future is uncertain; candidates mostly just want to be kept informed. If done well, communicating with candor can be an effective way to build trust with your audience.

You should also be honest with yourself. Some issues that are beyond your control will impact your carefully laid plans. You may have to re-evaluate your marketing campaign goals and expectations.

It’s also important to be realistic when measuring the success of some marketing activities—for example, straight-up lead generation campaigns—during this time. Take a step back to consider the context you’re operating in and which marketing approaches will deliver the best results.

4. Consider Content Marketing

Effective content marketing is one of the best ways to engage your audience, tell honest stories, be clear on your messaging, and define your brand. And it becomes even more important when you’re looking to overcome challenges around context—the political environment in the U.S., the protest movement in Hong Kong, or coronavirus, for example.

External issues can impact candidates and the perception they have of your school. However, whatever the external challenges, you can overcome them if you have a strong enough brand that helps your business school stand out.

For instance, even if Harvard was badly affected by coronavirus, chances are, people would still want to go to Harvard because of that brand name. Although coronavirus has hit Italy hard, when I think of Bocconi, in Milan, I still think first of its strength in finance and fashion rather than COVID-19.

Content marketing allows you to define and promote your brand so you can overcome challenges like the current pandemic and instead have candidates associate your brand with the key themes you want to promote—a strength in finance or entrepreneurship, a drive toward societal impact, or even a feeling like positivity or openness.

Much content marketing, particularly if its purpose is brand building or brand awareness, can be longer term in focus. However, especially in today’s climate, content marketing is crucial when it comes to promoting your school and keeping your brand in the minds of prospective learners.

Marco De Novellis
Senior Editor, BusinessBecause & GMAC Media
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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