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Higher Ed Website Crisis Messaging: What We Have Learned

At Eri Design, we have been conscious of the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on our client’s industries and our higher ed clients in particular. We have seen that many have practiced website crisis messaging, taking advantage of their websites to provide information and keep their students updated during these uncertain times. Higher education institutions are in a unique position where they not only have to abide by state and federal regulations, also provide a positive learning experience for their students while keeping their safety as the biggest priority. Raffi DerSimonian, Senior Partner & Lead Strategist at Eri Design has expertise in this subject stating;

“Effective crisis communications boils down to a few core tenets: timeliness in response, authentic messaging that is concise while reflecting your own institutional mission, vision and core values, and an emphasis on empathy for the ways in which your constituents may be impacted.”

On top of managing crisis communications and providing an education for their students, higher education institutions also need to make revenue by enrolling students in future semesters to come. For more information about enrollment strategies, check out our blog about the topic, 5 Enrollment Strategies for Higher Education Institutions.  Several schools have done an excellent job managing these top priorities. All utilize the tools available to them on their websites. Throughout the past few months, we have seen several responses to the pandemic by providing virtual spaces for their current students and prospective students. Here are the four things we have learned that is crucial about website crisis messaging.

Transparent Crisis Messaging

We have found that our higher ed clients, as well as higher education institutions across the country, have been transparent in the content of their messaging. All information shared is relevant, truthful, and the motive behind it is awareness. We have seen that transparent messaging gives students and their parents peace of mind that the college or university is doing everything that they can despite these uncertainties. Located in Grafton, Massachusetts, Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine presents all of the information for students, their families, and faculty on their “Covid-19 Info Hub”. On this screen, users can access current policy pages, community guidelines pages, and hospital updates pages. Below you can see these subpages provide a plethora of information both, current, and past for reference.

Tufts website crisis messaging policies and guidleines

 

By providing this transparent information, the college or university is showing its students and prospective that they are prepared for the effects of an ongoing pandemic, and want their community to be informed.

In addition to Covid-19 information pages, we saw many higher education institutions across the country provide data on their campus’ and the surrounding community’s positive cases in the form of heath dashboards. Siena College in Loudonville New York does an exemplary job sharing this data. Their health dashboard is displayed below.

Siena College website crisis messaging health dashboard

These tables are updated daily to provide the most current data to its campus and surrounding community. These tables provide an honest and transparent approach to providing information to anyone who needs to access it. Siena adds branding elements by customizing the graph in green and gold colors. Another strategy we have seen are Covid-19 FAQs pages published on higher ed websites to minimize the number of questions circulating about policies and procedures. Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts, does this well by categorizing its Covid-19 FAQs by topics such as; dining halls, tuition, and deferring acceptance. Actions like this ensure that all users on their website, current students, prospective, and faculty have access to the resources they need to make informed decisions about their health.

Enidcott College Crisis Messaging FAQs by topic

Even small details cannot be underestimated, such as providing PDF versions of online material makes a difference in terms of user accessibility. Texas A & M in College Station, Texas, did this with their coronavirus material. In an age of such uncertainty, the more an institution can do, to be honest, and transparent with their students, their families, and prospective students the better.

 

Positivity and Unity

One of the common goals among higher ed institutions is to provide the best educational experience for their enrolled students. Our clients also know that showing positivity and empathy with higher education experience is critical for enrollment marketing. The covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the traditional college experience. Higher ed institutions are doing everything in their ability to continue to give their enrolled students and prospective students a positive experience. Without a timeline of when regular life will resume, colleges have no other choice but to be positive and keep morale up at their campus and on virtual platforms. We saw Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge do this with its “Mask Up LSU” slogan that they have on their header. Boston University did this as well, with its tagline “Back 2 BU”.

Mask Up LSU

Boston University did this as well, with its tagline “Back 2 BU”

Boston University messaging Back 2 BU

These branding elements are unique to their institution.  LSU’s “#MaskUpLSU: Getting back to where we belong takes all of us” slogan pinpoints the importance of safety by encouraging its users to wear masks properly.  They also emphasize community, by stating that everyone must be safe to get back to normal.  Boston University does this too, by emphasizing that the campus wants to return to normal, and these are the BU steps to get there.

Taglines were not the only method of radiating positivity.  Clark University in Worcester Massachusetts takes it a step further, by choosing this graphic for its alumni magazine, spring/summer 2020.  Here they go out of their way to show alumni that they are supportive and committed to all their students, past present and future.

Clark University alumni magazine crisis messaging

This graphic targets the Clark community, emphasizing togetherness and unity even after the college experience. 

 

Pivoting Toward Digital Enrollment Strategies

The coronavirus has severely limited the ability of higher education institutions to hold in-person enrollment events. We have seen many of our clients, as well as schools across the country, adopt new digital enrollment strategies to pivot in the face of the pandemic.  To learn more about changing strategies in the face of crisis, check out our blog, The Necessary Ability for Organizations to Pivot During a CrisisEndicott College, like most colleges, traditionally had prospective students visit the campus in person. Now they invite students to Tour The Nest—Virtually.  

Endicott College Virtual Tours messaging

This virtual tour is a form of website crisis messaging which allows students to experience campus life at Endicott from a virtual perspective.  From here, prospective students can view the entire campus, choose different buildings to view, and experience Endicott Athletics. Their positive crisis messaging emphasizes their campus community, calling it the Nest, a play on words since their mascot is the Gull.

In addition to viewing the campus and learning centers, another crucial aspect of campus tours is seeing the dorm buildings where prospective students will be living.  This element is crucial to the college selection process.  For students to experience the true campus environment, they need to see the campus fully operational.  This is difficult to accomplish during the coronavirus pandemic, where campus life has slowed significantly.  Worcester State University in Massachusetts pivoted from the traditional in-person campus tours by offering virtual ones, including its section on dorm buildings.  Here prospective students can watch videos of different dorms on campus and see what life looks like inside them.

Worcester State University virtual dorm tours crisis messaging

Another critical element of campus tours is bringing the prospective student to the area in which the institution is located.  In addition to campus tours, students need to get a feel of the surrounding community.  MECA took advantage of their Downtown Portland campus in their virtual tour, but also gave students an idea of what life is like in Portland Maine, with their “Explore Portland” video.  Here a student guides the viewer through favorite spots in Portland, Maine.

MECA Website Crisis messaging explore Portland

Strategic Crisis Messaging Locations

For colleges and universities grappling with the effects of the ongoing pandemic, their websites are a key resource for crisis messaging because it is a tool that reaches multiple audiences.  With hundreds of visitors a day, Higher education websites provide a unique opportunity for sharing information with their students and their families and prospective students.  We saw most of our clients utilizing banners and blocks on their homepages to filter traffic towards these alerts.  Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University did this with its “COVID-19 Guidance” announcement. 

Tufts covid 19 alert banner on website

This announcement appears at the top of the homepage right beneath its main menu, and it stands out against the rest of the website with its bright orange color.  The Tufts Vet homepage makes this messaging hard to miss, giving their users full access to coronavirus related resources and protocols that might affect them.  

Clark University was another one of our clients that have utilized banners to display announcements related to the coronavirus.  On Clark University’s homepage, the Covid-19 alerts appear in a banner at the very top of all their web pages.

Clark University covid 19 website alert banner

This banner stands out against the school’s scarlet branding being a contrasting turquoise.  This banner contains links to their health dashboard and Covid plan, making that resource front and center for their users.  

We have watched our Higher Ed clients and institutions across the country pivot their strategies and utilize the digital resources they have to continue to provide a positive learning experience to their students. All while providing crisis messaging. The coronavirus pandemic has caused a shift in the traditional college experience.

 

Sources:

Figure 1 & 10 – Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

Figure 2 – Siena College

Figures 3 & 7 – Endicott College

Figure 4 – Louisiana State University

Figure 5 – Boston University

Figure 6 & 11 – Clark University

Figure 8 – Worcester State University

Figure 9 – Maine College of Art

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