Winning in the Worst of Times: A redux of our COVID era marketing presentation at the 2020 AMA Symposium

Posted: November 19, 2020

Matt Walters Chief Services Officer

Reading time: 5 minutes

We could all use more stories of hope this season. 

If you missed our panel presentation at this year’s AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, we got you covered. 

Let’s start with the ending. In a year fraught with adversity, two very different institutions drive hundreds of applications for the Fall semester as a direct result of their COVID-era marketing campaigns.

This sort of phenomenon is known as the K-Shaped recovery in modern economics: a select few will end a crisis in a better position than when they began, while the vast majority fail to recover. 

Two esteemed clients on our roster — Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and the University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC) — are living proof.  

Communication as the Lifeline 

Rewind to March. Society has come to a screeching halt as businesses shut down. People bunker up as stay-at-home orders set in. The fate of human lives and livelihoods hang in the balance. 

During a transitional period of leadership changes, Northern Virginia Community College — the second largest community college in the country located in the greater D.C. area— knows that communication will make or break them. Their cross-organizational leadership team, which typically met twice a month, was now meeting 6 days a week to get their entire campus community on the same page. They took stock of how they communicated — from internal emails to website content to admissions workflows and more. They knew, as an institution, that this was the time to speak clearly, consistently, and in ways that would help their students understand what to do next. 

Students Come First

Meanwhile, the University of Missouri – Kansas City locks in on a single priority: the well-being of their students. 

All of their communication efforts are guided by this focus, rallying their campus together behind a common goal. UMKC is forced to shift all of their classes — the majority of which were previously in-person — to online in a matter of days. Like NOVA, they knew communication between internal teams and out into their external audiences had to be strong. 

Using Words of Action 

With key players from marketing, communications, faculty, staff, and executive-level leaders on the same page, both institutions made a slight but pivotal change in their messaging strategies to put the concerns of their students front and center. 

NOVA’s approach echoed the sentiments shared by their students and stakeholders: “Don’t put your future on pause.” 

UMKC’s simple yet sure-footed rallying cry, “We’re Ready”, reflected the all-hands-on-deck response that was seen across the institution. They were ready to adapt, to serve, and to support their students and staff no matter what the future had in store. 

These action words resonated. And both schools took immediate steps toward making good on their promises through game changing initiatives that went on to define their finest hours. 

Timely Heroics

For example, NOVA recognized that high school seniors had been deprived of milestone moments that come with the graduation experience: prom, senior trips, college tours, and other rites of passage. The pandemic had left them stranded at the crossroads of college.

To fill the uncertain void that loomed over the summer, NOVA offered free summer classes for seniors in their recruitment footprint. This gesture resonated with students and parents alike. They were craving for direction, and jumped at the chance to prepare for the transition into a virtual college experience.

In a similar act of empathy, UMKC came to the aid of working professionals who were looking to up-skill in response to widespread job market instability. UMKC partnered with the Bloch Family Foundation to create the Helping Hand Scholarship and offer the first semester of their MBA program for free. This gesture helped alleviate financial hardship and keep the path to upward mobility open.

Through a campaign we helped UMKC develop and launch within a matter of days, the university was able to issue over $370,000 worth of scholarship relief funds to 88 recipients across the Kansas City business community — proving testament to their response readiness in serving learners during times of need.

The Results Were Resolutions 

The common thread was how both institutions came together and rose to the occasion. In each story, marketing played an active role in shaping effective disaster response strategies, working in lockstep with communications, admissions, and other traditionally siloed groups. 

Success in each case was a team effort, guided by a student-first focus.

Lean into the problem. Listen to your customers. And learn as much as you can. 

Kim West, Chief Marketing Strategist, University of Missouri – Kansas City

Lean. Listen. Learn. 

The merit is not in what you say to be helpful, but what you do to help. Actions reflect beliefs.

Innovate. Continue trying new things, even if it’s fast-fail. Students want to share in that courage.

Steven Partridge, VP for Strategic Partnerships and Workforce Innovation, Northern Virginia Community College

In the worst of times, there is no single hero. There’s no one-trick marketing strategy or magic bullet PR plan. Survival in the face of a common threat is everyone’s ballgame. 

For UMKC and NOVA, this was the opportunity for every department — including marketing — to step up and make an impact as a key player at the table.  

An old saying by Winston Churchill reminds us to “never let a crisis go to waste.”

Both NOVA and UMKC not only made the most of the challenge. They realized the greater mission of higher ed: to transform lives and move society forward.

About the Speakers

Matt Walters is the VP of Client Services at VisionPoint Marketing and is a frequent keynote speaker at the American Marketing Association Symposium of Higher Education. Matt has spent the entirety of his professional career in higher education, which includes both agency-side experience leading full-funnel brand and enrollment marketing initiatives at VisionPoint, as well as first-hand experience serving in marketing and communications roles for Gardner-Webb University. If you would like to start a conversation with Matt or any of our experts on COVID-era marketing and communications strategies, please visit our website or reach out to our team. We’re on a mission to help higher ed institutions succeed.

Kim West is the Chief Marketing Strategist at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. Leveraging her lifelong career in marketing everything from small businesses to corporations to nonprofit organizations, Kim leads overall university marketing including strategic planning support, marketing communications planning, brand integrity, integrated marketing efforts, online marketing initiatives, market research, and more. Kim collaborates across the university with departments to ensure enrollment and marketing goals are met, projects are kept on budget, and actionable insights are leveraged against the university’s objectives.

Steven Partridge is the VP for Strategic Partnerships and Workforce Innovation at Northern Virginia Community College. He collaborates with businesses, government entities, educational leaders, and non-profit drivers to extend the reach of NOVA’s workforce development division to regional partners. In his time at NOVA, Steven has successfully rebranded NOVA’s workforce development program and launched new pathways for the division to expand and continue increasing NOVA’s brand awareness.