The past few years haven’t been easy for American colleges and universities. A declining college-age population, rising costs, and growing skepticism over the value of higher ed have combined to create a perfect storm of challenges.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing institutions to close campuses and reimagine their educational models in a matter of days. A year and a half later, institutions are still reeling from the impact on student recruitment and retention.
As the world eventually emerges from the crisis, it will be more important than ever for institutions to communicate effectively with prospective students. Here are some tips for creating crisp, compelling higher-ed communications, whether you’re writing emails and text messages or publications and web content—many of which are best practices for all published content.
Emphasize the value of a degree
At a time when 40 percent of American adults aren’t sure a college education is worth the investment, you need to do more than tout your fabulous faculty and incredible residence halls. You need to convince students that a degree is valuable.
• Showcase successful alumni. No one makes a better case than the people who’ve benefited from your programs. In print and online, feature the stories of students who have gone on to rewarding futures.
• Remind prospective students that your “sticker price” is just that. One look at the cost of college convinces many students that higher education is out of reach. Make it very clear that practically no one pays the listed price, and spotlight the scholarships and other financial-aid opportunities that bring down the cost.
Keep it simple
No one has the time or patience to read long, dense blocks of text, least of all the TikTok generation. Whether online or in print, your content should be direct, concise, and easily scannable.
• Use bulleted lists, subheads, and callouts. This not only breaks up the text into bite-size chunks, it also helps readers understand what’s most important on the page.
• Make your paragraphs short and your sentences shorter. The title of Steve Krug’s classic 2005 book about usability says it all: “Don’t make me think.” If your readers have to work to decipher your meaning, find a simpler way to say it.
• Incorporate clear calls to action. Before you even start writing, ask yourself: What action do I want my readers to take? That goal should inform every word you write and should be crystal clear in how you present next steps.
Treat your readers with warmth—and respect
Use warm, accessible language to make your content feel more like a friendly conversation than an academic catalog (even if your content is, in fact, an academic catalog).
• Address your audience as “you.” This approach reinforces the idea that students are your top priority, and it adds energy to your writing. “Students at X University learn about a variety of fields through cutting-edge technologies,” for example, puts distance between you and your reader. “Use real-world technologies to explore your field of interest,” on the other hand, brings the reader closer.
• Be authentic. Today’s teenagers and young adults are savvy consumers who can spot inauthenticity a mile away. Don’t dumb down your copy or try too hard to incorporate trendy lingo. There’s no faster way to lose an audience than to attempt—and fail—to speak their language.
As students return to classrooms and reevaluate their plans for the future, colleges and universities have an opportunity to adapt their communication strategies to meet evolving needs. Indeed, content creators in all industries would be wise to work to understand their audiences’ needs and tailor their messages based on channel and intent. By doing so, they have the best chance of making authentic connections with the audience and standing out in a crowded marketplace.
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