By Brendan Michael Vyner, director, marketing & student recruitment, University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD)
The education sector was uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic. Although it was at the forefront
of some of the most proactive responses to the virus – quick to empty classrooms and move classes online – the process was challenging, but we were agile and able to adapt.
The biggest challenge was that we instantly lost the ability to have any in-person recruitment event, including domestic and international road shows, campus tours or admission fairs. We had more than 50 recruitment-related events cancelled from February through June 2020, including regular open days, which are our highest conversion events.
We also realised we couldn’t rely on international markets for our students when travel restrictions were in place. We were essentially left with digital promotion, social media, websites, WebEx calls and virtual interactions.
Customers were naturally wary of all forms of distance learning, as this is something that had been thrust upon them with no warning, and now students were told classes would be conducted off campus. We had to ensure our students recognised there would not be a drop in the quality of the educational offerings, and that we still adhered to a strict academic governance process.These were the negatives. However, Covid-19 also opened up quite a few opportunities for us. The major boost ROOM was increased demand from our domestic sector, where 60,000 students will potentially be stuck in Dubai and unable to attend universities in the US, UK or Australia for September. This has created increased demand for accredited, international universities in the UAE.
In terms of the overall business effect of Covid-19, I am proud to say that we just had our highest summer intake in seven years, in the midst of a global pandemic and recession. We realised our main recruitment tools – events and exhibitions – were now completely gone, and we had to shift to virtual open days and virtual admission consultation while we worked from home.In a time when we were planning to launch our brand-new campus in September and were planning a launch event to invite potential students to see it, we had to shift everything digitally, with a renewed focus on the domestic sector here in the UAE.As our university was shifting towards blended learning and the digitisation of the learning model, so was our marketing approach, by introducing a targeted, digital approach for lead generation.We were already in the process of moving to 100 per cent digital marketing, and Covid-19 just hastened this along. We stopped international travel and events and focused on targeted digital and social promotions.
Covid-19 has shown the importance of a personalised marketing approach, especially in an environment that does not allow any face-to-face interactions. This has been the biggest change in the last few months, the removal of the human element. We have had to replace this with a tailored, digital marketing strategy that catered entirely to the needs of students.Our campaigns themselves wouldn’t change; however the focus, targets and methods of delivery evolved rapidly. We shifted the significant portion of our marketing spend to be focused on the domestic sector, as we knew many students would not like to waste a year waiting for travel restrictions to ease and would like to begin university as soon as possible.We launched free masterclasses for students who wanted to experience digital and blended learning, as we knew that the summer semester would be delivered online only.We launched virtual open days and interacted with students and parents from the comfort of their own homes, also reaching out at times convenient to them. We offered a digital one-to- one consultation service providing tailored appointments for students at their convenience.As we saw students stuck in Dubai and unable to travel, we began aggressively promoting our ‘Pathways’ programmes. Students who were unable to travel due to the current crisis can now begin their education in Dubai with the option to transfer to UOW Australia, one of the top 10 universities in Australia, once the restrictions have eased.
We had to learn and adapt. Blended learning was always coming, but we never knew that it would happen so quickly.We learned that although there is no replacement for face-to-face discussions with potential students, these students appreciated the effort of us calling them and speaking to them and their parents directly.All the new digital masterclasses, virtual open days and personalised consultation services worked; however, these initiatives need to be backed by a strong customer service and admissions team that talk to students every day.The major change on the horizon is that we are looking forward to welcoming students back to our brand new campus in September.
Our marketing will continue to remain predominantly digital, since this provides the best ROI, lead tracking and understanding of what works and doesn’t; however, we will soon be able to welcome small groups back to our campus, adhering to social distancing, strict safety requirements and healthcare regulations.We are looking forward to welcoming international students back into Dubai, since Emirates has now allowed travel from certain locations in time for the upcoming academic year. Since we are unable to have a large campus launch event, we are working on ways we can promote our new campus digitally and across the world, via 360 tours and videos to allow our students abroad to see our new campus before they come to Dubai.