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The pandemic has changed our digital engagement behaviour…forever

Aren’t humans amazing? Just when we think we’re not resilient, a pandemic strikes, and eighteen months later the digital engagement landscape is permanently transformed.

Gen Z customers, of course, have led the way in embracing and driving new types of interactions with brands, and the HEIs that have managed to adapt quickly have undoubtedly benefitted when it comes to attracting and retaining new students.

A recent report from Zendesk dives deep into the engagement trends that have emerged during the pandemic, and the findings are enlightening, if not surprising.

Almost a third of people began buying from new companies and brands in the last eighteen months.

A previously unprecedented turn, as people had more time to browse and research during multiple lockdowns. Universities that were already hot on their digital marketing and customer engagement execution were in the prime seat to capture the attention of prospective students who were looking for an institution that could confidently support not only their application process, but also their ongoing study journey. What does this look like? Authentic, easy and timely access to support, in the channels they’re active.

And what if you weren’t quite ready at the crest of the wave, have you missed the boat? On the contrary; trust in online engagement has been nurtured through necessity for those that are doing it well, and as a result, more are doing it (even Gen Xers). There’s still plenty of opportunity to catch the eye of new student prospects with a smart digital marketing and engagement strategy – 64% of people used a new support channel in 2020, and 73% said they would continue to use it.

Individual messaging channels spiked in popularity

Gen Zers and Millennials led a shift over to private messaging channels, with India heading the charge towards messaging, SMS and WhatsApp interaction with brands. Over 60% of the nation’s respondents used one of these channels to engage with a brand, followed by email at over 30%. Similarly, email was second choice for Gen Z and Millennials overall, at just under 30%.

As the report confirms, customers are now looking for a more conversational experience with brands. This is emphasised in that almost three-quarters of respondents say they expect brands to be available on messaging channels like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp etc…and they want these interactions to be fast, personalised and human.

WhatsApp reigns supreme

The messaging app saw by far the biggest surge in use, closely followed by embedded chat functionality. Self-service support came in third overall, reflecting perhaps the digital confidence of savvy Gen Z users, and social media and Facebook Messenger closely followed. In LATAM, social media interactions are by far the most popular engagement channel.

As reminder of how young customers expect an holistic digital experience now, the report showed that 45% of people preferred to use embedded messaging to communicate, rather than switch between channels. Key takeaway: if you’re looking to keep students on the journey with you, make sure the journey is seamless!

Customers are just hankering after a conversation

Social messaging such as Facebook Messenger has experienced growth of 110% between 2020 and 2021, while SMS/text has seen an increase of 75%. These boosts are reflective of much more than better trust and understanding of digital interaction and channels. We miss conversation. In the absence of face to face engagement, online buyers are looking to recreate an experience we all took for granted, in the channels that are available for connection.

Messaging channels have been forced to replace the convenience and intimacy of a one-on-one conversation we might have when making a major buying decision. For most universities the demise of recruitment events, campus visits, and in-person interviews has taken its toll, not only on attracting students, but connecting with them in a meaningful way. Although we’re beginning to see a return to some of the old in-person interactions, there will be some (such as overseas recruitment events) that are unlikely to come back to the same extent as pre-pandemic. Messaging channels are likely to continue to fill the hole.

What does it all mean for HEIs?

Two things: first, if it hasn’t already, it’s time for the digital engagement train to leave the station. Universities need to adapt their digital engagement strategies to provide a more personalised and conversational experience with students, which means adopting and embracing messaging channels and building an integrated experience.

Second, look out for the digital disruptors, and embrace them! This is not something universities have to create from scratch – they just need to know which tools and tactics are worth investing in, and how to implement them. For some of the bigger, more digitally established institutions this will be easy – put digital engagement strategy and investment to the top of the list and crack on. But for those that are coming from behind, catching up could take a long time if they’re tentative about digital transformation. Calling in the disruptors could help them leap way ahead of the sector, and fast.

To read the full report from Zendesk, go here.

Global Young Minds is changing the face of digital student engagement forever. Find out more about the team and what we do, and if you’d like to join our HE insider panel to be a part of the future of digital transformation for HE, join us here