This past year has provided more than its share of challenges, with the pandemic striking just six months into our rebranding efforts. But within the Division of Marketing and Communications, we did not let the pandemic distract us from our long-term goals of raising awareness and improving our brand reputation.

In MarCom, we have organized our team and our work so that we can address the short-term needs of both COVID and our internal communications efforts around our own challenges, while continuing to build the IUP brand.

The key has been the incredible partnerships with other divisions and departments to develop new and quick solutions on how to recruit students, hold events, and communicate with alumni and donors during COVID, all while ramping up internal communications to keep the IUP community safe and informed during the pandemic and engaged and informed during our IUP NextGen initiative.

Brand Strategy

The starting point for everything we do in marketing is our brand strategy. We arrived at our strategy through both qualitative and quantitative research with input from many people in the IUP community. What we uncovered in terms of brand perceptions has helped us to focus on what is most important to communicate to our many audiences. Our brand essence of cultivating transformation is the shorthand for how we define the uniqueness of the IUP brand and what we want to be known for with our audiences.

We want to showcase how we help our students become their best selves through proactive engagement and care in an academically challenging environment. What results through this transformation are dramatic changes that not only have an impact at an individual level, but also impact the communities and regions where IUP alumni work and live. 

As we craft messaging for our audiences, it is important that we consistently communicate our key brand proof points that help us demonstrate what makes IUP special:

  • academic excellence, including research opportunities at all levels,
  • the personalized resources available to our students,
  • the community and connectedness we build here at IUP,
  • the sense of purpose and hard work we all share,
  • the personal growth opportunities our students receive through exposure to a variety of experiences and cultures, and
  • the ability to acquire a foundation for adaptability in the workplace and in life.

Brand Storytelling

Our approach to telling IUP’s story is to show, not tell, which we make central to all our communications. For instance, the feature stories we publish each Monday are designed to show the kinds of transformation that IUP cultivates in our students and in the wider world.

Our Innovators episode on Cynthia Pugh is a great example. Pugh, who recently earned her PhD in safety sciences from IUP, researches the effects of nanoparticles emitted when workers break down electronics for recycling. These nanoparticles present a danger that’s similar to the hazard posed by coal dust or asbestos. IUP helped Pugh, as a student, begin doing the basic research needed to understand this threat. It’s work that will transform lives, and it’s happening here at IUP, with the help and guidance of our faculty.

We push these brand stories out everywhere we can online, in print, and through social media, email, and more—as part of our long-term effort to share IUP’s brand reputation.

If you’re aware of a transformational story happening at IUP, please let us know about it.

Advertising Strategy

As it did on so many things, the pandemic had a big effect on our advertising strategy. Some elements of our marketing mix stayed constant, but others needed to adapt as the pandemic changed everything.

For instance, we’ve continued to place ads on broadcast and cable television, mostly to reach our parent and alumni audiences. And we’ve continued to invest in the media markets from which we know we can recruit students: Pittsburgh, Johnstown/Altoona, and the Harrisburg area.

But once the pandemic started, we shifted a large part of our TV buy to news programming. That change ended up bringing us 31 percent more impressions than we would have had, had we not made that change.

Another adaptation was shifting some of what we would have spent on cable TV to streaming media. Viewership for streaming media was up, because of the pandemic, of course. But streaming media also allows us to target potential students much more precisely than we could with cable, so this is a shift that’s probably here to stay.

On the digital side of things—where we advertise using paid social media, search engine ads, banner ads, YouTube ads, and other formats—we’ve had those enhanced targeting abilities for a long time. And, unlike with traditional media, we aren’t always limited by geography. This allows us to get our messages in front of potential students across the state and nation. In every case, we’re doing everything we can to get the right message to the right person at the right time.

A few data points to show how we are doing:

  • Digital ad performance: in the first quarter of 2021, we’ve seen the number of clicks we’re getting on our ads increase by 23 percent.
  • On social media, over the last 12 months, we’ve seen our audience grow by 4 percent, impressions grow by 10 percent, and video views grow by 28 percent.
  • And on our website, which is where all these ads send people, over the past 12 months, we’ve seen 13 percent more visits to the site compared to the previous 12 months. And the number of new users making their first visit to the website—who are really important for recruitment—went up by 27 percent.

Admissions Partnerships

In response to the pandemic, MarCom partnered with admissions in a comprehensive rethinking of the way we recruit students virtually.

To start, we began to build out and more heavily promote our virtual tour. Since April 2020, the tour has received more than 20,000 visits, along with more than 950 clicks to learn more, schedule a visit, or apply to IUP.

Prospective students can get an even deeper virtual glance at IUP through our new walkthrough videos, in which student hosts show off areas like the Center for Multicultural Student Leadership and Engagement, the Oak Grove, and downtown Indiana. We’ve produced nine of these videos so far, sharing them with prospective students via social media, email, and our website. We plan to do more this summer.

For students and families who prefer to visit IUP on their own instead of a structured admissions visit, our interactive map now includes a self-guided tour. Narrated by students and with GPS integration, it takes visitors around campus using just their phone.

Of course, we also want to help promote structured virtual admissions events as much as possible. So, in spring 2020, we began to rework the undergraduate and graduate admissions visit pages; we created postcards, emails, and other creative pieces; we ran dedicated visit ad campaigns; and more. Every bit of our visit-related communication needed to be touched and updated, but our team was up to the challenge.

Advancement Partnerships

Another core audience that has always benefited from a close partnership are our alumni and friends. And once again, we leveraged that partnership into effective marketing and communications efforts while everything around us changed.

That started in spring 2020, when University Advancement established the Emergency Response Fund to help students with financial troubles caused by the pandemic. Through a comprehensive promotional plan, which included renaming the fund to the more timeless Student Assistance Fund last summer, we helped raise more than $480,000 from more than 3,400 donors.

Like so many others, University Advancement had to move all of its events to a virtual format. So, we produced videos, livestreamed events, and created promotional plans. That included anything from a virtual panel on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace in March to our virtual Celebration Weekend this past weekend, featuring the annual Celebration of Philanthropy and our yearly Distinguished Alumni Gala.

Originally, we planned to celebrate the completion of the university’s Imagine Unlimited campaign in person. When University Advancement exceeded its $75-million goal six months early, we instead celebrated virtually with a video announcement and digital fireworks on our website.

We’re continuing to partner with Advancement on virtual ways to engage our alumni and friends, who are such an important part of the IUP experience. Look for more information about opportunities to engage and be a part of these efforts soon.

And of course, we’ve had similar partnerships with our colleges, many of the offices and departments across campus, and more. MarCom is always at its best when we work together to help our students and achieve our goals.

COVID-19 Communications

While COVID-19 caused us all to think very differently about the way we needed to do business, it did not change our core communication principles or goals: messaging that is accurate, frequent, transparent, and empathic, to help to keep our community safe and well.

As soon as decisions were made, we worked to communicate that information on our website, through emails, in videos, and on social media, always listening to feedback and suggestions from employees, students, parents, and the community.

The MarCom team has also been responsible for developing the signage and messaging you see around campus, including in the safety kits distributed to students and departments.

With so much information out there—including conflicting information—we’ve worked hard to keep the look and wording of what you see as consistent as possible.

We’ve also worked to communicate information about campus events—like commencement and alumni recognition programs—to help to keep everyone as informed as possible.

Since March 2020, we’ve created or collaborated on more than 100 messages in all venues—including posts on the website and videos like What You Can Expect When You Return to Campus—ranging from information on safety protocols to testing to vaccines.

As you know from your inbox, every Tuesday and Friday we update the information reported to us on COVID-19 positive cases of our students. This information is posted on our COVID-19 dashboard, and emails are sent to employees and students with the update.

While we’ve been focused on communicating health and safety requirements for our campus, we know that COVID-19 doesn’t respect borders.  

IUP leadership continues to work with our community on a number of committees and task forces, understanding that we are all in this together. Biology professor Narayanaswamy Bharathan’s work at IRMC has resulted in accurate, local, same-day testing and may lead to new testing procedures that are less expensive and more available to communities throughout the world.

IUP scientists are also working with Indiana Borough to analyze wastewater, providing real-life experience to students and important information about the COVID-19 virus on campus and in the community.

The IUP community is resilient and creative, and we’ve worked to tell those stories, especially about innovative ways of teaching and delivering programs.

Students are still excelling and winning international and national scholarships and awards, and we’ve been honored to showcase those accomplishments.

We will continue to provide important and current information to you related to COVID-19, and we’ll also continue to share those “good news” items.

What’s Next

Our focus moving forward will be the same. Build the IUP brand while continuing internal communications that keep all of us informed and updated on the pandemic and key initiatives like IUP NextGen.

We will publish more brand stories, continue to optimize our media plan, and focus on our key differentiators to strengthen the IUP brand.

Finally, we have begun work on a new website. Step one is to replace Ektron with Cascade, a new web platform that will enable us to streamline and optimize our website for our users. Step two will be a creative redesign that will present our brand in more dynamic ways. We are very excited for this work, and many of you will be consulted over the coming weeks and months.