Digital Marketing and International Student Recruitment during the COVID-19 Pandemic


As countries move towards a second wave of strategies against COVID-19, there is a marked shift in differing tactics. Whilst some move to ease restrictions, others are taking a more cautious approach, loosening lockdown without lifting it entirely. In the face of disparate global tactics, one thing is clear. Having a great digital strategy to reach prospective students is more important now than ever.

Here’s how some universities are altering their digital strategies to reach students during COVID-19:


Expand your reach by rerouting face-to-face budget to digital channels to reach target students.

"All digital channels are highly performing; the more we use them, the better." — Mattia Gusella, Head of Recruitment at University of Padua.

With more users flooding popular social media channels like Facebook, Whatsapp, and Instagram, social media is providing more opportunities than ever to reach prospective students.

Students are also monitoring their email more closely, and are more responsive to newsletters: has seen a 94% year-on-year increase in open rates year on year in our monthly newsletter.

The majority of our partners in international recruitment are increasing their marketing on platforms they have previously identified as successful channels - and finding results are increasing.


Communicate how you’re taking care of your current students.

Communicating the right information at the right time to prospective students is a challenge. New information emerges quickly and even robust communication resources can be stretched in an environment of constantly changing information.

According to our survey, prospective students have opinions about what actions universities should be doing in order to practice social responsibility. Sixty-three percent of students expect to see universities switching to online lectures, 53% to cancel gatherings, and 46% expecting a hotline for current students to access health services.

Although opinions may shift as the pandemic unfolds, keeping information that you share with current students accessible on your public website rather than your intranet or email database aids transparency to curious prospective students to see how their institutions of choice are responding to the crisis.


Share the work and expertise of your faculty and students

"We started using our university’s expertise. The research they are doing related to the situation, we put together and post it on our website. We want the information to be there for the world, and we know that prospective students visit all digital channels as they decide on a school."— Inga Pracutė, Vilnius University

When uncertainty abounds, information is key. Use your digital channels as a platform to amplify the voices of your faculty and students who are helping others. Whether your university is featured in the press for scientific breakthroughs surrounding the pandemic such as Erasmus University’s medical centre, or your faculty can provide expert advice to current and prospective students about determining fake news, or managing anxiety, every higher education marketer can push helpful information front and center.

In addition to sharing your faculty’s help and expertise, your current students are likely more important than ever to help represent the brand of your university. Student ambassadors from Study in Sweden have chronicled their day-to-day experiences through Instagram stories of social distancing and adjusting to newly digital classes, giving prospective students a peek into how universities are coping with new changes.


Communicate extensions, testing alternatives, and any national news on travel restrictions.

A high priority among international student recruiters is to communicate extensions in deadlines and any changes to their accepted testing methods.

While some institutions are opening up accepted language tests to online alternatives like Duolingo, some are now benefiting from online alternatives to already-accepted tests like TOEFL which is now offered temporarily online.

Make sure to communicate these changes promptly and clearly with prospective students and consider how your current paid marketing channels (rather than just owned and earned channels) can be used to help you be the first to deliver good news to prospective international students.


Don’t be afraid to try something new

"Don’t be afraid of experimenting. This pandemic caught us all by surprise, but it has also given us the opportunity to exit our "comfort-zone" and to broaden our horizons by experimenting new strategies and new ways of communicating with our current and prospective students." — Mattia Gusella, Head of Recruitment at University of Padua

Universities who hesitate to convert face-to-face open days to virtual ones or pilot new initiatives for digital communication could lose critical time to showcase their institution.

The drive to maintain quality while staff are working from home and resources are stretched is at the heart of concern for many universities we spoke to. While some universities are trialing small group webinars and live chats, others are developing unique initiatives to address the changing needs of students and even the general public.

Exemplifying the spirit of resilience and community that the world has embraced during the pandemic, the University of Pavia saw a need in their university for physical health and activity during the upcoming news of public lock-downs. They launched a Train@Home initiative with the support of their university sports association and media technicians, to launch live-streaming and recorded fitness sessions for their students and the public.

By the time the lockdown was in place, the university had already recruited a growing number of interested staff who were able to teach from their homes. "We are now proposing training videos for fitness, pilates, climbing, volley, canoeing and rowing, while the streaming lessons are multiplying, involving a growing numbers of students and public," says Elena Fontana, Internationalisation Officer at the University of Pavia.


Picture of Abby Guthrie Svanholm
Abby Guthrie Svanholm

Abby Guthrie Svanholm is the Communications Manager for She works to shape strategy and align team members to achieve product and site growth. Originally from the U.S., Abby has worked with digital marketing since 2015.