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Universities: Starting the conversation

In Education by Tom Cannon

Almost half of all English universities plan to increase admissions in the next few years, so getting the right recruitment strategy is vital. Before strategy is set in stone, the right questions should be asked; what do you want to say, and who do you want to say it to? These answers often dictate the strategy implemented.

The message

Before starting the conversation with prospective students, universities should consider what message they wish to communicate to them. This will vary institution to institution, naturally. As an example, Cambridge University might choose to highlight its prestige, beautiful surroundings and historical track record, whereas Bournemouth University may choose to promote its recognition as the only Centre for Excellence in media practice in the UK, it’s focus on sustainability as well as the vibrant nightlife and seaside atmosphere on offer in town.

Once the core message has been selected, it will need to be personalised for different audiences. Above we discussed the Media School at Bournemouth University; whilst this is an impressive accolade, it is unlikely to be of much interest to prospective law students. So the focus would change accordingly.

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Traditional vs. Digital

Once the message has been decided on, it is time to get it out there. But with so many options, how does anyone know which the right one is? The Guardian carried out a student recruitment survey last year; they polled 69 universities to find out which strategies are proving popular, and which ones are being left behind. The results are very interesting.

Asked whether open days are more important than they were five years ago, 57% said yes. However, 72% said external digital advertising was more important now than five years ago, and an incredible 98% said the same for social media. Interestingly, 80% said traditional newspaper advertisement was less important than it was five years ago. 96% of those surveyed said they use Facebook to engage with students, with 88% using Twitter and 77% using YouTube.

It seems pretty clear from that that the pendulum is swinging from traditional print advertising to a digital landscape in a fairly brutal fashion. The budgets of those universities polled back up their sentiments too. Over 50% said they were spending up to 5% of their turnover on marketing, mostly open days, websites development, social media and their prospectuses.

But does this shift towards digital result in more student satisfaction? According to another survey carried out by The Guardian, 1 in 5 students rated a universities’ social media presence as less influential and trustworthy than traditional methods such as prospectuses or open days. But social media is just a small segment of the digital landscape. This is demonstrated quite clearly by a US study which found that a fifth of students would remove a university from their choices if they had a bad experience with its website.

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Social creatures

Students of today grew up with social media and to them it is a natural way to communicate. So in order to appeal to them, it is crucial that universities embrace social media and communicate effectively on it. Despite the earlier statistics about a lack of trust on social media, it shouldn’t be neglected, instead, celebrated for what it can offer. We’re talking: a sense of community, getting a feel for the culture of a university, not to mention a quick way to get your questions answered.

An important thing to consider here is how students are researching their potential universities using content and social media. Indeed while pre-university interactions become increasingly important such as ‘website experience’ it is also important to consider what tools are now available to students and how these are influencing their decision making. Look out for our upcoming interview with LinkedIn’s Charles Hardy, Education Engagement Lead, EMEA during which we talk about LinkedIn’s university platform and how as a tool this is being used by prospective students and alumni departments. 

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Building Satisfaction

The conversation doesn’t stop once a student applies to a university. If they receive offers from several, they then have to pick their favourite. Marketing to these students in the purgatory of UCAS could build their satisfaction and likelihood of choosing one university over another. It is worth considering that exam time is particularly stressful for students, as the outcome will likely have a huge impact on their future and which university they go to.

Dig deeper

When students reject an offer, it is important to find out the real reason. This data will be invaluable when planning next year’s marketing, especially if there is a consistent theme such as a hard to navigate website, uninspiring open day or confusion about a specific course. This data can be captured via a simple (or complex!) decliner survey. It may help boost respondents if it is incentivised.

Keep momentum

And then? The conversation must continue! Check out our blog post on how universities are using social media to keep engagement up and build a real sense of community.