The shifting landscape
Declining application numbers have been a shock to the system across the higher education sector and have led to several major shifts. This year we witnessed a squeeze at the top, with the highest ranked 20 institutions competing for the brightest. Russell Group universities accepted ABB in the summer which had a knock-on effect right down the rankings and led universities to rethink their recruitment strategies.
Students are aware that it’s a buyer’s market, so are now shopping around, visiting multiple campuses to find the perfect university for them. Others are leaving it later to apply and some are waiting until August in the knowledge that even higher ranked institutions will offer places through clearing and confirmation.
Last year St George’s University became the first to offer medicine through clearing. This year, universities that used to mop up their last few places on results day, still had courses available days after to accommodate for late demand. Most institutions now offer a clearing open day to engage with students before they apply.
Making a first impression
The university is a unique institution, in that it’s marketing team must work to a particular cycle, communicating with a largely new audience each year. This presents a great opportunity to fine-tune your brand over time.
As a result, it’s crucial to make a high quality and lasting first impression with each student, each year. It makes such a difference if potential students understand who you are and what you’re all about before they are signposted towards course lists, prospectuses and open days.
The power of your brand
With tightening budgets to work to, most unis are opting for high-intensity campaigns at key periods – January deadline, open days and clearing. This offers maximum impact and ensures that students are given every opportunity to register or apply. A downside of this strategy is that ads that feel transactional are less likely to influence students in making an important decision.
This problem is compounded by the intensity of competition for share of voice, making it hard to be heard above the crowd. Students are likely to see multiple university ads in a day, so how can any one ad stand out above the rest? Will students click on the first one they see? The most colourful? The most relevant? The most impressive stat?
Or will it be a brand that they have engaged with before and feel they recognise and want to explore further?
Education agency, SMRS, recently drew attention to the importance of brand in their HE marketing survey. 97% of respondents pointed to the increased importance of brand, above other recent impacts such as Brexit and the Teaching Excellence Framework.
When we talk about online brand engagement, we refer to the execution of meaningful, prolonged interactions with university content. Campaigns are often judged on the price of their clicks and the traffic they drive to a site, but this isn’t always the best way to build lasting and impactful brand awareness. Sometimes we should look beyond the click to really understand the results of a piece of activity.
We should consider the potential student’s experience and ask ourselves what students want from their interaction. If the aim is to win hearts and minds, we can’t be pushy, sending students to fill out a form without having something to offer. Universities are great at producing content but not so good at sharing it!
Departments, lecturers and student groups produce fascinating research every day and it’s exactly the kind of stuff that grabs attention and excites young people about getting stuck in and starting their student journey.
Be the one to spark that idea, that conversation, that inspiration, whilst quietly reinforcing your brand identity as an authority on the subject.
Engaging with a digital generation
The last few years have seen the rise of programmatic display ads which have led to campaigns that mine for direct response, opting for quantity over quality. At the same time, a digitally savvy generation has started holding advertisers to a higher standard. To have a chance of generating quality engagement with potential students, interactions have to become less transactional and more inspirational. To get engagement you must be engaging!