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Forced innovation: HE marketing and recruitment in a pandemic

In Education by Jen Steadman

The Covid-19 pandemic, and the global response to it, has forced most sectors to change. While some industries have had to make minor tweaks, higher education has been through a top to bottom overhaul. Everything, from fresher’s week to how course content is delivered, has been forced to change.

One key area of change has been how universities market themselves and drive student recruitment during this tumultuous period. In this article we explore some of the ways the pandemic has inspired innovation in these areas.

To find out more, we spoke with Mike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach at the University of Bath, along with Margaret Robertson, Brand and Campaigns Manager and Ali Clark, Head of Student Recruitment both from the University of Stirling. They shared with us how these changes have worked in practice and how the last year and a half will impact the future of marketing and recruitment at their universities.

Forced innovation that has worked

Shifting offline to online

With lockdown orders, travel restrictions and social distancing becoming a key defining feature of 2020 (and now 2021), universities have been forced to move online. But were there any positives to be gleaned from this unprecedented move?

“Open days were moved to virtual events which required us to revisit and create new engaging content,” says Margaret from the University of Stirling. As well as the shift from offline to online, the messaging itself had to change too. Margaret explained that there was a focus on messaging around safety, while keeping the university community connected. “We had to develop new ways of working creatively and with students when creating content through video and social, with more emphasis on providing information,” she added.

It was a similar story of swapping offline for online at the University of Bath. “The University moved very quickly in May 2020 to move our physical in-person activity online,” says Mike. This provided them with some unexpected opportunities. “In particular we recognised that the opportunity to engage digitally across different time zones increased our geographical reach for limited cost, and that the reduction in staff travel time meant that we had more capacity.”

The changes at universities up and down the country have been radical. “Used to promoting our courses and university, and advising students face to face, we had to quickly adapt to a virtual world. From adopting a new online platform for our open and applicant days, to getting to grips with a wide variety of platforms used for fairs from Teams Live, to Zoom, to VFairs and Airmeet,” says Ali from the University of Stirling. But it hasn’t all been for nothing. “Despite having to adapt to a way of life alien to student recruiters – who tend to be very social beings! – our application numbers have continued to grow,” she adds.

Spotting new opportunities

Instead of dwelling on the negative aspects of shifting predominately online, it has been beneficial to look for surprising positives. Take, for example, involving academic staff in the recruitment process, something that wouldn’t have been as easy to coordinate prior to the pandemic. “This has proved particularly helpful in engaging academic staff in recruitment work; they are happy to give up an hour to give a subject-focussed presentation online, but would not have the time to spend five days flying to China to do several school events,” says Mike.

Amplifying student voice

Given the major changes universities have had to undertake, it’s understandable that prospective students (and their parents) would want to know more. What happens if they have to go into lockdown? Are there opportunities like internships? How much time is spent on campus? What happens if your mental health suffers? “We have also used the opportunity to utilise the student voice in our activity, particularly when highlighting how the student experience has altered because of the pandemic,” says Mike.

We all know word-of-mouth marketing is powerful, but it may be even more important in the current climate. And getting answers from real life students ensures reassurance is provided in an authentic way.

How does it work in practice? Mike shares how they have adopted the use of student voice at The University of Bath: “We have expanded use of students in conversion activity (phone and online) with offer holders, as well as having them blog, vlog, tik tok and contribute to webinars on our skills support, transition between school and university, mental health provision, careers and placements activities as well as the more traditional admissions and accommodation talks and presentations.”

Building virtual experiences

There is almost endless scope to transition in-person events to online. “As we currently don’t have the constraints that travel brings, we have been able to expand into new markets, and try out new things. Our academic taster series has proved exceptionally popular both with UK and international students,” says Ali.

One particularly successful example of this at the University of Bath is their summer school programme. “The in-person summer schools have also transitioned effectively to online events, with a much greater capacity for student participation, as we are not limited by accommodation or room sizes, and geographical reach (no travel costs/immigration issues to participate),” says Mike.

Creating bespoke content

Given the range of backgrounds of prospective students, it can be challenging to ensure all of their questions are answered at an in-person event. Some issues that may seem niche and irrelevant to a large proportion of students could be the deciding factor for a handful of students. And this is another area where online delivers.

“The move to more online activity has also allowed us to provide more tailored sessions for teachers and guidance advisers, again drawing in expertise from the wider campus community to run sessions on immigration issues, fees and funding assessments, student services and support provision, as well as sessions on specific international qualifications systems,” says Mike.

It has also allowed them to participate in a wider range of activities. “The University has also contributed to teacher conferences organised by third party providers (e.g., UCAS, CIALFO, Council of International Schools, IACAC) and staff training for educational charities (Brilliant Club, Welsh Government’s Seren programme, IntoUniversity),” adds Mike.

Forced innovation that hasn’t worked

Online isn’t always best for events

Just because an event can be moved online, doesn’t always mean it’s a good idea. “The old style UCAS HE Fair for pre-applicants have had limited success in engaging students in 1:1 discussions,” says Mike. “Platform capacity, time-consuming set-up structures that don’t transfer from event to event, and ‘add-on’ features that rarely merited the additional costs have all had a part to play in this outcome.”

The global nature of these events can also have unintended negative consequences. “Event organisers also seem to struggle to convert initial registrations and expressions of interest to actual participants, with take up sometimes well below 20%, often spread over many more hours than the physical events to allow global participation,” says Mike.

Managing expectations

While Ali tells us there haven’t been any disasters, they have had to manage expectations at certain events. “One of the difficulties has been managing the expectations of staff assisting with live chat on virtual open days. Most are used to the buzz and hubbub of an on-campus open day, and despite a good number of registrations, the conversion rate is never as good as a physical event,” she says.

Zoom fatigue

Zoom dominated 2020 and as a result, many people have understandably grown weary of video conferencing. “Zoom/Teams fatigue has also set in for many students and teachers. Generic activity is less attractive particularly as many universities now have good on-demand recorded sessions for some of the staple presentations e.g. How to make an application through UCAS, writing a personal statement,” says Mike.

Lessons for the long-term

As the pandemic’s grip on the world is set to loosen, we wanted to find out which lessons are here to stay. What forced innovation will shape the future of student recruitment and higher education into the rest of 2021 and beyond?

Hybrid approach

The benefits of digital engagement have never been clearer – so what does that mean for in-person marketing and events? “It is likely that we will have a hybrid approach to recruitment work, with greater use of digital engagement to maintain the wider contact that has been established in the last eighteen months,” says Mike.

It is a similar story at the University of Stirling. “Going forward, we will definitely be adopting a hybrid approach, taking the best of both worlds. We will still use virtual activity to reach stakeholders (prospective students, parents, counsellors, etc) who are unable to visit the campus or access the events we are attending, particularly international students,” says Ali. “Although to a certain extent virtual fatigue has set in, this remains a cost-effective way to reach a wider audience,” she adds.

Question everything

Sometimes it takes a major shakeup to question the use of certain activities or ideas.
Take for example, hardcopy marketing literature. “The value of hardcopy prospectuses once again becomes an issue to discuss for future application cycles, particularly if higher education fairs and open days remain more limited in scope,” says Mike.

But keep what works

While it is a smart idea to analyse the benefit of pre-pandemic marketing and recruitment activities with a fresh perspective, they shouldn’t be discounted purely on the basis that they weren’t required last year. “Another lesson we have learned is that people are keen to get back to ‘normality’ and that nothing beats seeing the campus for yourself,” says Ali. “Our virtual campus tour was a godsend during the pandemic, however since opening up bookings for tours of the campus at the start of June, we have been inundated,” she adds.

In conclusion…

The pandemic has forced the higher education sector to adapt, and fast. Never before have we witnessed such large, collective change and though no doubt daunting to implement, some of the resulting forced innovation has proved a huge success. Shifting events from offline to online allowed for universities to engage digitally over different time zones, without the need for expensive travel, which in turn freed up academic staff to spend more time on recruitment.

Universities also used it as a chance to amplify student voice, to add a critical element of authenticity to the new messaging around what university life would look like. The pandemic also provided universities with the chance to experiment with different virtual experiences – like summer schools and taster sessions – along with creating a range of in-demand, niche content so that everyone was able to get their questions answered.

Of course, not everything was a runaway success. Not all events translate well to online and in turn expectations surrounding conversion rates needed to be managed. There was also the matter of zoom fatigue to contend with.

Ultimately though, the pandemic has delivered some interesting lessons that the higher education sector can utilise in the future. It’s interesting that both of the universities we spoke with plan on adopting a hybrid model for recruitment and marketing going forward.

The pandemic has also forced the sector to ask whether certain marketing and recruitment ideas, like hardcopy prospectus, could be outdated. It also highlighted the areas that were really missed, and thus important, to prospective students, like real life campus tours.