Attracting, recruiting and retaining students

Keri Beckingham finds out how universities are attracting and retaining today’s students

In today’s competitive HE landscape, it’s never been more important for universities to make themselves stand out to prospective students, as well as build relationships with their existing cohort. But how can universities join up digital recruitment drives with successful student retention? 

With 559,030 people from the UK applying to start university courses in 2018, it’s clear that HE is still a popular choice. But what are the key things that universities need to keep in mind when it comes to attracting students and then retaining them?

It’s important for different departments to work together more closely to ensure a seamless recruitment experience

Gavin Newman, director at iVent, believes that joining up virtual student recruitment with student retention is paramount, which is one of the reasons that they have created their new Uni Connect live chat system to facilitate peer-to-peer communication and improve engagement. Discussing this further, he says: “This encourages ongoing communication, so that potential students and successful applicants have the opportunity to liaise frequently at any stage of their recruitment to the university, building rapport and, indeed, providing reassurance that they have made the right choice for them with the ability to ask questions at any time in the process.”

Phill Brown is technical director at Roundhouse Digital, who have worked with the University of Winchester. With the change to university fees in 2012, the focus on student recruitment increased and, he believes, the retention of students became more significant due to the monetary implications if a student drops out of their course, which now represents a loss in revenue. In addition, Phill thinks it’s important for different departments to work together more closely to ensure a seamless recruitment experience.

Commenting further, he says: “Through our work with universities across the UK and internationally, we often see internal departments that are heavily siloed in their work. For example, student recruitment teams are often the first point of contact for new students but, once they are on campus, they are passed on to a different department. 

“The change between teams can be jarring for a student, with the excitement and enthusiasm of recruitment messages not replicated for current ones. There is also a challenge for universities around how they evaluate data in order to assess the experience sold versus the one received.”

Integrity is key

Universities should concentrate on promoting their student experience, both to prospective students and current ones

Sander Kristel is executive director of UCAS Media, and in the past few years he has seen universities change their approach to student marketing in order to ensure the right fit in terms of both institution and course. In his opinion, as students no longer just consider a university’s performance during the recruitment process, it’s important for institutions to effectively market the experience that they’ll offer students, too, which means telling their story in a more transparent way through user-generated content – something that has been around for some time now. 

He says: “The difference is it’s now sitting at the heart of many campaigns and providing a genuine view of a university, or it could be through facts and information that focus on things other than the course performance – anything that provides a broader view on what a university will be like adds to the story.”

In addition, Phill Brown believes that as there is increased scrutiny on universities to ensure they are delivering the experience they are advertising, integrity is more important than ever for recruitment drives. He adds: “I believe universities should concentrate on promoting their student experience, both to prospective students and current ones. 

“This is particularly effective through case studies that add a third-party authenticity to student experience messages – choose someone with a good social following and you have a great organic sales channel.”

The latest digital innovations

The ever-changing digital landscape has enabled universities to connect with their prospective and current students in new and innovative ways. At iVent, they have seen a shift in 2018 towards the use of student ambassadors and peer-to-peer communications as part of university digital recruitment drives. Commenting further, Gavin Newman says: “I believe engagement is the real key for successfully recruiting students digitally. While live chat and instant messaging aren’t exactly innovative, we have been offering it as part of our full virtual events package for universities for almost a decade now and, certainly, there has been an increase in ‘live chat’ or student match-up type technologies on the market.”

In addition, Roundhouse Digital has seen universities increase investment in the user experience of their websites in order to make them as seamless for prospective and current students to use as possible. 

As Phill Brown explains: “With universities often shouting about innovation and being forward-thinking, it could be seen as hypocritical not to embody this digitally.

“An omni-channel experience is what many organisations, not just universities, are travelling towards. While this presents its own challenges in terms of systems and content, for the user it represents a truly seamless digital experience.” 

Data and market intelligence

When it comes to collecting and analysing data about a university’s current audience, marketing campaigns and acquisition channels, what key things do institutions need to keep in mind?

Sander Kristel believes that having a deep understanding of their market, who their competitors are, and where they have the potential to grow is essential in order to analyse their audience at a micro level. He says: “Historically, marketing teams might have wanted to send out broad marketing campaigns to capture as many people as possible, then spend time filtering out those who weren’t a fit for the university. But now, by doing the analysis upfront, they’re able to target properly and convert more accurately – through personalised messaging and with a deeper understanding of the drivers.”

In Phill Brown’s opinion, data is everything. He also believes that it’s important for universities to ensure that they have a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data to analyse, too. He adds: “For student recruitment, it has to come down to acquisition channel reporting on key data capture areas within your conversion tracking – what is or isn’t causing prospective students to sign up, leave an enquiry, or attend an open day? 

“Make sure you have your key goals in mind, and set up tracking on each acquisition channel to measure which channel is the most effective for recruiting students. 

As well as quantitative data, ensure you are also gaining qualitative information for a more rounded picture. This can be through face-to-face interviews or stakeholder groups, as well as online surveys.”

According to Gavin Newman, universities should focus on identifying trends from the data they analyse, in order to help shape their future recruitment and retention strategies. He says: “At a glimpse, a university can see what questions prospective students are asking, can instantly identify trends and can see which information they provide is the most read or downloaded. They can easily identify the most popular and, to that end, the least popular areas; they can even see how many times a video has been watched. 

“This is all useful market intelligence for creating future events and helping with targeted recruitment campaigns.”

Case studies

Staffordshire University

Staffordshire University is currently rolling out a new website, which uses a CMS designed for data handling, in order to enhance its student recruitment process. Discussing its digital activity in more detail, Rich Shepherd, marketing manager, said: “We use a dedicated virtual events platform to help facilitate webinars, live chats, student ambassador contact and to interact with international or distance learning students. 

“Of course, we also use the staples – Google Analytics, social media platforms (alongside dedicated social listening software), a live chat client on the website and internal systems to manage workflows, processes and resources.”

Loughborough University

At Loughborough University, integrity and transparency is something that is very important when it comes to recruiting and retaining students, and it has just become the first UK university to allow potential applicants, their teachers and families to read reviews from current students. 

Discussing the work that they have been doing to increase personalisation within their recruitment process, Emma Leech, director of marketing and advancement, says: “Nobody wants to be a bum on a seat – I don’t, and I don’t believe anyone would like to think about themselves that way, so why should we believe it’s OK to treat students like that? 

“That’s why Loughborough was also the first to introduce personalised good luck cards to all applicants who get a firm offer with us, complete with a handwritten, personalised note linking them to clubs, societies, sports teams and/or support based on their unique UCAS application statement.”

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