Manage your market

Nicola Yeeles takes a look at some of the best higher education recruitment and retention techniques in the digital age

The internet has created a unique opportunity to give the university a real identity for prospective students. But how do you join up the online and offline conversations into something that translates into a real recruitment drive and ends with successful retention?

Know your audience

David Hudson, Teesside University’s deputy director of external relations, says his University is keenly aware of the challenge of communicating authentically in a digital world. He says: “We’ve worked hard to understand the student expectation. Most students like to receive the majority of communications digitally – for example through social media and through direct emails. We have a brand new customer relationship management system which helps us manage all our communications for undergraduate and postgraduate applicants. But there is a balance to be struck between pure digital approach and element of tangible communications – nothing beats an applicant pack dropping through your letterbox.”

Of course, for each student thinking about higher education, there is a whole host of others helping them with that decision. Teesside University has a high proportion of students from low socio-economic backgrounds, but also boasts one of the best retention rates. David says: “It’s also about communicating with influencers like parents and teachers. They consume data in a different way, perhaps through the press. It’s not just about communicating with prospective students.”

Knowing your target audience is vital. The University of Birmingham may have a different one to Teesside, but it’s clear that tailoring the marketing remains important. English department admissions and recruitment co-ordinator Sophia Robertshaw says: “The vast proportion of our target undergraduate market at Birmingham are looking for University: it’s ‘where do I go?’ not ‘do I go?’ For postgraduates, it’s more of a decision, so people are more likely to be swayed by advertising or by something that captures their interest.”

Getting your voice heard

Every university in the country has a Twitter account. So even more important than the audience is the content of recruitment material. David says: “You need to give out a quality message that answers the question: why should they click through? Think about how you stand out in the marketplace, and why you are looking like a favourable option. We have an in-house creative team with knowledge of the sector and they design our campaigns so that they feel they speak to our market.”

It’s also vital that recruitment does not make the later retention of those students difficult by selling to the wrong markets. David explains: “There’s no point whatsoever in promising the earth.

We work really hard on making sure that what we’re putting out there meets the reality if they come to Teesside: a very positive student experience.”

One challenge in recruitment can be giving a single voice to a university with so many distinct parts. Promoting a hashtag can offer an opportunity to weave a thread through the various conversations going on online. For instance, the #hellobrum campaign saw offline engagement as people responded to a nationwide poster campaign and posted videos of themselves holding the hashtag – whether current or prospective Birmingham students.

When a student first approaches the University, they may need information from a number of University departments from accommodation to student fees. Centralising their contact can help to reduce the ‘noise’ that they face. But amidst the lists of data on prospective students, personalising their application experience is a challenge that many universities are facing digitally. Sophia says: “Applicants have probably enquired about eight different universities and they can only go to one of them, so we send them information to keep them excited. At the point of application, each one gets a personalised video. On A-level confirmation day this year each successful applicant got a personalised news report and a lot of students did share them on Facebook.”

Challenges of retention

The challenge of retaining those students starts the moment they accept their offers, and one way to encourage them is to create a buzz around induction.

“Social media is a great way of showing that an organisation can be as excited about the start of term as students are,” says Dave Musson, senior online communications officer (social media) at the University of Warwick.

During their induction weekend the University promoted #Warwick2014, encouraging people to share what was happening as they arrived to start the term. Dave explains: “One of the added benefits was that other people on the campus get involved. A lot of it was practical, also things happening here and there – it really did engage the campus community as a whole.”

Another example was their February 2014 campaign #LoveWarwickUni which linked to an offline event inviting students to show their gratitude to donors by writing on a piece of paper what they’d like to thank the donors for and hold those signs up. This also included a competition for students to enter their most creative ‘THANK YOU’, won by the trampolining society who portrayed the letters mid-air. Alumni were also involved in sharing memories of their time at Warwick.

Getting current students to engage on social media can be tricky because they are busy working and socialising. Warwick pay them. For £25 a month, students produce two blog posts – which then form a useful corpus of information for prospective students. “The blog posts offer a window on campus for people on the outside looking in. We give them the freedom to write it as they want – it’s so much more powerful than any marketing material we could come up with.” Students write on topics such as study and revision tips, “a day in the life of…”, sports results and campus tips. Year abroad students’ posts also prove popular.

One engineering student has set himself the challenge of writing a post per day, suggesting that students value the chance to engage, too. Similarly, at the University of Birmingham, students are paid to post in the University’s Facebook group to start the conversation between prospective and current students.

At Teesside, student engagement typically comes through the students’ union. David says: “In the central marketing team, we use a lot of current students, talking to them about their experiences at Teesside. We’ve also got an excellent relationship with the students’ union. If we want a message to go out with the student voice, it is more genuine coming from them.”

Effective data join-up is crucial in tracking students’ progress and ensuring good retention, and savvy universities have staff trained to monitor that progress and make sure no-one falls through the net. Factors that put learners at risk of not continuing included being a man, being from specific black or minority ethnic backgrounds, or a lower socio-economic group, a mature student, studying part-time, and studying locally, although this does not suggest causation. At Teesside, for example, retention officers in each of the academic schools offer advice, guidance and support, both financial and academic. 

What’s next?

Universities across the country are already using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn to engage with prospective and current students, and alumni. So what’s next? Dave Musson has sage advice for social media fans: “With the newer networks, people will feel like they want to jump in because they’re growing but you need to take a step back and look at who’s using those networks.”

While not convinced about WhatsApp for academic use, Dave says: “Instagram is growing in popularity especially for international students. Pictures of campus give them a flavour of where they might be studying.” Similarly, Birmingham has noticed overseas students enjoying their virtual open days showcasing videos, virtual tours and online chats with staff and students.

Meanwhile, many institutions are increasingly keeping an eye on the Student Room. A very active community, this site can help universities identify the issues that are concerning students so that they can respond appropriately.

If students are using their smartphones for internet access, it makes sense to innovate there. At Teesside, a new student app has seen impressive numbers of current and prospective students sign up to get access to Blackboard, room changes and cross-campus information.

The Higher Education Academy recently found that 94% of UK undergraduate students surveyed in 2010–11 were continuing with, or had completed, their studies so it’s clear that such strategies applied nationwide, are working. The challenge for next year will be finding where the students are moving online, and being there to greet them.

Picture courtesy of BIS

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