Almost all student recruitment tactics now involve digital tools in some way, even if it’s something as simple as a poster featuring a QR code or an open day booked online. But operating as they are in a buyers’ market, higher education institutions are doing everything they can to grab potential students’ attention and using increasingly innovative ways of engagement.
But what does the catch-all term ‘digital recruitment’ mean in practice?
Gartner reports that 25% of customer service operations will involve virtual assistants by 2020 and many universities are already using chatbots
Ask a digital friend
It means every aspect of digital engagement is being harnessed to assist students in their quest to find the ideal place to study. Even blockchain technology – used in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin – is being utilised by UK-based Education Index in Libereka, its platform that enables international students to apply to multiple universities with a single form and one set of documents.
More familiar tech-like digital assistants are also increasingly popular; Gartner reports that 25% of customer service operations will involve virtual assistants by 2020 and many universities are already using chatbots – unimpeded by opening hours or time zones – for student enquiries.
Leeds Beckett’s ‘Becky’ held 20,000 conversations during 2018 clearing, while Lancaster’s digital friend ‘ASK L.U.’ launched earlier this year.
Effective search is essential
But before universities adopt more bells-and-whistles tools, they need to hone the fundamentals of their digital recruitment strategy. For software company Zengenti, which helps universities like King’s College London, London School of Economics and Political Science and University of Brighton harness the marketing power of their websites with content-optimising software, that often means perfecting search facilities.
One recent large-scale, data-heavy project involved developing King’s new course search. CEO Richard Chivers says: “For any university, the courses and study area of their digital estate is often the most important: this is where Google search queries will land and where most prospective students spend the majority of their time.”
Therefore, accurate, effective search is essential, as finding the right information gives students a positive view of their potential university. While Chivers notes that technical implementation using Elasticsearch combined with Zengenti’s APIs is straightforward, the challenges come from modelling and curating content in a way that delivers users’ needs from the beginning, rather than as an afterthought.
“Having search as a bolt-on you add later will give the most disconnected experience,” Chivers cautions, adding that third-party search engines don’t allow for optimum content integration, meaning that, as content changes over time, “search will often fall behind”.
Students are better informed than ever, so now they are taking their time, assessing what universities have to offer and making a choice
Telling a story
University of Wolverhampton’s digital & creative services manager, David Allen, also views the website as a university’s most important digital recruitment tool, requiring “a simple and engaging experience for the user, with clear calls to action”. To that end, Wolverhampton worked with Granite Digital to revamp its site, changing text-laden pages to bring together multiple data sources in a dynamic, visually striking layout with behaviour-triggered animation that drives users to action.
Wolverhampton’s website is not just a list of options, Allen says; it’s a storytelling device, capturing university experience and allowing prospective students to picture themselves studying there. “The new site features a range of components that help us tell these stories, such as case-study widgets and infographics for a course’s potential career paths,” he notes.
As part of the process, Wolverhampton and Granite conducted focus groups with sixth-formers, current students and alumni to define structure and design, revealing essential information for potential students that had hitherto been overlooked.
Allen says: “Areas such as student lifestyle, previously seen as less important, were crucial to prospective students, so areas like ‘university life’ are now one of the main points of navigation.”
The value of virtual tours
For students, visualising yourself at a university is fundamental in choosing where course fees will be spent; students “want to see what it’s really like and want to hear from actual students talking in their own words about a particular subject”, says Vicky Hayhurst, commercial director of Revolution Viewing, which works with over 90 universities, including Lancaster, Salford and Hull, to provide video, web, VR and 360 media for virtual tours and open days.
The company’s research shows 70% of students expect universities to offer virtual tours and 93% would be more likely to attend an open day after taking one. For Hayhurst, the challenge of this type of digital recruitment is to tease out the university’s uniqueness and showcase it in the most appropriate way. “Some universities have fantastic facilities, in which case the 360s work really well,” she says. “Other universities need to get across the personality of their campus, in which case videos work better.”
Different disciplines also present their own challenges, she says, and while “it’s easier to find more rich, engaging content with the more vocational courses” such as fashion, for theoretical subjects, such as maths, they focus on “brilliant facilities on campus: there’s a lot of money invested in shared learning spaces, libraries and things like that”.
Virtual tours also benefit in terms of diversifying the student body: for potential students abroad “it’s the best way to get a sense of space and place and facilities and subject”, according to Hayhurst, who notes virtual engagement is essential for people from less-privileged backgrounds, who can’t afford to visit a wide range of physical open days.
Seventy per cent of students expect universities to offer virtual tours and 93% would be more likely to attend an open day after taking one
Easing the pain of clearing
And what happens when results day comes around and many students face clearing? These potential new students can download a dedicated app to consolidate different options and simplify the sometimes bewildering choices. Launched by University Compare in 2016, the Clearing App has been downloaded 275,000 times and is used by an estimated 35% of clearing students; on results day this year, 128,000 users signed in.
CEO Owen O’Neill says that the aim of the app is to make results day “as pain-free as possible”, achieving this by streamlining the process into a series of simple stages, including university rankings, quick-call and push notifications.
O’Neill cites the example of one user who opened the app, made a call and was offered a place within seven minutes of receiving results.
Although the facility for lightning-quick reaction is available, O’Neill points out that many clearing students now take more time deciding, a change he’s observed since the app began. “Clearing as a recruitment period has changed so much in such a short time,” he says. “Initially, we saw a large portion of calls processed in the first four hours but now the data shows students are patient and well aware that the power sits with them, not the other way around. Students are better informed now than ever, so now they are taking their time, assessing what universities have to offer and making a choice.”
Personalisation: the key to future student recruitment
If this is where universities are now with digital recruitment, where will things take them in the future? O’Neill predicts that the desktop will become obsolete as everything goes mobile, with students choosing a university in the same way prospective homebuyers choose a house, since “consumers are wise and time-conscious, and they certainly won’t be visiting 15 university websites to see where they should study”.
Zengenti’s Richard Chivers says that very precise personalisation of student experience will be key to future recruitment, in what he calls “joined-up data analysis”, connecting systems so that universities can understand all the different touchpoints of their potential students, “from when they have attended an open day, what they are interested in on a site, which emails they are interested in, and how we can help them”.
It’s something that Chivers believes deserves considerable investment – of both time and money – that isn’t being given yet. “I know of organisations that are spending hundreds of millions of pounds building physical things, with digital budgets of less than £200K,” he says.
Revolution Viewing’s Vicky Hayhurst also sees personalisation as a key future tool, and her company is responding by creating products that allow universities to create videos based on what courses students have applied for and where they live.
Wolverhampton is tapping into the VR revolution by offering virtual tours of the university using VR headsets, meaning that prospective students can use Google Street View to ‘walk’ around campuses from a browser or their phone app.
Allen says that the website and virtual tours let “users to get a sense of our campus and its facilities, then speak with staff or current students online to mirror the friendly, personable experience they would ordinarily get at an on-campus event”.
Nik Higgins, co-founder and chief strategy officer at The Access Platform, comments on this vital recruitment tool
“We believe in the power of peer recruitment – the concept of working with your current students to help recruit new ones. Why is it so powerful? Well, it really helps a prospective student make the best decision for their future; peer recruitment can help them decide if they can see themselves studying at a university, and it helps them gather as much information as they need. They feel empowered and confident.
“Through peer-to-peer conversations, prospects also get the direct, personal and human touch they want when choosing their university.
“We believe in peer recruitment because it works. The data from our customers underlines this: a 24% prospect-to-applicant conversion rate, 100x attributed ROI, and one of our partners doubled its normal applicant-to-enrolment conversion rate within just
“We’ve stopped seeing peer recruitment as just part of student recruitment. We believe peer recruitment is student recruitment, because it redefines how universities engage with young people, regardless of where they are in the world.”
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