Roundtable: How to run a successful student recruitment campaign

With the student firmly placed as the buyer and universities fiercely competing to attract new students, in the third in our series Cathy Parnham talks to Zabrina Koser-Ahmed

Zabrina Koser-Ahmed is Student recruitment and marketing manager from Manchester University

Q. How has student recruitment marketing changed over the last five or so years?

It’s changed phenomenally! Our potential students have higher expectations from universities as they aim to get the best value based on their entry grades and the cost of university. The attention span of an 18-year-old has shrunk, so marketers need to communicate their messages quickly and creatively. Students expect to be treated as individuals through the recruitment journey, so we need to provide personalised experience and content. That’s challenging for an institution like Manchester that welcomes between 60,000–70,000 undergraduate applications per cycle. 

Unconditional offer-making strategies from competitors, with a decline in the population of 18-year-olds in the UK, creates a serious set of recruitment challenges and opportunities. As a result, we’re starting to see a greater recognition and professionalisation of student recruitment activity across the sector. There’s also a greater focus on international recruitment and the need to diversify our core markets.

Q. What are the key ingredients a successful student recruitment marketing campaign should have?

As with any campaign, SMART objectives are essential. Any campaign should be integrated – that means having the right team on a campaign including subject experts, content creators, admissions staff and marketing experts. You also need to have an articulate proposition and an understanding of the behaviours and motivations of your target market. An insight-led approach to utilising a timely multi-channel approach is critical. Making sure you can track as many of the touchpoints of your campaign will help you identify the most effective components and tweak the campaign. Finally, be creative – it’s crowded out there!

Q. What has been the most effective channel for targeting this September’s intake for UK-based students – and which for international?

We’re in the process of collating new student survey responses across my faculty to answer that question! However, we expect for UK undergraduate students, the biggest influence will be the on-campus activity through open days/interviews and post-offer visit days. For international students, our website and our in-country recruitment activity is likely to be the most influential. The reputation and ranking of the university seem to be proportionally more important for our international students than for our UK students.

Q. How important are digital tools to your recruitment strategy and what have you found to be the best-performing digital channel(s)?

Digital tools are essential to the recruitment journey, from pay-per-click activity to social media organic and paid-for campaigns, through to the e-newsletters utilised in conversion communications. We trialled a number of different digital channels for the 2019 intake and expect to use a wide range of channels this year to reach a global audience. Instagram is a powerful social media tool that’s used widely in most countries around the world and will feature heavily in our mix of channels this year. 

Q. When do you typically start your student recruitment marketing campaign and how?

Some of our long-term campaigns will run over a number of years, with key deliverables. I’ve just recruited a new team into the faculty, so we are in planning mode at the moment – unfortunately, that’s much later than I would like.

One of the campaigns my team is delivering is to increase undergraduate recruitment into one of our science departments. We have undertaken a substantial piece of research to understand student behaviour and we’re articulating the value proposition. A full content refresh of all our digital and offline assets is under way, with an integrated campaign plan being rolled out.

Q. Are there any key learnings you can share from your 2019 cohort recruitment drive? And how will these shape your current recruitment drive?

With a fantastic new team in place, we’re taking a fresh look at our recruitment activity across the spectrum. The behaviours of Gen Z are constantly changing, so we need to make sure we deliver marketing and recruitment campaigns that appeal to them quickly. We know most applicants don’t read much of the detailed content on websites until much later into the application process, so we need to provide much more audio and visual assets. We also need to increase our recruitment activity with key influencers.

Q. Tell us about any new recruitment marketing tools you have for the 2020 intake?

We’re investing in new technology in 2019 to support us in managing enquiries more effectively to ensure we convert as many qualified applicants into registered students. We’re also aiming to link potential students to current students and alumni to demonstrate the value of studying at Manchester.

A more co-ordinated approach to both our local and global outreach and engagement activity should help deliver short- and long-term benefits through increased awareness of study opportunities at Manchester, particularly for our recruiting subject areas.

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