In the current political climate, both in the UK and internationally, higher education institutions are doing all they can to grow their application count. We provide some solutions as to how this can be done successfully and cost effectively, through marketing.
The big - and complex - admissions picture today
With the revised A levels very much in full swing this year, students and teachers will be doing all they can to brush up applications ready for the impending January UCAS deadline. New linear courses that no longer count as results towards the final grade are making it all the more difficult for education professionals to predict final results.
Alongside this, the basis on which universities are accepting new students is diversifying and extending beyond academic grades. In the words of Janet Graham, Director of Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA), “a lot more is happening now than someone looking at a bunch of applications and making a decision.”
What else is having an impact on university admissions?
Numerous factors are making the university admissions process more complex than ever before. Raising the amount of applications of candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds remains firmly on agenda, and there is no longer a cap on the number of students a university can recruit. Despite this, university applications are in decline.
Data from UCAS reveals that the number of candidates in the UK applying to university fell by 5% to 25,000, and - perhaps unsurprisingly - the number of EU students planning to study in the UK dropped by 7% this year.
In response to the even sharper decline in those applying as mature students, Professor Les Ebdon of Fair Access to Higher Education commented: “Universities and colleges should look to do what they can to reverse the decline in mature student applications as a matter of urgency.”
Best practice: What should universties be doing?
As ever, it helps to look at working examples; instances where univerversity are using marketing to successfully engage with and thus recruit more students onto campus. Whereas universities used to rely on school visits, open days and bulky paper prospectuses, nowadays they have a whole plethora of online (and offline) recruitment tactics at their fingertips, such as email campaigns for admissions.
With over 150 HEIs in operation in the UK and tuitions fees set to rise to £9,250 per year (starting at £6,486 for postgraduates), choosing a university is not a decision students take lightly, so effective branding is key. Universities need to embed themselves in student’s consciousness before the application process begins by staying ahead of the curve when it comes to marketing and technology.
Social media enables HEIs to engage with prospects and alumni, as well as the core student body. Build a relationship with students in the run-up to the application process by showing them what it's like to be on campus and in the classroom: demonstrate how will they be expected interact in a seminar context, for instance.
The University of Southern California (USC) ran a hugely successful social media campaign for prospects when they realised the matter of student housing kept repeating itself time and again in queries. In response to this, they created a YouTube series inspired by MTV’s reality show Cribs, providing viewers with an insight into what living in a dorm is like.
As well as the number of views reaching the thousands, USC accelerated the campaign’s engagement levels even furtherby getting prospective students to vote for their favourite dorm.
Finally, remember to utilise analytics to its full potential; analyse user behaviour in order to discern the type of content prospects are feeding off, and the type of content that turns them off. Use analytics to target marketing efforts to different cohorts more intelligently too.
Never underestimate the power of video when it comes to engagement, as proven in the aforementioned example. Video is one of the most recent marketing tools to be embraced by businesses and HEIs alike, and it's one of the most profitable when it comes to ROI. These days, high quality videos can be made well and cost effectively with a smartphone and some basic editing software.
When it comes to enticing prospects to apply to a university, trust is key. Written content, on first glance, can appear impersonal, whereas video speaks directly to the viewer and if done right, can be personal and inclusive. A personal approach will help give tentative applicants more trust in the institution’s ‘brand’ or ‘voice’.
And because people engage so much more with video, it’s great for SEO, enabling universities to climb higher up the competitive rankings. With this in mind, it’s important for marketers to to ensure that all videos are optimised for SEO through keyword-rich titles and descriptions with links to the university’s main website and relevant categories and tags. Transcripts can also be included where possible.
Again, analytics plays a key role in determining 'what went well' and where there is room for improvement. Currently, 35% of businesses are using advanced analytics to measure a video’s performance by looking at things like how long the viewer stays on the video for and whether it converts into a sale. Similarly, universities can use this data to determine whether a video leads to an enquiry or even an application.
In order to compete, universities cannot rely solely on organic promotion and communications. Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising is becoming an increasingly common mode of advertising amongst HEIs. It’s imperative that ads are planned carefully for each course and key word. Many universities increase their PPC budget at specific times of the year which is understandable, but in terms of reach and visibility it's important for them to keep ads running throughout the year as prospects can conduct research at any time.
It's also important to consider site links. GSM London’s ad copy catches the attention of the browser through the use of the abstract concept of ‘dreams’ and references reputable sources like The Guardian.
Paid advertising can also be done relatively cheaply on social media and has the potential to reach thousands of users. Using the relevant platform is key to finding the right target audience though - for instance, MBA programmes may use Linkedin ads to reach the relevant graduates in specific industries.
Universities that use customer relationship management systems (CRMs) are more likely to retain prospects from the initial point of contact through to enrollment. Having multiple marketing campaigns and recruitment efforts running simultaneously can be an organisational nightmare without a single point of delivery. A modern CRM for higher education allows universities to streamline their efforts, automate most communications and reflect on how well they have done through in-built analytics.
It makes sense that in order to increase their admissions rates, universities must communicate their brand to as many prospects as possible. However, they should never sacrifice quality for quantity. ‘Mass marketing’ should be avoided and replaced by targeted campaigns across a range of marketing channels. The next step is to nurture the relationship so that a prospect becomes an enrolled student, and an enrolled student develops into a happy alumni.