Rich Experiences Strategy virtual open days

Top 10 virtual student recruitment take-aways for 2020 – Universities UK Marketing and Communications Conference

What have the UK’s universities learned about virtual student recruitment this year?

UUK Conference - Virtual Student Recruitment Events Discussion
Events and marketing teams at universities are some of the heroes of 2020 and here are a few!

Last week I had the fun job of hosting a session at the Universities UK Marketing and Communications Conference, on the topic of Virtual Student Recruitment Event. I was joined by the fabulous events pros – Beth Prescott (Head of Events and Ceremonies – Queen Mary University London), Fiona Blair (Director of Marketing, Communications and Engagement – University of Reading), Laura Delfitto (Associate Director: Global Marketing – University of London) and Amanda Gregory (Chief Operations Officer – Univer). Thank you to everyone who participated in our session – it felt like 90 minutes of pure therapy, as we took stock of 2020 and started to think about what next for recruitment events. Here are my top 10 take-aways from our discussion. 

1. Wow! It never ceases to amaze me the incredible dedication, skill and sheer resilience events professionals continually demonstrate. Earlier this year, many universities were left in the dark as the well-oiled events machine was turned on its head. Universities have had to quickly pivot online to keep the engagements going.  Our lively session was filled to the brim with best practice and case studies of great work. It’s only natural to think about how we can evolve our virtual recruitment events strategies, but I hope everyone is taking a well-earned pat on the back before diving into virtual recruitment events strategy 2.0.

2. Approach. To deliver an impactful virtual event you need to adopt the right approach – it’s not just about picking up the physical and popping it online. It’s not just about the creative concepts or technology that you adopt that will help you engage your future students. It needs a critical shift in mindset about how to approach open days in a virtual world. At the start of the planning process, it is important to identify the outcomes you want to achieve from the event and then have a blank sheet of paper and work backwards from there.  Don’t fall into the trap of taking the programmes you deliver at your face-to-face recruitment events and sticking them online, as this won’t work for your audience, faculty or you as organisers.

3. Authenticity. Applicants have never had so much information at their disposal to support their university decision making process. It’s important that universities strike the right balance, and think about how they convey their message and by what means. 

4. Be audience-centric. Unlike a face-to-face event, it is very easy for an audience member to leave a virtual event if it fails to meet the mark. Virtual events can be more personal than face-to-face, and done right, can be more meaningful – if planned and delivered in the right way using the right platform.  In order to prevent zoom-fatigue, ensure that you play to all the advantages of virtual events – on-demand content, personalised content, experiential sessions, access anywhere on any device – all of these elements help build engagement. One size doesn’t fit all and it certainly shouldn’t be applied across the entire applicant journey.

5. Content is king. Working in a virtual environment is a lot more exposing, so it’s important that you follow the right production process when creating and developing your content for your virtual recruitment events. Create content that plays to the advantage of being digital.   Allow for more time when developing your content and ensure that you follow a robust production process when it comes to working with your speakers. To set you up for success on the day,  don’t underestimate the need for multiple briefings, training and rehearsals.  Depending on the nature of the content (and perhaps the speaker) pre-recording your sessions can be a good option. 

6. Data, data, data. One of the huge advantages that virtual events present is the audience data and insights that are captured at your event. Recruitment teams have never had so much data at their fingertips, allowing you to get closer to your audience, understand what they really want, and adapt your approach along the applicant journey. 

7. Event managers of the future. Many event professionals have had to learn a whole new skill set  on the job this year, while forming new teams to deliver their virtual events offer. The job description for the events manager has evolved this year, and the skills that are needed within the team have developed. How are managers supporting their teams in this period of evolution? What formal skills and training to event managers now need within our institutions? I’m working with organisations on their team training plans.  We’ve been looking at:

  • professionalising online meetings
  • creative interaction tools 
  • streaming live events 
  • when to pre-record content

8. Technology. Options have come on leaps and bound this year. To keep your audience engaged you need to make the most of your content and platform. I have to declare a vested interest here. Since lockdown I’ve been underwhelmed by many of the online offerings. I’m now working with several institutions on a customisable on-line platform that I’m developing called Union Spaces that aims to offer much more than just an online event.

9. Virtual events are here to stay. In our session,  91% of participants believed that virtual student recruitment events are here to stay and are now part of business as usual for universities. Universities now need to find the headspace to take stock and review their entire recruitment events portfolio to date, to identify and plan how their face-to-face events and virtual events can complement one another and deliver the best applicant experience possible. 

10. Keep connected. If you’re interested in connecting with other event professionals I would encourage you to take a look at the Events in Education network, where you can connect and meet peers to share best practice and seek advice.

Social Impact Strategy

Investment in virtual student recruitment is the right strategy, irrespective of Covid-19

Building a fully-integrated virtual student recruitment strategy for applicants is the right long-term move, financially and socially

“The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated digital adoption across the global HE sector, leading to what may have been the world’s largest experiment in rapid digital transformation.”

So wrote Emerge Education’s Alexander Iosad in August of this year, summarising conversations with 40 senior HE executives. Two months on and the transformation triggered by Covid-19 continues apace.

In the short term, switching to a 100% virtual student-recruitment strategy is arguably the most responsible course of action.

But the shift to virtual events and communities which can truly inform and build applicants’ confidence will drive long-term social-impact and financial benefits too.

The greatest beneficiaries of the change will be groups who find it hard to get to face-to-face events: those who can’t afford to travel; the disabled; and those who have children or relatives to care for at home. That is to say those who are traditionally the targets of outreach and the widening-participation agenda.

Equally, better online open events will give international students – who tend to attend physical events in far lower numbers – greater confidence in applying, lifting international revenues for UK institutions.

Virtual student recruitment: paying over the odds

For universities however, the shift to 100% digital has so far been expensive.

The speed of the change meant some institutions we have spoken to were bounced into using the tools available at hand to support their virtual student recruitment strategy – those already approved and purchased by procurement functions – rather than those perhaps best suited and priced for the task.

Let’s take streaming video as an example. Streaming video content over the internet should be (and normally is) much cheaper than using a video-conferencing tool to do the same job. But at least two video-conferencing platforms (I won’t name, but you can guess) have profited handsomely from the rush to meet demands for virtual presentations at scale.

And this applies to a whole raft of technologies institutions have spliced together to replicate the modalities of face-to-face events: content hosting; video streaming; web chat; virtual event environments; CRM integration…

Student recruitment cost savings

… The list goes on and the costs of each platform stack up on each other, meaning institutions are paying far more than they should, or would, for a service which could deliver all that functionality on a single, next-generation platform.

The next cycle of virtual student-recruitment events is an opportunity for universities to take the strategic initiative and build high-quality, fully-integrated experiences for applicants, for the long term.

Once they do that well enough to meet applicant expectations, they will reap the rewards: across social impact in widening participation, domestic and international student recruitment, and cost savings as well.

Union Spaces puts all the technology features required for virtual recruitment into one cost- effective, scalable platform designed to meet a broad spread of university needs, including demonstrating value for money.

Simpler for your staff to use: there’s only one system to learn. And better for prospective students: one login leading to a consistent, branded experience which you control.