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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.

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Fostering Belonging virtual open days

Analysis: Pre-applicants worry virtual open days won’t meet their needs

Applicants need virtual open days to build confidence; right now they may be doing the opposite

Pre-applicant concerns about virtual open days 2020
Source: UCAS Media / YouthSite research: Planning for 2021 Understanding the mindset of the 2021 cohort and where they are in their decision making, 21st Sept 2020

Not being able to visit universities in person is the number one concern among pre-applicants, according to new research into virtual open days.

Or to put it another way, pre-applicants doubt that virtual open days will give them what they need to apply with confidence.

Yet virtual open days have increased in importance with the same cohort more than any other single factor, according to the research, published in late September.

It’s a bleak picture: pre-applicants believe their choice of university depends on their experience at virtual open events, but they don’t expect those events to meet their needs. A nasty catch-22 for 17-year-olds to face.

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Technology hindering, not helping

Disappointingly, our audit of 20 recent virtual open events suggests they are right to have low expectations.

We discovered many examples of poor experience which went beyond hard-to-use to seem, at times, simply unwelcoming. They included:

  • Two out of 20 events which were outright cancelled on the day due to technical problems.
  • Many events which capped visitor numbers due to technical constraints.
  • Events which required multiple logins to multiple services (registration, video login, chat login, and more) in order to participate.
  • Design and technical choices which excluded mobile devices.
  • ‘Non-native’ design choices (eg virtual exhibition halls) harking back to 1990s-style virtual shopping-malls – poor UX then and still poor now.

As the lockdown continues, the higher-education sector must provide rich, welcoming experiences for prospective applicants at virtual open days. Only then can they truly serve their needs and give them confidence in applying.

Exceed expectations

Universities must change how they execute their virtual open days to deliver the outcomes their visitors need to achieve (a sense of belonging, and confidence in applying), rather than slavishly trying to reproduce every aspect of a physical, face-to-face event.

How can they do this?

Firstly they must simplify access, both to the open event itself and to the content within it. 

Applicants have a right to expect virtual open days to be straightforward to use on any device, PC or mobile, and built to get them to the information and people they need to talk to, fast.

This means a single registration and login, giving access to everything included in the event: webchat, video, text content, Q&A, downloads, presentations, no exceptions. No limits on user volumes (this is the internet in 2020 for crying out loud!) and no geographic restrictions: content should be delivered as smoothly in China as it is in Chipping Norton.

Secondly, and most importantly, it must enable meaningful connection between the applicant and the institution at all levels. To establish this bond of trust, universities must create a welcoming virtual environment and build a network of trusted influencers around their visitors.

Union Spaces builds a network of influencers around prospective applicants at virtual open days

HE providers which are successful in delivering this will meet – and exceed – pre-applicant needs and expectations. This will in turn grow applications and offer-acceptance, building into a long-term virtual-recruitment strategy.

Union Spaces is a welcoming place where prospective students can meet faculty, students and fellow candidates. We build a sense of belonging through the selection process with discussions, events, 1-to-1 conversations and video, hosted on a single platform. 

By putting all the features required for virtual recruitment into one cost-effective, scalable platform, Union Spaces can also demonstrate value for money. Simpler for your staff to use: there’s only one system to learn. And simpler for prospective students: one login leading to a consistent branded experience which you control.

To find out more about Union Spaces, request a demo or download our introductory brochure.