Emma Darwin is CEO and Co-Founder of Union Spaces, a community-led technology that helps universities design virtual and hybrid student recruitment strategies, and an HE events consultant with her own practice advising universities around the world.
Covid-19 has permanently disrupted the events landscape. This time last year, many universities were rapidly trying to work out how to take their recruitment events online and planning their approach. Many we spoke to then were telling us they just needed to get through summer and were planning live events again in the autumn.
It would be unfair to criticise as we were entering uncharted waters. Most were rushing out to buy platforms, or retrofitting and piecing together existing platform subscriptions to host their recruitment events and engagement activities.
With the vaccine programme underway in many of the leading HE markets, and the prospect of life returning to some sense of normality, what next for student recruitment?
The pandemic has acted as a catalyst for change. Online events have helped universities to rapidly evolve their proposition for future students.These changes have allowed them to take advantage of a range of benefits – broadening reach, introducing personalised always-on experiences, offering rich data and insight on their applicants.
Habits have been broken and traditional ways of working have changed in both camps. In a short space of time online events have created a firm place for themselves in universities’ recruitment strategies.The big question now isn’t whether or not universities have the wherewithal to embrace new, digital recruitment processes. It is how much recruitment teams yearn for the past or, on the other hand, how evenly distributed is the sense that we have witnessed in the teams we are working with, that new digital-first methods for engaging prospective students are an opportunity to radically improve the onboarding process, both now and for the foreseeable future.
As the UK specialist HE information service provider Jisc put it in a recent report, any institution that has not, even now, put in place a long-term digital strategy will be at a competitive disadvantage.
Future students have never had so much information and opportunity to engage with universities virtually. Will they expect engagement to shift back towards the physical: face-to-face meetings and events? Or will they expect to choose between physical OR virtual, without feeling that either is a compromise?
The question isn’t whether hybrid events, which have existed in sport and television for years, are likely the new standard: it is how quickly university teams can restructure their marketing, recruitment, engagement and widening participation teams to discover new economies of scale and, in the medium term, an acutely improved return on investment.
One event, with two experiences, allows organisers to host both in-person and virtual attendees all at the same time around one core experience without adding to production costs. Hybrid events allow the organiser to take the true value of an event and maximise its impact, while providing a continuous attendee experience.
Just as, following the unevenly distributed MOOC revolution, Universities are already taking their tentative first steps into hybrid learning experiences. As they adopt new understandings, skills and strategies, most will embark on another chapter of evolution in the way they engage tomorrow’s students and will start to incorporate a virtual element to all of their events. Key to the success of this strategic advance is investing in the right technology stack as a foundation for the institution to build upon.
With marketing budgets not getting any bigger, now more than ever universities need to work smarter instead of harder to deliver their recruitment events. Processes such as registration, attendee communications, hosting of sessions (face to face or virtually), user data and insight – ought logically to all be done in the one place, with one data view and one point of consent.
As William Gibson once wrote, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. The risk universities have faced for years is that they fall out of touch with the modern behaviours and expectations of their young charges. Now the sector has had a jolt and a growing number of university leaders are waking up to the fact this is the moment they have been waiting for. The future is here and many universities are recognising the sensible decision now is to lean into it. Only the very bravest will yearn for the past.
If you’re interested to find out more about how Union Spaces can help you as you embark on this next chapter, please get in touch at [email protected].