Demand for on-campus events is high, but virtual and hybrid events must be a key part of your strategy or you could be missing out on high-calibre applicants.

The recently published SMRS survey showed that there is still a high demand for on-campus open days. It is likely that virtual events will never replace these in-person experiences but digging a little deeper, what does it mean for student recruitment strategy?

There have been several articles over the last 18 months since the first lockdown began in March 2020 exploring how a more virtual world has impacted introverts vs extroverts. From my own experience as a self-identifying introvert, I loved working from home. I was more productive, able to concentrate much easier but still able to connect daily with colleagues via Teams. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been great getting back out and seeing people but the pandemic has definitely influenced how I approach the world now. On the flip side, several colleagues absolutely hated working from home and almost immediately were desperate to get back to ‘normal’. But I think we all know that what was the norm pre-2020 will not return exactly as it was. The pandemic has placed more of a spotlight on those of us that thrive on more alone time, and we are starting to demand more, for the world to adapt a bit more to us rather than the other way round.

So how does this relate to student recruitment?

The SMRS survey showed that more than 50% of applicant respondents found a virtual open day influential in their decision-making process. In particular, they valued the ability to speak directly to faculty and tailored content relevant to the courses they were most interested in. As a result, over 80% then said that the virtual open day made them more interested in visiting the university in person to see the site, meet peers and faculty.

Of course what we don’t know is how many of these respondents would have been inclined to visit anyway, but the benefits of introducing these virtual open days means that universities are able to engage with students who may be more nervous about visiting for an open day, and then accepting and enrolling. At 18 this is a huge step, being away from home, from family and from childhood friends, at 18, I certainly found open days overwhelming and if I’m being completely honest, was probably why I chose not to attend university then. Virtual open days allow students to connect with others with similar interests, who are possibly just as nervous, and start conversions online which is a natural place to connect for upcoming cohorts. Fostering these connections early on in the recruitment process could be the difference between them choosing your university over another, or even going into higher education at all. If applicants have been chatting to peers and faculty prior to on-campus events, they can arrange to meet up with them, taking away a lot of the anxiety about new places and people. Even after a potential applicant has attended an on-campus event, some are nervous to ask questions in public or might think of them after the open day, so making your academic teams available through live follow-up sessions shows that your university is invested in their future with you.

The target of your recruitment activities in the digital sphere should be the applicants who are not the low-hanging fruit, who are more naturally inclined to take this step. Engaging with these harder to reach audiences in virtual, hybrid, and in-person ways does take time but is ultimately worth the effort for both you and the applicant when you’re able to attract these students through a soft-touch approach. And this is thinking purely about domestic applicants. Those in international markets gain even more, they can connect with peers in their own country prior to attending in person and also with fellow nationals already on-campus to gain first-hand knowledge of their experiences. Casting the net even wider, the virtual approach also enables universities to reach applicants in lower socio-economic areas, without expensive train and car journeys to visit universities far from home that they might not be sure are right for them, universities have the opportunity to engage them virtually in their homes or through their schools and colleges. Again, they can make connections with current students from similar backgrounds and see that higher education is a real option for them.

With university websites still the main source of information for prospective applicants, institutions need to make investments in technology such as that provided by Union Spaces, and then in training academic and marketing and events staff to use it to its full potential. It is worth it. The more engaged your students are when they arrive on campus for the first autumn term, the more likely they will be to stay for the duration of their course.

Informed and connected applicants = engaged first-year students = higher retention rates and satisfied students = successful graduates.

Did you know…

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of applicants said they were more likely to choose our client university after attending an event hosted on the Union Spaces platform.

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Liz Appleyard-Hutchings, Marketing Manager

About Liz

Liz recently joined the Union Spaces team as Marketing Manager. She previously worked in marketing and events in the local government, higher education and not-for-profit sectors.

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