Is Clearing more unpredictable than ever in 2017?

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It’s nearly A-level results day and Clearing once again. A time when those of us working in higher education marketing are readying ourselves for an intensely busy couple of weeks – heralding the start of another challenging and exciting twelve months of engaging with the right people, and persuading them to continue their studies.

Since my first (professional!) involvement with Clearing in 2002, I’ve seen some really significant changes in the way universities (and the education media) approach the period. Some of the changes are obvious and driven by advances in technology (the move from print advertising to digital campaigns), others are inflicted by government policy (funding, fees, number of providers, number caps), and almost all are in some way linked to the way our target audience communicates and consumes information. Clearing campaigns now start earlier and are more agile than ever before, as universities understand they are more likely to be chosen if an applicant has some awareness of, and relationship with, them already.

But this year it will be very interesting to see whether universities release fewer applicants than usual into the system on the 17th August. This cycle has seen applications to UG courses drop, and this, combined with the removal of the number cap and the different (and somewhat controversial) offer strategies adopted by some universities, makes it tough to accurately predict how institutions will fare. Carys Roberts, Director of Marketing and Student Recruitment at Bangor explains; “the only thing that seems predictable about the August Confirmation and Clearing period is that it’s likely to be unpredictable! especially if universities are going to be doing their utmost to hold on to those students who’ve already applied to them.”

Strategies for Clearing across the sector now start earlier (they’re always-on in some cases) and include much more flexibility than previously. Matt Smith, Director of Marketing at University of Liverpool, explains, “a key development is our efforts to increase agility throughout the Clearing process….we integrate work across data science, admissions and call centre teams, modelling behaviours and revising related forecasts and instructions to the call centre in real time. I think it’s this work, and the resultant impact it has, that has really come into play in the last few years.”

This requirement to deliver more data-led, agile campaigns has led key education media to develop their own capabilities. Simon Emmett, CEO The Hotcourses Group, told me: “We’re seeing university and college partners prefer a proactive, insights-led, targeted approach over the more reactive, volume based clearing campaigns of previous years. Using real-time data trends, for example popular subjects with competitors in the last week, to define campaigns and insights data and student preferences to define remarketing content and conversion strategies”.

Trina Everall, Head of Student and Youth Sponsorship at the Guardian agrees. She explained, “This year we have seen a notable increase in universities and agencies requesting access to our audiences using our real time data. There’s an ever-growing appetite from the sector for data driven advertising”

UCAS will once again be amongst the busiest of us all next week, and Cailean Carvalho, Head of Media at UCAS Media, has noted a more targeted approach from universities this year, adding “With the applicant market shrinking and the pool of available applicants reduced by approximately 15% going into Clearing, institutions have been sharper in where they place their brand and message to impact at the right time, with the right applicant”.

Social channels now play a role in the application process as well as campaigns at Clearing, and Birmingham City University led the way in this area. Patricia Murchie, BCU’s Director of Marketing and Communications says in 2017, “our priority, as ever, is to ensure students are armed with the information they need to make an informed choice and our campaign is a key tool in this. With fewer students in the system and a wide variation in how universities have performed in the main cycle we have introduced a number of changes including an enhanced and integrated campaign”.

The Student Room has become a crucial voice for students on results day, and this year I’m sure their team will spend the morning of the 17th August sharing their users’ excitement and concerns across various radio and television news bulletins. They’ve had to help universities learn how best to support and engage with applicants at Clearing through the site. But they too have noticed a shift in the emphasis this year, and Tony Lyons, Head of Marketing at TSR, says “The pattern for 2017 feels like an increased focus on performance marketing channels to address the challenges posed by falling applicant volumes. Last year was more about audience, whereas this year’s focus seems to be more about demonstrating value, understanding students and a move towards differentiation.”

This variance in main cycle performance has also led to a greater focus on activities relating to the conversion and retention of applicants. At SMRS, we’ve been involved in a number of projects aimed at ensuring institutions build closer relationships with their applicants from first engagement to enrolment, and Carys Roberts agrees: “it seems all universities have increased their focus on conversion and retention activities with their existing applicants and there’s no doubt that Clearing will be more competitive and challenging than ever before”.

Despite all the changes outlined above, some things at Clearing remain constant. For Tere Daly, PVC External Relations at Southampton Solent University, this means paying close attention to their student data and key local audiences; “we have focused heavily on our local applicants – ensuring they have the best options from us, their local provider.  This is where we are seeing students pick us. Competition is tough, but you need to ensure your own patch is well looked after”

Today we all understand so much more about the audiences we want to reach than ever before. We know where they are, how and when they consume information, what touchpoints they have with an institution, what support they might need through the application journey and what sort of information helps them make their choices. When all this data and insight is combined with technology and real-time reporting capability, the result should be truly agile and constantly optimised campaigns that are personalised and designed to meet very specific objectives. That’s what campaigns in Clearing 2017 will be all about, and it’s a far cry from the days of a much-heralded TV ad, a double page spread in the newspaper, some outdoor posters at the VC’s favourite railway station and crossed fingers in the hastily assembled telephone room!

Good luck to everyone next week.

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