Should student recruitment stay digital-first post Covid?

Soon universities will be able to offer open days again - but, as Corey Snow argues, there's much to celebrate and learn from advancements in digital recruitment practice during Covid-19.

Corey Snow is Director - Education Cloud Industry Solutions at Salesforce.org.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, contrary to the fears of the sector, we learned that students have no interest in putting their lives on hold. Rather than delaying and deferring their plans for entering or continuing university, the majority of students adapted and trusted their institution to make it work.

In the uncertain spring and summer of 2020 recruitment and admissions teams worked round the clock reaching out to prospective students to offer reassurance and answer questions to build and sustain that trust, and foster the confidence required for students to start or resume their studies. Despite extraordinary obstacles, both undergraduate applications and enrolment system-wide actually increased slightly for the 2020 cycle.

We are not out of the pandemic woods yet, but, as the sector looks to the future, there is much to learn from recent experience – especially in the context of ongoing change: in the expectations of students, staff, faculty, regulators, and a reshaped higher education marketplace.

Making the best of it

During the pandemic, establishing and maintaining communication with prospective students suddenly required a different set of tools.

The traditional open day was thought to be the most effective “shop window” for students trying to work out which university is the best match for them. When that in-person experience could no longer be relied upon to generate applications, universities had to think differently about all forms of engagement with prospective students, even as the pandemic increased and heightened concerns.

Candidates from all corners of the world had urgent and complex questions about how universities would operate and what the implications of the pandemic would be for their particular study plans.

Chatbots primed to answer simple or frequent questions, marketing videos tailored to subject areas, and virtual campus tours have meant that prospective students are able to explore an institution at their own pace, in their own time zone, 24/7.

And the availability of these kinds of student-centred technologies is increasingly an important differentiator, building students’ confidence that the university cares about their wellbeing, fostering a sense of belonging, and demonstrating a vested interest in their success.

This positive initial impression can be enhanced with tailored, frequent and multi-channel communication, tapping into prospective students’ specific areas of interest and preferred channels of engagement. These create opportunities to further build points of connection with the university, such as profiling relevant courses or research areas, student societies and sports, a distinctive extra-curricular programme, or connections with alumni in relevant fields.

Forging connections

It has long been understood that one of the most impactful things a university can do to support prospective students is to connect them with current students to provide an authentic insight into student life, but this aspect of recruitment has truly come into its own in the last year. Targeted virtual Q&A events, virtual buddying schemes, and giving students one-to-one virtual campus tours with a student ambassador, are essential ways of creating the ease and confidence that are the precursor to developing a sense of community.

While universities will almost certainly hope to reinstate in person open days in the near future, we’d expect to see the majority retain some of the more impactful elements of their digital recruitment – not least because it has enabled universities to expand their reach well beyond the usual suspects. Taking a digital-first approach to recruitment has meant that, for example, people living in rural areas or outside the UK are more able than they have ever been to explore the range of options open to them.

Across the UK, universities are expected to invest in, and track the impact of, widening participation initiatives. Enhancing the accessibility of information about the institution is one important aspect of that – and ensuring that all content is mobile enabled and device agnostic another, given the realities of the digital divide.

But there are also gains to be made behind the scenes, by bringing together recruitment and widening participation teams to understand the current picture for recruitment and track engagement with specific interventions stage by stage from initial point of contact, to application, allowing resources to be channelled to the highest impact.

Dial back hyper-competition

In the decade ahead, demographic growth in school and college leavers should mean rising demand for higher education in the UK – a good news story overall, but one with a sting in the tail.

Not all geographical areas will see demographic growth at the same rate, some institutions are in better position to grow than others, and the political push for alternatives to traditional higher education may cannibalise some universities’ traditional prospects, creating further market turbulence.

The public perception of university marketing is an “arms race” model in which institutions compete with ever glossier marketing campaigns, unconditional offers, and incentives to students. Quite apart from the dim view taken by regulators of such practices, and the public scepticism and loss of student trust this may entail, recruitment professionals know that a scattergun approach is much less effective than a precisely targeted, data-led approach.

The collective good of universities, as well as the interests of individual institutions, are much better served when universities have a clear idea of which students are likely to benefit from the kind of experience they offer, and are able to focus available resources on developing relationships with those students.

Process automation, such as automatically sending a follow-up email to attendees to an event, also frees up time for marketing and recruitment professionals to put their focus on understanding their applicants and making better decisions.

In a world mediated by artificial intelligence, some recruitment and admissions professionals may worry that their roles will become obsolete. It’s much more likely that the less inspiring bits of the role – data entry, response to routine queries, or event administration – will be handled by technology.

Rather than “administrators”, recruitment and admissions professionals could begin to think of themselves as citizen-scientists, building data models to deliver the kind of intelligence and insight required to bring prospective students into the learning community – and enable those first exploratory steps on the road to a lifelong relationship.

This article is published in association with Salesforce.org, a social impact center of Salesforce, building powerful technology for, and with, a community of nonprofit, educational, and philanthropic organisations. Find out more about how Salesforce.org can support your organisation to develop your evidence-informed student recruitment practice.

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