Engaging the senses – what’s the future for university student recruitment events?

Engaging the senses – what’s the future for university student recruitment events?

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For part two in our content series with Stori, we spoke to our panelists about the online recruitment events during lockdown, how they measure up to face to face and how teams can prepare for a hybrid of both in the future.

Demonstrating a unique sense of place is high up in most universities’ priorities as they seek to attract new students, a job that has plainly been made all the harder through lockdowns.

But as online open days became the only way that higher education (HE) institutions could sell their wares last year, the change in delivery method may well have created opportunities, as well as headaches.

The long term benefits of virtual events

The big future benefits of virtual open days are most at play in areas like widening participation and increasing accessibility.  For students with special needs and those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale online events provide a unique opportunity to participate.

As Justin Cole, director of marketing and communications at Bournemouth University explains, a traditional open day may be “overwhelming” for those on the autism spectrum, for example, magnifying the benefits of virtual over the physical. In addition, some students who may find the costs of travelling all over the country prohibitive will undoubtedly value the chance to take part in a virtual open day, opening up institutions to students who may not have considered them before.

Martyn Edwards, director of marketing and advancement at Loughborough University, concurs, “for some of our students who are neurodiverse, being able to see exactly where their halls are, where their lab or lecture hall is, is really important to easing anxiety and helping them fit in.

“We’ve tried really hard to build that into our virtual events. We are even looking at investing more in drones next year to do internal fly throughs of our spaces to really bring them to life.”

Something old, something new

At the University of Liverpool, Alison Kerwin acknowledges that Covid-19 has represented the “most difficult challenge we’ve had”, but this challenge has led to plenty of blue-sky thinking. “What we’ve tried to do is to replicate how people will feel about interactions with Liverpool,” Kerwin says.

Alongside the virtual offerings, print-based communications have played their part in this process. A lot of thought has gone into what items of print have been sent to students to help provide an association between city and university, which has “become more important in a virtual world”.

Engaging all the senses and letting your students speak

As Rebecca Trengove, director of marketing and communications at The University of Dundee, says coming to an event in person engages all of the senses. “Our prospective students who attend open days get to see, hear, smell and feel what the city and the university is like, you get a full sense of place that online just can’t quite engage with”.

Although some university stakeholders can be a touch cautious when it comes to presenting a truly authentic student voice, which inevitably offers cons as well as pros, Alison Kerwin believes that prospective students benefit greatly from seeing current students telling their real-life stories. “I think the authentic voice is incredibly important. I think your positives should stay alongside the negatives and that makes everything more believable.”

What is clear is that universities have been put in a position whereby the virtual and the physical must sit side by side, and the challenge is positioning these so they make for a snug fit. All of the signs suggest that prospective students, along with their parents and guardians, will always want to see the university and the city that houses them in the flesh. Kerwin states that the lockdown experience will perhaps mark a shift in why a student would visit a campus.

The sense of a ‘place’ is something that can only be experienced by visiting in person, according to Kerwin, whereas the “meaty content, such as fees and finance, accommodation, course content etc”, which would historically have been discussed during face-to-face visits, can now be delivered more and more online.

The future will, therefore, more than likely herald a split between using virtual for information and face-to-face for emotion.

Community building

There is general agreement that it’s incumbent on universities to construct a sense of community for students, says Dee Reid, director of external relations at  Leeds Beckett University, in order to “make them feel part of the place”. Reid says that this sense of place is best created by current students as it is the student voice that carries the most authenticity, making it “much more credible with that audience”.

Universities must also marry the way they sell the institution with selling the city itself. Dan Barcroft,  of The University of Sheffield explains that “if we really tell that story properly, then it will act as a big converter”. He adds that “universities have got to come to terms with the fact that you are offering and promoting an experience”.

For Demetria Maratheftis of London Metropolitan University, HE institutions form a central role in the cities they inhabit: “It’s not only about teaching, it’s about what that university represents to its local community, being a civic university is really, really important.”

What’s next?

Everyone we spoke to clearly sees the future as a hybrid of both on and offline events. Increasingly with online being used for imparting information and face to face for building an emotional and visceral connection.

But with that comes resourcing and training needs that many institutions won’t be currently set-up for. Introducing training streams for staff and student ambassadors on both online and offline events may seem like a huge ask but doing so has the chance to make sure everyone understands the roles and objectives for each kind of event.

Potentially the biggest challenge for HE leaders and their teams will be making sure that the content matches the objectives and that we don’t end up trying to make on and offline events all things to all people.

Personality and experiences

“It’s been a long, tough road but there is light at the end of the tunnel and marketing teams have never had a more important role to play in communicating the personality and experiences that their institutions have to offer.” Jo Redfern, managing director of Education Cubed says.

“Given our overview of the sector and the recent development of our training and consultancy offerings, we’re being asked increasingly to work with universities to help them solve such conundrums and other issues that keep them awake at night. We’re really proud to be able to play our part in that.”

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