UK Universities, are you ready for clearing 2019?

A-level results day is 'make or break' for many students in the UK. But they aren't the only ones being put to the test.

The period known as Clearing is also now critical to the success of universities in the UK, and there is increasing pressure to recruit. This period is often when you see the best Higher Education Digital Marketing campaigns of the year!

For those of you working in a University outside the UK, Clearing is when Universities can offer unfilled places outside the standard central admissions process. In practice, during a period of time in August every year, if you didn't meet the entry requirements for a degree you can contact them (phone, chat, etc.) and see if they will accept you either with a lower set of grades or on to a course you didn't apply for. Not only is it a way for Universities to fill unfilled places, but it is also a key component to the recruitment cycle every year. Every year it is becoming more and more competitive, as Universities try and "outbid" other Universities to fill all their empty places.

Last year set a new record for the number of people (60,100) being accepted through Clearing. This constitutes a staggering 17% of all university UK applications and is partly down to students being more transient and shopping around during Clearing even if they have a firm offer from a university.

It's perhaps no surprise that 2018 was also the most competitive Clearing period on record, with institutions committing more budget to digital marketing activity than ever before.

This increased level of competition was particularly evident in the paid search marketplace where the cost per click (CPC) rates peaked 42% higher than the previous year.

What can institutions learn from Clearing 2018?

Universities adapted their tactics last year to respond to evolving student behavior. Typically, Clearing activity started earlier and was more proactive, insight-led, targeted and personalized.

The early campaigning tactic provided a longer period to engage prospective students, more opportunities to develop the leads database for target programs, and a longer period to analyze results and optimize campaigns and paid search investment.

Responsiveness was another key trend for students. Universities were therefore well resourced and focused on creating opportunities to communicate across platforms to ensure conversations were easy to initiate. 

Whether the communication was on SnapChat, Facebook Messenger, LiveChat on the website or email, students expectations were now of an instant response during this key period in the recruitment calendar.

What can institutions do to deliver a successful Clearing campaign in 2019?

1. Activate Clearing content on the website

The website is the natural home for Clearing content and the best place to focus initial efforts. August is not the time for you to have an issue with website performance! Downtime during clearing could cost the University millions of pounds in lost revenue, so make sure your infrastructure is solid and use systems such as content delivery networks to help you handle the spike in demand.

The basics are still required, with clear signposting across the site leading visitors to the Clearing pages and engaging content providing information prospective students need. Integrated user-generated content, personalized information, student-led FAQs and branded campaigns should now also come together to create an impact.

2. Qualify leads on the website and then funnel communications through to recruitment teams

If you don't already have automated communications tools on the university website this could be a good time to put LiveChat or Chatbots in place to engage prospects based on their on-site behavior.

The last two to three years have been Universities developing these tools, the jury is still out as to whether they are helping improve conversion. Our gut feeling is that Chatbots are having a small positive impact but students are still reverting to phone or live chat.

3. Create a Clearing resource library and content schedule

Your institution may already have a rich set of resources, but it's worth investing in high-quality video, images, blog and social content that is designed specifically for Clearing campaigns. Something unique and eye-catching for a busy marketing period!

Creating a Clearing resource library to organize assets and a content schedule to coordinate the publishing of content are also hugely beneficial to increase the efficiency and consistency for your team's Clearing activity.

4. Generate awareness and capture leads up until A-level results day

Digital marketing can be used to great effect to generate leads in the run-up to15th August and then for targeted acquisition from results day.

The University of Sunderland took this approach last year. The institution identified a range of prospective student types including direct-to-Clearing applicants, students who wanted to re-evaluate their options and International Baccalaureate students who collect their exam results earlier in the summer. They then targeted social media and video content towards these prospects.

This generated a valuable pool of leads for the University at a much lower cost than would be achievable during the main Clearing period itself.

And by harnessing data collected earlier in the year, the institution could deliver precisely targeted click-to-call ads and remarketing campaigns.

Clearing - Sunderland

5. Engage prospective students through social platforms

Engaging with prospects through their favorite social platforms has numerous advantages; it is responsive, in tune with the needs and expectations of students, and it allows institutions to provide a more sensitive and helpful service.

The University of Bedfordshire has embraced this trend by committing to delivering high-quality customer service across social messaging platforms. This requires the people to manage those channels (beyond your normal social media team) and quality training!

The institution has experienced a 20 percent increase in the number of offers that they made through LiveChat and social messaging platforms last year.

Clearing - Bedfordshire

6. Integrate systems to get closer to a unified view of the customer

Students now expect a rapid response and to pick up conversations on one platform and continue them on another.

CRM software is the vital foundation here, enabling institutions to track all interactions with prospective students so that recruitment and marketing teams have a complete picture of student's interactions and intentions.

The University of Liverpool has invested in this area to develop agility and responsiveness during the Clearing period.

The institution has integrated data, admissions information and call center teams so that they can model behaviors, revise forecasts and tactics and deliver instructions to the call center in real time.

The university also uses real-time data trends so that popular courses can be targeted with campaigns, or to provide further support and activation for undersubscribed courses.

Clearing - Liverpool

7. Set-up automated email campaigns for Clearing information

Email remains a powerful channel. An automated email strategy for Clearing could take the pressure off recruitment teams with pre-defined triggers creating high-quality personalized emails based on the specific interactions of prospective students.

8. Measure the impact and value of Clearing activity

Ensuring tracking and attribution is in place for things like Google Analytics, Google Ads, Facebook and Twitter is essential.

But other platforms like ResponseTap now enable institutions to extend the scope of the tracking activity. Institutions can use tools like this to reveal the campaigns, channels, and keywords that make the biggest contribution to conversion and actually get prospective students to pick up the phone.

Clearing - ResponseTap

9. Experiment with software and new platforms

This summer could be a good time to explore innovative new platforms to give your institution an edge.

The Access Platform, for example, connects prospects directly with approved student ambassadors through LiveChat and enables institutions to publish user-generated content directly to social media channels.

The WhatUni App helps prospective students save time by quickly finding universities and courses according to their interests, qualifications, and location.

The solution also enables students to find out more information by connecting them directly with recruitment teams through the app and sends out push notifications at key times.

10. Test, test, and test again

Finally, put yourself in the prospective student's shoes and test every possible avenue for contacting your institution, and check all the systems are talking to each other as they should.

Bringing together the right ingredients to create an outstanding Clearing experience

Universities capture nearly 37% of their overall Clearing inquiries on results day but the hard graft and preparations are already underway for most institutions to make Clearing in 2019 a success.

Thinking about Clearing as a whole experience, a 'journey' within the bigger applicant lifecycle, can help to unify all of the different elements that make up the Clearing process and make them appear coherent and meaningful from the applicant's point of view.

Institutions that engage prospective students through integrated marketing and communications like this will maximize their engagement in Clearing this year. We will be covering the best examples later in August so let us know about your amazing work.

Clearing 19