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Marketing and recruitment in 2022: five things to try

October 5, 2021

This year's EAIE Community Exchange was such a great event. After such a tumultuous period, it felt like the dust had actually started to settle on all of these changes and shakeups in our sector. The community exchange was a great time to come together and share ideas on how to move forward again. Which changes to embrace, and which to eliminate, which structures and approaches to disrupt and which to ditch.

In the spirit of this event, and its tagline Bolder, Braver, Go!, we delivered our own session "Marketing and recruitment in 2022: five things to try".  NEO's Alejandra Otero, Mats Engblom from University of Helsinki, and Ilaria Bossi of Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, delivered the talk together, and focused on a message of trying something different.

As Mats said in the opening segment, the world is changing fast, and we don't want to stagnate. He recommends building in a bit of budget each year to try something new, and for those colleagues of ours who could not be with us, here are five things that we can all try for 2022.

1. Try flywheels, not funnels

NEO's Alejandra Otero started with the point that the traditional funnel no longer describes the most effective process of student recruitment. The old descending model, with lots of leads at the start, and ending with a few at the end, is not a very sustainable model. This is not a production line we are talking about, and students today are also looking for an experience rather than a "service".

Instead, we should look more at is as a flywheel, which is driven around by sharing the voice of our institution and building the experience. Yes we still gain awareness through branding and emotional engagement. Yes in the consideration phase we still really need to have clear information on the offer but, as Ilaria added later, this middle section is very messy. There is so much information that it can disorient students and trap them in an endless loop of exploring and evaluating before making a decision.

This is where admissions really need to be present and focused on lead nurturing and conversion, where the FOMO is real and where we need to support prospective students and be diligent on following up, with effective use of our CRM.

When a prospective student comes on board and enrols, the funnel ends, but the flywheel does not. This is a long-term relationship. If you stop making an effort the moment your partner agrees to marry you, it can only end in divorce.

Building loyalty, supporting ambassadors and evangelists, facilitating experience sharing, forming an experience, with academics and marketing working together to ensure that things are the best they can be, and there are outlets to share the experience in authentic, peer generated content and diverse channels. And all of this, of course, captured in a bespoke and extended CRM journey that can be used to tweak and improve year-on-year.  

2. Gamify and engage a new generation

At the risk of banging this drum too often, Gen Alpha is different. Passive adverts are just noise to a new generation who is growing up facing screens, and are not attracted by the typical adverts for institutions that disappear into the blur of a scrolling finger.

Gen Alpha are not passengers, but protagonists. They really want to engage, and if you want to reach them, then gamifying your online content is worth a shot. They want to be the protagonist not passenger. Alejandra used the example of KFC's gamified ads on Facebook Instant Experiences, which increased sales by 106%.

The technique they used could be applied to any course or institution. Users are attracted to a simple game, where they can unlock rewards, claim prizes like tuition discounts or enrolment bonuses, or keep playing to try for more. Prospective students are not going to enrol in an institution they don't believe is authentic or has their best interests at heart, just because of a game. The rest of your offer has to be clear and well-thought-out, and the CTA effective.

They will, however, notice you and engage with you, which  is one of the steepest challenges today. Why not give gamification a try?

C. Hack visuals for the WOW! Factor

Now you're paying attention right? Why did NEO just change numbers to letters? Have they just given up on coherence altogether?

That is called pattern interruption, and it is a powerful tool. The brain loves predictability, because that means safety. When things conform to predicted behaviour, the brain goes into autopilot, until something changes, and it heightens its state of alertness.

Pattern interruption can be done in written content, such as our very crude example there. This is not "interruption marketing" which is definitely not a good thing, as Seth Godin emphatically told us back in 2008. No, this is just putting a new twist on the familiar to make something stand out. This could be as simple as unexpectedly switching camera angles or music volume in a video, or designing your Instagram image to make it look like your subject's hands are extending outside the frame. Simple things that make you take notice in a more conscious way.

The Triple Vertical technique is also great for WOW! Instead of having one single advert on, for example, Instagram stories, try segmenting it into three distinct but related parts. The top part could be an attention grabber and summary of what you are offering, an explanatory video in the middle, and a call to action at the end. Visually rich, drawing the eye down, with a reason to investigate.

Tracking all of this engagement, however, is going to get a little trickier. As Alejandra put it, "bye bye cookie monster". The Facebook attribution window has changed from 28 days to 7, so we lose a whole lot of data in tracking our leads. To top that off, Google has responded to political pressure and is moving towards more privacy on the web with no cookies from 2022. This means users should be tracked in anonymous clusters instead for behavioural insights, and that will require a relearning of some basic rules of the game. If you want WO, you'll also need to know how so do reach out if you need support.

4. Divide and conquer

This all sounds a big Genghis, but Ilaria really speaks from experience on this topic. The question of when you should outsource in marketing and recruitment is a big one. However, Ilaria had some great advice for us on how to divide up your tasks, and find where outsourcing could really add value. It has been a steep learning curve this year, and in times like these, delegating and outsourcing can be a way to stay ahead.

Organic searches rarely find universities. Put in "masters in Milan" into Google and your first results will likely be an education portal. Partnering with portals is therefore one of the most obvious and important steps in outsourcing some of your marketing, along with the more traditional agents in various countries of interest.

In such partnerships, however, there are complexities. How do you choose one? They have to be strong in your specific context, e.g with proven results in promoting medicine degrees, or in a particular market like India.

Ilaria recommends having a deep conversation to really understand the validity and value of what the portal, agent or marketing consultancy is offering. This might seem time-consuming, but is worthwhile to improve budget allocation. For example, different countries use social media differently, so even established channels need specialised local knowledge.

You also get great data back from these providers, which can be funnelled back into your overall strategy to make sure it is coherent across all areas of visibility. Students want authenticity and engagement these days, but you also need to know if your message is achieving these things.

It is for this reason, that we recommend optimizing collaboration with outsource partners. Establish a code of conduct, check with providers if communications are smooth enough and whether they are getting the right data from you, and providing the right data in return.

5. Be prepared to leave fully offline recruitment in the past

We need to stay open and flexible. Things will not go back to how they were before, and the sooner we accept that, the better we can adapt and make the most of it. We will most likely find ourselves in a hybrid situation where some recruitment is offline, but the vast majority is online, such as in Mats' context at the University of Helsinki.

This is not only due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but to changing behaviour and new generations of digital natives. As Ilaria put it, "We don't lead the game. We go where students need us to be". This extends to focusing on whole new sets of skills. As Mats reminds us, we can try new things without throwing the marketing budget at it, and Alejandra reminded the listeners that using WhatsApp to communicate with leads, and generating an organic TikTok audience were two "no brainers" that don't break the bank.

We hope that you will try at least one of these things, and remember that there is a community around us to share and support as we adapt and rise to new challenges.

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