Marketing strategy best practice for university clearing

Clearing is becoming an increasingly important process for universities and prospective students. If universities want to recruit students during the Clearing process, they need to have a clear strategic campaign in place. And since Clearing can make up more than 20% of student numbers, this is a serious priority to plan for.

Last year, a record 60,000 students found university places through Clearing. This year, as Clearing is about to conclude, a similar number have been placed through Clearing compared to the same stage last year, even though there has been a decline of 4% in the number of applications for UK university places.

With no government cap on student intake, increasingly sophisticated marketing and large amounts of student fees on offer; the competition between universities during Clearing appears to have become fiercer in recent years. Universities are now competing for prospects in a limited time window – whilst also looking to positively influence parents, schools and colleges.

With this in mind, Whitecap have been examining how universities have been developing their Clearing marketing strategies in 2017, and have outlined the top facets that are best practice to deliver the most effective Clearing strategies. 

1. Plan Strategically

The plan has to start with clear strategic goals, which should be based upon robust analysis, including:

– Previous analysis and learnings from Clearing campaigns,

– Changes to the market environment,

– The university’s course offering (e.g. new courses),

– The expected or likely competitor strategies,

– The university’s student number requirements

– The university’s expectation of the number of students who will be placed and the number who will come through Clearing.

Clearing should also have a budget agreed, and should have a single point of accountability and sponsorship at Executive level.

2. Start Early

Although much of the marketing strategy around Clearing is delivered in the August window, (when it is most relevant), it should be noted that factors such as brand awareness play an important role before this period. Starting brand building “early”, as soon as potential students begin to think about where they might study can give universities that advantage in brand awareness.

From an organisational perspective, best practice is to have Clearing campaigns being an extension of brand building campaigns. If the window for delivery is so small (and busy!), universities cannot waste valuable time creating/developing new marketing collateral. This means all content and deliverables should 100% complete and ready for their allotted time slot where they will have biggest impact.

For example, physical marketing (such as billboard spaces) generally have to be arranged months in advance. Starting early operationally means universities can get their marketing collateral in front of their desired audience at the right time.

85% of Clearing students have already heard of the university they enroll with and 77% have visited the HEI’s website before Clearing. Brand awareness campaigns need to start well in advance of A Level Results day and are an essential to successful Clearing recruitment.

3. Invest Heavily in Digital Marketing and Social Media

Clearing targets the ages of around 18-24 as this age demographic makes up the majority of student applications. It is also this age group that is most active online – making digital advertising an effective channel to reach potential students.

Many universities are now developing digital content that can be easily shared across online channels from different sources.

Firstly, it pays to make sure that all relevant information should be housed on an easy to navigate web page dedicated to Clearing. This page should list the course available, but where possible should be full of “unique” content outlining the key benefits of studying at the university as well as be structured to cater effectively for SEO (i.e keywords, content length).

Students rate course subject as the most important factor in determining which of their Clearing offer they selected. A strong percentage of students do not change their course subject when seeking a place at university. Therefore, websites and microsites should make course information easy to find and navigate.

Social media is an effective tool for reaching and managing prospective students quickly and transparently. Universities can use social media to grab attention and engage in quick communication direct with the target audience, with different social media platforms excelling in different areas. This means a multi-channel approach in delivering online brand awareness is most likely to be the most suitable. Facebook and twitter allows for open and fast communication to a wide audience. Instagram and YouTube provide a great platform for attractive visual content to be shared across online communities. Even tinder has been used in student recruitment efforts.

Other universities, such as Staffordshire University, were innovative in making “in principle” offers via Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter followed up via the normal admissions process.

4. Implement Effective Operations

Unsurprisingly, once A-Level results are in things move fast! 12% of all Clearing students will be placed in 48 hours. And a week on, 67% of clearing students will have a university place.

This means that operationally, staff need to be able to openly communicate with enquiring students and easily take them through the necessary steps. Further, since there is such a rush in the first few days of clearing, it pays to have various access routes to your clearing system. This means all systems go on telephone, website, emails and social media.

Not only is social media a great tool on the front end, but operationally universities may find it more effective using these channels to manage enquiries. Rather than having teams manning phone lines, fewer resources can be used to manage and direct enquiries through Facebook and Twitter. Universities can keep this process simple by asking potential student for name, contact details, total UCAS points and the course they are enquiring about. Here, social media is less about reaching the customer (where it often plays its best role) but actually about being a tool in process management.

Of course, one thing to keep in mind here is that fast and clear communication is paramount. Potential students will likely use social media to contact numerous universities at once about Clearing. 58% of students contacted more than one institution during Clearing and in the first week 67% of clearing students have a university place.

The marketing approach used for areas such as Clearing is truly distinctive. It demands a strategic approach, as well as new levels of agility, pace, preparation and an overall efficient operational step up. For the challenge that each of these areas present for universities, they offer a great opportunity to deliver an effective and successful Clearing campaign catered to the desired audience.

Whitecap Consulting are specialists in providing strategy, marketing and commercial consultancy. Read more about us