Student recruitment: how colleges can get the edge

Competition for students is tougher than ever - personal approaches can make the difference for colleges, writes Lee Parker

How colleges can get the edge over rivals in recruitment

Over my 10 years working in further education marketing, there has been a big change in the expansion of digital channels available for direct communication with prospective students. In 2008, colleges had to rely primarily on schools for access. Today, social media allows for near pinpoint precision when engaging young people and allows us to speak to them far more as individuals.

Hopefully this will have a far greater impact than being invited into the dark and dusty corridor of a school options evening as part of “fair” access for FE providers – assuming, that is, that the school chooses to meet its obligations as laid out in the Baker clause.

With greater access comes greater opportunity but also powerful competition for students’ time from global brands and entertainment platforms. When we take to the digital stage, we aren’t just competing with schools, or other colleges – we are competing with Netflix and the fun, weird and crazy selection of content that the internet has to offer (and that’s without the 80 per cent of online content it’s probably best we don’t talk about). 

Read more: Refer unsuitable students to FE, Hinds tells universities

More news: Fewer colleges plan to charge £9k tuition fees

Background: Colleges told to improve access for HE students by 2038

What is your college's persona?

This means a “one message for all” proposition simply won’t cut it: our audiences expect personalisation and the only segmentation they will accept is a segment of one. So, at a time when marketing teams are being stretched, how can we begin to compete successfully for attention?

As is often the case, hard work is a significant element of the answer. Research, persona development and the implementation of technology to support personalised communications all take time. This process began at Milton Keynes College 18 months ago and has helped us to learn an incredible amount about our school-leaver audience. We discovered we could split our prospects into five distinct groups, ranging from Career-Driven Chris, who has always known that he wanted to become a chef, to A-level Ali, who is very open about the fact that applying to college is only a back-up to A levels.

Both these students could apply to your college, but clearly both will need very different communications to maximise the chance that they will convert. Chris isn’t interested in “college vs school” type blogs or content; he wants to know the latest news from the hospitality team and the restaurants at which former students have gone on to work. Ali, on the other hand, needs to be convinced that a vocational option is a viable alternative to A levels.

Using resources effectively

So, this year, our prospective students have received regular, personalised communications based on the course in which they are interested, when they applied and the persona they identified with at the point of application. We can also give more insight into the performance of our campaigns and the likelihood to convert. If we have 30 more applications for hospitality than the previous year then that’s great.  However, if 40 per cent of these students are telling us they are applying as a back-up (A-level Ali) then we have less confidence they will convert. We use Hubspot to manage these personalised messages but thousands of other customer relationship management (CRM) and communication management systems are available.

At a time when the resources available to marketing teams are so stretched, how powerful would it be to focus your efforts on the 10-15 per cent of students who are genuinely undecided between your college and your competition? What’s more, from the perspective of the student, if one institution is sending you its latest generic update and the other is addressing your individual needs with attractive, personalised content, it isn’t hard to imagine which message has more chance of interrupting the latest episode of Stranger Things.

Lee Parker is head of marketing at Milton Keynes College

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