It’s almost exactly 2 years to the day since the global pandemic struck in Europe creating shockwaves all over the international education industry, with many universities, agents and other businesses supporting the sector left in in doubt as to what the future might hold. Would the pandemic mean that students would no longer want to or be able to travel for educational purposes? Back then we didn’t know what the long term implications would be, but thankfully the industry has proven to be more robust and surprisingly adaptable than many would have thought. One thing the pandemic did do was to show us that the majority of the student journey could be managed online, with a lot of functions that would previously be carried out in person moving to the digital arena.
From the point of view of the student, the journey from dreaming about studying a certain subject or in a certain country, to the point of enrolment and starting classes takes a very long time – students start considering their options up to 3 years before starting. In this recruitment funnel, the shortest but maybe the most critical phase is the final decision making stage. A student maybe has 3 or 4 offers in hand, is trying to sort out finances, visa applications and other practicalities while trying to navigate to the best choice. During the decision-making period, it is critical for the university to stay engaged with the student, to be able to support and guide the student through the last 2 or 3 months of their journey to enrolment, but also for the university to be able to forecast and monitor the results of the recruitment drive.
While growing up in the information age, the current generation of young people report an average of 4.5 hours per day of online time.
This means that every day they are bombarded with thousands of pieces of content from numerous sources and become unresponsive or unreactive to the messages that we are trying to get across to them. Therefore, it would be dangerous to entrust the outcome of all the previous marketing investment we make at the top end of the funnel to the conventional social media channels alone, considering the serious limitations they have.
The channels that are used to communicate between the admission and enrolment period are not very numerous – universities reach out to students by email or phone, they will organize virtual open days, the majority will stay in contact by social media (usually facebook) groups, while some will engage third party service providers to carry out the communication and conversion (which will use a strategy combining some or all of these channels to engage the prospective student). Each of these channels has some kind of inherent limitation. Social media and messaging has become very age sensitive, with the younger crowd preferring different environments than the ones university recruiters tend to use:
- According to Mailchimp, for the education industry on average 23.1% of marketing related emails are opened, and the average click rate is 2.90%.
- Only 27% of teenagers and young adults have a Facebook account.
- While only 19% of the US population in the 15-25 age group uses WhatsApp, it is thought that up to 40 of teenagers use some kind of online messaging app to communicate.
Apart from the limitations in usage among the target group, there are difficulties in engaging with students in social media environments, especially related to privacy. Students may not be open to sharing when they have no control over who can view their profile or get in touch with them, many do not consent to their contact details being shared with others in the group but also in social media platforms like facebook, there are so many other distractions going on that their engagement time with the university can be limited to checking a piece of content or an announcement for a few seconds before they go back to their regular routine. . For these reasons it is clear that some paradigm shift must occur in engagement, and one possibility that has emerged is the student led community. Today more than ever, young people are highly influenced by each other. The online platforms that are highly popular amongst the age group such as Instagram, Tiktok and Snapchat are all based on users generating and sharing content, leading into engagement with `followers`.
In the study choice journey, financial resources and possibilities, the speed and quality of the response of the university to a question or application and the universities’ reputation are determining factors, but still students want to feel welcome in a community when they go to study. In this competitive landscape, universities more than ever need to adapt to this influx of new international students and develop a welcoming community that can support them in their student journey. The prescription is creating a community in a safe and secure space that not only facilitates but also encourages students to share, engage and network with each other and solve their practical problems. This not only means but also requires that the university representatives or staff should take a more facilitating approach – it’s the difference between getting on stage and bombarding the audience with constant announcements and hosting a party where the guests are sharing and bonding amongst themselves, with every conversation being interesting and unique.