The switch to Digital-first international recruitment

The switch to digital-first international student recruitment

‘In the last decade, student expectations have moved towards digital as the first and most important sources of information to support their decision journey. This shift in expectation is compelling universities to adopt “digital-first” strategies for attracting, engaging and enroling international students.’ Those were the opening words of Rahul Choudaha, EVP of Global Engagement and Research at Studyportals, who hosted a webinar on maximising the impact of digital-first international recruitment strategies.

The interactive discussion featured experienced speakers from diverse institutional settings: Ashley Dunlop, University of Winnipeg (Canada), Laura Montgomery, The New School (New York), Omid Feyli, Tilburg University (the Netherlands), and Sophie Turnbull from the University of the West of England (UK).  

The panelists concurred that digital has taken a central role in their international recruitment strategies, gradually replacing the more traditional routes in some stages of the process. ‘Digital is extremely important. It is where students chiefly learn about us, get in touch and stay in touch with us before they make a final decision’, stressed Omid Feyli.

Acquisition is only half the work. Recruitment and admissions address two different milestones of the student journey, and their continuity is a critical success factor. A strong strategy to nurture inquiries and applicants into enrolments is just as important for the success of a recruitment campaign. ‘You could have hundreds of leads, but unless you have a strong strategy of how to engage with them, it’s a lot of money spent and it’s going to have very little impact’, Sophie Turnbull concluded.

Achieving university-student fit through digital 

A lot has been said about students finding the best university fit as a set of academic, financial and personal needs and career aspirations. On the flip side, for universities, finding the right profile students means applicants who will see their education through to graduation with the right amount of challenge and satisfaction. Digital has emerged as the medium that best allows students as well as universities to match profiles and balance expectations and results.  

Laura Montgomery, Director of Program Marketing at the New School, New York, shares that digital has become a primary vehicle to effectively convey the unique values of the institution in order to connect with the right segment of students: ‘Digital is a huge tool for us in terms of storytelling and making sure that prospective students can tell, when they get to our social media channels, what this place is about and see themselves in the student body, and really get a sense of whether this is a good fit for them.’

With only three universities making it to a student’s shortlist, engaging prospective students during the consideration stage of their journey is critical. ‘When it comes to the digital front, I think it’s more about being purposeful in the content that we are devoting to international students. It’s about making sure any video content we put out there is speaking to the international student experience, the reasons why international students come to us’, she added. 

Digital has become instrumental not only in connecting with international students, but also in understanding their search and decision-making patterns: ‘If I look at how people are consuming information online, we have seen a major shift in behavior’, said Omid Feyli, Head of Marketing and Recruitment at Tilburg University and continued: ‘We are no longer looking to randomly expose or gain impressions in our marketing strategy, but how to answer the right questions of the right target audience. How to get in the minds of prospective students and micro-target them.’

Laura Montgomery added that ‘It’s not enough to say, we want more students from India. It’s figuring out what cities, even zip codes, schools within those regions have the highest potential. And then we do a lot of intelligence collaboration with the Admissions team so we can complement the on-ground efforts with the digital awareness efforts and adapt to that.’

Online tools’ abilities to gather and analyse behavioral data have given an incredible opportunity to tailor marketing strategies to the needs and preferences of today’s students. Tracking has enabled institutions to address another pressing challenge they faced for years: how to assess the value and impact of each channel connected to the student journey. 

Divide and conquer: measure the success of each channel 

A question that came time and again from the webinar audience was what channels proved the most effective to find and attract international students. “Hundreds of thousands of impressions end up being one registered student,” says Ashley Dunlop. She and many other university professionals have been trying to understand what happens in the middle. 

Omid Feyli shared a similar experience: ‘We were trying to measure enrolments directly against one advertisement or one channel. We shifted to setting different targets for different channels in the same customer journey. We are now trying to compare the impact of one digital marketing effort to another, and ultimately to understand the impact of digital marketing taken together.’ That is no easy feat due to a long and complex student journey, suggested Sophie Turnbull, Head of International Recruitment, University of the West of England; ‘when you have a lead time of three to four years, it can be very hard to make quick decisions. By setting up campaigns or events, we can much closely monitor whether we are getting return on investment from fairs or through digital. Some lead-generation websites see a very low conversion rate. However, when you look at how students are using them, you see that students self-serve more than ever before.’

Laura echoed the conclusion, clarifying that ‘because digital-natives are more hesitant than ever to hand over their contact information on the first touch. Looking at different KPIs, such as time spend on the website and the number of pages viewed becomes more valuable in measuring the impact of a digital channel.’

She went on to say that investing in cross-platform, real-time tracking is the best way to go about digital: ‘AdWords, Social Media Ads, Sponsored listings at directory sites – we make sure we have a unique tracking link for every placement that we make with an outside partner, and that all ties back with our google Analytics. We have a lot of pixel tags installed so we can see the behaviors and conversions on our website or in the respective platforms’ through the ads manager.’

Map and optimise the experience at each touchpoint of the journey

Back in 2013, Google’s Director of Education noted that ‘Education is a highly-involved decision and one that requires many different touchpoints along the way.’ Today, we are witnessing the journey grow ever more complex, encompassing more touchpoints and stretching over longer periods of time. This development has demanded that institutions map those touchpoints and maintain an active and coherent presence at each stage. 

‘The expectation is that they can WhatsApp or WeChat you and get a response right away,’ noticed Ashley Dunlop. As her team focuses on retention, keeping an open communication line at each stage of the journey is instrumental for guiding students further down the enrolment funnel. ‘We found that using digital to take those leads by the hand, give them multiple touchpoints that give the student access to you, has helped us with the conversion.’

Lead follow-up and nurture also underpin the recruitment strategy at the University of the West of England. ‘For us, the importance lies in the follow-up. There is a lot of work and resourcing that goes into converting students into enrolments. If we look at some of the emails we send to our leads or applicants – they can be incredibly complex. We’ve spent a lot of time investigating what the logical next steps for each student should be. You could have hundreds of leads sitting there, but unless you have a strong strategy of how to engage with those leads, it’s a lot of money and it’s going to have very little impact.’

The switch to digital-first recruitment strategies

As students are becoming increasingly self-served, effective recruitment strategies call for moving from pushing content to pulling students through relevant and timely information which can help students navigate the complex journey of finding the best university fit.

‘Digital is extremely important. This is the main channel where [students] learn about us, get in touch with us, and stay in touch with us, before they decide. I’ve never believed that one of these channels is the channel. Therefore, a good content management system with predefined goals is very important, a CRM with a predefined methodology of the customer journey mapped is crucial. These must be well thought-through before you decide where to make your biggest investment’, Omid Feyli closed.

You can watch the full webinar here.

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