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Professionals working in the education field are no strangers to the seasons of higher education marketing, and right now it’s Clearing season in the UK. Following the release of UCAS results, universities across the country are in a heated race to fill their remaining slots by vying for students who were not accepted into their preferred universities.

The importance of the Clearing process to universities in the UK is growing. Since 2012, places filled through Clearing have increased by 100% and now make up more than 64,000 enrollments.

Clearing campaigns are designed to capture a student’s attention and move them through the funnel in the shortest amount of time possible. As a result, Clearing season brings about some pretty impressive and creative marketing campaigns, and even though the process is specific to the UK, there’s a lot that schools around the world can learn from the tactics UK universities are using.

What is Clearing? A Brief Introduction for University Recruitment Professionals

The UK’s university enrollment system is a little different from most countries. All university applications made by students are funneled through a centralized system called UCAS, which is also where students receive their notice of acceptance or non-acceptance. Most acceptances, however, are conditional and hinge upon a student’s A level or IB scores. If students don’t get the grades they need for acceptance, they are back at square one, and that’s where Clearing comes in.

Once exam results are released, all unplaced students are entered into Clearing, where they can log onto the UCAS website and view all the leftover course slots still available at universities. Students then contact the university directly, usually by phone, to make their case about why they are a good fit. The entire process happens very quickly. In fact, 12% of all Clearing students are placed into a course within 48 hours, and another 67% within a week.

While students still have to pitch themselves to universities for acceptance, universities have an even larger job promoting themselves to students. Because Clearing season moves so fast, universities must use short and focussed marketing campaigns to generate interest in their remaining courses and demonstrate that their university is a great second choice, perhaps even better than the student’s first choice.

The tactics that UK universities use for Clearing campaigns can serve as inspiration for any large-scale or short-term marketing campaigns your school may need to run throughout the year. For example, you may need to run a short-term campaign to fill enrolments before term begins, or want to make a big splash to raise awareness of a brand new program, or just want to target as wide an audience as possible. Whatever your needs, these well-planned, expertly executed campaigns can give you plenty of ideas.

Advanced Planning & Teamwork is the Key to Success During Clearing for Universities

While Clearing campaigns are relatively short, they need to be planned well in advance for maximum success. Many of the universities that run groundbreaking, stand-out Clearing campaigns begin preparing as early as April.

Successful Clearing campaigns will typically have many parts, from social media and video, to web design, blogging, and paid advertising. Not only that, but because applications need to be dealt with quickly, it’s crucial that these marketing efforts attract the right kind of student, who will be a good fit for the courses on offer. Because of all the different elements, it’s beneficial to involve and consult with several departments, such as admissions and marketing, and even faculty.

Your school can follow this advice for planning marketing campaigns, too. Planning in advance will allow your school more time to think creatively and make sure your marketing campaign is well-executed across all your target audience’s most important digital channels. In addition, asking for different departments’ input will help foster collaboration and may inspire some unique and practical ideas your school has never used before.

Cross-department communication can also be the key to making sure your campaign’s messaging and branding is consistent, and that everyone is on the same page with how to manage and respond to student inquiries.

Showcasing Your Offerings Front & Center on Your Website Can be Crucial for University Recruitment

During Clearing season, most universities will create a designated Clearing page on their website that lists courses that have available slots, contact details, and other important information. Typically, universities will have a designated email address and phone number monitored by staff who have detailed knowledge of the available courses and can help the students make the right choice.

Example: University of Salford Manchester, an institution known for its creative and successful Clearing campaigns, has a dedicated Clearing section on its website. The page offers prospective students a course finder, contact information, the ability to request a callback, testimonials, guidance about Clearing, and information about why Salford is an ideal choice. The page functions almost as a condensed version of Salford’s website, making it an easy one-stop-shop for students exploring their Clearing options.

university student recruitment

Some universities will also create blog posts especially for Clearing season. The blogs may provide helpful tips for finding the right program, an explanation of the Clearing process, or even highlight specific courses that the school has available places for.

Schools around the world can learn a lot from how UK universities use their website and blog during this period. If you want to promote a specific course or program and drastically increase university recruitment numbers in a short amount of time, you need to create targeted content of real value, and place it front and center on your website.

Use Social Media to Generate Buzz During University Clearing Campaigns

Another important tool for Clearing campaigns is social media. During this period, UK universities need to reach as broad an audience as possible, and are often aiming to convince students who have shown no previous interest in their school to apply within a matter of weeks, or even days.

As a result, social media is often used to raise awareness about remaining course slots, disseminate information, and successfully position a university’s unique brand to prospective students. Using creative and fun hashtags are just one way UK schools encourage potential applicants to get involved in the online conversation and ensure their posts are found during Clearing.

Example: The University of Bolton promotes its Clearing spots with an inspirational quote and a phone number. The post is accompanied by the school’s hashtags #AndSoItBegins, as well as the widely used hashtag #Clearing.

university student recruitment strategies

Some universities are even beginning to use web chats and live Q&As. These tools are especially useful for capturing the interest of students who are casually exploring the school’s digital channels, creating a personalized connection and encouraging them to begin moving through the funnel as soon as possible.

Your school can emulate the social media efforts of UK universities during Clearing by recognizing the power of social networks for creating buzz, excitement, and conversation about your school in the online space, and ensuring social media is made a priority for digital campaigns.

UK Clearing Campaigns Show the Value of Video for University Student Recruitment

It’s no secret that video content generates dramatically more engagement than text and even images, which is what makes it one of the best university student recruitment strategies to promote course spots during Clearing. When you need to reach such a wide audience in such a short space of time, you want to use the most effective tools possible.

While video production can be expensive, it can really pay off, and there are ways of producing it cost-effectively. One of the most well-known Clearing videos to date was created by a student at the University of Lincoln in 2011.  The video is quirky and funny, and with over 157,000 views, it’s clear it’s capturing the attention of prospective students.

YouTube video

Even if you are running a campaign on a far smaller scale, you can learn from this approach and recognize the power of using video as part of your promotional efforts. Having your own students produce video content, like the University of Lincoln, can also be an option for generating content inexpensively, as well as a fantastic way to encourage students to get involved with your online channels.

Universities That Run Successful Clearing Campaigns Are Willing to Push the Boundaries

Many universities use Clearing as an opportunity to push the boundaries and get creative with their online communications. Because Clearing campaigns are time sensitive and need to reach a wide audience, receiving a lot of exposure in a short amount of time is vital, and university recruitment professionals will often take risks to get results.

Humour is a great way to pique the interest of prospective students, as it helps schools seem more relatable and approachable, which is especially important for students who may have been denied a place at their first-choice university and have now ended up in Clearing.

Example: The University of Salford created a “matchmaking app”– similar to Tinder – that allows students to swipe left or right for Clearing courses that interest them. While the app was a risky move for a university, it performed tremendously. On A level results day, over 10,000 students used the app. In addition, the university website’s engagement increased by 264% and offers made during Clearing season increased by 28%. The campaign received praise from The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times.

YouTube video

Universities looking to create significant buzz around their school’s brand should consider taking a similar approach. While creating campaigns that push the boundaries and are unexpected may be riskier, if done right, they can really improve your university student recruitment initiatives.

The Importance of a Follow-Up Strategy for Clearing Campaign Success

As mentioned previously, most student inquiries into Clearing spots are made over the phone, and because students tend to shop around, follow-up is crucial. Thus, top UK universities have a solid plan for following up with each student individually to make sure no prospect slips through the cracks.

In order to be successful, universities pour additional resources into their admissions department by providing proper training prior to results days, increasing the number of staff on the phones, and monitoring social media accounts and chats.

If your university is looking to run a large-scale campaign similar to Clearing campaigns, you need to be prepared. You may need to train admissions staff on the program you’re promoting, schedule extra staff to answer inquiries, or increase your hours to have someone monitoring your school’s social media accounts outside of your normal office schedule.

It’s also important to remember that a prospective student is more likely to opt for a school that’s engaging with them right away and demonstrating their eagerness. You can make sure that a lead doesn’t opt for another school by following up as quickly as possible and being easy to reach.

Even though Clearing is unique to the UK, schools around the world can be inspired by the impressive campaigns that are created for the season, and the tangible results they achieve. Getting creative, using humour, and pushing the boundaries, while leveraging important channels like your social media, website, and blog, and having a good follow-up plan are all tactics and strategies your school can use for creating effective campaigns, no matter where you are.


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