Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

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Planning for success at student fairs and events

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • There is an increasing accumulation of research that underscores the importance of face-to-face contact with prospects and partners
  • A new report highlights some of the important impacts of in-person contacts, and sets out tips and best practices for attendees and exhibitors at student fairs and other events

Why do face-to-face meetings and in-person events remain crucial in today’s hyper-digital marketplace? Aren’t students too immersed in their phones and tablets to look up for a real-life conversation? Can’t they get all the information they need on the web?

A new QS report, Maximising Potential at Student Recruitment Events, emphasises that – especially because study abroad is such a large investment – students will definitely put aside their phones to get a tangible sense of what a school or institution can offer them. The report also offers a number of tips and best practices for effective event participation.

Katerina Kederova, Head of Operations at QS and an expert in student recruitment events, explains that:

“Nothing can replace a face-to-face interaction. Higher education is a massive investment and psychologically people want to ‘see’ what they are signing up to, and to whom they are giving their money. It’s the same as with any large spend in life. Most people wouldn’t buy a house on the internet without talking to the person selling it, seeing the property and ideally meeting the people that live there.”

And Aled Owens, Vice President of Business Development & Strategy for QS, notes that,

“I have seen institutions focus heavily on stand-alone web and email content, but candidates tell us that the in-person meeting has actually become more important with the increase of information being delivered to them virtually.”

As much as websites can provide in terms of information, very few can anticipate every question an international student might have about an institution or about how to apply. And as the QS report underlines, students can get frustrated if they aren’t getting everything they need from a school’s website – e.g., when their questions aren’t answered quickly enough, when a site isn’t well designed, or when they can’t easily find the information they’re looking for.

Offering live chats through the institutional website and replying quickly to email queries can go a long way to resolving this kind of frustration. And then there’s the opportunity to send representatives to students’ towns or cities to commit even more to answering questions students may have. Such an investment sends a strong positive signal to students about the institution or school’s credibility and respect for students.

Part of a larger strategy

The best-case scenario when it comes to an overall recruiting effort is one where the institution is delivering a solid digital experience that can ground and amplify the conversations that take place at student fairs or other in-person events.

Advance planning is key and QS highlights the importance of getting the word out on digital channels in advance in order to maximise attendance and interest among prospective students and partners:

“The best results materialise from those institutions who create a buzz on social media and advertise on local platforms and through their own channels, including websites and newsletters.”

Ms Edwards notes that fairs often send out a database of registrants beforehand “which can be harnessed to send a message out,” and that the institution itself should email its own database of prospects prior to the event.

While at the fair, representatives can refer prospects back to the institutional websites and social media channels, or set the stage for other follow-ups, to keep the conversation going long after the event has ended.

Prepare to stand out

Especially as the competition will be intense for the attention of students or partners at an event, paid advertising on digital channels can make a difference in helping a brand to stand out, says QS. Further, they note that the return on investment from an advertising campaign can be significant: “A small amount of ad spend can significantly increase the value you take from an expensive event trip.”

Institutions can also differentiate themselves from the competition with advance research and planning for the dynamics of the local student market. If affordability is an issue, for example, as it is in so many emerging markets, extra promotion of scholarships or work opportunities for visiting students will be a winning strategy. Or if parents are heavily involved in decision making for study abroad, look for ways to assure parents that regular communication with them are integrated into the study abroad experience.

Ms Edwards advises marketing teams to “stay informed about the local conditions of the country you are exhibiting in and what it takes for a student from that country to go and study abroad at your institution.” This includes an awareness of current trends in student visa processing, currency fluctuations, and more.

Consider collaboration

Collaborating with other institutions and schools around events can also be a compelling option in some cases, says QS: “The macro message that multiple schools can drive will often be more enticing than anything an individual school can deliver.” A well-organised collaborative promotion can position a university among a group of quality institutions and can make it much more visible and attractive to students as a result.

The QS report presents several case studies to illustrate the value of collaboration, including one in which Canadian MBA programmes joined together on panels and at events to demonstrate why their campuses – in general – are such attractive places to study. Their message, “There is something for everyone,” summed up the reality that there is a wide diversity of options in terms of where MBA schools are located in Canada, how long programmes run, and what the focus of each programme is. Together the institutions were better placed to convey the message than had they been apart, and so the message reached a broader group of prospects – and had a greater impact – than it would have otherwise.

The opportunity to engage

It makes no sense to go to the expense of sending a representative to another country if that representative isn’t prepared, ready to engage, and able to talk knowledgeably to students about their needs and concerns. Representatives also learn far more about a local market at recruiting events than would otherwise be possible, and they can bring this knowledge home to strengthen the recruitment effort for far longer than the event itself.

Events give skilled representatives the chance to share a laugh or a smile with students and connect with them through real conversations. As an article in the Washington Post observes about the value of face-to-face meetings in business, “It’s the intangibles that matter … [such as] a level of trust from a casual conversation and a handshake.”

And writing in the Harvard Business Review, Cornell University’s Vanessa Bohns explains that her research reveals that in-person contacts can be more than 30 times as effective as text-based communication. “We have found,” she says, “that people tend to overestimate the power of their persuasiveness via text-based communication, and underestimate the power of their persuasiveness via face-to-face communication.”

Give students more opportunities to connect with you

While a skilled representative can achieve a great deal at a recruiting event, they can achieve still more if (a) they are able to refer students to a compelling institutional website and (b) they can direct them to testimonials, videos, or live chats with current students or alumni. For more on how to help prospects connect with current students and alumni, please see our recent article Three smart ways to give recruitment marketing a boost.

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