The alternatives to education fairs in Covid-19 reality
The “New Normal”
While the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic differ from country to country, it is obvious that there are global problems which are already arising and will continue to arise in the foreseeable future.
We are living in a world where we have to adjust to the “New Normal”, and that also involves changes in the way universities communicate with their students, alumni, and their applicants.
The role of education fairs
Over the years one of the most popular methods of promotion and reaching out to prospective applicants for universities have been education fairs, wherein students and their families have had the opportunity to get acquainted with universities’ programs and offers.
Education fairs probably would have continued to be quite effective, since they have helped universities reach their goal of showcasing their programs, if not for the global epidemiological crisis which drastically hindered the organization of public events.
Online is the new black
In the current environment all the major education fair providers have invested resources into shifting towards online and providing virtual experience for university representatives and prospective students. The question, however, remains with their effectiveness. Are they able to deliver the same results as face to face fairs? Such virtual exhibitions, although more suitable in current circumstances, still are not an ideal way of promoting educational services. The reason is that such fairs, even if they are held online, cannot always assess the “quality” of listeners. Some of them are there to participate in a dialog and ask questions, but there are always those who just passively listen, if they listen at all.
Online fairs are quite impersonal, and you never know who is there to listen to your presentations. This format makes it possible for listeners to leave in the middle of a presentation, which would have not happened in face to face events, given the presence of social etiquette. During online events you are speaking to no one in particular – unless someone asks a question – and it really is a challenge to ‘take someone by the hand’ and guide through the path leading to their application.
Another issue is that there are plenty of universities participating in education fairs, and it is extremely difficult to catch the eye. Universities do their best to advertise their programs from the most flattering angles at one particular exhibition, but the difficulty here is that there are dozens of other schools present there, which makes it harder to stand out and to make a lasting impression. For the purposes of driving traffic, fair providers need to make choices on what to put on their ads. If your university is not among top universities participating in the fair, it is highly likely that fair providers will forgo mentioning it, instead focusing on more eminent institutions.
In order to find themselves in an advantageous position, universities may want to consider promoting their participation in study fairs themselves to boost their attendance rates. However, that does require an additional budget on digital advertising, which means paying the provider for a promo and paying for the ads to boost the number of attendees.
Universities’ autonomous promotion of their participation in study fairs may be logically developed into investing in the promo of their own events, e.g. Open Day or a webinar on some topic. This way the university marketing team is able to actually control the ads campaign as well as the quality and quantity of incoming applications. Given the above, it may be reasonable to acknowledge that online fairs have both advantages and disadvantages, which results in the need of searching for alternatives.
The power of social media
Social media are a powerful tool to maintain an effective dialogue with applicants. Universities may want to consider the main goal, which may be not just to present one’s programs and educational conditions, but to communicate with as many applicants as possible, find a connection with them, and get their contact details so that it is possible to work with them later, even if they are not ready to apply just yet.
Running social media ads alongside maintaining the accounts is a powerful tool since people on social media spend their free time there mostly without specifically looking for a university or a degree. So, your targeted advertising showing up while they go through their feed will boost your chances to get noticed.
How can a university create an effective dialog with both applicants and their parents, a dialog that has the potential of leading students to this university? For instance, sharing stories about the traditions may help everyone feel included and motivated to become a part of this university. What is important to highlight is that social media is a great platform because a significant part of it is connected with shares, so if a university finds a way to create a lively atmosphere in their accounts, there is a high probability that prospective students will share the content for more people to see, which means more potential applications for an institution.
Target your audience
Local social media targeting
As long as running social media accounts is a really effective way of promoting, which helps create a working channel of communication, there are cases when it is not enough – for instance, when the applications are needed immediately. In such cases the solution is to target your audience using social media. Along with the most popular global platforms such as Instagram, Facebook or TikTok it is a good idea to use local social media for targeting (for instance, VK.com, which is one of the most popular social media platforms among users who speak Russian – the number of active users is over 100 million (according to DMR Business Statistics).
Targeting on the local market obviously has its own particularities, and in order for the native advertising to be effective, it is necessary to have specialists from an experienced agency, who know and understand Russian market. For the university there is no point in hiring a large marketing department and adjusting targeting to every country. Instead, it is better to leave all the global tasks to the marketing department and to delegate the implementation in every macroregion to the trustworthy partner that can work effectively while having experience and speaking the language of the market.
What is it about targeting that makes it so attractive for universities? The main thing here is that targeting allows to generate valid leads. Lead generation efforts, if done right, create the needed trust between universities and their prospective students, which is one of the most important things for future work and communication with applicants.
One of the options that universities may want to use is interests based targeting. Applicants’ habits and interests are a valuable asset when it comes to targeting, since they can become an effective tool in searching for the applicants. For instance, a university from a certain country may find students among those who search for trips to this country or listen to local musical bands.
Interest targeting allows a university to calibrate their targeting very precisely, which is possible due to the possibility to use a great number of categories in targeting. It is obvious that people nowadays spend a lot of time engaging with their favorite content and searching for the things that interest them, so using these interests can certainly boost the quality of a campaign.
What is more, a good option may be to target using geolocation. Location is a valuable criterion when it comes to targeting, and not only due to that fact that universities can reach people within a particular area. More than that, location provides more meaningful insights into what students or applicants want or need. So besides the fact that universities can target the applicants from particular countries or cities, it is also possible to target based on specific places such as test prep centres or ski resorts – this option may be of interest to those universities which provide quite expensive education and that want to have more control on the quality of incoming leads.
With the growing smartphone use and, consequently, increasing capabilities of artificial intelligence, location data has become more available, more accurate and more widely-used. Thus, it might be only logical and rewarding for universities to use geo-targeting.
Another thing to consider is behavioral campaigns, wherein it might be effective to use two of their main tools - cookies and pixels. For instance, when the latter is used, the pixels, having been placed on the landing page, allow to track where the person was before and after this page. If a person fills the form on a landing page, a university, using special utilities, is actually able to construct a map of similar users, which is used to create a profile of those who might be interested in becoming students in the future.
The cookies work in a similar way – when a potential applicant visits a landing page, the technology identifies their browser by putting cookies on the gadget this person is using. Later the browser is put in an “audience segment”, which is later can be bought by advertisers in order to show these potential students the ads that might interest them.
One more powerful targeting tool is offsite retargeting. It’s a really effective way to remind potential students about the website after they visit and leave it. A university may want to keep the same geo-targeting in order to maximize engagement and CTR’s.
Offsite retargeting is based on the idea that a potential student who has already visited the university’s site is more prone to getting back to it again later, and it might be advantageous for the university to remind a person to do it. Just like behavioral targeting, offsite retargeting can be done using pixels and cookies.
With EdTech gaining more and more popularity, it is impossible to forget about one of its models that has the attention from many people around the globe: aggregators. These portals can be a great addition to the current marketing efforts universities have in place and can help to draw attention to various academic programmes without making a lot of effort and to engage with relevant student audiences from all around the world in a short amount of time. Such search platforms have the advantage of structured information, which makes it easier for the users to find educational programs within the aggregator than on Google. What is more, for universities it is often cheaper to place premium listing on the portal than to pay for the contextual advertising on Google in every country.
It goes without saying nowadays that Covid-19 pandemic has already changed our lives. Whether we want it or not, we have to adjust to the changes in every sphere, and education is one of those areas that were among those that suffered the most. Offline education fairs are going through a serious crisis with the unavoidable necessity to move to online platforms. But it is largely due to EdTech businesses and platforms that the processes connected with education and students’ recruitment did not stop. Students still want to study abroad, and it is important to find new ways to communicate and work with them.
Now is the perfect time to find the ways to work as efficiently as possible using proven online methods: recruit students using targeted advertising, run social media accounts, partner with aggregation platforms, use Big Data, etc. These methods have proven themselves over the last years and have gained more popularity during Covid-19 pandemic, and for a good reason – they help to exist in our new reality without losing effectiveness. The main thing is to be flexible to changes and remain open to the ways to improve, no matter offline or online.