18 July 2018
Peer-to-peer engagement: from Clearing to eternity

To paraphrase the Weather Girls, the humidity is rising, the barometer’s getting low, according to all sources, Clearing’s the place to go.

Or something like that.

No longer a dirty word, Clearing is a slick operation at many institutions – and with good reason too. It’s not only an opportunity to gain new students (some of those being higher achieving students through adjustment), but it’s also the flash point when you can lose out to competitors, and need to reassure your applicants who didn’t do as well as they hoped.

First of all, if you’re looking to attract new students, you need to get them to consider you in the first place – some may have already declined you and some will have only seen you for the first time in the Clearing listings.

And when you do manage to catch their attention (well done!), there’s that minor issue of converting them into firms, making sure they enrol, and of course, stay the course. Literally.

This is not an easy task when dealing with students who may never have envisaged themselves at your institution, and so have never built up a relationship with you.

All this is made even harder as they’ll be navigating the full range of emotional extremes, from elation to anxiety, all the way through to utter despair.

So, is there an easier way to connect to those students and create that sense of belonging at such a difficult time? You already have the answer at your institution – and your competitors are already deploying this not-so-secret weapon.

PEER-TO-PEER: YOUR SHORTCUT TO BUILDING A RELATIONSHIP WITH A PROSPECT

We know prospective students love to talk to current students, and for many years, lots of universities have had teams of student ambassadors manning the clearing hotline, providing a friendly voice to terror stricken students, parents and teachers. There are a number of institutions who have gone a step further, however, giving them the power (along with other staff in the clearing call centre) to make offers. Although it was the Post-92 institutions who led the way in this, there are research-intensive universities who have also adopted this approach with success, including the University of Leicester, where Phil Dalby, Head of Admissions was kind enough to take some time to give me an insight into their experience.

Of course, it’s easier with a centralised admissions system, but it’s been so effective that many universities have expanded their team of ambassador offer-makers. In fact, Leicester has doubled the number of ambassadors in this role in the last five years. That may surprise you in such a risk-averse environment as HE (‘what if they say something and we get sued?’) but Leicester was in a great position when they took the decision to give this responsibility to students.

Ambassadors at the University have a fantastic reputation across all departments and are seen as integral part of the recruitment process. Any minor fears have been put to rest by the excellent selection and training process.

Some key points in the Leicester process are:

  1. They select only their most senior ambassadors to work in the call centre and place them with an experienced team leader.
  2. The ambassadors they use in the call centre are hand-picked. The Clearing team only approach those they know will do a good job: they don’t simply put a general call out to all ambassadors.
  3. To make it easier to get the best to work, regardless of where they live or their background, the University reserve pre-paid rooms in halls for them and offer a contribution towards their travel costs. The ambassadors are also paid the highest spine point on their pay band for their role.
  4. The importance of the role and responsibility is very much underlined, so that they can ensure full commitment.
  5. Ambassadors receive exactly the same training as all other call handlers – back to basics. This way they know that ‘everyone has a firm grip on the information we need them to know’.

The rewards of higher conversion rates and a stronger connection – leading to the prospect of improved retention amongst this at-risk group – have also bolstered the decision. As Phil explains,

Student ambassadors have a higher degree of success in the call centre than University employees. We did some analysis of call handler outcomes last year and ambassadors recruited on average 7.55 Clearing students each compared with 5.14 for University staff – so the figures speak for themselves!

THE POWER OF THE AUTHENTIC VOICE

‘Hang on, higher conversion rates?’ I hear you ask. Well, yes! And when you think about it, it all makes complete sense.

Imagine, you’re a panicky 18 year old who’s just found out that they’ve missed their offer and they’re desperate to find a place – to find acceptance. You ring a university asking for your grades and you get a chirpy ‘hello’ (and yes, they are chirpy at 7am – such is the irritating joy of youth) from someone young and enthusiastic – someone like them. Even better, it turns out that they came through Clearing a couple of years ago and are loving their time there.

And so a simple ‘can I study English Lit?’ progresses to a chat about the cool city, the awesome SU, the fantastic trip abroad, the great atmosphere in Halls, and the coup de grace, ‘And of course, you can apply to become an Ambassador, and fit work around your studies.’

BOOM! There’s your next generation of ambassadors.

To cement it all, the ambassador will be around on the Clearing Open Day, where they can meet in person and will be their buddy in first year when they join.

BFF.

A STUDENT-CENTRED CLEARING CAMPAIGN

But ambassadors aren’t just for Christmas Clearing. Weave them in at every stage, before, during and after, to maximise their impact, and you have a campaign that really is tailored to your institution. After all, those are your students, with journeys unique to you.

Before

  1. Advertising:
    • Make that early connection and place students who came through Clearing on billboards, bus stops, on the web and on radio
    • Consider content driven marketing, with blogs and articles written about the student’s transition to your institution
  2. School / college outreach
    • Have you identified the schools and colleges who are more likely to fall into your clearing grade range? Filtering on A level scores, you can draw up a list to target with a campaign of…
    • Pre-clearing talks with, yes, you guessed it, your ambassadors
    • Teacher talks – help them prepare their students (rule #1: DON’T GO ON HOLIDAY)

During

  1. Videos on your website of those lovely students who came to you via Clearing, and who not only survived, but thrived
  2. Get those same students on your Clearing Open Day – and make sure you put on a Clearing Open Day!
  3. Get your ambassadors on the phones
  4. A little bit of competition is healthy – at Leicester, they know their ambassadors are motivated by outcomes, and so they make data available on how many of the students they’ve spoken to have gone on to make the University their firm choice.
  5. Not enough phone lines? Get them answering questions online and use instant messaging
  6. Snacks – as Phil confided, ‘our call centre runs on sugar!’

After

  1. Allocate buddies during acceptance and integrate them into Welcome Week.
  2. Keep up the instant messaging for buddies and new students before and after they actually enrol.

ATTRACT, REASSURE AND RETAIN

Capitalise on peer-to-peer – it works! Find a platform that allows you to create a consistent relationship throughout the whole student journey. Now, if only there were such solution with a strong track record…

Funnily enough, Unibuddy does just that! Our live event feature in particular is ideal for the post-clearing period, where you can offer extra information and reassurance for those nervous students.

The live events can be pre-scheduled for a particular day and time, and enable real-time group and 1-2-1 chat between prospects, ambassadors and enquiry team staff. You can tailor each live event to specific audiences too, such as offer holders, international students or clearing students.

An extra benefit is insight into the topics that really matter to your audience. By creating a bespoke selection of live feeds that you choose, (such as accommodation, international students, finance and students’ union), not only do students get the option to contribute to a group discussion, but you get to see which are the most popular topics. Why is this useful? Well, this sort of understanding can help shape your communications for the following year, allowing you to target your resources on the biggest issues for your prospective students.

But don’t just take our word for it. We’re working with over 60 institutions around the world and have seen some impressive results from our partners, with an increase of 34.8% in conversion from acceptance to enrolment and an 88.3% conversion rate of offer holders. Visit our website to see what some of them say.

As Phil Dalby says,

It’s all about peer to peer. We find that applicants feel far more comfortable chatting with someone they consider to be on their level – they ask more questions and, therefore, get more out of the experience. In their eyes, an ambassador will be frank and open and genuine – because they’re living through it and can give them a flavour of what life is like at uni. We’re finding that applicants enjoy the accessibility of having someone available outside of standard office hours too and that online chat is a far more attractive medium of communication than telephone!

Good luck to you from everyone at Unibuddy – we remember the stress, excitement and the buzz of Clearing and Confirmation very well (and I even miss it a little bit – but don’t tell anyone I said that).

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