In the pursuit of an effective clearing campaign
What makes an effective clearing campaign? To answer this, we analysed 70 online-based clearing campaigns from 2020 and 2021 clearing periods, and interviewed students who had recently gone through the process. In recent years, advertising budgets amongst UK universities, especially among lower and middle ranking institutions, have been growing, with clearing becoming a critical period for admissions – with the competition to recruit students particularly ferocious during this period.
For the business schools within universities, clearing comes with its own specific challenges, as research has shown that students can often see this as a ‘left over’ option for a place at university. In particular, students who missed out on securing their preferred university often end up choosing an institution they had never previously envisaged attending, which can impact on their study experience and motivation. Although often associated in the public’s perception with ‘downgrading’ one’s university choice and expectation, this is not necessarily the case: clearing also allows for students to swap their initial choice of university for a more competitive one if the applicants’ matriculation exam results are better than expected. Moreover, this specific phase of recruitment is an opportunity for widening participation in higher education. Irrespective of the reasons and motivations for going through clearing, it is imperative that any advertising campaigns surrounding clearing must address the specific challenges of attracting the best possible candidates, while at the same time managing students’ expectations and offering reassurance regarding their new choice.
Through our analysis, we identified three best practice approaches that business schools can implement:
Use relatable sources
Business schools, and wider universities as a whole, should endeavour to use current students who have gone through clearing themselves to offer relevant tips and information to prospective applicants. In our research, particularly positive responses were recorded for campaigns featuring students who do not hold an office within the university and are not part of the student union, but instead represent the ‘average’ student voice. To ensure relatability, students should share their experience of confusion and uncertainty before clearing, followed by helpful information on how the university helped them overcome these. On-screen graphics should indicate the status of the student who is sharing the information, such as current programme and year of study, to make it clear that the student came through clearing.
Create a self-contained story
Messaging around clearing should be presented in an engaging fashion e.g. showing students coming in confused but leaving fulfilled, thanks to the university. Here, visual storytelling is just as important as oral storytelling. This does not always require professionally produced content. Forming an emotional connection and creating a sense of relatability appear to be key to prospective applicants. Student-produced, lo-fi content often achieves this. This aligns also with the previous approach that prospective students will appreciate the level of engagement and acknowledge that someone like them has navigated this situation.
Shorter and faster messaging
While self-contained stories are important, the time constraints in searching for information and the pace at which students are flipping from one advert to another needs to inform the design of any campaign element. Unless it is a featured advertisement, these should be short in duration, albeit depending on the media, but also clearly and swiftly offer the key information. Students want the advertisement to get straight to the point, offering the student some reassuring words before they skip the video.
What does this mean for your next clearing campaign?
Business schools will already be planning for their next clearing campaign, and it is important that they listen to the desires of prospective students in order to get a return on their investment. Business schools need to look at the key messages they want to offer students coming through clearing – what reassuring message do they want to reiterate? What unique features and offers can business schools offer that are ready to be showcased? Most institutions probably need to start evaluating their art direction options and media planning strategies. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the aim is to invite, engage and reassure prospective students – they are going on an unknown journey, and it’s imperative the clearing process offers them the much needed support they want.
Dr Hyunsun Yoon is the Programme Leader for Advertising and Digital Marketing Communications at Greenwich Business School; Dr Dennis Olsen is Associate Professor of Advertising and Branding at the London School of Film, Media and Design; Dr Emmanuel Mogaji is the Programme Leader for MA Strategic Advertising and Marketing Communications at Greenwich Business School.