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Digital marketing campaigns are taking off quickly among student recruitment professionals

The ability to measure results from digital campaigns is pushing universities in a new direction.


When it comes to marketing and recruitment campaigns, universities are increasingly turning to digital tools to complement their traditional stable of print ads, brochures and Viewbooks.

In November, Victoria-based Royal Roads University ran a campaign that used Google Glass, the high-tech glasses designed by the Internet search engine, and a GoPro video camera to allow prospective students to virtually sit in on lectures, take a tour of the campus, and participate in Q&A sessions with faculty members – all in real time. Current Royal Roads students outfitted with the Glass and a ball cap mounted with the panoramic GoPro camera acted as tour guides, attending lectures and accompanying campus tours while livestreaming the events. The events were also recorded and can be viewed on the university’s YouTube channel.

“We were giving people a sneak peak of what we offer here at the university,” said Catherine Riggins, director of branding, marketing and recruitment. The impetus for this was that in the past, some marketing campaigns hadn’t resulted in the conversion rates the university was hoping for, she said. At the same time, the university had contact information in its database for many prospective students that had requested information about Royal Roads. It began looking for ways to leverage the data and give those potential recruits “a sampling of what their education could be like here, and how beautiful the campus is,” Ms. Riggins said.

Royal Roads doesn’t yet know the impact of the campaign on enrolment but it generated a lot of buzz on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. This was the university’s first completely digital marketing campaign and, while Ms. Riggins is hesitant to say digital channels will replace traditional print-based campaigns anytime soon, she’s confident they will play an increasingly prominent role.

As Royal Roads discovered, one of the major benefits of online marketing campaigns is that their performance can be measured. Universities can track how many unique visitors view their websites and click on digital Viewbooks. “People want to know ‘Is it effective?’” Ms. Riggins said. “With traditional media we don’t know. I think we’re being forced to move to tactics that we can measure and gauge.”

The metrics provide universities with valuable information that allow them to refine future messages, added Graeme Menzies, director of prospective undergraduate student marketing, communications and social media at the University of British Columbia. Another benefit is that “we can change things on the fly” whereas print advertising isn’t nearly so nimble, he said. Online marketing can be targeted to specific groups and geographic locations. If UBC wants to send a message to prospective Brazilian students, it can do so through the Brazilian followers on its Facebook account, he explained.

Online tools also allow UBC to connect with prospective international students in countries the school wouldn’t otherwise visit. UBC is one of several Canadian universities and colleges – including McGill University, Queen’s University, the University of Alberta and St. Thomas University – to host live web chats and participate in virtual college fairs organized through CollegeWeekLive, based in Needham, Massachusetts. In a single academic year, UBC participated in 31 online events organized by the company, reaching almost 15,000 students in more than 100 countries. The company website also offers information on scholarships, entrance exams and other admissions-related topics.

“The millennial generation is used to researching and having conversations and makings connections online – they have grown up in the digital world,” said Robert Rosenbloom, CollegeWeekLive’s chief executive officer. New technologies enable universities to reach a broader and geographically diverse group of prospective students. In 2014, about 750,000 students will take part in various online events hosted by CollegeWeekLive, Mr. Rosenbloom estimated. Canadian schools are using the portal mainly to reach U.S. and international students, he added.

Some universities host similar events through their own websites. Ryerson University offers prospective students the chance to register for live, interactive online presentations with faculty members and admissions officers for various programs throughout the fall and winter. Meanwhile, the University of Regina, the University of Calgary, the University of Alberta and the University of Manitoba are among dozens of schools that offer virtual campus tours through Google’s Street View locales.

The challenge many recruiters face is how to experiment with digital communications channels while maintaining the traditional methods, observed Ken Steele, co-founder of Academica Group, a Canadian higher-education consulting company. “They haven’t been able to let go of the old media and have been trying to do more and more things with the same budget,” he said.

UBC’s Mr. Menzies said print remains an important medium, in part because it allows students to share information with their parents who may not be as tech-savvy. “But it’s a question we ask ourselves every year: To what extent can we print fewer things?” he added.

As part of the Royal Roads campaign, prospective students who visit the campaign website can connect with alumni who act as mentors to the potential recruits. The university created temporary profiles for select student prospects on LinkedIn so they could glimpse a view of their “future selves” and imagine how a Royal Roads education helped advance their careers. Ms. Riggins said the campaign primarily targeted domestic students although it has reached international students as well. The university is now considering creating a separate page on its campaign website for international students.

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