April 21, 2024

Can programmatic solve the University (marketing) Challenge?

Total undergraduate full-time applications for September 2017 are down by 5% compared to this point in 2016.

A drop of 7% in the number of EU applications, 23% in the number of nursing applications, a notable decrease in the number of older applicants, and a smaller decrease in the number of 18 year old applicants have combined to produce this decline. Consequently, the ball remains firmly in the applicant’s court and it is up to marketing teams to continue engaging with students long after the traditional January UCAS deadline.


A UCAS spokesperson said, “In 2016, record numbers of students – 52,100 – applied to higher education through clearing, a rise of 3% on the previous year. This trend is likely to continue and we are making plans to support both students and universities, to make sure that all the students who contact us in clearing in 2017 gain a place on a course and with a provider that best matches their requirements.”


Your plans for clearing are probably already well underway and you have most likely seen the influence of this period grow in recent years.

Rebecca Griffiths from UWTSD Swansea states, “The latest UCAS data shows acceptances to higher education through main scheme Clearing have increased by 16% over the last 5 years. Clearing continues to be a key time for UWTSD and, as a Marketing Unit, we have adapted our approach accordingly. We work very closely with our faculties to ensure all relevant courses are marketed and the university remains at the forefront of applicants’ minds throughout the cycle.”


Keep existing applicants warm.

Most university marketing teams are experts in this area, with well-defined email and social strategies, backed up by regular events to continually engage students throughout the cycle.

Both the challenge and opportunity lies in reaching and engaging new potential students as they move down the path to conversion, from research and consideration through to application and enrolment.


Identify relevant target audiences through intelligent prospecting, informed by data. According to McKinsey research, data-driven personalisation delivers five to eight times the ROI on marketing spend and lift conversions by 10% or more.

One of the easiest ways (if you know how) to drive maximum levels of performance from your digital marketing activity is to harness the power of your first party DATA. Universities have a huge amount of rich data, which should be used to precisely segment and target potential students with the highest propensity to convert. A good programmatic partner will work with you to make sense of your data and advise on how to use the information to build relevant segments for prospecting activity.

As going to University becomes a bigger financial consideration, PARENTS are being seen as big influencers and are more involved than ever in the research and consideration phases. A well-defined programmatic strategy can be applied to cross channel marketing campaigns to reach and engage parents at the crucial period leading up to clearing and enrolment.


Good programmatic partners offer the ability to run hyperlocal geo-targeting within a few kilometres’ radius of specific locations. An example of how this granular targeting can be effective is to mirror offline activity, outdoor or specific offline publications.

Another interesting tactic is to focus on a particular radius around key “feeder” Schools or colleges.

Having said that, upper funnel engagement activity can be left more broad to gain valuable insights in to top performing locations. The technology within programmatic platforms will quickly identify and auto optimise towards geographical location with the highest levels of engagement.

Other considerations should include where your message is being displayed. Highly relevant contextual targeting will ensure that your brand is visible within the right environment, whether that be when the potential student is researching where to study or reading the latest fashion or showbiz news.

If you have identified specific publications you want to be featured on, talk to your programmatic partner about accessing inventory on a private market place basis, most publishers now offer this an option, allowing you access to the inventory at a more competitive rate and enabling you to view all campaign insights and performance metrics you expect from programmatic.


Brand, Brand and more Brand

Students are more likely to apply to institutions they are already aware of as the majority of Clearing students will have heard about their university before they get their A-level results.

Brand-led messaging should be consistent across all of your marketing channels, from social and email right through to content and PR output. Best performing awareness and engagement campaigns typically focus on areas like student experience and promoting the town or city as well as employability and teaching quality. Any notable or influential alumni are well worth highlighting.

It’s important to show different messages to different groups, eg. parents would be more interested in employability and potential earnings while students from further afield would like to hear about student life. Relevant messages can be shown according to levels of engagement and can be set to display sequentially through programmatic capabilities.


Programmatic is no longer unique to highly targeted display and retargeting, it can now be applied to engagement and content strategies too, lending itself perfectly to brand campaigns with the end goal of driving conversions and brand awareness.

Over the past five years programmatic video has become a prominent channel in delivering brand awareness and complementing display strategies. Thanks to increased 4G connectivity, our smartphones have become an extension of ourselves and have ultimately changed the way we consume media. According to eMarketer, half of UK smartphone users now watch video on their phones. This stat is particularly relevant for millennials and generation Zs and therefore presents a huge opportunity for brands such as universities targeting this market.

Native advertising is a form of paid media where the ad experience follows the natural form and function of the user experience in which it is placed. Fusing programmatic with native advertising means native experiences can be automated and scaled. Combining the two technologies results in far more effective advertising, delivering engaging experiences for the consumer through increased relevance and personalisation.

Example of In-Content Native Advertising:


Highly engaged users should be retargeted with relevant messages as they move down the funnel from research and consideration to application and enrolment. Content can be dynamically repurposed to be highly relevant to the users. Consideration will be given to the following:


Relevant messages can be shown according to levels of engagement and can be set to display sequentially, ensuring that the users regularly sees new and engaging messages. Decisions can be influenced by content consumed, number of visits, time on site and social sharing.


As the user moves down the funnel they can be retargeted with specific course information according to their browsing behaviour on site. This is particularly interesting as a tactic as clearing approaches and conversions become the main focus.

Whether your own student numbers are healthy, a cause for concern or somewhere in the middle, it’s worth exploring the different solutions in the market. You might even find the right answer!

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