Recruiting international students in a virtual world

Traditionally, universities deliver an open day with faculty heads and staff attending to deliver a wide range of content over the course of a day. However, in an increasingly competitive market, many British universities are facing a growing challenge to attract prospective students while minimising costs.

Increasingly, institutions are choosing to embrace the virtual open day as a cost-effective way to effectively track and maintain interest during and after the event to facilitate new student recruitment.

With engaging and relevant content, advanced analytics and the ability to reach an unlimited number of prospective students, the virtual open day is proving to be a vital component in student recruitment and in particular, the lucrative recruitment of overseas students.

Impact of virtual recruitment events

Besides the obvious logistical benefit of reaching a wider audience and providing greater accessibility to information, in all cases Ivent’s university clients have experienced an immediate impact in terms of the number of events they were able to deliver across the annual recruitment cycle for undergraduates and postgraduates.

Already evolving, the virtual open day event has expanded to become a series of targeted and more personalised follow-up events. For example, instead of just delivering an event on a single day to only those people able to attend, institutions using the Ivent event platform now have the ability to run subject and course-specific live chat discussions with students from across the world on any given day.

Subsequent mini-events have also been employed to help international students apply for visas, source tuition funding and investigate accommodation options without leaving home.
Virtual events have allowed clients to develop a relationship with prospective students by facilitating an ongoing dialogue.

These virtual sessions have enabled universities the opportunity to generate these online discussions at a moment’s notice with very limited lead times and at no additional cost. Prospective students feel more in tune with the university as a result and this helps them reach a more informed decision about applying for a place.

We’ve also started to see more ‘offer holder’ events, which give the chance to engage and tick off the issues they need to work through with these applicants. King’s College, London had over 8,000 offer holders register for a single event earlier this year, interaction which they believe has given them a much greater “offer to places being taken” rate.

Challenges in setting up a virtual event

Naturally, we often see some initial fear to change from the historical live event to a virtual one, but the challenges are rarely technical and are based more in the development and availability of relevant and engaging content, specifically video-based content which is key to an online event.

The management of the event environment and how to develop a virtual event strategy that supplements and supports the university’s live event programming are also common stumbling blocks for the first-time virtual event.

Additionally, there are some challenges which are specific to the online event itself, including how to respond to multiple people on chat in a single space, how to control a conversation online, steering event attendees to the correct space and content and managing support issues that are different to a physical event. Usually providers are keen to support and advise from planning through to event delivery and it’s vital to choose a company with sector specific experience.

Will virtual open days replace traditional events?

At Ivent, we have already seen steady growth in this sector with not only the larger universities such as King’s College London, Middlesex University and City University London developing sophisticated online event environments, but smaller universities adopting a virtual approach too.

Leeds Trinity University with its student population of only 1,500 has recently employed our online technology to cost effectively engage students from across the world. This trend is highly likely to continue, with the smaller universities potentially having more to gain from online as they can compete with larger institutions without the financial constraints of staging large, resource intensive live events.

In addition to virtual open days, we are already exploiting the online space by delivering sample lectures to prospective students as well as hosting ‘parent only’ mini events. These parent sessions involve current students and members of the faculty on camera answering questions for parents from around the world. In one recent parent session, over 24 countries were represented.

Almost all universities have some sort of online engagement tool from a basic chat widget to systems like our sophisticated platform which enables greater interaction with multiple event halls, course and faculty booths, a networking area, a resource centre and a live auditorium for delivering presentations and sample lectures.

Like any technology that moves through the adoption cycle we are seeing its use grow as institutions refuse to be left behind – prospective students will come to expect universities to offer a virtual open day in the next two to three years.

Currently, universities without a virtual environment are in danger of losing out especially in the lucrative international student market. And in future, that environment will need to be more engaging and functional to really stay competitive and interesting to prospective students and their families.

* Gavin Newman is director of Ivent. Founded in 2010, Leeds-based Ivent specialises in the design, management and delivery of online events utilising its own powerful, virtual event smf webcasting platform. Ivent’s market solutions have been utilised by several leading UK universities including King’s College London, Middlesex University and the University of York.