Generating an authentic experience for online events

Keeping it real

“Being authentic” is perhaps the most overused phrase you’ll hear when engaging students online through digital open days, chatbots and other online experiences. But you can really get to the heart of decision-making moments if you can leverage the right conversation, so working out what authenticity looks like for you will help you go in the right direction. This article aims to uncover some of the key considerations when engaging youth audiences online. 

Let’s be clear here though: An ‘authentic’ conversation is not the same as one between friends – so don’t try and be something you’re not. Picking the right voices to be involved in that online experience, coupled with the right content to support it is really important. If you make it too corporate it feels more like a website experience and very staged, if you’re trying too hard to strike up a conversation – it’s a bit needy! You have to get the balance right for the group you’re talking to and have all the relevant links, clips and pictures ready to keep things moving. 

So why are there still so many virtual experiences that miss the mark? Students are demanding a new level of transparency and usefulness that should guide you in your approach to talking with them online. And there are some good online experiences starting to break away from the off-the-shelf ones you’re likely already familiar with too. This coming recruitment cycle I think we’ll see many more follow the trend. 

The friendships, relationships, social experiences, shopping, learning, entertainment of your audiences – it’s all infiltrated with a multitude of technological touchpoints that support real-life moments. Choosing where and what to study next is no different. 

The next objective is to make your experience intuitive: Keeping sign-up simple and short is a must and the opportunity to talk with your university must be easy to access through mobile or desktop and drop in and out of (i.e. don’t put a long form back up every time – who wants to waste time on that?). 

The live chat projects I’ve seen tested, piloted and rolled out for a number of institutions, such as SMILE’s Hijack system, tend to show two main groups of students: watchers and interactors. A large number of students (the watchers) will check into events until they see someone ask a similar question to what they want to know and then they’re done. Similarly, the interactors will jump in on chats, ask all the questions they need to know and are done. 

The common denominator here is – they get the specific bit of information they were after and leave. Don’t take it personally but don’t start planning a two-hour event which is aimed at an audience staying throughout – nobody has the time or patience for this (unless perhaps it’s more of a taster lecture… but remember why TED talks are so successful, max 19 minutes). Repetition, or variations of therefore, is your friend. Do not be afraid to repeat areas of conversation or content, chances are the audience will continue to be regrouping every few minutes – just don’t be lazy or obvious with it, keep it flowing. 

The other key point that testing events can show you is what role an online event might play, when and for whom, in your recruitment cycle. Take note, these aren’t always as expected. It’s key that you keep a clear path tracking your promotion, targeting, timing, and what happens during the event. Unsurprisingly, around clearing you’re likely to see a lot of new leads that you’re not aware of already, often joining the event on the day if you’re promoting it right across your channels and web pages. Many international students may use a virtual experience to help understand more about you before booking travel or even visiting an open day at all. Postgraduates may use it more as a final step to understand some specific details, around a module for instance. The possibilities can be specific to the course, your institution and the timing within the cycle. You need to know what you’re trying to achieve through holding a virtual experience and this could change with the same group. 

For example, you may want to use online events before UCAS fairs to try and reach some students for whom you are a very long-list option at this stage, you then may follow up from the fairs with something student-led about life on campus or in your city, as a conversion tool to get them to an open day, then later in the cycle, some webinar type content, or something with alumni and careers to get into that top five on the UCAS form and ultimately a top two choice. Conversion then, may be another point you want to influence, and so you’ll be aiming to maintain students’ interest with very competitive courses right up to enrolment.

There are endless opportunities. But, don’t panic; trying out small and simple pilots can help inform how you use online experiences to support your student recruitment strategy, from CRM through to digital advertising. And by keeping things targeted you can really evolve what you do as you learn more about how students like to engage with your institution.  

Top things to think about…

Asking questions online comes easy to Generation Z: in so many walks of their lives they are used to online communities so you’ll find it comes easily to ask questions online – perhaps more so than in person or formally. However, the majority will tend to be ‘watchers’ rather than ‘interactors’ – for these you do need to think about shaping some content into conversation so that you keep covering the information they are most likely to need (check your info@ inbox, student surveys or focus groups to ensure you map out the right content for the group you’re targeting).

Existing and new crowds: online experiences can help engage an audience you’ve already been speaking to so think about your CRM, digital remarketing and integration into conversion activity. But also, you’ll likely attract a wave of new faces, and you need to think about how you’re promoting, reminding and engaging these audiences as well as highlighting the event/activity on the day. All of this helps to inform you who’s using it and how, which helps you improve your use of the experience within the cycle. 

Keep it simple: if it’s not easy to sign up, flip between content, spend a short time getting relevant information, or drop back in, you’ll lose people. As well as tracking who’s attending, build a picture of who isn’t, or when they drop off. Again, all of this helps to tell you how to improve your next activity or perhaps how to better focus it on a specific group.