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The future of the prospectus: A digital-first case study
Hello, and welcome to this video case study of the digital-first prospectus for the University of Gloucestershire. Today I am joined by Rob Tribe from the University of Gloucestershire. And for the next 20 minutes, we’re going to be presenting how this project came about, how we got it over the line with stakeholders, and also some of the benefits that have been realised as well. So without further ado, let’s get into it.
So I’m delighted to be presenting this today. Because it’s a truly innovative, digital-first approach to the prospectus that’s been exceptionally well received by students. I’m particularly fond of feedback like we see on the screen now. I’m just really excited to step you through this project in its totality. So as I said, I am joined by Rob: Rob, rather than just put a slide up about you. Would you mind kind of introducing yourself?
Absolutely. So I’m Rob Tribe, I’m the Digital & User Experience Manager at the University of Gloucestershire. So I manage the digital team and were responsible for looking after the main glos.ac.uk university website. So the optimization and continued development of that, and we’ve been lucky enough to work with SMILE now on several projects. So most recently, the relaunch of our university flagship site earlier this year. And of course, the prospectus, which we’re going to talk a bit more about today.
Nice one. Thanks, Rob. And of course, I’m Nathan. I’m one of the co-founders here at SMILE. I’m really passionate about the intersection of design and technology. I’m best known for working on award-winning university websites. You can find out more about me at www.wearesmile.com/nathan.
And as Rob said, we’ve been working with the University of Gloucestershire for almost three years now. And it began with an overhaul of the flagship website. It’s led on to other exciting projects like the digital prospectus. So that’s all been delivered through this vehicle of SMILE. SMILE is an education-specific digital agency, and that specialist knowledge has earned us more than a few awards along the way. We’re particularly proud of our small collection of HEIST awards, and not so small collection of success stories that we’re really proud to have played a part in for so many different universities. In the UK, we have a client list of over 40 different universities, and I speak to universities from all across the globe on a monthly basis as part of other roles. And as a result, we’ve got this huge field of vision on the landscape that universities work within, and how their output affects the global stage.
But in this project, let’s start with the risk. There are actually two risks in my mind. The first is to deviate away from the beaten path. And the second is not being brave enough to listen to the data and do something bold, innovative and different. The prospectus is known as the printed document picked up at fairs, something that as a concept, though, still has to be introduced to students by others. And two years ago, the University took the step towards that bold and innovative approach and they ditched the printed prospectus. Making the business case had to be founded on quantitative data, facts. The first thing to note is that requests for prospectuses were dropping year on year – 44%. That’s pretty huge. And it’s the first symbol that times were changing. And further to that it’s really frustrating, that printed documents are out of date so fast. Anyone that works with course cataloguing knows that courses go through many minor changes, that getting ready for kind of a print run is a really stressful ordeal.
UCAS data also shows that there’s a huge shift in students being driven by sustainability-focused organisations too so the University of Gloucestershire is well ahead of the curve here. In fact, students are telling the university that that actively picking it because of their approach to sustainability. And back in 2018, the data that was out there suggested that there was a lot of value in the printed version. But the university came to the conclusion that the data wasn’t without its biases. In fact, a lot of the data came from companies that really had skin in the game when it came to printing prospectuses. So more than a pinch of salt was taken with that. Student surveys, however, and a lot of first-party data goodness, showed that there was a shift happening. And switching to digital has seen a year one reduction in costs, 50%, a massive saving, allowing the university to refocus money into other areas.
But before the truly digital prospectus, there was an interim step that was taken and the accessible PDF was created to test the appetite. And there was that appetite there for the prospectus. So the University took this interim step, ditching the bulky printed book, to a prospectus that existed purely on Instagram. At fairs, wrist bands with QR codes were given out to students to get them onto the Instagram prospectus. And that move was really brave, you know, it got them in the press for that move. Here you can see an article on the BBC, that praised them for that move.
So let’s talk now about the benefits that the University of Gloucestershire foresaw. Greater reach; the university would be able to design bespoke international sections into digital versions at no additional cost. Personalisation is always something that the university is wanting to capitalise on and making that truly accessible and connecting it to an audience whose values favoured sustainability-conscious organisations is a win-win. The point about quality over quantity is really interesting to me.
Simplistic KPIs that focus on short term wins, like data capture leads, quantifying better relationships with people, yield superior quality leads. And that’s something that’s really difficult to execute, let alone track with a printed version. But in digital, that’s really quite trivial. And the use of an API meant that data was always up to date, to the second, no reprinting was required. That API was something that I think is still to this day pretty unique to the University of Gloucestershire. When we worked on the flagship rebuild for the university, we also had this vision for a singular source of truth for everything, not just courses, but everything, a single API that ingested data from multiple systems. And today, that vision is real for the university. A single query can pull information from multiple sources, and we know it to be accurate, this massive, massive leap from needing to query multiple sources and blend data on the fly. Some universities don’t even have their course pages hooked up to management systems like SITS.
So again, I really feel like the University of Gloucestershire is well ahead of the curve here. And it was transformational for the digital prospectus project, it meant we could use the very latest technologies to rapidly develop the product. And here it is, you can see that you’re able to get into the very thick of personalisation very quickly here. Obviously, we don’t have time to get into every nook and cranny, unfortunately, but once personalised various logic runs to display hyper-relevant content. For example, based on your course choice will automatically determine the most relevant accommodation campus choices, all added into this lovely card interface, you can save, share your customised version, and it looks great too. The UX on this has been tested to an inch of its life, and it’s continually being refined. For me, it’s just a brand new take on navigating a plethora of content from a university.
And best of all, everything is compiled in seconds. I think university websites are great for passive browsing. But often you’re using them actively. So they’re great for completing singular jobs. But finding all of the relevant recruitment information is a task that you really have to sit down and dedicate yourself to. Here, we’ve absolutely simplified that process. And I’m really excited about the future of this product as well.
So there we have it, that’s the prospectus for the University of Gloucestershire, it’s being used. We’re tracking data, we’re moving forwards, you know, like I say, it’s all really, really exciting stuff. So I’m going to hand it over to Rob now, who will walk us through the successes of the project so far, and maybe even what’s in store next.
Thanks, Nathan. So what have we seen? Well, in September 2021, we saw a 317% increase in prospectus uses versus 2020, which, of course, is amazing. But it’s not necessarily that simple. Because comparing a digital prospectus to a PDF to a sort of physical prospectus before that, is a bit like comparing apples and oranges for a whole range of reasons. There’s no analytics or metrics for physical prospectuses. So it’s really difficult to gauge engagement once they’re given away. The data capture form was a real barrier for us back when we were using an accessible PDF, because it was hidden behind a form and a real lack of international reach, of course, for our physical prospectuses, compared to the fully digital prospectus that we have now. But here’s what we do know.
So we are seeing lots of returning users with multiple sessions. So we can see that our users are really engaged. Losing the data capture form that we had in front of our accessible PDF, has greatly increased the number of prospectus users that we have because we’ve taken that barrier away and we’re now gathering data in a different way. Nearly 15% of our users during March and August so between March and August 2021 were International, which is amazing. And that was really untapped before as far as our prospectus was concerned. So that’s a really excellent benefit that we’ve seen. We’ve also seen a huge increase in mobile users, which is to be expected, we know that a lot of our audience now are using their phones. So that’s really good to see. And having a digital-first product, of course, means that that experience is so much better for them. And more than half of our users are personalising their own prospectus.
So they’re really benefiting from the personalisation options that they’re offered. They’re not just browsing everything, they want that tailored personal experience. So costs and savings, as Nathan mentioned – significant savings to taking this approach! And you can see here that over the course of five years, it’s six figures because actually, we’re only doing that initial build once. And once that’s done every year. It’s just iterative optimizations and changes that we’re making. So there’s a huge saving there. And also, of course, a saving in time and resources that we’ve been able to channel into other projects.
So what are our users saying? Well, we reached out to our users via our outreach team, and we spoke to prospective students and college students who have been applying this year. And the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. There’s been a lot of commentary like this comment here about how physical prospectuses are really heavy, and they’re difficult to use. It’s hard to find the information that they want. And they really enjoy the fact that the digital prospectus that we’ve created can be tailored to their interests and the courses that they like. We’ve also seen a lot of commentary about how prospectuses are bulky and heavy and they don’t like carrying them around.
And about how online prospectuses are just much more efficient and they wouldn’t want to be flicking through the really heavy books. So there’s been a lot of commentary about this and the sustainable nature of it too. And sustainability is a really important core value for us as a university. And of course, for many universities now, we’ve been consistently in the top 10 of the people and planet table for sustainability. Since 2010, we were ranked first in the most recent table from 2019. And it’s something that it’s not only important to us, but really resonates with our students as well. And of course, it’s not just about the trees, as we’ve noted, here, there’s a lot of other things to consider with such a big project and going fully digital has really helped us to be more sustainable. We’re currently working towards being carbon net-zero by 2030. So this obviously plays a part in that.
So in terms of the benefits that have been realised, well, we’ve mentioned that we’re seeing a much greater reach, particularly with international, but also a number of our domestic UK students as well. They’re just finding it much, much easier to engage with our content given that it’s a mobile-first, fully accessible experience. Personalisation, we’ve seen there in the feedback that we’ve received, that our students are valuing the fact that they can personalise their experience and tailor it so that they can just see the courses and the content that they’re interested in. We’ve touched on sustainability, and cost reduction.
And Nathan mentioned the Glos API and how the integration with the website means that our content is always up to date. That’s something that I can’t sort of tell you enough how valuable that has been for us, because immediately when a course is changed or taken offline, or there are any changes to the underlying data, the prospectus is immediately updated to reflect that. And given that it’s connected with our university flagship website, it means that we don’t need to maintain it separately, they’re always synced up. And any changes that we make to the main website are reflected in the prospectus straightaway. Analytics, metrics and the other digital tools we use to track engagement is also another really huge benefit. That’s just not something that was available back in the world of physical prospectus’. So now, we’re able to use these tools to track our users, learn from them, work out the pain points and feed that into future development cycles so that we can continue optimising and building upon this.
So what’s ahead? Well, I think we’re still working that out. But what we do know is that this isn’t a one-trick pony. I think we know that this is here to stay. We’re not going to backtrack on this and go back to a physical world. But we’re just in the process at the moment of sort of understanding what our next steps are with this. And there’s a lot of conversations I think about how this can become even more embedded in that student journey from you know when they’re first looking at our courses and applying through UCAS and sort of understanding how that better connects with our website, I think just to provide an even more rich experience. So I think we’ll keep them on their toes a little bit with that, Nathan.
That’s brilliant. Thanks, Rob for your input today. I think that’s been really useful. I think our audience is gonna resonate with a lot of your points there. These slides are available if anybody does want to take a look at them in their own leisure. We’ve also got a great series of work with the University of Gloucestershire, which you can check out on our website over at wearesmile.com. So I’d just like to say, Rob, thank you very much for all of your time today. It’s much much appreciated. And if anybody does want to kind of discuss the potential of digital-first prospectuses, my door is always open. You can book a session with me right now at wearesmile.com/nathan. And I think it’s been a really useful session! Thanks very much, Rob.
All right, well if anybody does have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below and we’ll do our best to get back to you. If you’d like to see more content from SMILE, please do consider subscribing. But for now, have a great day and see you soon. Bye.