Keystone Academic SolutionsScaling digital marketing strategies to replace student fairs and outreach trips

Scaling digital marketing strategies to replace student fairs and outreach trips


Online programmes are creating new engagements and revenue for many universities

Summer term would normally be a time of excited anticipation for those about to embark on a university course, with students making plans for their first weeks at their chosen institution. In 2020, of course, events have transpired differently, with the coronavirus crisis pressing pause on many university applications and start dates, creating huge uncertainty for international students in particular.  

61% of students are considering changing their study plans since COVID-19

Keystone Academic Solutions, which has 55,000 university programmes on its platform and 6 million prospective students visiting its websites every month, recently ran a survey of almost 7,000 students visiting its site, revealing that 61 per cent of students were considering changing their study plans since Covid-19 took hold. Universities have needed to respond quickly to this changing landscape, with many extending application deadlines, relaxing admissions policies and adjusting entry requirements to ensure that they can still welcome students. Aware that international students will have particular concerns about potential deferrals, travel and visas, some institutions are setting up helpdesks to answer questions and inform students about how their courses might change.  

Three key approaches used by universities as learning goes online

Erik Harrell, CEO of Keystone, says there have been three key approaches, with many universities opting to offer a mix of all three. “There are some universities that anticipate starting the next semester on time, and on campus; there are those who will start an on-campus experience for those who can join and offer a synchronous online experience for those who cannot travel or who must isolate due to underlying conditions, then resuming the campus experience when possible; and those that are looking to offer exclusively online programmes,” he explains. Interest in online-only courses has surged since the start of the pandemic – between January and May, Keystone sites experienced a 55 per cent increase in traffic of students searching for online courses.  

As universities adapt their course offerings to match these changing demands, many are harnessing the commercial potential of moving more courses online, even if temporarily or only for certain modules. “They’re looking at customer segments they might not have tapped into before, realising they can offer courses at a lower price-point and they don’t have to limit numbers as they’re not constrained by the physical campus,” Harrell adds.  

Digital capabilities of universities have evolved as a result of the pandemic

At the same time, lockdown has altered how universities communicate with prospective students. With face-to-face recruitment events not currently possible, marketing activity has also moved online. Some institutions are trialling new approaches such as crowdsourcing videos from students to give an authentic view of life at the university, experimenting with video-sharing platform TikTok and streaming talks from chancellors.  

The move to digital student engagement has been accelerated by the coronavirus, but the speed with which universities have adapted will help to futureproof their offering. Subsequent lockdown restrictions could be imposed and mean pausing face-to-face courses once more, while the economic downturn caused by Covid-19 could result in more people reskilling or changing careers, and looking to universities to meet that need. The market for international students is likely to be dramatically disrupted if movement and travel continues to be restricted, and if students are prevented from starting courses on campus because of illness or self-isolation.  

Universities can benefit from the scalability of digital marketing

If universities want to encourage their international students to engage with online offerings and flexible programmes, digital marketing will become invaluable to find, reach and communicate with them, says Harrell. “Students are already digitally savvy – they’re on social media and used to the web. A digital approach enables universities to have a massive reach,” he explains. “They can test their marketing at a low budget and scale it up flexibly.”  

Keystone customer Mantissa College in Malaysia used its marketing platform to reach students from across the world including markets such as Pakistan, Ghana, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. The College personalised its communications across email, video and phone (calls and WhatsApp) to nurture potential students, and the result was a fifth of leads converting to an application. The University of Wrocław in Poland also sources new students from a variety of countries by promoting its English-language degrees through Keystone sites, generating an average of more than 200 student leads per month. 

Harrell believes that while the coronavirus has accelerated universities’ enthusiasm to communicate with and teach students digitally, it doesn’t mean an end to the campus experience or students’ eagerness to study abroad. “When things get safe again people will have that desire to travel to new places and have new experiences. Covid-19 won’t end globalisation,” he says.  

Find out more about Keystone Academic Solutions. 


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