Lessons from lost weekends – reflections on 2020’s Virtual Open Days

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He’s earned fame as a winemaker, won a Nobel prize and solved some secrets of the universe, but if Brian Schmidt can visit the ANU Virtual Open Day and work out how to enrol a student in a double degree without losing a full morning and consulting a help desk, then I’ll start looking for a hat to eat.

Professor Schmidt may have some challenges ahead in providing Open Day access for students of talent but no hacking ability, but he is far from alone.

After a fulfilling season of visiting 17 university open days, whiling away lockdown weekends in a frenzy of clicks, muttering, time testing and note taking, I was unable to access the University of Melbourne’s Virtual open day at all.

After pre-registering in a document that required my age, my highest level of study, my country of residence and my residence status, as well as name, contact details and study interests, I felt more than a little violated. I realise you are thinking that you will help me find a study program that fits my interest faster if you know this stuff, but why is it mandatory to provide all that personal data to the University of Melbourne before I get to see the video for your open day?

I spent 20 sold minutes trying to log in to the University of Melbourne’s Open Day, re-making passwords, trying different emails, all the while staring at an ad that Melbourne’s 2020 open days Redefine Possible.

After 20 frustrating minutes, I can assure you that Melbourne did, indeed redefine possible – and I left to vent my frustrations to the backyard, deprived of the chance to attend.

Of course, that means I then tried out not only my real data but also fake names, registering multiple times with multiple identities to try to get access, and found that I could register as an Andorran born on 1 January 1001, and yet my 1019 year-old persona still couldn’t get in the door any better than as a regular Melbourne parent. The one small mercy was a university slogan that really resonated. My alma mater really had Redefined Possible – into the Impossible.

In the great shake-up of higher education post-COVID, there is a strong case to be made that great universities of 2021 and beyond will be those that connect in a process that not only suits themselves, but also suits the stakeholders they purport to serve. With that in mind, one of the most valuable things all senior university leaders could do this year is to stare in at what they have created from the other side of the fence. Cast aside the trappings and mindset of high office for a few minutes on a sunny Saturday morning and experience just how baffling many universities have managed to make the world appear. The responsibility of making virtual open days and engagement in general more satisfactory can not be left solely to the whiles of the marketing team – an institution-wide evolution in mindset is required.

Why most valuable? In a year where many universities have had an unprecedented revenue and enrolment slump, the need to capture enough of the domestic market to pay at least most of the bills in 2021 is still an underrated priority. If universities don’t attract students ready to learn in sufficient numbers to their classrooms (real or virtual) next year, their 2020 problems are going to start looking small.

A labyrinthine registration and access protocol, meant it took about 20 minutes to work out how to get into the ANU Virtual Open Day, by which time I had missed the promised presentation and welcome from Professor Schmidt. However, it is important to note that those smart enough to get into the ANU open day were offered an outstanding range of content – an exhaustive array of 294 sessions to choose from, and a user-friendly interface to navigate. Even more exciting, ANU put together a prize a student was likely to really want (a year’s free accommodation at a college – serious value, appealing to both students and parents alike).

Before proceeding further, in the interests of full disclosure, my company Twig Marketing partnered with the Good Education Group this year to offer a vehicle for virtual open days. While there were many technical solutions used to deliver virtual open days, the key issues were not about choice of platform, but usability. The possible exception to this were issues with logging into events – although registration issues were more commonly communication issues, not technical ones.

The pivot to digital engagement of future students has been remarkable and has required much effort – but the learnings from looking at so many open days relate to the way universities express themselves. It’s about what you require students to give on the form, not the form itself. It’s about the time you take to respond to an enquiry, while you are manning a virtual booth, and also the quality of the information that you give.

Apart from marketing departments that slaved behind the scenes to make the pivot possible, for me there were a couple of stand out heroes of the open days I visited, which provide some illumination as to where these events need to head.

Spoiler alert – effective, efficient and informative human engagement still beats all the technological wizardry you can muster, hands down.

The problem is way too much time was spent on gamifying or virtualising a physical open day experience (an experience that wasn’t that good before) into a less edifying digital experience. The tricked-up software and wildly variable investment in online design was interesting to observe, but frequently failed to either inform or persuade.

Expressed another way: A pig wearing lipstick is still a pig.

In the 64 pages of screenshots, transcripts, timed response records and other data I collected during my open day visitations, there are lots of insights, but a few stand outs:

  1. Don’t be greedy. Registration forms are hard enough to fill out. Asking users to provide masses of detail before they even get in to see your open day makes the back end of your CRM look terribly nice, but research has shown for more than a decade that it puts off squads of users.
  2. Don’t shape your engagement around what you want to tell me. Service is not that hard, but something our sector has struggled with. You may know more about rockets, diseases or rare endangered frogs than I ever will, but that doesn’t help me decide whether your course is going to be interesting or useful. Student-centric communication is almost always subjugated to organisational priorities.
  3. Let your stars shine. Everyone knows the staff who you should keep away from the punters. Brilliant in their own way, but born neither for sales nor for oral communication. The stars are people with relatability, with a story to tell – people who are able to listen and respond while keeping you engaged. Most institutions employ an approach closer to broadcast than dialogue, so when you encounter someone who responds to questions, and preferences the needs, interests, language and perspectives of users before their own, it really stands out. After many issues navigating my way into ACU’s open day, I was almost at the point of giving up when I was linked up to a one-on-one zoom with a senior lecturer in psychology, Dr Tom Whelan. He seemed to read my dead-behind-the-eyes zoom fatigue, volunteered information, kept the discussions about course and careers really practical, reeled off some key differentiators and within a few minutes had me wanting to sign up myself. He wasn’t trying to sell anything – it was a natural engagement that was tailored and immediately compelling. The talk with Dr Whelan stood out though, because the experience was so rare.

The issues of confusion and frustration that arise are the lack of user focus in the artificial worlds created by many universities which are magnified when preferences have finally been decided, and the poor, locked down school leaver tries to lock in their preferences. For years, universities have struggled to help school leavers transfer course choices to the antiquated TAC system (UAC QTAC, VTAC etc).

Owned and controlled by the universities, these creaking, underloved remnants of a good idea in the mid-20th century are a bizarre impediment to easy and effective enrolment processes – and a key driver of the increasing uptake in direct application programs.

Students must seek to accurately transcribe data and similar-sounding course titles from the list they have made at open day to a completely different interface. We could talk for hours about how to do this well, but between you and Ihere’s a top tip. When you put a UAC or VTAC or SATAC code and course name into your university marketing materials, make sure it’s the same code and course name as is being used by the TAC.

After 18 years in university marketing, thousands of hours helping to improve admissions processes and operational strategies, and 17 open days, I still had to make three calls to the UAC help desk this year just to get an application in, because of inconsistent names and codes – which had rendered the preferred course invisible.

Open Day season is trickling to a close, but an epic Summer of preference trading and course swaps is soon to begin, with arguably more riding on the outcome than ever before.

Tim Winkler is Director of Twig Marketing, Australia’s first specialist higher education marketing services and strategy consultancy.