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22 July 2020 | Story Dr Cinde Greyling & Ilze Bakkes | Photo Sonia du Doit
The team from Student Recruitment Services.

Where do our students come from? For most people, the word “university” signifies eager learning minds, some mischief, exams, graduations, and an environment where a lot of growing up takes place. Those who attended, treasure fond memories of varsity time. And university staff often state that one of their greatest rewards is seeing their students succeed. But how do the students get there?

Students are central

Students are the core business of the University of the Free State. No students, no university. Easy as that. Not only do students pay class fees, but they also contribute to the subsidies received. External funding and third-stream income are also, to a large extent, dependent on a university’s student profile. Nobody wants to invest in or partner with an institution who cannot produce good quality graduates. Sufficient students, and enough good quality students are crucial to not only let the UFS survive, but thrive.

The magic of marketing

The type of students that we need, do not simply appear in the registration lines each year. They are intentionally sourced through strategic and consistent marketing efforts. The pool of top achievers is small, and we compete with 27 other public higher-education institution in South-Africa, and several private universities and college to attract students. Besides the rife competition, our local education landscape is dynamic and influenced by various drivers of change. To achieve the required student intake and student quality, we employ marketing, public relations, and strategic positioning. 

The team behind the tactics

The UFS is fortunate to have an exceptionally strong and experienced marketing team headed by Nomonde Mbadi. She also leads the team of twelve active school marketers who are each assigned to target schools in different regions. Our teams cover South-Africa, as well as some international regions and also encourages post graduate studies. Ilze Bakkes is responsible for integrated marketing, and Linda Greyling heads the promotions and project team. We also boast a separate centre, Kovsies2BConnect where three agents are geared to distribute programme and campus information to both internal and external stakeholders. Data is important and as such we have a newly established unit that is responsible for making sense of the data for strategic decisions.

Setting our aim straight

Our entire approach pivots around our target audience – which is not as straight forward as you may think. Prospective students’ choices are influenced by numerous factors, including their parents, guardians, family members, friends, teachers, mentors, current students, graduates, alumni, and the list goes on. That is over and above their own academic achievements, interests, skills, and socio-economic status. With thorough research and looking at the data from all angles, we navigate our way through this maze of influencers to ensure that our message and call to action hits the spot – or, rather, all the spots!

Targeting with three tiers

The foundation of our strategy is an integration between the AIDA model, and the three-tier engagement model. The AIDA model guides our efforts to create awareness about the UFS, spark an interest from our target audience, create a desire, and ultimately leading to action when they apply and register. The three-tiers begin with targeted mass marketing including advertisements, school visits, and social media campaigns. That is supported by the differentiated marketing of tier-2 aimed at selected schools, parents, and learners. And finally, tier-3 marketing is very strategic and focussed on top achievers. 

All our marketing and recruiting efforts are carefully planned and executed. We do not leave anything to chance and follow a detailed plot of activities and actions pre-planned for each year. Some of the activities are selected based on previous success, and others are opted for due to platform changes and new or developing target audience preferences. These are some of the actions we take: 

Presentations: Selected members of our team are either invited to, or initiate UFS presentations at schools or at career exhibitions. This if often complemented by a branded booth with information hand-outs and possible one-on-one discussions. 

E-communication: We are in continuous communication with school principals and Life Orientations teachers in order to share information and needs. Designated social media pages are also used to create awareness and share information among prospective students and their peers. And mass and personal SMS’s are distributed via methodically created databases. 

In person events: We partake in numerous special events, including the Top Achiever function, parents’ evenings and workshops, breakfast with the Rector, and exclusive engagements with schools. Such events are valuable in terms of information sharing and creating brand awareness. It also gives attendees the opportunity to discuss their needs or concerns. A big favourite is always the UFS Open Day. 

Incentives: Although we do enjoy spoiling stakeholders with branded UFS apparel, it is definitely not an uncontrolled mass handout – we are very selective in our distributions. An effective motivator is rewarding school achievements, and our recently launched Red Box Society seems to have the desired effect. This incentive includes exclusive offers and vouchers to top achievers. Our more familiar Matriculant of the Year competition continuous to attract strong entrants, and our Star of Stars competition offers disadvantaged Grade 12 learners the chance to showcase their excellence. 

The Student Recruitment Services’ team is dynamic, fun, informed, and focussed. We are often complimented on our “vibe” which indicates where our passion lies – we love what we do. Student recruitment, however, needs the support of the entire institution. We need to deliver what we sell. Word-of-mouth is stronger than ever, thanks to social media. People’s lived experience of a brand overshadows any other recruitment initiative. If we want to increase our popularity among the top achieving students, we need to ensure that the UFS lived experience is aligned to our projected brand image. Student recruitment and service delivery is forever engaged in a dance, one wrong step can ruin the show… or the ensemble can recover gracefully if each member puts in the effort to recover from the mistake. Let us support one another when we miss a beat!

You may be wondering – but what about COVID-19? How will we do all our visits and open days? Does that mean we will not have enough students next year? Not at all. The Student Recruitment Services’ team has you covered. Do you want to know what we have been up to…? We will release an article about our COVID-19 tactics soon – so stay informed by checking the UFS official platforms regularly. Remember to wear a mask, wash your hands, maintain physical, and stay safe. 

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