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Supercharging Student Recruitment: a short essay

Supercharging Student Recruitment: a short essay

Posted by Nik Higgins on March 4, 2019

Back in the day

When The Access Platform (TAP) first started it was just my Co-founder, and our Chief Exec, George Olesen, living on a houseboat and working from a desk in the British Library. He’d decided to quit his job at Amazon Web Services to pursue an idea that he’d been thinking about whilst at university. As a teenager George had been a boarder at the world-famous Harrow School. He left Harrow in 2011 and went on to study Engineering at Durham University. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying that he found the transition to university pretty straightforward. His older sister had friends studying there, so it was easy enough for him to make the trip up there to speak to some of them who were studying engineering and make an informed decision about whether the university and the course was right for him.

Back in the day
George (left) on his houseboat. Apparently it wasn't so pleasant during December!

Shortly after arriving at Durham, the tables turned and George found himself having phone calls and coffees with his friends’ younger sisters and brothers about what studying engineering at Durham was like. Having seen the value of these conversations from both sides, George questioned whether access to these advisory conversations with students was equal, and what could be done to make them more easily available to everyone. It was a problem that stuck with him and, being the entrepreneurial soul that he is, led him to quit his job and explore whether technology might be able to help. After six months of Companies House registrations, showering in a gym, and floating around the canals of North London The Access Platform was born.

I met George later that year. At the time I was running the careers team at a lively, and wonderfully diverse sixth form in Hackney. I remember vividly the first time we spoke. I had just slumped, exhausted into the chair at my desk after de-escalating a mild brawl between two groups of students. The phone rang and I answered to a chipper and optimistic stream of unsolicited questions about university applications, careers support, and further education. I have to confess that I gave the guy at the other end of the line a pretty hard time. Who was this random person quizzing me? What does he know about working with young people? How the hell can technology help? He needed to get real, or so I thought.

Bsix College
The canteen at Brooke House Sixth Form, Hackney, the college I worked in before joining George at TAP

It was a tough time to be working in the FE sector. The government had just initiated it’s much maligned ‘area review’ strategy (a five year process of audit, closures, and forced mergers), Ofsted had just released its new Common Inspection Framework (which, amongst other things, demanded that schools and colleges provide more careers provision, without suggesting where the extra cash for this support should come from), and A Level qualifications were transitioning from the existing AS/A2 model to a ‘linear’, two year structure (causing a massive headache for teachers who had previously used AS results to favourably predict grades for kids with less traditional educational histories).

Despite all this he caught my attention. There was something in his optimism and the shapelessness of the whole thing that I found exciting. We decided to give it a go, and I quit my job in FE a few months later.

Early days

As with any relationship the first few month were a process of ‘working things out’. First, on a personal level (Is it ok if I wear shorts and flip-flops to the office?; Does the other guy like going for a pint on Friday’s; How many times is it ok to say ‘gross margin’ without really understanding what it means?), and, second, how we were actually going to make ‘technology’ help with the problem. The thing we believed in was always clear, however. We shared a deeply held belief that connecting students already studying at a university with those who were yet to make the transition was a powerful, positive, and progressive thing to do.

I had spent the previous five years sitting in on countless university run events where well meaning recruitment and outreach staff had, time and time again, delivered talks and handed out leaflets and prospectuses to my students. I’m sad to say that, good intentions aside, the talks were often met with what was, at best, mild interest and, at worst, outright boredom. The end of each session was always followed by the predictable aftermath of a quickly-executed student exodus from the nominated classroom, and an overfilling of the college bins with glossy printed materials. The visits were never a complete failure though. The university staff always brought student ambassadors along with them. Current undergraduates who, dressed in brightly coloured branded t-shirts, would set up a stall in the college canteen and spend the lunch hour chatting to my students. I was struck by ease with which they chatted to student after student, warmly answering questions that ranged from the mundane to the ridiculous. I couldn’t help but notice the keenness with which faces that had, an hour previously, borne looks of blank derision turned to excitement and interest upon chatting to the student ambassadors. I observed this on lots of occasions: at summer schools, open days, and in Q&A sessions. Despite the power of these interactions, the student ambassadors always seemed to be thought of as something of an added benefit, or ‘nice to have’, by the university staff, rather than as a core part of their strategy to engage my students.

I did a lot of thinking about this in the years before George and I started The Access Platform, and particularly noted that there was a real disconnect between the logic of a large swathe of higher education policy (particularly in relation to the widening participation agenda) and the realities how young people engage with one another and come to be motivated to make certain educational, and dare I say it ‘life’, decisions. In 2015/16 my college successfully sent three students to Oxbridge (a massive achievement given the socio-economic context of the institution). As well as the tenacity, courage, and brilliance of those young people, a key part of their successful applications to Oxford and Cambridge had been a peer and academic mentoring programme that I had put together. The programme linked these young people with Oxbridge graduates, (I was lucky enough to study at the university between 2009-12, and recruited some of my more socially conscious mates to help out), for advisory conversations and soft academic tuition. It was a massive success, but left me with a feeling of frustration that such interactions were predicated, in a deeply inequitable way, on a member of a college’s careers staff being lucky enough to have a load of Oxridge bods in their phone book, and were unscalable because of the physical necessity to meet ‘in person’ (not to mention the rigmarole of DBS checks and supervision).

A learning curve

Back to George and I in the first months of The Access Platform’s existence. I’m ashamed to say that, in those early days, my understanding of technology was about as advanced as a cartwheel. Slightly ridiculous given the fact that I had just quit my career in education to start a tech company. Thankfully, with his background at Amazon, George was on hand to steer the ship. We bounced a couple of ideas around and eventually created what is known in the start-up world as an ‘Minimum Viable Product’ (MVP). An MVP is basically something you can just about get customers using without them laughing/ shouting at you. We knew from the outset that universities would be our customers. We were laser foucussed on helping young people, but we knew that we could only do that successfully by also creating an institutional solution. We wanted to create a business where everyone benefitted: young people got access to previously unreachable conversations with current students, universities were more successful in their recruitment, marketing, and outreach, and we didn’t look like mugs with more bravado than sense. At least that was the idea.

Our first MVP was an online platform that enabled prospective students to book phone calls with student ambassadors. The calls ran through a phone conferencing bridge that we operated, and we ran manual safeguarding checks on all the interactions. Genius, we thought. Problem solved! The only small (well, actually, very big) issue was that no one really booked any calls. We tore our hair out a bit, and then we talked to some young people. They, quite rightly, and very matter-of-factly, told us that ‘no-one actually makes calls any these days’. More to the point, it would just be downright weird to have one with a stranger. We’d got it wrong and, in retrospect, it was a daft mistake to make. We’d got carried away with the idea of making these interactions possible without taking enough time to think about the way in which the young people actually wanted to interact. Particularly silly on my part given the fact that I had spent my time in FE stuck in a perpetual cycle of confiscating phones from students more interested in chatting to their mates on Facebook messenger than listening to my presentations on UCAS deadlines! We sucked it up, built a direct messaging feature, and saw a huge increase in the number of interactions on our platform.

oxford brookes
A very early MVP from an (unsuccessful) sales meeting

It was a great period. We rapidly grew our number of university customers, hired a Customer Success Manager, Georgina Munn, and took on a couple of interns. We got really quite excited about what we were doing. However, despite the positive direction of travel there was still something niggling us. We were seeing thousands of eyeballs hitting the pages of our universities and observing these eyeballs spending a disproportionate amount of time reading and browsing profiles, but the problem was that not a high enough percentage of the young people viewing profiles were actually going on to start a conversation with a student ambassador. We fiddled around with the aesthetic of the profiles, added some jazzier colours, and told student ambassadors to write more engaging ‘about me’ sections, but nothing quite seemed to do the trick. We mulled it over for a couple of month and then, in what we thought was a ‘eureka’ moment, decided to build an ‘ask a question’ feature. It was obvious! Not everyone must want to start a long conversation with an actual person, they must just want to the answer to a one-off question. That’s why they are lurking on the profiles, but not starting a conversation. Problem solved!
And then, somewhat ironically, no one really asked a question.

Rethinking the problem

We realised that we needed to have a bit of a rethink if we were ever actually going to come up with a workable solution; if we were ever going to be able to make technology solve the issue of conversations and connections for prospective students, and the problem of recruitment and outreach for universities. We did what all good startup founders should do. We went back to our customers, back to the data, and found someone much more clever than us.

George and I were joined by our third co-founder, Dominic O’Neill, in early 2018. Dom’s something of a savant, he speaks 5 languages, is an expert in coding and product development, and spent the early part of his career designing branding and marketing strategies for Nord Anglia, the international education multinational. We brought Dom on board to help us translate our newest insights into a coherent vision for our product and, ultimately, to do a full redesign of platform to create something really powerful that would enable universities and students alike to be successful.

We took onboard the learnings from the experiments of our first year in business, and started a period of intensive research into the the thousands of direct message interactions that had come through our platform to date. We found discovered some interesting stuff. We learned that only about ⅓ of the direct message conversations were ‘deep interactions’ (meaningful conversational exchanges that took place over an extended period of time); that, surprisingly, over half of the conversations were little more than question and answer style exchanges (a prospective student asking X question and being given Z answer by a student ambassador; and that just over 10% of the interactions were ‘spam’ (interactions were ill-suited to a chat style exchange). We also found that, overwhelmingly, the heaviest users of our platform were international students.

Direct message interactions data from The Access Platform
Direct message interactions data from The Access Platform ‌‌

This was interesting for a number of reasons. Primarily, because we had seen something of a reluctance from users to ‘ask a question’ through our Q&A feature, and also because, although many conversational interactions were brief, there was a clear demand from users for answers and information that was ‘served’ back to them. In the majority of cases prospective students were using our direct messaging feature for, one-off informational exchanges. Great to see, but not necessarily the most efficient way for them to access the answers they needed, or the best use of student ambassador time. We also confirmed our suspicions about the effectiveness of our ‘call’ function. Despite being an excellent idea in principle, the data showed that less than 2% of interactions through our platform. We took the tough, but logical, decision to remove this feature and focus on those that were providing most value to customers and prospective students.

At the same time we were doing this research we were also touring the HE conference circuit and spending lots of time speaking to our current customers, student ambassadors, and prospective students to really drill down into how our platform could provide most value to everyone involved. We gained a number of valuable insights from these conversations:

  • We spoke to 15 universities at the CASE SMC conference and began to understand the increasing value of ‘user generated content’ as part of student recruitment marketing process, and also learned about the difficulties that marketing and social media teams were having when trying to collect this content. This, coupled with the persuasive statistic that 83% of international students are using social media channels to research universities (and our learning about international student use of our platform), led us to think more about the role content could play in interactions on TAP.
  • We learned that our customers wanted a more ‘holistic solution’, something that would allow them to operationalise the value of their student ambassadors across multiple channels, and throughout the entire student recruitment lifecycle. They also wanted a system that gave them access to data and insights, and one that integrated in a complementary way with their CRM systems.
  • We interviewed about 50 current students and asked them, aside from hourly remuneration, what would make them motivated to work effectively, and in the most responsive way possible, as a student ambassador for their university. It’s worth saying that, for the record, we thought it would be prizes (like Iphones and ASOS vouchers). Wrong again. It turns out they want tangible career benefits - something that recognises their efforts in a professional capacity and contributes to their graduate employability.

George and I mulled this all over whilst Dom built a prototype content tool which allowed social media teams to crowdsource UGC from their student ambassadors. The pilots of the content tool were really successful, but we all kept coming to the same conclusion: that it was time to do something a bit more drastic. We did the next thing that all good Startup founders should do, we raised some investment and found more people that were much cleverer than we were.

UGC collected during a content tool pilot at Pearson Business School
UGC collected during a content tool pilot at Pearson Business School

The process took over 6 months (and cost George much of his hair), but it paid off. We raised an investment round from expert investors, grew the number of customer support and partnerships staff, hired lots more techies to grow our in-house team, and found some wonderful new directors in David Barnes, former Head of Education at Grant Thornton, and Nick Golding, former CEO of the international pathways provider The Cambridge Education Group. We were so committed to building the best platform for our university partners that we went back to the drawing board and started all over again.

We were going to rebuild The Access Platform and make it the most effective tool on the market. We knew that there were other companies offering peer-to-peer chat plugins, tools that enabled retrospective content collection from social media, and universities who were building their own FAQ pages, but no-one was offering all of these solutions in a single platform built especially for universities. We were going to do just that, and create a powerful one-stop-shop to enable institutions to supercharge their student recruitment marketing.

The key principles of the new platform were to be that:

  • All information, (profiles, UGC, and FAQs), should be available in a searchable format;
  • Combining peer-to-peer chat and user generated content creates the most engaging ‘hook’ for prospective students;
  • User Generated Content should be collectable and publishable in real time;
  • Answers to FAQs should be created by the university and automatically ‘served’ to prospects;
  • Full access to data and powerful analytics enables universities to most effectively act on the interactions and insights generated by our platform;
  • Integration with CRM and other management tools is key to ensuring additive benefit for university partners;
  • Effectively incentivising student ambassadors delivers a better experience for them, and for prospective students;
  • The platform is never ‘finished’, the student recruitment market is dynamic and constantly evolving and our technology should continue to meet those changing demands.

Supercharging student recruitment

Back to the present day. We’ve spent the past 12 months building, refining, and testing our new platform, and I’m pleased to say that, as of last month, it’s now finished. The previous version of the platform provided real value to our university partners, extending their international reach, digitising their outreach efforts, and delivering up to 100x ROI on the money they spent with us. The new version of TAP promises to go far beyond this, in a recent trial of our content feature at a prestigious London Business we managed to boost their User Generated Content output by a staggering (and slightly ridiculous sounding 4000%). Encouraging early signs!

The new version of The Access Platform aims to fundamentally redefine the process of student recruitment, and to enable universities to, very genuinely, build awareness, confidence, and a sense of belonging with prospective students anywhere in the world. It brings together two years of data analysis, red herrings, and research with universities, student ambassadors, and prospective students, and a recognition that only by harnessing multiple touch points in the decision making process of prospective students (images and videos to provide insight, questions and answers to provide information, and peer-to-peer conversations to build affinity) can a university truly mobilise its current students to be their most effective recruitment and outreach tool in the ever-changing HE market.

A video overview of our updated platform

Our new platform has four features:

  • Chat, which enables prospects to have peer-to-peer and group conversations with student ambassadors, and staff;
  • Content, which enables you to source User Generated Content directly from your student ambassadors;
  • FAQ, which enables you to source authentic, student answers to common questions;
  • Analytics, which uses machine learning to enable you to gain a deeper understanding of your prospects and what they care about.

It’s simple to set up and run, is fully safeguarded, GDPR compliant, integrates with all CRM systems, has built-in student ambassador incentivisation and automatic career reference tool, and is priced competitively to ensure that it is not out of the reach of any university, whatever the size. It’s currently being used for purposes ranging from widening participation to international postgraduate recruitment by institutions like The University of Oxford, The University of Sheffield, The University of East Anglia, King’s College London, Bucks New University, and The University of Cumbria (to name but a few).

Unfinished business

If you’ve made it to this point in my mini essay then thank you (and well done!). I want to conclude by making a bit of an appeal. We understand that universities are facing an incredibly tough regulatory and political climate; with changing OfS requirements, student migration patterns, and a demographic dip making the process of recruiting students an ever more difficult task. At The Access Platform we are striving to help institutions, and work with them as partners, rather than customers, to enable them to flourish in a world where prospective applicants demand authenticity and online-first communications. We believe even more strongly in original, abstract idea of using technology to solve the problem, of information and access to connections, for young people as they make embark on their journey to university. We believe equally as strongly in enabling universities to benefit from this technological step-change, from this redefinition of student recruitment, in a globalised, digitally driven HE sector.

We’re always looking for new partners, new institutions who can gain value from our platform and help inform the next phase of its development. If anything that you have read above has piqued your interest, made you excited, or driven you to shout angrily at the words on the page, then please do drop me a line. Even if it’s only for a quick phone call to say hello, or a coffee to find out more, then we’d love to hear from you. You can reach me here.