This time last year, Western was preparing to welcome more than 7,000 students to its March Break Open House. But as the weeks counted down, coronavirus concerns heightened. In the end, in consultation with the Middlesex-London Health Unit, the university postponed the event to keep visitors and the campus community safe.
Undergraduate recruitment manager Dayana Kibilds and her team moved quickly, sending news of the postponement by email and text message to all who had registered and were standing at the ready to respond.
“Our approach is to really focus on the student and their family,” Kibilds said. “That connection comes first and foremost, even when we are cancelling an event. But we also used it as an engagement opportunity, offering to answer any questions students may have had right in the moment.”
That tailored, personalized point of contact has continued throughout the pandemic and has been key to Western’s virtual recruitment strategy. And it appears to have paid off, with Western seeing the second-highest increase in the province in “first-choice” applications from Ontario high-school students this year, as well as an increase in overall applications from the same group over previous years.
“There are some inherent advantages Western offers that benefit recruitment,” Kibilds said. “We have some of the best residences in the country and they stayed open this year when many schools didn’t do that. We also have our beautiful campus located in an area that didn’t have extreme COVID-19 numbers.
“But I have received feedback that the detailed, personal responses we’re providing are appreciated, and we haven’t seen an increase–over 10 per cent–in first-choice applications in at least six years. This leads me to believe that our personal approach is really helping students feel welcome here.”
The news is particularly gratifying given early surveys and research predicted high-school students might opt out of university while the uncertainty of the pandemic continued to linger.
“It was very clear to me we had to ‘go all out,’ and it could not have happened without the cross-department collaboration we had with our colleagues in Student Experience and Western Communications,” Kibilds said. “Our approach came down to, ‘What do potential students gain when they experience an open house, campus tour or school visit and how do we deliver that virtually?’”
Her team identified four key areas of interest: seeing the campus; engaging with peers considering university and older students who could serve as mentors; meeting professors, academic advisors and support staff; and attending a mini-lecture.
“We planned our virtual programming with those pillars in mind, and it worked better than I could have imagined,” Kibilds said.
Within weeks, potential applicants were accessing a fully interactive YouVisit tour, which provides an immersive look inside faculties and programs along with customized on-screen options to lead users through their application journey.
“We also benefited from well-planned programming offered by Student Experience throughout the summer,” Kibilds said. “Offerings through their Thriving Foundations program, specifically Community Connections, allowed prospective students to engage and visit the campus safely.”
Credit also goes to the volunteers from across campus who ensured everything from live events on Zoom to text messaging campaigns could be delivered successfully.
“We put out the call and got 350 volunteers — professors, and student ambassadors from all programs,” Kibilds said. “We were all going through the mayhem of the lockdown, yet people gave their time. I’m incredibly grateful to the university community for that.”
Professors hosted webinars specific to their faculty as well as mini-lectures, student volunteers reached out to prospective students one-on-one, the recruitment team delivered “Choose Western” presentations covering everything from student experience and residence to general aspects of the admissions process.
“We learned so much about virtual events,” Kibilds said. “Students don’t want to turn on their video or their microphone. But in these webinar, live-event formats, where they can submit a question through the chat box to a moderator and hear the panelists respond – that’s the format students are really engaging with.
“We would get about 80 to 100 questions per night in that hour. That would never happen in person, in a classroom. Getting 100 questions and being able to answer every single one of them in an hour is astounding.”
But it’s the texting campaign of which Kibilds is most proud.
“Nearly 14,000 students with an offer of admission received a text message from someone at Western,” she said. “The conversations were incredible – one-on-one, in real time with either a professor and a prospective student, or a current student or alumni and a prospective student. It was a lot to coordinate in the back end, but the conversations were so rich and authentic.”
A new constituent relationship management tool (CRM) and the Unibuddy platform helped enhance the personalized digital engagement strategies for recruitment this year. With the current recruitment cycle, running September to June, Kibilds and her team look forward to honing last year’s model to incorporate feedback they’ve received from applicants.
“I am very proud of my amazing recruitment team. We had great success with our Virtual Fall Preview Day and now I’m excited for what’s coming next. These very focused spring presentations with our faculty and our partners across campus will really show the students what it’s like to learn here, what the professors and students are like, and help them realize that Western is the right place for them.”