Where should programmatic fit into a University’s marketing plan during clearing?

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According to UCAS Insights, in 2018 a record-setting 2.8% of all students applied directly to Clearing, an 8% rise on the previous year, as universities scrambled to fill places.

This is at a time when the market is becoming more and more competitive as the number of UK applications is declining due to a 3% decrease in the number of 18-year olds, a trend which is forecast to continue through until 2021, according to the report.

With increasing requirements to compete with universities from countries such as Australia, Canada and America for lucrative international students, university marketing managers and directors are looking to stay ahead of their competitors and showcase their courses in a dynamic, attractive and effective way.

While the cost of university for generation ‘z’ remains uncertain, after the now-former UK Prime Minister Teresa May pledged to cap tuition fees at £7,500 in May. Universities are under increasing pressure to pulling out all of the stocks to attract new students, from increasing digital marketing spend to curating new brand partnerships according to Marketing Week.

This is not a new trend however – in the summer of 2016, for instance, the University of Reading offered its students a once in a lifetime chance to interview the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and dance duo Disclosure, combined with a crash course in real-time content creation in a partnership with the now defunct NME Magazine.

The results were significant, it stated, with 10.6 million social impressions and over 200,000 organic video views leading to a 7% increase in attendance at University of Reading open days in and a 30% rise in applications during clearing. And this is before you factor in the 80,000 students that attended the festival, many of whom were prospective students.

However, these whilst the reach of this campaign was vast, the university had no way of knowing how many of these students were applicable to its courses, Clearing and they certainly were going to want to sign up to a university mid-festival.

So, where does programmatic advertising fit into a University marketing plan in 2019 and why would you use it over more traditional methods?

The University of Leicester is an example of a leading university that has utilised programmatic advertising as part of its fully integrated ‘I’m somebody’ campaign, which gave a platform to students and academics of the university to showcase their amazing stories. This campaign, according to its creative agency, Michon Creative, moved away from what the university called an ‘artificial measure of performances’ such as league tables, which are used extensively by many of its competitors.

Global programmatic advertising in 2019 in its various forms according to analysis from Statista.com, is projected to be worth up to $84.09 billion, up from $57.5 billion in 2017.

When we look at more traditional digital marketing methods, such as paid search, there has been a heavy increase in competition around June to October, for the term “Clearing” which is getting more expensive to bid on (45% increase from 2017, in fact*).

Although there are no official reports on how UK universities weigh up in the world of programmatic and digital advertising compared to universities in other countries, the fact that there was an 11% increase year-on-year in non-EU applicants in UK universities* shows they are on the right track.


Programmatic advertising, whether direct or on the open exchange is an efficient way if conducted correctly, to find your prospective students and help to convert them at the optimum time, at the right cost, using the correct creative on the most effective medium.

Mobile is one of the most effective uses of these mediums due to the fact mobile searches surpassed desktop for the first time in Clearing in 2018.


So, what is possible using programmatic to market to prospective students?

Examples of a variety of creatives being utilised by a brand to display different messages to different users, based on their behaviour/audience characteristics on the site.


There are many pieces of the programmatic puzzle which add up to provide advertisers, such as universities looking to attract prospective students to apply to their courses with a means to reach the most relevant audiences, at the right time, via the most effective medium, at the most efficient price.

The hurdle for many, has been finding a trusted programmatic partner that can carry this out whilst ensuring brand safety and transparency of spend.

So, how can programmatic advertising help you improve your student acquisition in 2019/2020?

AudienceStore and its partners have been involved in the media buying industry for nearly 20 years. As a programmatic activator, accredited by the IAB, the company was approached by one of the top 12 universities in the UK in 2018, with the objective to reach prospective students across several global markets, to raise awareness for the university’s international scholarship programmes.

A single campaign was able to attract over 26,000 scholarship applications and secured 260 placements using a three-tier strategy.

  1. Thorough planning – building website whitelists of region-specific and education-related content. Creating partnerships with these publishers to ensure the client’s advertising appeared on this highly relevant, premium content.
  2. Creating advanced retargeting plans – to classify the client’s site visitors into several stages of intent-based on their activity on the site. We then up-weighted real-time bidding strategies towards visitors who were classified as ‘ready to apply’.
  3. Using regional insights to optimise the campaign – using learnings insights during these campaigns, AudienceStore was able to make bespoke optimisations by country to drive traffic and conversions. For example, engagement was strongest in China before to midday and therefore activity was up-weighted at these times.


What does this look like as a campaign overview?


AudienceStore is here to help you integrate programmatic with your existing marketing plans and create innovative and integrated marketing campaigns to maximise applications for your courses during clearing by finding, attracting and converting your prospective students.

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