The future of online open days according to HE marketing leaders

HE marketing leaders had to rapidly rethink and adapt as the pandemic forced open days to be cancelled. Practically overnight, virtual open days went from being a ‘nice to have’ to an essential. 

Fundamental changes to working practices, teams under pressure and tight timeframes presented a challenging set of circumstances. 

We spoke to HE marketing leaders about their experiences of moving open days online and what the future of open days looks like to them.

Virtual transition

HE institutions across the country rose to the challenge and took their open days virtual. For those with online open days already part and parcel of their recruitment process, the transition was far more straightforward. 

Those starting from scratch encountered a few fundamental challenges. Supplier letdowns and technical issues presented a problem for a small number of universities.

Beyond the immediate concern of letting down attendees, this presented additional challenges. It rocked the confidence of stakeholders and the hard-won buy-in of academics was lost, “they didn't feel the confidence in a new virtual system anymore.” 

But, those with online open days as an established part of the recruitment process were able to quickly get buy-in from across the institution.

Academics were more able to “see the value of digital events” so marketeers are better positioned to more broadly “sell the power of content,” Richard Shepherd, marketing manager at Staffordshire University. 

Now, with time to refine their online offerings, HE marketing leaders are reflecting on their approach. Instead of thinking of online open days as in-person events moved online, for many, as Lizzie Burrows, Interim Director of Marketing, Student Recruitment and Admissions at the University of Surrey says, “the next step is making it digital-first.” 

“The next step is making it digital-first.” Lizzie Burrows, Interim Director of Marketing, Student Recruitment and Admissions, University of Surrey

Pros and cons of online open days


  • Positive impact on widening participation
  • Flexibility for post-graduate students
  • Accessible and less threatening


  • Establishing benchmarks to measure success comes from experience
  • Missing face-to-face interactions

Now equipped with data, the pros and cons of online open days have become clear. 

The virtual medium has had a significantly positive impact on widening participation of people from various social backgrounds and for extending geographical reach. Prospective students and their advisors are now able to attend an open day without taking a step outside their front door.

The online open days format also lends itself particularly well to the needs of post-graduate students, who are more likely to be constrained by work commitments and parental responsibilities. And, as Priti Patel, Assistant Director of Marketing and Communications: UKSR and Widening Participation at Queen Mary University London, highlights, “it’s a lot more accessible and less threatening for people as well.”

“The sector has responded incredibly well to shifting open days to a digital only platform. However, given the speed and intensity in which the online open day offer exploded overnight the market has been saturated – this is resulting in lower engagement amongst certain groups.”

“As the UK gradually lifts lockdown restrictions, we are keen to leverage all the benefits of an online open day with a blended on-campus experience for those who want to see us in person. This fits beautifully with our international outlook as well – enabling us to engage global and hard to reach audiences whilst delivering an in-personal service to local and national students. Everyone wins.”

Priti Patel, Assistant Director of Marketing and Communications: UKSR and Widening Participation, Queen Mary University London

Establishing metrics and benchmarks to measure the success or ROI of online open days will only come from experience. So for institutions running virtual open days for the first time, this will be a priority.

Face-to-face interactions are one of the aspects missed from the traditional open day format. As Sally Steadman, Director of Learner Recruitment and Marketing for the RNN Group says, “seeing the whites of people's eyes is very different to seeing them on a screen.”

“Seeing the whites of people's eyes is very different to seeing them on a screen.” Sally Steadman, director of learner recruitment and marketing, RNN Group

This view is reflected by prospective students who have expressed a preference to visiting a university in person. Angelina Bingley, Director of Admissions, Recruitment and Marketing at the University of East Anglia, explained that they’ve found this more so the case for females, “for some girls, in particular, they're really anxious about not seeing the place face-to-face.”

What’s next?

Traditional open days are an essential part of the recruitment process and mix. Universities sell more than courses, degrees and rites of passage. They sell the place, atmosphere and community. As Mark Garratt, who was Interim Director of Marketing, Recruitment and International at Swansea University (May-December 2020) explained, “we seduce people by them coming to Swansea on a particularly lovely sunny day (of course it’s always sunny!)”

Although traditional open days will always play an important role, the future of open days will involve a blended approach. Now that the sector has experienced the benefits of online open days, a hybrid model is considered the way forward. 

Emma Leech, Director of Marketing and Communications at Nottingham Trent University believes that online open days will be used as a tool to sift through universities. “I do think that there will still be the desire to come onto campus and to look around and see for yourself.”

Although HE marketing leaders anticipate online open days to continue after all pandemic restrictions have been lifted, there will always be a place for traditional open days. 

To hear more from our parents, views from students and marketing leaders, download our free guide to 21/22 online recruitment by clicking the button below.


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