As the dust has now settled, we can now take a closer look at the data and insight we collected throughout the day, what impacted the market and how it reacted.

This article was originally published at 8am on 17 August. Since then, the rapid U-turn in policy and guidance has created unprecedented upheaval for universities, and, most importantly, students. To ensure that this article is still really useful for the sector, we have updated it to include the changes announced up to 17:10pm on 17 August, but please be aware that this is part of our continued support for marketers working at universities, colleges and HEIs. To keep up to date with how we can support you in 2020 and beyond, continue to visit our blog, sign up to our newsletter, or get in touch.

Cancelling summer exams was always going to have a huge knock-on effect on Results Day, with any standardised algorithmic system always being problematic. Unmoderated teacher grades could be unfair on pupils from schools who graded cautiously, and unfair on future and past cohorts. Not giving grades at all, or hoping that unis and employers just sorted it out themselves could have been chaotic. So we got the standardised process that we got.

What disrupted the market was what came next… The algorithm hit outlier students who were at the top of the distribution of those schools who haven’t had many high performers in the past. With a subsequent bias against schools and students from lower socio-economic areas, or those with higher levels of diversity. With no ‘pre-appeal’ system in place to support those students who had an unfair result, and the appeal system we did have was ill-defined, narrow, and made worse at the last moment by the change in direction from the government, only magnified the confusion and concern. 

The situation continues to evolve, with even more changes impacting on students over the weekend, beginning with Ofqual removing mock results from the ‘triple-lock’ offer, before the first announcement today at 16:00 pm (17 August) announcing that all A levels and GCSEs in England would now be graded according to teacher assessment, followed by a further announcement at 17:08 from the DoE that the number cap can now be removed. The pressure continues to grow on the government and the changes are coming almost by the minute.

Inevitably,  this would have an impact on the market. Irrespective of the strategies, the awe-inspiring response to Covid-19, the support the sector had in place... as students collected their grades, we began to finally see how all the change would impact on the behaviour of the class of 2020. 

We were able to view directly a very significant snapshot of what most HEIs experienced across the UK. Amongst the clients we worked with, some outliers saw comparisons and even improvements YoY in terms of offers made and accepted, however, the trend was that HEI’s reported that A-level Result’s Day was not one that they were expecting. 

Driven by the early-research behaviour of students, armed with some idea of their exam results and cautious about where and when to study, search volumes were lower, yet CPC was down 20%. Search traffic was steady throughout the day, but with the less pronounced peaks in the morning and afternoon than we saw in 2019, indeed, the highest peak in impressions was at 6 pm, albeit with the lowest conversion rate. This, combined with huge increases in search terms such as ‘How long does Clearing last’ (+140%), ‘when does Clearing close’ (+110%) are perhaps further indicating that this year's cohort is looking beyond the traditional day or two to confirm their place and taking their time. You’ll need to do the same. 

Elsewhere, we see more opportunities for institutions who still have spaces available. While the empathetic messaging and campaigns hit the mark with 18-year-olds and school leavers, ‘mature’ students have yet to convert in the numbers we expect at this time of year and are still holding offers. There exists a great opportunity for those who can switch their efforts, campaigns and messaging to this audience. 

The big date on everyone’s minds now is the 7 September, when students who appealed their results will have a much clearer idea of whether they will be able to accept the offers they hold, go through Clearing, or even defer or take their exams again. This second ‘peak’ or results day, and the time in between, is a great opportunity for institutions to shore up their strategies, attract unplaced students and very importantly, nurture and convert each student that holds an offer but is yet unplaced. But be quick, you need to take action now and adjust your strategy. 

We caught up with our experts to get their insight and recommendations as the sector continues pushing forwards towards 7 September and beyond. 

Our Creative Director, Charlie reflects:

“This is a pretty extraordinary situation, with so much cultural/media focus on the unfairness of the algorithm, and the government and Ofqual’s position on appeals, and confusing messages for students about what they should actually do with their results. 

With the situation being as it is, it’s perhaps not surprising that content that speaks with confidence, clarity and empathy is what’s getting the cut through, and is driving phone calls.

Students are looking for the best they can get, and while the appeals situation crystallizes, they’re going to need support - and the assurance that what they are able to get right now could, in fact, be much better than they first thought. 

They’re looking to universities for guidance, and - over the next days and weeks - it’s up to you to give it to them. Invite and encourage questions through your advertising, and offer clarity and support in your content. It’s down to universities to give students as clear a picture as possible of what their options and opportunities are.”

Tom, Director of Advertising, comments:

"Agile management of budgets, with effective pacing strategies, have kept the team and our partners calm, confident and able to deliver on a tricky few days. 

Impressions peak Clearing

The last-minute announcements from the government have meant that we are seeing different browsing, searching and sharing behaviour. For example, the spike on the day seen in the graph here between 18:00 and 20:00 has pushed through into Friday, making it day two, not just the day after clearing, and we have seen this continue through the weekend as people look to try and understand the situation.”

Looking beyond the 18-year-old audience, statistics show that fewer mature students were ‘placed’ compared to 18 YOs, and that isn’t to say that audience isn’t there. 

Charlie notes that “the mature audience presents an opportunity. So consider pivoting efforts toward this audience, but ensure that content is appropriate for them. This sounds obvious, but in the rush to go live don’t overlook the need to speak in a way which is going to be meaningful to them. They’re not fresh out of school and exams, they’re going to be less familiar with all the terminology. They’re going to respond best to creative that helps them to see themselves at your institution.” 

We recognise that some marketers may be entering the next few months concerned about how their strategy and tactics, meticulously planned and executed on the day, panned out in reality. Our message is don’t panic. Hold the wheel. Already institutions, particularly those who planned well and used data and insights to inform their campaigns are starting to see the benefits of doing so as we move into the days post-A-levels. Those institutions, if they have their nurture and conversion planned correctly, will continue to see increases in acceptances over the coming days and weeks. 

But there is still a huge opportunity to make an impact on those students still unplaced. Get planning now. Get your advertising in the market. Pivot your creative assets and content accordingly, and you’ll be one step closer to a record-breaking Clearing. If you need any help, get in touch

Article by

Nick Wilmer

Head of Client Strategy