A couple of months later and we’re still talking about Clearing. But, it’s important, right? So, after a few weeks reflecting on the biggest event in the student recruitment calendar, we caught up with some of Net Natives’ Paid Media Analysts to get a little perspective on what went down and why it’s so important to start planning early.

We’ve seen the numbers and how the Clearing landscape has changed, but which platform saw the biggest gains?

Search is still king when it comes to Clearing. Not only on results day but throughout the Clearing period - search will generally outperform social on performance metrics. This is probably truer than it was last year where we still saw a large number of enquiries driven from Facebook/Instagram. The difference this year is that searches on Google peaked much later than they have in the previous years, which of course meant auctions got very expensive, very quickly.

Overall, advertising spend on Facebook has declined year on year as we’ve recognised the increasing importance of search over social. Even during pre-Clearing, there were instances of social budget being pushed into search based on higher levels of performance. However, Instagram did see an increase in spend. This is particularly interesting as we don’t often silo platforms by their placement and leave it to the algorithms to optimise budgets. This tells us that Facebook, as a platform, is actually pushing a high proportion of budget into Instagram over Facebook and Messenger. Facebook Stories has also influenced this increase across every part of the Clearing cycle.

So, Instagram vs Facebook… how did they actually compare?

Interestingly, this is something we have been debating quite a lot recently; what produces the better results? Facebook or Instagram? It’s no secret that the 18- to 19-year-olds are spending most of their time on Instagram, the data is very clear on that from the National Clearing Survey and other sources. It’s also true that user growth on Facebook has stagnated in Europe this year.  

However, we’re not entirely convinced that Instagram has dethroned Facebook, especially in terms of paid advertising. They’re still very similar in terms of costs and performance.

Were there any surprises in Clearing this year?

We always knew that the CPCs would continue to increase year on year, due to the highly competitive bidding nature of the auctions. But, what was a surprise was just how much these are increasing year on year. 2016 to 2017 saw a massive increase in costs (252%), however, the rate of increase was far less from 2017 to 2018 (19%), although still significant.

The team have managed to limit this increase with extensive forward planning. Each year we take on learnings from the year before (and the National Clearing Survey) to help inform our strategies, such as diversifying the portfolios of platforms and ad types, starting campaigns well in advance to help generate historical data to encourage Google to rank our ads more favourably and we think outside the box to create niche strategies for clients with smaller budgets.

One thing that was a bit of a surprise was the drastic increase in competition on course-specific search terms. Our CPCs were 44.42% higher than in 2017. This means the percentage increase in course term costs was 234% higher overall, meaning we had to be reactive and clever with our strategies on the day.

Talking of being clever, did we see anything in particular that worked really well during Clearing this year?

We ran some really clever and strategic campaigns this year that were bespoke to each and every one of our clients’ needs. For one university, who knew they didn’t have the budget to compete with the big spenders, we invested more into pre-Clearing where we could build big audiences to then run a retargeting-only tactic on results day, which helped maintain very low CPCs.

Another university used the fact that they offer a scholarship to every student to run a highly specific campaign, targeting only finance and scholarship terms. Because very few universities offer scholarships, this allowed this particular university to appear for less competitive auction terms. And for another university, we split out our tactics to have one per course which allowed for more control over budgets and optimisation on the day.

And what about next year? Any predictions or things you’re looking forward to testing out?

There are loads of exciting things we’re looking forward to testing out next year, from Instagram TV and live video to Dynamic Search Ads and more reach and frequency tactics. This year we saw that Dynamic Search Ads worked really well for one university, so we’re keen to continue to test this as a tactic next year too. And using more reach and frequency tactics will guarantee an audience on Facebook and Instagram on A-level Results Day, which will be invaluable.

As for predictions, next year we’re sure to see bigger budgets and fiercer competition which means planning early is more important than ever before.

If you’d like to talk to our experts to discuss your Clearing campaigns and strategies for 2019, get in touch.

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Article by


Megan Dillon

Content Marketing Executive