Why your university should adopt an experiential approach to open days

The next round of open days is always looming and you need to come up with ideas to make yours stand out from the crowd. But time is short. Last year’s programme worked fine, so let’s just do the same thing again. Sound familiar?

At Eleven, we come across this scenario with clients in the higher education sector almost every day. Institutions that settle for business as usual year after year, rather than taking a little extra time and effort to plan an extraordinary and unforgettable experience. One that students will share on social media and go home and tell their friends and family about. Most importantly, an experience that makes them choose your university over your competitors.

Now, more than ever, students have more choice than ever before and tuition fees of up to £40k mean universities need to step up their efforts to reflect value for money.

What is experiential marketing?

Experiential marketing immerses your audience in your brand rather than treating them as bystanders. It helps you focus on delivering memorable experiences rather than passing on information.

Adopting an experiential approach for your event means the open day experience starts from the very first click on your website. Students don’t just want to see your university, they want to feel, live and breathe it. They want your university to make them feel special.

‘Students [and increasingly] their parents want to try before they buy, so offering them an insight to the learning experience you provide will help differentiate your offerings from those of the competition … Organise yourself and then offer a 360-degree view of what life will be like as a University student but be careful not to over promise as this might well negatively impact your student experience and ultimately National Student Survey (NSS) score ’


Professor Zahir Irani
Dean (elect) Faculty of Management and Law
University of Bradford

How to wow your audience

  1. Start viewing your open day as a brand experience event. Think about the moment you walk into an Apple store to buy a new product. More often than not, within a few minutes, you’re already on first name terms with the sales assistant and your receipt reached home before you did.
  2. Involve the recruitment team at an early stage, share your initial ideas with them and make them feel involved.
  3. Focus on your audience. Put your itinerary away and pull out a blank piece of paper. Draw two points at opposite ends and label them A and B.


‘A’ is the moment your potential student clicks the submit button on your open day registration form. ‘B’ is the moment they return home from your open day.

Think about ways to start creating positive brand experiences on the journey from A to B. The detail can come later. Write down as many ideas as you can – good or bad. Talk with your colleagues about positive brand experiences you’ve had or times when you’ve received excellent customer service. When did a brand last put a smile on your face and why?

Some practical considerations

How far away your open day is should determine what contact your audience receives. If it’s more than three months away, create a plan to use relevant contextual messaging to build anticipation across online and offline channels.

Break down the journey into phases and give each phase a purpose or a set of objectives. For example:


  • How long is the registration form? Does it look appealing? Does it work on mobiles and tablets? Does your registration system reflect your brand?


  • What will be the first email students receive? Do they even get an email? If they do, is it personalised? Does it build anticipation and excitement or just pass on information?


Consider how your audience will get to the open day and what information they’ll need. Make sure there’s a map and travel information on your website. But don’t just leave it there; email them a link to make the experience simple and positive. Include references to the nearest car parks. Could you go the extra mile and reserve parking spaces for visitors?

For people arriving by train, what better way to greet them than with a genuine fanfare from a live band? Would they be impressed? For sure. Would it go viral? Almost certainly. What about providing a free shuttle service to the campus and giving out personalised coffees? Now that’s a deal breaker.

Disney does it best

A lot of great experiential marketing requires having brand presence in a physical space, either through people or places. See how Disney built anticipation and awareness using an empty shop space. Could you do something similar with some simple technology and a cap and gown silhouette?

Finally… Surprise and delight your audience

Put the itinerary away, get a quiet room and draw the open day journey on a wall and start there.

At every touchpoint, ask yourself whether you’re simply passing on information or whether you’re really delighting your audience. Are they genuinely immersed in your brand or are they just a bystander? How are you making them feel?

Brands that consider how to build an emotional link with their audience are the ones with the most loyal customers.

And it’s usually the little things that tend to make the biggest difference.

Once you start planning your open day activities around the student experience you will be surprised at the amount of opportunities you have to go beyond the itinerary and really delight your future students.


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