Student Competitions and how to be competitive!

02 June 2021

Thinking about a competition as part of your student marketing mix this autumn, here are some things to think about.

The latest ISE press release in May around the graduate market and hiring numbers is really encouraging and with a bounce-back likely in hiring, then we will likely hear much more noise from employer brands seeking to compete for hard-to-reach talent.

Anecdotally we are hearing that employer brands are not willing to rely on campus alone this season as a means of attracting diverse audiences. Unsurprisingly the world of virtual attraction is here to stay. 106 has been working with a number of brands in the public sector, the banking space and in the legal industry to support them with ideas around how to build out greater brand equity through virtual competitions. So we thought we would share the things we think about when designing virtual student competitions.

  1. A more single-minded brief

My favourite question when we get any brief is ‘why are you doing this?’.

We often hear:

  • We have a new employer brand and a competition is a great way to socialise this
  • We’re not well-known amongst science students
  • We want to win hearts and minds of finalists
  • We want to get into the TT100 rankings
  • We want to hire more lower socio-economic background students
  • We need to attract more students outside of London and to our offices in Gatwick, Truro and Glasgow.

…and sometimes all from the one same client. It’s a tricky ask. Keeping your brief as simple as possible will yield better ideas and better results.

Having a more single-minded approach with any marketing will give you more laser targeted options for promotion and allow you to set KPIs that are more achievable. You can always run more than one competition as virtual is way more cost-effective than campus events.

  1. The competition itself

Is it a gratuitous short-term competition or do you want to build your brand over a longer period of time?

When brands were able to do face-to-face promotions on campus, the market was full of great ways to attract the attention of a passer-by who might just be your next star hire. Campus marketing really did allow creative teams to flex their creative muscles.  We have seen examples such as Lloyds Banking Group’s vending machines on campus to J.P. Morgan’s smoothie bar and a [rofessional service firm’s 4D sensory booth.

But when in 2020 UK campuses closed their doors, we had to rethink how to create that sense of instant gratification but in an online environment. We saw some good examples of digital student competitions and we particularly liked the Allen & Overy Fresher’s takeover with five days of themed content allowing students to win different prizes linked to topics that students tell us they care about including, Fitness, Mental Health and the Climate.

At 106 we supported Teach First in building their own quick-to-consume digital game to capture people who may not think of teaching, but would like to win a £100 Deliveroo voucher – and just play the game! The game was set up to reward individuals, but also to pit universities against each other.

All of these examples were designed to raise brand or sector recognition amongst time poor students (many of whom were not necessarily in a career-planning mindset). With the idea being that it would spark some level of curiosity or interest and engage them in the start of a journey with said brand.

There are other examples of competitions that are less about the instant satisfaction of winning a relatively low-level prize and more about:

  • Offering experience
  • Building employability skills
  • Building networks

And for the employer where it’s more about:

  • A deeper relationship with a particular audience
  • Converting the audience along the decision journey
  • Improving the quality of the applicant pool

There are equally some great examples of these types of competitions in the market with some of them having established themselves as a brand in their own right:

L’Oreal Brandstorm, Bank of America Shape your World Challenge and Mckinsey’s Solve It.

When deciding on which of these approaches to take it is worth thinking about:

  • Ease of entry for students (and different types of students) – both time commitment and the physical entry itself
  • Are you asking them to work in teams or individually or both?
  • How to support those from less advantaged backgrounds who may suffer due to lack of networks or tech support? (for example, running training webinars and offering a team mentor)

Contest duration – Determining the right time frame will help obtain the greatest results from your online competition. End the contest too soon and miss out on extra signups. End the contest too far into the future and risk losing the interest of your audience. We have seen anywhere between a minimum of 2 weeks to a maximum of 6 weeks tend to perform the best. The best performing competitions are ones that achieve a perfect balance between contest duration and a sense of urgency.

  1. The prize

This is often a big sticking point for many teams when designing their online competitions. Be creative and try to come up with a prize that excites your target audience. Whatever prize you decide make it memorable and desirable to potential applicants. It’s a great idea to give away multiple, tiered prizes — 1st, 2nd, 3rd place or runner-up prizes. Try giving away one prize at random and another to the person with the most sign-up referrals. People will feel greater odds of winning and can potentially boost your competition engagement.

We have seen the following types of prizes being offered:

Specific degrees – Thinking about what is going to be attractive to the specific audience is a good place to start.  For example, if you are looking to widen your appeal amongst certain degrees then offering a magazine-related subscription could be an option.

D& I – Providing a prize such as career coaching or a mentoring is a great way to support less advantaged candidate audiences.

Monetary prizes – are always useful for students and range from team prize funds of £10,000 to as little as £100 in vouchers. It doesn’t have to be a million-pound prize – but it has to be worth a lot more than the effort of signing up and sharing with friends.

Work Experience/ Work shadowing within particular departments or for hard-to-fill roles is a useful way to increase awareness and interest. Of course, there is a need to be mindful of eligibility to work in the UK.

  1. Promotion of the competition

It’s important to think about how the competition fits with the wider campaign? How will you cross promote the competition using your existing employer brand campaign assets and channels? If you don’t see it fitting then the question is Is this the right thing to be doing?

Think about phygital – ie a hybrid of campus and digital. Although we haven’t got that illusive crystal ball, we do expect (or hope) that campus will be open for business in September/ October.

  • Critical to any online competition success will be your ability to mobilise Campus Brand Managers (CBMs) and influencers to spread the word in their networks and get students sharing…
  • You don’t physically have to be on-campus yourselves to promote your competition… campus installations staffed by CBMs with QR codes driving to the competition landing pages will create competition stand out.
  • Using the careers services to help raise the profile through their social media and emails
  • Doing targeted Facebook posts based on location to get your message in front of the right students
  • Re-target those who have visited your landing page or microsite and keep your social media profiles active.

Why not encourage students who are already in your talent pipeline/ community to encourage them to engage in and to promote the competition.

  1. Measuring success

It is all back to that brief again. What did you set out to achieve…?

One thing that some employer brands do not invest in is post-event qualitative feedback. Yes, QR codes, number of likes and shares will give you an indication of numbers and indicative reach, but what did students really think? What impact did it have and what insights can we glean for future activity?

Another thing to consider is A/B testing through the campaign to see what messages and channels are most effective for you.  This is much easier in a digital environment, and gives you the chance to optimise your campaign – and target very specific audiences and see what works as you go.  The important thing here is to be open to using different messages, rather than a pure corporate line.

  1. Finally don’t forget to map out your post competition engagement

Students who engage in your competition will be expecting something of value from the exchange and following up after the competition is completed with something of additional value will further cement your brand.  For example:

  • Invitations to webinars, exclusive invites to open days/ evenings, early application window alerts, access to live chats, etc.
  • If your prizes are “instagrammable,” then that will give students another reason to share their story and share your brand.

We hope this was useful.

If you are interested in finding out more about what we do here at 106 Communications and would like to have a coffee, lunch or just a chat then do get in touch:


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