Creating your Content Marketing Strategy for Clearing 2018

By Posted in - Clearing & Content Marketing on March 21st, 2018 0 Comments

As Spring has now well and truly sprung (though you wouldn’t know it from the weather), most of the core UCAS deadlines for Autumn 2018 undergraduate intake have passed and the late application deadline is looming – so our focus should have already turned to planning our Clearing campaigns. With Clearing officially open in July, it’ll soon be upon us.

Over recent years Clearing and Adjustment have become ever more important for universities as a means of filling those remaining course places, and important for students as a means of securing a place at the right university for them. Universities have certainly raised their game in Clearing campaigns (see a selection of some of our favourite Clearing approaches from 2017), as the sector fiercely competes to snap up great students who haven’t yet found where they fit.

With increased competition and a declining pool of prospective students to appeal to, advanced planning for Clearing and developing smart marketing tactics should be a priority for universities right now.

At Pickle Jar Communications we’re offering Clearing content planning workshops to help give your campaign a boost and inspire your creativity (get in touch if you’d like to know more). But whether we come to help facilitate your thinking or not, this post will hopefully give you same handy hints, tips and models to use in developing your strategy and plan.

The Case for Content Marketing for Clearing

While many universities will invest heavily in advertising approaches from pay per click campaigns to banner ads, to sponsorship packages with key influencer sites, often overlooked can be the softer but equally powerful approach of content marketing. Our course pages will be impeccable, our Clearing website will be polished, and our ad campaigns will show some big numbers. But where’s the added value?

Whereas an advertising campaign will raise immediate awareness of a university or course, content marketing is the place where you can really make a difference in how your university or department stands out from competitors. It’s also the place to look to:

– Drive organic traffic to your university (an emphasis on quality over quantity of visitor, often able to drive more qualified leads)

– Benefit from advocacy and influencer approaches, making the most of the powerful voice of people like them or people they admire

– Demonstrate empathy with your audiences in a way that a “features, benefits and USPs” approach of traditional marketing struggles to achieve.

Two Ingredients for a Successful Content Marketing Strategy

In order for you to develop a successful content marketing strategy for Clearing, you need two ingredients to get started (you’ll add more later):

– A strong sense of your brand values and qualities in order to style and drive a campaign concept. For example, “A core value for our university is connectedness, and so this will drive our Clearing campaign. Our campaign will centre on using our current and incoming student body to form connections with Clearing and Adjustment prospects.”

– A deeply empathetic way of viewing your audiences. For example, “students going through the Clearing process are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety, some will also be questioning their self-worth. Therefore, our content marketing campaign will include a suite of content that focuses on confidence-building and stress-reduction techniques, thereby showing the depth of empathy that we apply to our student experience.”

The first of these should guide the overarching campaign direction and theme, and the second should guide and steer the actual content that you create as part of your content marketing campaign.

Using the Content Onion

Successful content marketing that actually delivers results instead of just creating “feel good” content needs to work on several layers. For my forthcoming book on how to develop a content strategy in higher education, I’ve developed a model of thinking about content that I call the content onion. It’s a handy model for thinking about those content layers:

Let’s break each of these layers down in the context of a Clearing content marketing campaign:


Layer What is it? Inform by
Content about us Content in which you talk about features and benefits of studying at your university. Shares your strengths and USP in a message-led format e.g. “Top 10 for student satisfaction” University strategy, brand strategy, marketing strategy and key message framework (USPs)
Content that they want and need from us Content that they want and need specific to becoming a student i.e. course overview, fees and funding information, accommodation options, facilities and opportunities on campus Marketing strategy

Audience research (including UX testing)

Content about relevant and related areas of their lives Content more loosely related to becoming a student, but relates directly to what’s happening in their lives e.g. “10 ways to ace your A-Level final exams this year” Audience research

Empathy mapping

Content about everything else in their lives Content that relates to other aspects of their lives outside of the education sector but shows that you empathise with them e.g. “5 summer jobs that you’ve never heard of but you’ll really want to apply for” Audience research

Empathy mapping


I recommend that you take these four layers of the content onion and map them out for the types of content to create for your Clearing content marketing campaign. The inner two layers should be core business-as-usual content for you – you can repeat those messages in your sleep if you were asked to. The outer two layers are the place to look to develop great ideas for your content marketing content.

Designing Two User Journeys

The core focus of a Clearing campaign typically centres on those critical few weeks around A-Level and Scottish Highers results dates, though many universities now start much sooner. However, when mapping our decision-making journeys through the Clearing phase, there are two journeys to consider:

– The general build-up to results days, focusing on capturing students who haven’t applied or don’t have offers, or “warming up” those who may not reach or may exceed (Adjustment students) the grades required. This journey plays out over several months from the Spring onwards but can theoretically last even longer.

– The quick-turnaround journey that sees students not expecting to go into Clearing or attempt Adjustment suddenly thrown into the cycle on results day, thus making decisions from awareness phase through to actual application and acceptance in a matter of hours or days.

These are two very different journey maps in terms of the emotions and information needs at play over the different time frames. Influencers (teachers, careers counsellors, parents, grandparents, friends, etc.) also play a different role depending on which journey we are looking at.

I advise mapping both of these journeys out and layering an empathy mapping approach over them to help you tease out the four layers of content discussed above.

Aligning Content Ideas to Empathy Maps and Journey Map

With your campaign concept solidly in mind, it’s time to start planning the content marketing approach. Here’s an approach that you can follow:

– Lay out the two journey maps. On each map mark up every possible touch point that your audiences might have along the way that could become a content marketing opportunity for you.

Hold music on the Clearing hotline? Nope – we’re going to have the voices of students giving handy hints and tips while they wait.

– For each stage along that journey map, map out what your audiences are thinking, feeling, seeing and doing. This is empathy mapping, a handy tool for getting inside your audience’s mind and generating empathy-led content approaches. See my slide here from a conference talk on creating empathy with our audiences and an insight into the empathy mapping model. I’ve also written about empathy mapping in a LinkedIn article that you can read.

Think they’re spending every waking hour thinking about university? Nope – they’re busy working their summer job and keeping themselves entertained. How can you use that as a content hook, instead of just talking about university?

– Under the empathy maps, then jot down your content marketing campaign ideas or ideas for individual pieces of content that you’ll produce. You can use the four categories of the content onion to provide a framework for that content, making sure that you get a strong balance of content that is about you (the inner two layers) and content that is about them (the outer two layers).

Hmm the empathy map tells us that they’re fretting that they can’t sleep the night before exam results… let’s share some tips on how to get to sleep when your anxiety is out of control.

By following this approach, your overarching content marketing strategy and content plan will start to emerge. You’ll hit on some great ideas that you want to really focus on as a key tenet of your campaign, and you’ll identify some other ideas that form less important content but nevertheless keep their attention throughout.

As with any content marketing approach, the secret is to make sure that your content is useful, usable, relevant and relatable to your audiences (this blog post talks about just that!). The approaches and frameworks we’ve identified here can help you towards achieving just that.

Want more help? Don’t forget that we’re offering Clearing content planning workshops for your institution, or if you want even more help as time is running short and life is getting in the way, then talk to us about how we can design your Clearing campaign content marketing strategy and plan for you. We can also help you to execute it.

Good luck and may the students be with you!

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