University of Sunderland boosts student enrolments with targeted Clearing campaign

The University of Sunderland is a ‘life changing’ university with campuses in the North East, London, and Hong Kong.

As with all UK universities, the combination of demographic decline, tuition fees, and growth in non-academic pathways continues to make student recruitment increasingly competitive. Applications after the established UCAS “deadline” in January and during Clearing have become an important part of bolstering undergraduate enrolments.

The Brief

  • Acquire additional applications for specific courses during Clearing
  • Target direct-to-Clearing applicants and over-achieving A-Level students
  • Brief and collaborate with the University’s design agency to deliver stand-out creative across multiple placements


  • Implemented a two-stage approach which generated leads ‘pre-Clearing’ and then targeted acquisition on A-Level results day
  • Introduced innovative opportunities to engage with students in new ways – such as Messenger and Chatbots
  • Built a re-targetable pool of over 20,000 leads in advance of A Level Results Day


  • Delivered over 3500 leads on A Level Results Day, including 200 Calls to the university hotline
  • Increased Clearing web visitors by 42%
  • Applications increased by 95%
  • Enrolments increased by 89%

Anticipating that competition in the sector would rise in the weeks closer to A Level Results Day itself, we began making plans to deliver an integrated campaign earlier in the academic year.
This represented a step-change in how the University had previously approached the Clearing period. It would provide greater opportunities to continually review performance and adopt agile methods of tailoring digital media optimisation to meet evolving recruitment objectives, while placing less emphasis on expensive Clearing ad inventory during August would allow media to be purchased more efficiently.

Jane Oswald, The University of Sunderland
“We use RH as an extension of our in-house marketing team and their creativity and services have helped us raise the bar significantly. They work alongside our in-house and agency creative teams planning and executing very detailed campaigns. They keep us well-informed, on budget and on time, and provide very detailed post campaign results and learning.”

We identified a range of prospective student types including direct-to-Clearing applicants, students who had exceeded their predicted grades and wanted to re-evaluate their options, and IB students who collect their exam results earlier in the summer. Targeted social media and video content gave us the opportunity to build a relationship between the University and their prospects earlier than anyone else.

PPC marketing was used to obtain a valuable share of voice in Google Search for specific degree courses and encourage students to pre-register their interest through a dedicated data-capture form. A CPA bid strategy was developed to optimise the use of the campaign budget.

This generated a valuable pool of leads for the University of Sunderland at a much lower cost than would be achievable during Clearing itself. Furthermore, subject-based PPC campaigns generated over 400 calls from interested applicants prior to August.

As soon as students received their A Level Results in August, we adjusted our approach to a direct response media strategy.

Harnessing the data collected earlier in the campaign, our team collaborated with Google Account Managers to deliver precisely targeted Search, Call and Remarketing advertising that responded to demands in the Clearing marketplace – considering factors such as: interest in certain courses or subjects; geographic hotspots; and monitoring the activities of competitor institutions on the day.

We also introduced new methods of communication, like using Facebook Messenger as a way of engaging with students in a format they were comfortable with, as a further way of increasing conversion rates.

After the dust settled, the University of Sunderland had increased unique visitors to Clearing website content by over 42% YoY on A Level Results day alone and delivered over 400,000 targeted ad Impressions to in-market Clearing prospects.

Our campaign generated over 200 calls and 50 online chat interactions with prospective applicants, and successfully supported recruitment for a range of specific programmes. The University of Sunderland saw a 95% increase in applications during the campaign, resulting in enrolments rising by 89% compared to the previous year.

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