Posted on 21 Dec '22

'And' not 'Or' – Understanding What Audiences Want from Physical and Virtual PG Open Days


  • The majority of prospective postgraduates are interested in both physical and virtual open days
  • Domestic PGT audiences will travel up to an hour to attend an event on campus; domestic PGR will travel much further
  • PGR audiences are the most interested in open days, but also the least convinced that they offer value

I've been lucky enough to take part in a couple of on campus open days recently, helping introduce and explain PG study. There's definitely something special about the experience: the range of different internal teams coming together; the extra-curricular societies and organisations reflecting the breadth of the PG experience; and, of course, the banners and arrows leading excited students towards labs, libraries, lecture theatres and (at the risk of ruining my alliteration) perhaps the student union too...

It's clear that prospective students still value this immediate and tactile engagement with postgraduate study. Just as they do at our own study fairs.

And yet. We all know these aren't the only PG events universities are running now. Virtual equivalents and alternatives to the physical open day continue to be a valuable –and successful – part of the postgraduate recruitment toolkit. They're also clearly able to reach audiences who can't – or won't – travel to campus.

The question probably isn't which format to run, but who to run them for and what to include.

Understanding your audience

Over the past few months I've been thinking about PG open days alongside Lindsay Avery of the University of Birmingham and Nathan Monk of SMILE.

Lindsay's extensive experience organising physical and virtual events helped guide our Pulse research and put the findings in context, whilst Nathan and SMILE exist to help universities develop and deliver exactly the kind of innovative experiences prospective students are now seeking.

The project culminated in a webinar which I recommend you (re)watch for Lindsay and Nathan's insights. What I'm going to do here is run through some of the findings from Pulse and what they potentially mean for the next phase of open day events.

It's definitely 'and' not 'or'

We've covered the 'physical vs 'virtual' angle here before, looking at how PGT and PGR audiences felt about attending events on campus as Covid concern relaxed and reflecting on our own experience of returning to physical study fairs.

For this research I wanted to focus in on what different audiences wanted from different events and see whether there was a clear preference for physical over virtual.

These are the proportion of people who say they're very interested in attending physical or virtual open days across different PGT and PGR segments: domestic audiences based in the UK (UK-UK), international audiences already based in the UK (INT-UK) and international audiences located outside the UK (INT-INT).

Clearly, all of those audiences are very interested in open day events of either format. Interest is typically higher for PGR (a trend we'll follow through this data) and for international students (whether located in the UK or not).

Physical events are slightly more popular than virtual for most audiences, but there's very little in it. Bear in mind that we aren't asking participants to choose between formats here; a stronger preference for physical will emerge later, but the fact remains that most students are willing to consider both. Hence the title and subheading.

Physical events – what do people want?

For physical events here I'm only comparing responses from relevant audiences (domestic and UK-based international) who could easily get to campus and are interested in doing so:

Prospective PhD students care much more about event content in general (selecting far more options) and particularly interested in networking with potential supervisors and current doctoral students. This shouldn't surprise us, but it's a clear preference with, I think, an equally clear steer for PGR open day content.

Prospective Masters students care most about application and funding talks – the nuts and bolts of PG study.

Physical events – how far will people actually go?

The downside to a physical event is the need to physically get onto campus and, in many cases, travel to do so. This is an obvious point of friction even before the wonders of the UK rail network are factored in (a quick gripe: I recently turned up to a campus about ten minutes before I was due to present – despite allowing myself twice the necessary journey time).

So, how far will students travel?

This time I've split up interested domestic and UK-based-international audiences, because the differences are quite surprising.

Two thirds of international students won't travel for more than an hour to attend an on campus open day, and a quarter won't travel for more than half an hour. These audiences will probably attend an event at their current university, but they're a lot less likely to look further afield.

For domestic audiences the big difference is between PGT and PGR. About 55% of people thinking about a Masters will travel for an hour or less; about 55% of people thinking about a PhD will travel for two hours or more.

Virtual events – what do people want?

Travel obviously isn't an issue for virtual events, which also means that students can attend from further afield. So we need to compare responses for all students in the UK (domestic and international) and internationals outside the UK, with PGT and PGR segments for each.

This makes for a busier chart (apologies) but the results aren't that different to those for physical open day content:

Again, we see that PGR audiences care more about event content overall and about networking opportunities in particular.

UK-based audiences care slightly more about networking and application / funding talks; non-UK audiences value careers talks (as post-study-work presumably drives some of their interest).

What puts people off?

People who told us they weren't interested in open days received a follow-up question asking why.

Here's what the responses look like for physical events (again restricted to UK-based audiences):

And here are the responses to a similar question for virtual events (comparing UK- and non-UK-based audiences):

I'd highlight two things here:

Firstly, people are much more likely to overlook virtual events in favour of physical events than the reverse. This doesn't mean that physical is hugely more popular than virtual (we saw in the first chart that most people would consider either) but there is an audience that prefers more 'traditional' formats.

Secondly, we see that PGR audiences are most sceptical of events overall. They're significantly more likely to turn down physical and virtual events because they don't expect them to be useful.

Conclusions and suggestions

My main recommendation is that you take a look at the webinar and hear Lindsay and Nathan's very valuable perspectives and experiences alongside this data. But, for the purposes of this piece, I'd say:

#1 Don't overlook PGR-specific events

Prospective PhD students are most interested in open days overall, they care most about content and they'll travel furthest to be on your campus. But they're also the least convinced that events have enough to offer them.

None of this surprises me; we see it in the turnout and engagement for the PGR-specific PhD LIVE study fairs we've been running since 2014(!). But there's clearly an appetite for open days that give this audience the bespoke content they want.

#2 Your 'catchment' for on campus might actually be pretty small

Campus location and transport links mean your mileage will (literally) vary, but the biggest factor in how to run an event may be which audiences you want to attract. Most domestic PGT won't travel for more than hour and the same is true for all UK-based internationals.

#3 Effective hybrid probably isn't simple

It's tempting and often quite practical to repurpose some physical content for virtual, either by allowing remote attendees to 'join' talks online, or by recording some of that content for a virtual re-run.

For some audiences who simply can't get to physical events (e.g. non-UK-based internationals) this will work.

But it probably doesn't appeal as much to UK-based audiences. As above, if they weren't interested in your event in a physical format, they probably don't want a virtual version instead.

The bigger challenge (and greater reward) is probably to find a way of differentiating virtual from physical – that's something Lindsay and Nathan definitely have some useful perspectives on.

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