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Clearing Places Available! Text analysis of clearing advertising.

There have been lots of great blogs and thought pieces on clearing branding but I had not seen many on the wording and text. Whilst I put together a larger piece of insight I thought I'd share some general findings...

A nod towards a methodology:

This blog is a look at common words and phrases used in a selection of Higher Ed advertising over Clearing.  The study covers 77 institutions with a total of 161 advertising messages used in digital and print format. This includes digital display advertising like banners and leader boards, Google Adwords, email and print adverts in national press. Given the challenge of differentiation, I was interested to see how each institution told their own story. After collecting all the statements, I removed the institution name and the course type and put the statements through a text cloud and text analyser software. The statements came from:

  • Email subject lines
  • The full Ad Word text with header used for main category
  • The main statement in a print advert; either the strap line or text in bold
  • The main statement in a gif or animated gif advert 
Examples of the different sources of words and statements 

Examples of the different sources of words and statements 

Quick overview of findings:

The top findings were that:

  • 10 message categories were identified
  • The top messaging category across all media types was “Statement”. This is a category that does not feature often in commercial sector.
  • The most frequent word combination and message was “Clearing places available” in all media types
  • Print adverts and digital adverts had the most message variety whilst email subject line and AdWords the least.
  • 70% of email subject lines were classified as statements
  • It was noted that messages based around ‘offers’ were more likely to refer to guaranteed accommodation in above-the-line adverts and more likely to refer to cash bursaries in below-the-line adverts. This was based on a very small sample so is not conclusive, just interesting.
  • The average sentence per statement was 5.29 words.
  • The biggest call to action is still the telephone with 17 references 

Longer overview of findings...

Top words used in clearing advertising

Word cloud of most frequent words from clearing messages 

Word cloud of most frequent words from clearing messages 

Top 5 words by occurrence, frequency and rank 

Other information on text used in clearing messages

Top call to action words 

Categories of clearing message

The types of messages were grouped and categorised. Initially I attempted to use an existing framework by comparing the 8 categories used in the annual Digital Marketer Best and Worst report. However it became clear (no pun intended) the framework did not fit and were best categorised by the following:   

Types of clearing message:

The most common messages across all media were statement style messages, in particular the top three:

  • “Clearing places available at”
  • “It’s not too late to apply…”
  • “Spaces still available”

There was a slight difference frequency of certain categories by media type:

Display advertising: 

As with all the media measured, the digital display adverts had a majority statement messages. They also included the most aspirational messages of all media channels. There were a large number of directive messages and there was a lot variety, with 8 out of 10 categories represented. 


AdWords were largely statement based but there was an equal spread of questions, helpful and directional messaging. There is limited space to write text, so messages had to be straight to the point. This was the most homogeneous message type with only 5 of the 10 categories represented. 

Print adverts

Print adverts had the widest range of category types with 9 of the 10 categories represented. Statements were still the most common message type with a third of all messages written that way, however, there was a large number of aspirational messages (26%) and a fair mix of other types. 


Email subject lines

Email subject lines were 70% statements based. There was an equal number of offers and human messages; the latter taking advantage of personalisation in below-the-line media,

The offers referred to in display adverts were more likely to refer to guaranteed accommodation whilst email offers were likely to refer to cash bursaries. This was a relatively small sample and so not likely to be a significant difference. It would be interesting to look at in further detail and see if there was a trend but not today…

Final thoughts:

Higher Ed advertising in Clearing is controversial; there are many that think the large sums of money spent on recruitment would be better spent on improving the facilities. I am going to stay out of the debate and take the pragmatic approach that as we don’t live in a perfect world with perfect systems, many universities and colleges will continue to need to recruit  during Clearing.

I wonder as I write this, whether the tendency toward the statement message is in anticipation of the annual scorn on the commercialisation of Higher Education. With HE marketers preferring to stay on safe ground by declaring  “Clearing spaces are available” rather than be accused of spin. With the majority taking the same approach, there is less distinction.

There was far more variety with print and digital messaging and least variety with email subject lines and AdWords. Perhaps this is due to involvement of design and creative agencies with print and digital advert production.

I often feel email subject lines are not given the same attention as the email creative, which is a real shame. Most readers decide whether to open an email based on the subject line.  It doesn't matter how fantastic the email message and creative are if no one decides to open it. For those interested, there is a good blog here on writing subject lines: http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/improve-your-email-subject-line

I should state categorically I am not proposing using hyperbole and spin in messages, far from it. Just that it appears there is room for greater distinction.  

I'll leave you with some examples of messages that broke away from ubiquitous “places available” mould:

  • Excellent.  Different. Distinctive. (Aspirational)
  • It’s not clearing. It’s Independent thinking. (Aspirational)
  • Move on up. We have. (Aspirational)
  • Come and change things with us (Aspirational)
  • Vocational degrees – Real jobs (Self – interest)
  • Are you celebrating? (Question)


30 display adverts on UCAS.com 
18 display adverts on The Student Room
17 Google AdWords on key word “Clearing 2015” and “Clearing15”
49 e-mails from The Student Room 
45 print adverts featured in The Telegraph on 13th August