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Evolve or dissolve

Derby's Russ Langley explains why university marketing strategies need to continually evolve to be successful in the ever-competitive HE market

Posted by Lucinda Reid | April 05, 2017 | Technology

How has your approach to marketing a university changed in recent years?

It has changed massively! The sector has been through unprecedented change over the past few years and continues to do so. We now operate in an open, competitive market place targeting media and brand savvy prospective students who rightly have high demands and expectations.

From a Marketing professional’s point of view that’s fantastic. We now need to think and work like a commercial organisation, using our expertise and knowledge to package and promote what Derby has to offer in order to position us as a ‘first choice’ University. That means we need to know our marketplace inside out so there is a huge emphasis now on competitor analysis and applicant profiling so we fully understand the environment in which we are operating and can set out our strategy and tactics accordingly.

We talk a lot at Derby about ‘every touchpoint counts’ from the first interaction at a UCAS Exhibition or activity in a school or college all the way through to enrolment. This has seen us focus heavily on the ‘customer journey’, ensuring prospective students are engaged throughout with communications, which are timely, creative and of a high standard, and may be informative, practical or fun depending on where they are at in the recruitment cycle. We have also worked hard to provide the best possible experience at Open Days and Applicant Days which has had a hugely positive impact on our conversion to ‘firm’ over the past couple of years.

One of the most important changes at Derby is the shifting influence of the Marketing department within the University. I’m fortunate to work with a Vice-Chancellor who values the importance of a strong brand and the factors which influence this. This has provided a great platform for us to put marketing much more at the heart of the strategic direction of the University, for example through leading a cross-University League Table group and the development of a Portfolio Profiling Tool. We’re no longer simply a service department, but one with significant strategic influence and impact.

Post Brexit, how is your marketing team evolving?

To be honest, it was continually evolving before Brexit and will probably continue to evolve as we need to be fluid and agile working in such a changeable sector. What might be right now in terms of structure and ways of working, may not be what’s right next year. The key is to build in flexibility and have a talented team who can take change in their stride.

We’ve successfully operated with a ‘hub and spoke’ model over the past four years with a strong central unit working closely with satellite teams out in the Colleges. We’re currently further evolving that model, essentially creating an integrated, in-house agency which brings together all the specialist teams and provides dedicated account teams for each of the Colleges and other core areas of activity across the University. Having marketing resource embedded in the academic heart of the University has worked well for us and been a key factor in our success. Being able to better balance this with stronger management of the brand will ensure we’re best placed to deliver against the University’s ambitious growth targets over the next 3-5 years.

Specific impacts include the need to focus on more income streams. Student recruitment will always be by far the main source of income for Derby, but diversifying this is essential for the future sustainability of the University so there is much more onus now on B2B activity, for example.

An interesting development is on the type of roles we’re recruiting to and the types of individuals we’re filling them with. As an example, we created a Head of Brand role a couple of years ago and bought in someone with a strong commercial background. This was a conscious decision to lead the team to a different way of thinking in terms of campaign development and execution. We have also grown our digital team with a particular focus on content creation.

How does your marketing team adapt in the competitive environment?

We’re working with the same marketing budget we did three years ago so the onus has been on creating excellent content and sweating it as much as possible through owned and paid media to maximise return on investment.

We have continually evolved and improved our own channels, having deliberately invested in adding creative and technical talent to the team to enable us to do so in a cost-effective manner. It means we’re now able to drive people to our website knowing they will get an experience which meets their information needs in an engaging and impactful way. It’s our key shop window so needs to be strong. 

Our core campaign activity has two main calls to action – ordering a Prospectus or attending an Open Day. We have also, therefore, focused heavily on both of them to ensure they provided the biggest possible positive impact on prospective students. 

In terms of paid media, we mixed heavily targeted and intelligence-led activity with careful use of broader brand awareness. We have detailed profiles of prospective students in each subject area and use this as the basis for determining media spend.

You’ve recently launched 360 videos for prospective students to exhibit your facilities, why did you choose to do this? And why did you choose videos in particular?

Two key reasons. Firstly we’re extremely proud of the student facilities we have here at Derby. We’ve invested over £150 million in them over the past 10 years and we want to show them off! Our real-world learning facilities are a key aspect of our narrative – being able to put the theory into practice while they study is part of our core employability agenda what helps set Derby students apart when they graduate.

Secondly, we have ambitious targets in terms of international student recruitment and through the 360 degree virtual tour we’re able to bring what Derby has to offer to anyone across the world.

Now students are more savvy and willing to shop around, is this why you’ve created the 360 videos to show them how committed you are to their learning with such innovative facilities?

Yes. All universities will talk about their impressive facilities – the 360 virtual tour allows us to bring this to life. It’s already proving to be a huge asset at UCAS Exhibitions where we’re able to put our amazing facilities centre stage using a giant i-tab and virtual reality glasses. These aren’t hugely expensive but provide a really positive impact. It means we leave a positive impression which we then hope to see flow through to Open Day attendance which continues to grow year-on-year.

What is the most effective marketing tool for you – social media, videos, advertising etc?

I don’t think it’s possible to pull out just one thing – having a fully integrated approach – based on the principle of ‘every touchpoint counts’ – has been the key to our success over the past couple of years. The most important thing for us has been the development of a strong brand with a core narrative and strong visual identity which has provided the backbone for all our activity.

Ultimately, our ability to recruit students will stand or fall by the quality of our courses and student experience, and the engagement of our academics in recruitment and conversion activity. Through our marketing activity we’re able to tell a great story which engages and enthuses prospective students – what’s essential is that we then deliver against this.

How do you engage with students and get them to your open days when there are so many of other universities competing in the same landscape?

We know that if we can get someone to an Open Day we have a much greater chance of converting them so that is the ultimate call to action through our marketing activity. We seek to generate enquiries and capture data from which we can then start to engage with prospective students. We have developed detailed and targeted communications plans for enquirers which includes specific communications in the run-up to and post Open Days.

Content is key to this – being able to tell positive stories about the subject the prospective student is interested in, be it new facilities or the achievements of current staff, students or graduates, and doing so in a creative, impactful and digestible format, builds the necessary affinity with Derby.

This approach has seen as steady improvement in conversion from bookings to attendance, peaking at well over 70%. 

Russ Langley is Director of Marketing and Communications at the University of Derby.

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