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Marketing Masterclass

Keri Beckingham looks at how universities are changing with the times to attract the next cohort of students

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | December 18, 2016 | Finance, legal, HR

The world of marketing is constantly changing, and it can be hard for universities to keep up with the latest trends in what is a fiercely competitive environment. Here, we speak to some marketing experts about their experience of the HE sector and look at ways that universities can use the latest developments to their advantage.

A clear marketing strategy 

In order to successfully appeal to prospective students, the need for universities to have a clearly defined marketing strategy in place is key. Commenting on the development that the sector has seen in recent years, Cat Leaver, Head of Strategy at digital agency After Digital, says: “We’ve been working in the HE space for almost two decades and it’s been fascinating to see how marketing strategies have adapted and grown over the years. With increasing internationalisation, updated fee legislation, online learning and fiercely competitive marketing, universities have had to adapt to keep up. As a result, they have become far more commercially geared in their marketing, particularly when it comes to attracting all-important international students.”

Speaking of the importance of universities utilising a complete range of channels within their marketing strategies, Ivent Director Gavin Newman, who has experience of delivering virtual events within the HE sector, says: “Prospective students expect innovative communications from universities via all of the channels they regularly use and they want and need this communication regularly – not just when recruitment is on the university’s events calendar.”

Adding to this, Max du Bois of Spencer du Bois, a branding agency with experience of supporting clients in the education sector, believes that many universities still have work to do when it comes to their marketing strategies and brand message. He says: “In our experience, no one is using a consistently clear, differentiating and engaging core brand message. 

Without this, all the individual bits of activity simply act as ‘one hit wonders’ at their best, before fizzling out and being forgotten. A great example of a university that is getting this right is the University of the West of Scotland, which is leaping up the league tables with its core brand essence of ‘imaginative independent thinking’ and a very clear focus on its role in helping ‘students get ahead’, tapping right into concerns and ambitions about employment. In addition, Imperial College Business School really stands out with the truly differentiating ‘fusion of business and technology’ in its bold and punchy ‘Imperial Means Intelligent Business’ branding, helping it to really throw down the gauntlet in its sector.”

Time to get digital

When it comes to attracting students through their marketing efforts, there’s no bigger opportunity open to universities than fully engaging with the ever-evolving digital space. As Steve Plummer, Head of Digital Consulting at After Digital comments: “ Websites and social media have not only become key tools within the HE marketing mix, but they have forced universities to modernise and fine-tune their brand identities. 

But digital is about so much more than this – it’s about people and skills, processes, tools and technology. 

A major challenge has been identifying ‘who owns digital’ – universities who have managed to crack this are starting to take the lead.”

Supporting this, Gavin Newman believes that a university’s digital strategy needs to go further than just being active on social media. He adds: “A digital strategy which goes beyond employing Facebook and Twitter to push out a dull sales rhetoric is vital. Virtual events are fast becoming the bedrock of university recruitment marketing activity as, when done properly, these enable potential students to access relevant, engaging and authentic content 365 days a year and at a time to suit them, wherever they are in the world. What’s more, these digital environments facilitate one-to-one interaction, whether that’s with members of the faculty or more powerfully, with existing students.”

Vicky Hayhurst from Revolution Viewing, an innovative digital content agency who have worked with over 70 UK universities, thinks that using a combination of platforms is essential when going digital, in order to achieve the best results and engage effectively with students. She comments: “Universities are using targeted digital campaigns more than ever before to help them win students. They are doing this by using a mixture of methods, including a more strategic approach to CRM and digital content management, greater use of programmatic advertising, increased activity on social media and a
huge increase in the production of video and other rich media content, such as virtual reality, to help tell a story and gain emotional engagement.”

Case studies 

Gavin Newman believes that virtual events have huge potential when it comes to attracting prospective students in the digital arena. Speaking of work that Ivent has done with Kings College, he says: “With Kings College, a range of tailored virtual events are now being delivered – from an undergraduate event especially for Turkish students which focused on issues key to them, to their most recent virtual recruitment day which resulted in over 1,000 attendees logging in. More than 5,000 questions were asked in a recent two-day event, but with access to the online environment being available indefinitely, genuinely interested students were able to review the questions and answers at a later stage – no ‘I wish I had asked’ moments here. All of this means that students are ready to make an informed decision to apply and go on to accept a place without any nagging doubts. An example event will often see sample lectures being delivered, chat booths with both faculty and existing students answering questions one to one and a resource centre which literally answers any question imaginable, from how to secure funding to finding the best local pub meal deal!”

After Digital have also worked with a large proportion of the top UK universities to help them attract new students and grow their digital success. Speaking of their recent work, Cat Leaver says: “Robert Gordon University brought us on board at the end of 2015 to help them develop their Digital Roadmap, as they understood that they needed to invest in understanding their current state, lessons learned and immediate and future requirements. 

The roadmap outlined key activities required within the next 18 months, including the creation of a tactical student recruitment website to drive immediate student acquisition and to be at the heart of new marketing campaigns for 2016/17. In addition, we also developed an internal Digital Strategy hub for Glasgow Caledonian University, which allows for stakeholders to share the latest innovations and developments within the University’s journey to digital excellence. This platform has created critical momentum and internal knowledge share, ensuring stakeholders from across the University are bought in and are working seamlessly together towards their end goals.”

Looking forward

Considering all of the marketing developments in the HE sector over the last 12 months, what do our experts think universities should focus on moving forward in order to stay ahead? 

Steve Plummer believes that universities will need to continue investing in their internal marketing teams to ensure that their skills and experience keep up to date with further marketing developments. He says: “As universities recognise the increasing competition around their offering, one of the biggest changes we’ve seen is that internal marketing departments have become better resourced, welcoming in expertise from outside the education industry (such as commercial directors and digital professionals).”

In addition, Vicky Hayhurst thinks that universities need to use more experiential content in order to fully showcase their offering to students. She says: “Online, the biggest development over the last year has been the creation of engaging and experiential content such as virtual tours, virtual open days and virtual reality is now also entering this space too. 

Offline, universities are also thinking about how they can better use UCAS and other recruitment fairs to capture data.  

I don’t think that any university would say that they have a spot-on marketing strategy as it’s an ever-evolving thing, but universities such as Leeds Beckett, Bradford, Liverpool, Reading, Dundee and Hertfordshire are certainly taking a holistic approach to the marketing that they do and allocating budget for the right type of projects.”

The university rankings and league tables are commercial products, dominated byresearch investment, which do not provideanything like an accurate picture of the full range of activities in which UK universities are engaged

5 top marketing tips for universities

Cat Leaver: “Never underestimate the value and efficacy of your alumni – the work that After Digital did with the University of Southampton on an interactive online portal for alumni has not only driven engagement but also saved them many tens of thousands of pounds in printing costs, whilst creating valuable ‘brand ambassadors’.”

Vicky Hayhurst: “Try to look at what others are doing that has worked and apply it to your own university’s needs – and if you don’t have time to find those good examples, talk to your suppliers who have sector experience and listen to their advice, especially where this is backed up with results or research.”

Max du Bois: “Develop a clear and differentiating brand: nail your colours to the mast – before someone else does and takes the space you want!”

Gavin Newman: “Engage your target audience with relevant and authentic content – 365 days a year.”

Steve Plummer: “Invest in student satisfaction – it’s a longer-term strategy but it pays dividends. Students worldwide are looking
for the best experience with the highest employability as a key benchmarking criteria.”

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