A marketing masterclass in higher education

Keri Beckingham looks at the ways universities are competing to win new students

With the HE landscape becoming ever more competitive, what are the latest trends in digital and offline marketing that universities are using to recruit new students? We’ve asked some marketing experts to explain the key developments that today’s institutions need to be aware of.

Video is leading the way

Gina Hutchings is Head of Marketing Communications at WSA, a full service marketing agency specialising in the education sector. As part of her work, she has observed video leading the way when it comes to the latest digital technology trends, as not only can students view videos on their social media timeline but, from an institution’s point of view, Google can now read optimised videos as part of its ranking algorithm for search engine optimisation (SEO) purposes.

Discussing this further, she said: “Real-time video posted on social media covering university events appears to be very popular and it is content that is short, snappy and can be created in house via mobile phone. This is the perfect avenue for in-house communications teams in student unions.”

Understanding your audience

Dan Beynon is Head of Education at SMRS, a marketing agency that has worked with a number of UK universities. Globally, he believes that HE is facing great change at the moment, due to an intensely competitive global student recruitment market. Combined with a fast-changing digital marketing landscape, he thinks HE marketing professionals have a challenge on their hands as they look to engage the right students for their institution, and that having a good understanding of their audience is key to success.

Commenting further, he said: “Crucial to success is the development of a real understanding of your audience and the customer experience (or journey) that your university is providing – from the very first engagement it has with a potential student, right through application and enrolment and on to graduation and beyond. It’s this question that forward-thinking universities are focusing on.

“If a virtual tour, a chatbot or a personalised prospectus make that journey better and more audience focused, then great, but don’t go choosing the media and the technology before you understand the audience and their journey.”

Is print still important?

As the digital revolution continues, is there still a place for print in university marketing campaigns? Claire Curzon, Managing Director for content marketing agency Brighter Directions, believes that although the marketing for universities has definitely changed over the past three years, traditional marketing channels such as print will always have their place.

Commenting further, she said: “You can’t replace traditional print media such as brochures, prospectus guides and such for digital entirely.

“The traditional media tactics not only converse with students in a way other touchpoints can’t, but they speak to family, too, who aren’t always under the same digital revolution.”

Mobile responsive websites

Due to the fact that Google is soon going to launch a mobile-first search index, Gina Hutchings believes that it’s important for institutions to ensure that their websites are fully mobile-responsive.

She said: “In the future, Google plans to prioritise the mobile index, meaning your mobile site will be looked at and crawled, then indexed by search engines, before the desktop version, and so mobile results will be more up to date.”

Case studies

Loughborough University

Loughborough University has been leading the way with its use of social media, and it was one of the first universities to use Snapchat to raise awareness and host Q&A sessions with students. In addition, the university has used Twitter to have one-to-one conversations with potential students and uses Instagram to strategically support their brand.

Commenting further on the use of social media, Emma Leech, Director of Marketing and Advancement, said: “We use a mix of user-generated content and timely owned content. Around 80% of our social feed is crowd-sourced; seeing users’ photos shared encourages others to share their own content using the hashtag #LboroFamily and strengthens our brand within the community.

“Since A-level results day in August 2018, on Instagram we have seen a 10% hike in follows – up 2,500. Over the past 12 months, our Instagram account has also grown from 17K to 22.1K followers, a 30% increase, and our stories have been viewed over four million times.”

University of Hull

The University of Hull has been using a range of digital technology tools to bring real-world experiences to a broader audience of prospective students, especially if they are unable to attend an open day. Part of this has involved the creation of a virtual campus, which gives 360˚ views of the university and the surrounding area to showcase what student life at Hull is like and what facilities the university has to offer.

As Amanda Wilde, Head of Digital, explains: “This has been developed to allow users to freely explore the campus any way that they would like, being able to navigate anywhere, including locations within the city centre, with added hotspot content to offer additional information. There is also a guided tour and opportunity to access a whole stream of content on specific subjects and facilities.

“We are already seeing significant interests with over 110,000 page views in just the first 10 weeks.”

Birmingham City University

Birmingham City University asked SMRS to help them grow their student numbers, despite a range of challenges such as the removal of the cap on student numbers, a decline in 18-year-olds entering HE and the growth of competitor institutions. They wanted to deliver a more integrated approach across their marketing channels, as part of a complete strategic rethink.

SMRS looked to take the university’s 2018/19 and 2019/20 undergraduate campaigns to the next level, and started out by conducting a segmentation project to build a profile of each faculty’s ‘ideal’ students and their student journey. From this, they decided that the best way to reach their audience was through paid digital advertising, which drove 50% of all November open day registrations (up 25% on the previous June). In addition, costs for registrations and UCAS Exits were down 50% and 54%, respectively, and web traffic from paid media went up 92% year-on-year to over 188,000 sessions, with the average session duration up by 42%.

Gina Hutchings
Top marketing tips for universities from the experts
Gina Hutchings: “Your university will have peaks and troughs in engagement throughout the year, maximising around intake and results announcements. It is important that a strategy integrates to
give a clear brand message across the year and that these peaks are steadily built upon and supported.”
Dan Beynon: “A responsive website is critical for any university. It’s a must-have as it allows the audience to experience your institution positively whenever they choose to engage with you.”
Claire Curzon: “Social media channels possess a really great opportunity for universities, not only in terms of general branding and awareness, but also in the level of engagement they can have with potential students who are online and interested by utilising good content.”