Today British universities are operating in an increasingly challenging and competitive arena, expanding far beyond the realms of the UK higher education sector, into what is now a global marketplace. Now, more than ever, it’s extremely important for universities to engage with prospective students and current students, as well as their alumni and staff in the ever-changing digital landscape. This includes not only having an effective website, but also utilising social media and a range of other digital channels too.
In recent years, there has been an explosion in the amount of digital content that is produced online, predominantly due to the increase in the number of digital channels and platforms that are available. As a result, the expectation of today’s tech-savvy millennial students is extremely high, especially when it comes to the quality of digital engagement that universities offer them. As Gavin Newman, Director at iVent the leading online events specialist, says: “In an increasingly competitive market many universities are embracing digital technology to interact with prospective students. From social media to virtual events, the key to ensuring genuine engagement is delivering powerful content that is relevant and that facilitates ongoing interaction.
“Virtually showcasing a university and student life is an engaging and cost-efficient method to attract new undergraduate and postgraduate students, and convert existing offer holders from all over the world. It removes any budget or scheduling limitations that can come with physical open days. And our environments, currently used by almost 20 universities, enable multiple virtual events to run across the year.”
Through digital engagement, universities can benefit from the positive impact it has on their brand identity – but only if it is utilised correctly. For example, the need for UK universities to have an effective and engaging website is essential – the days of it simply acting as a ‘shop window’ are gone. More importantly, the content that is presented should be tailored to each specific audience (whether that’s prospective students, current students, alumni or staff), which helps to reinforce that a university truly understands the differentiating needs of each group. As Vicky Hayhurst, Commercial Director at Revolution Viewing, an innovative digital agency that has worked with over 70 universities explains: “A good university website is one that enables any one person using that website to be able to quickly access information and content that is helpful, engaging and relevant to them.
Universities are complex organisations with multiple stakeholders with multiple needs. A good university website will recognise this and will have been set up to identify and prioritise their key stakeholders so that it is easy for a person to search or find content or for that content to be served proactively to a person based on their previous activity.”
Engage through design
An example of a university that certainly understands the importance of this is Leeds Beckett. Their offering presents content to its different audiences through an engaging design and interactive user interface, which works seamlessly across multiple platforms and devices too. As Vicky Hayhurst comments: “Leeds Beckett set out to not only be the best in the sector but a leading website in general. It definitely achieved those aims and the challenge for them will be maintaining that advantage in such a fast-paced arena.”
When it comes to social media, Jennifer Bilec-Sullivan, Head of Marketing for Codio, a platform for computer science education, offers an air of caution for universities who are choosing to focus all of their attention on the more recognised channels: “Today’s students are tech-savvy millennials who are past using the founding social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter where their parents are now active – they have moved on to Snapchat and WhatsApp, and universities need to take notice of this.
Jennifer continues: “When it comes to a university choosing the social media platforms to be active on, it’s about the messages they want to communicate and then working out which of these platforms is the most appropriate – this will help to ensure the activity is as effective as possible when it comes to engaging with their different audiences.”
A key benefit of universities utilising social media is the chance for them to grow their online community using user-generated content. “The best thing that a university can do is get in touch with current students and staff to leverage stories that will be of interest to a prospective audience,” Jennifer comments. “It’s really important to be authentic about the stories you use as well – you want to show that your university is a huge community, give a true picture of what it would be like to study or work there and build trust with your audience.”
And speaking of online communities, Jennifer is surprised to see that universities are still not utilising the potential of community platforms such as Lithium, which helps to connect audiences across a range of digital touchpoints. She comments: “It strikes me as a big missed opportunity – it’s a no brainer. Using community-based platforms will help universities to build relationships with their audiences and build trust – it’s a potentially scary prospect as it opens them up to receiving complaints, but in turn they can utilise this feedback to improve the experience they offer students and staff. In particular, it will help improve their CRM and manage the process from a prospective student to alumni relations.”
It’s also important for universities to remember that digital engagement doesn’t just include websites and social media, having a strategy that incorporates a whole range of digital channels is key. For example, the University of Bradford uses a portfolio of videos to support their student acquisition strategy, ensuring the videos they produce mirror the same messages they communicate at each point in the student recruitment journey too – consistency which is extremely important in maintaining their brand identity.
Another digital engagement option for universities is to create virtual tours of their campuses, something that the University of Dundee is already trialling. Launched just before this year’s Clearing period, the virtual tour featured prominently on their website– and the results were certainly positive. “The University of Dundee found that the virtual tour was gaining 2,000–3,000 page views per day and, during Clearing, it was peaking at 8,000–12,000 hits,” says Vicky Hayhurst. “About 20% of the University’s web traffic for open day bookings was coming from the virtual tour too and bookings increased by 500 – a great result.”
So with all this in mind, what does the future hold for UK universities in the digital landscape? If one thing is clear, it’s that as this area continues to grow, universities need to ensure that they keep up to date with the latest developments and trends. After all, the students and prospective students who make up their target audiences certainly will be, and it’s important that universities don’t risk getting left behind. As Jennifer Bilec-Sullivan summarises: “Universities are embracing new technology and new ways of thinking, they are smart, they have a lot of assets, but they need to engage and move in the digital direction – I think that the future of this sector is really exciting.”