The higher education system, the way in which it’s delivered and the role that universities take in society are continually changing and will do so for years to come. The competition has never been so tough for universities across the world; competing for students, academics and funding that will keep their reputation and knowledge current. However, only those that stay digitally relevant and leverage new digital capabilities will reap all the benefits.

Universities now not only need to be on trend, but they need to differentiate themselves by becoming digital leaders. Developing specific digital strategies, whilst being able to implement them to the highest standards, is something that many institutions are lacking. Universities must equip themselves to adapt to the digital era, or be left behind.

With students being connected, savvy and more vocal than ever, they expect a high sense of standard from their own digital experience when researching universities to attend. Social media is the primary communication channel, with digital being the first choice for media consumption. Many will have a general idea of how they would expect universities to engage directly with them and what they can expect in return. Turning your prospective students, as well as enrolled students into advocates for your university is the most powerful and digitally advanced marketing tool that is available.

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For many years now, we’ve watched as smartphones and analytics have changed the way that organisations operate across the education sector, presenting new opportunities to improve and redefine the university experience. We are now looking into a future, where digital and augmented realities will merge, giving richer digital experience to both students and lecturers; a future which could start to use artificial intelligence to run question times for students across campus, for example.

Meanwhile, data from analytics is now providing universities with a wealth of information, meaning they are able to harness these insights and use them to deliver even better outcomes, such as improving learning materials, information architecture, academic performance and even employability rates.

So, what are the barriers for universities when it comes to going digital?

Alongside the obvious of not being able to transform digitally at a rate that is acceptable to future students, there is also the fact of digital literacy; the knowledge and skills required by the university in order to deliver the proposed outcomes. With many academics and staff members not growing up in the digital era, they are potentially less knowledgeable when it comes to digital capabilities when compared to the students they are attempting to reach.

Universities need to evaluate their team’s skills, identifying skills gaps and training needs, thus ensuring they can improve digital literacy. But this task is an ongoing one, which must be maintained for success.

Websites are universities windows to the world, allowing prospective students, academics and researchers from across the globe to gain an insight into the institution. Therefore, website design and functionality are crucial components within how universities present themselves, acting as a predominant brand statement and information portal. Whilst, the homepage can be the ‘make it or break it’ deal for any prospective student, your individual landing pages offer the potential to provide far more customised, relevant user experiences in response to user searches.

However, barriers can be created due to inherited (and no longer responsive enough) processes. Take, social platforms for example, where having the perfect tone of voice, responding quickly and in the appropriate manner as well as being consistent is a hard feat for many universities, who often don’t invest heavily enough into resourcing digital from a marketing and ‘customer’ service perspective.

The power of social media is inexhaustible when used correctly; however, many academics and university staff members don’t know how to use social media for the benefit of the university without guidance. With often rigid regulations in place to prevent any public wrongdoing on social channels, a review process can be put in place prior to publication on channels, however, this can often curb creative thoughts of anyone wanting to engage with students via posting on social media, nevermind creating a considerable resourcing issue.

Unsure of how to leverage social media platforms effectively often results in over complicating the process of posting, deterring staff who want to share their points of view. Posts can become stale, or overly corporate, giving off the opposite tone for prospective and current students.

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A university that has a large following on social media will look to engage as many students as possible with constant updates on all channels, uploading relevant information, articles and an injection of fun to keep it interesting. Empowering departments of the university to create their own tone of voice for social media, can help bring the channel to life, showing personality as well as knowledge to all engaged students with varying interests.

Take a look at Harvard University’s social statistics for example; with over 4 million followers on Facebook, they are once again the leading innovators, catering to the plethora of interests held by their students, as well as the general public. Of course, with such a prominent reputation, they have had the upper hand in being able to lead within social media, but their constant efforts to instigate interest do not go unnoticed.

But, social media is just one factor of many in the digital revolution that is taking hold. Alongside this, you need to consider how to digitally reform staff and the university itself. Embracing a digital plan and considering every factor within the university that could possibly go digital is vital to the success of a digitally leading university.

Let’s consider SEO, for example. With university websites more often than not hosting a plethora of content, across various formats, often managed by multiple departments and individuals, maintaining quality, consistent, well structured and well optimised content can be challenging. The main challenges here come in the form of keyword targeting, content duplication and broken links (when pages are removed without appropriate redirects put in place).

Again SEO falls into the marketing mix, but there are also technical elements to consider. Does the existing infrastructure fit the university and their stakeholders’ needs? Do systems integrate effectively to reduce manual demand rather than overly complicate?

Taking each department ‘digital’ is vital to have a cohesive and up to date digital reputation; from using analytics to drive improvements in conversion rates on the most desirable applicants to integrating a digital system between staff and students to evaluate work and manage time; such as Blackboard.

The ‘flipped classroom’ trend is a fantastic example of digital technology being integrated into university systems to improve output, with the age old process of lectures being thrown into an entirely new direction. Originally, in lectures the professor would stand in front of students and communicate his knowledge unto them. However, with the flipped classroom trend, students consume knowledge outside of the classroom, via digital means and then come to their lectures to apply their knowledge with clarification from the professor. Thus making student engagement, as well as digital engagement key to success.

The transition into digital is well underway for many leading universities, however with the constant evolution of the digital world, the feat is never over. With every department having to remain digitally literate, there is no quick fire way to guarantee success. Encouraging departments to think of new ways to work with digital technologies (and in a collaborative fashion) is the first step to becoming digitally unique, transforming a university into a vibrant digital institution with a strong brand personality and presence.

We’d love to hear your thoughts: Who do you think is innovating in the field?