With almost two decades of experience across the education (both HE and FE) sector, it's been fascinating for me to learn about how things have changed in that time for organisations operating in this space. So I spoke to our Cat Leaver, our Head of Strategy and Steve Plummer, our Head of Digital Consulting, to get their thoughts on university marketing and how it's evolved. Here are  their combined answers.

How are universities currently competing to win new students in terms of their marketing strategy?

With growing internationalisation, the changes to fee legislation, e-learning and increased competition from institutes of all kinds from across the world, universities have been forced to adapt. Consequently, universities are becoming more and more commercially aware, with marketing designed to suit, especially within the realms of international student acquisition.

Digital channels, such as websites and social networks, have not only become essential tools within the higher education (HE) marketing mix, but they've encouraged universities to modernise and consider how they can fine-tune their brand identities to continue to compete within the space.

One of the biggest challenges we've seen is for universities to establish ‘who owns digital’ - institutes who are able to identify where this responsibility lies have been able to start their digital transformation and step ahead of the curve. 

What developments in digital and offline marketing are you aware of within the HE sector over the last 12 months?

I think the biggest change we’ve seen has been HE institutes starting to ask the right questions internally, meaning they invest in refining their messaging, timing, frequency and channels. In doing so, they've been able to identify areas of intense competition and better resource their internal marketing departments to cope, inviting in expertise from beyond the education sector (such as digital and retail commercial professionals).

The past 12 months have seen a considerable uplift in the utilisation of digital tools and technology, with all major UK universities adopting social media and many regularly investing in exploring further emerging platforms. Digital is increasingly being used to enhance direct interaction, such as events, with prospective students, as well as to engage existing stakeholders.

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Which universities do you think have a spot-on marketing strategy that's winning them new business?

UCFB have shown huge growth in a short period of time. They’ve achieved this through a connected vision, which understands that the decision of where to go to university is an emotional one, as well as a logical and practical one.  Basing themselves at Wembley and The Etihad shows their prospective students that they are immersed in the sport - they ‘walk the walk’ so to speak. A key advantage to their strategy is the ability to set up their marketing team ready for the modern HE marketing needs. For example, they are not carrying a legacy set-up, which has allowed them to build a team focused heavily on digital channels and agility.

What work from the past couple of years shows examples of how you’ve helped universities attract new students and promote their ‘business’?

Over the years, we’ve worked with a large proportion of the UK's top universities. A few examples of recent initiatives include:

  • At the end of 2015, Robert Gordon University (RGU) recruited us to support them in developing their Digital Roadmap. They had realised that they needed to invest in better understanding their level of digital maturity and immediate future requirements (from a technical, process, skills and resourcing perspective). Our roadmap laid out key activities that were to be undertaken in the following 18 months (prioritisied, time-boxed, scoped, costed and outlined with ‘quick wins’), to support their move toward digital excellence. One 'quick win' was the development of a tactical student recruitment website, an initiative aimed at addressing their immediate student acquisition needs, without being restricted within the current web infrastructure. We worked with them to launch the site it time for a key student application period and the results were incredible -  with the university witnessing the largest volume of online applications, within comparative  periods, that they'd ever seen. 
  • Earlier in the year, we worked with Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) to develop an internal Digital Strategy hub. The collaborative platform provided a home for stakeholders to share and consume the latest news, innovations and progress within the university’s journey to implementing their new strategy. It aimed to ensure that all departments were kept informed, momentum was maintained and internal knowledge was constantly being shared, ensuring buy-in from across the university. 
  • We worked with University of Southampton to not only develop a strong brand identity and statement through their new website, but also to create valuable connections with alumni and staff through an interactive portal. The latter, was developed from a fantastic open brief which sought to understand how the university could better engage with these two stakeholder groups, in order to increase the reach and efficacy of their communications, whilst encouraging the development of brand advocates. Not only did we achieve that but we managed to drive marketing costs down by hundreds of thousands of pounds each year.
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Do you have any advice or top tips for successful marketing in HE?

As with any sector, the key is to truly understand your market and audiences, and then present user-centric messages in appropriate ways (consider the context of consumption).

  • Don’t accept old assumptions on who your audiences are and how they research your offering. Test, test and test again - revise and upgrade in line with test results.
  • Be user-first, not organisation-first. We commonly see universities structuring their messaging and websites according to organisational structure and using internal terminology. This causes barriers to entry for your users - remember that your marketing and website are key acquisition tools.
  • You operate in a global market, be global in your approach. The BRICS market is maturing fast - the next big market growth is in the rest of Africa.
  • Never underestimate the value of investing in student satisfaction - yes, it’s more of a long-term strategy, but students look for metrics like these when applying to universities. It can also pay dividends when it comes to meeting funding criteria.
  • Unless you are a research-led university then focus on other key strengths & core product offers in order to engage with the current and prospective students.
  • Pay real attention to the various user journeys students may take to reach your applications ensuring they are consistent, meaningful, and engaging from the start to the end.
  • Don’t be risk-averse. Untangling from legacy systems and processes can seem daunting, but failure to change will guarantee failure.
  • Ensure all faculties, departments and schools cooperate to drive user engagement. Too often we see inter-university rivalries eating budget, driving PPC costs up and resulting in faculties spending more money than they need to competing against each other. You need to be smarter than this - make your budgets go further by working harmoniously together. Join the dots internally to ensure your students and prospective students get a seamless experience.
  • Value your alumni - the aforementioned work we did with University of Southampton has driven increased engagement with their alumni, creating valuable brand ambassadors, whilst also resulting in significant business operation savings.

The above is just a small insight into some of our team’s learnings over the fascinating education projects we’ve worked on. Learn more about our experience in the education sector here.

See some of our comments featured in University Business Magazine here.