“Universities are definitely realising the importance of marketing,” says David McGilvray, director of Tictoc. “However, in general universities are way behind business in understanding how their brand and marketing can impact on all aspects of their work.”
It’s an alarming statement, given the competitive nature of the higher education sector and the choice available to prospective students and potential business partners.
Mark Jennings of digital agency Unco believes good working relationships between the university’s marketing team, its web team, and its external marketing agencies are key, but says “all too often these relationships can be strained because one department doesn’t understand what another is doing.”
“The job of a good agency,” he argues, “ought to be helping to manage these relationships and ensure maximum productivity – and most importantly teaching the internal teams the high value of effective collaboration.”
Yet, even with the right tools, there’s no guarantee of success and achieving standout is increasingly difficult.
“Reputation is important for the older and more elite universities,” says Jennings, “but there is a long list of other factors that prospective students have to consider when choosing an institution – career prospects, social life, accommodation, funding, cost, class sizes, and what it’s like for mature or international students.”
The way in which universities communicate to key audiences has always been a mixed bag. TV advertising has been dabbled at, but without the big budgets the commercials have, at times, flattered to deceive. Invariably, the prospectus has been the cornerstone – especially when it comes to recruitment – but the internet now looks to be changing that approach.
“The entire contents of a printed prospectus is, more often than not, now available online,” says Nathan Fulwood, business development manager of Realise. “This is increasingly important given that many universities seek to recruit from overseas.
“A good online prospectus will deliver content that printed versions can’t; such as video content, ‘wizards’ to help identify the most suitable courses and feedback options to find out more or ask questions of the lecturers or recruitment office. Universities are also implementing contact strategies, to update prospective graduates, via email or text, of the availability of places around the application or clearing dates.”
But, much like the education sector’s difficult relationship with television advertising, many universities are struggling to use the internet well enough.
David Lewis, MD of Lewis Creative Consultants says: “Most educational institutes worth their salt are communicating via the online medium. Only a few institutes are communicating effectively, though. Many think that the internet is the answer to all their problems but it’s not that simple, universities need to know how to use the tool in the most effective and appropriate way.
“We’ve done sample research projects across teachers, school leavers, 5th and 6th year pupils and mature students to analyse university websites. Very few had an aesthetically pleasing user journey. Content, style and usability should be key to a university’s online presence.”
McGilvray adds: “Any large organisation will have to battle the inconsistency that comes from having a large number of web authors, but clever Content Management Systems should help them to manage their web presence. Where the sector can do more is in using the internet to segment the audience, developing microsites and landing pages each with tailored messages, content and goals for specific student user groups. Then they need to continue to carry out excellent marketing campaigns (both online and offline) to drive traffic to their sites.”
Digital Aim’s Scott Howard, continues: “Educational institution sites are inevitably large, content heavy architectures. Any establishment that is short changing on useability testing will inevitably suffer from lower application levels than one that ensures the virtual campus provides an enjoyable and informative experience.
“If you are looking at the UK market then a prospective student can find the array of prospectuses bewildering so the image and support information on lifestyle, course content for the undergraduate market will be key in growing the share of the applications available each year. In some respects this market has many similarities to where the travel market was four to five years ago.”
Like many consumer brands have discovered, the free-for-all nature of the internet means it can be difficult to manage reputation online. However, Jennings moves to reassure institutions that though they can’t control what is said about them online, they can manage their brand.
“Take down or ignore the stupid and offensive stuff,” he advises, “but interact with criticism – often this stuff is posted up there because people want to make changes. If the changes are feasible and sensible, make them, and make a noise about the fact that you are making them.
“For example someone might post on their blog a complaint about library opening times. Read the responses. Get involved yourself by providing an online poll on your website. If there is a consensus about it, change the library opening times,” says Jennings.
“Another thing to do is reward good behaviour. If some internet users are saying good things about you, starting online fan sites for your sports clubs for example, reward them. Offer them the appropriate graphics to correctly brand their site, or invite them to take part in website planning meetings.
“By doing these sorts of things you will begin to gain your audience’s respect rather than being seen as paranoid or didactic. And if you manage it well enough – the good things that are being said about you on the website will far outweigh the bad.”