Marketing and communications and the changing higher education market
Kenny Nicholl, director at Hobsons, specialist provider of outsourced enquiry management and offer conversion services, technology products and marketing solutions to the education sector, highlights the future for marketing and communications students as they face a struggle to find jobs in the current climate.
For communications and marketing professionals in higher education, recent years have brought unprecedented changes in the way that universities attract and retain students. Terms like reputation, perceptions, expectations, personalisation, segmentation and nurturing are fast becoming the norm.
When it comes to shaping the opinions of prospective students, the traditional university prospectus has been pushed down the priority list behind several other factors. A university’s website, how the phone is answered, how engaging the open days are, location, signage and building condition and conversations with friends and family all provide students with an instant ‘feel’ for the institution.
It is clear that managing these ever more diverse sources of influence will be critical to an institution’s future success. Marketing and communications professionals in universities have a huge opportunity to show their value in the coming years.
The changing environment
A recent survey of applicants by YouthSight found that while there has been no immediate revolution in decision-making, there is a noticeably growing focus by the 2012 applicant on their likely return on investment.
The return on investment debate has traditionally focused on student experience on campus or employability outcomes post study. But what about before students set foot on campus, or even earlier when they are making their decision? Simple market economics dictate that as the new fee structure is introduced students will not only be thinking more about the return on their investment but the very investment itself.
For universities this means that the traditional methods of attracting students will be supplemented with increasingly targeted and personalised communications. Improving offer conversion rates has long been a focus in the international offices at many universities. For some in the “squeezed middle” this will become a necessity for their domestic undergraduate recruitment too.
I predict that in the future many universities will actively target and nurture particular cohorts of students from enquiry through to enrolment in line with institutional objectives. Customer relationship management (CRM) technology, personalised student communications and even personalised videos or virtual orientations showing students just what their experience of an institution might be like will become increasingly common. We’re already seeing this in the US, where universities undertake slick engagement campaigns like the University of Oregon’s Migrate to UO .University marketing teams are very aware that if they aren’t speaking directly to a prospective student or their parents, a rival might be.
In the last five years there has been a significant increase in investment in university marketing and communications, both regarding staffing and activity. It is currently estimated that most universities spend between 0.75% and 1.5% of their revenue on marketing, including staff costs. This is anticipated to grow by at least 50% over the next five years. Meanwhile, marketing high-fliers are increasingly attracted to higher education and a number of universities have recently made appointments from outside the sector.
The time has come for communications and marketing teams to play a more central role in delivering students and shaping their expectations for their institutions. The challenge is clear but the investment is also there. Now is the time to seize this opportunity to demonstrate the value and skills of communications and marketing professionals.
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