Universities and colleges are now ‘education retailers’ – what are you selling? Studying how businesses react to fluctuations in the economy, and speaking your customers’ language, is the key to an effective education marketing strategy.
If you’ve been following the media coverage, you’d be forgiven for believing that the education system is in a continual state of crisis. Of course, you know only too well that’s not the case. And so do we. But, institutes with a cohesive education marketing strategy, stand a better chance of weathering potential turbulence. Be that as a knock-on affect of Brexit, or the constant shadow of more economic uncertainty.
The time has come for higher and further education marketing to step out of the shadows. And for institutes to reposition themselves, in the same way as a private company would if its services or products were failing to resonate. Education providers, and colleges in particular, need to make the major transition from “grant-receiving institutions” to “education retailers” – putting in place clear strategies to deliver their education marketing plan.
Marketing higher education, and marketing further education are entirely different entities, of course. While both rely to some extent on external education marketing services, the offer, message and audience are likely to differ considerably. Creative agencies must grasp the fundamental differences between positioning higher and further education marketing, to make any communications effective. It’s also worth noting that while private companies and retailers are able to constantly evolve, position or even re-invent themselves, this might not be an option for all education providers. And, while a focused education marketing strategy can help to reposition a college or university, the benefits of such programmes are unlikely to be felt overnight.
Nowadays, even companies providing the essential services we use every day have realised that they need to talk to us, and identify with us, to win or keep our business. Colleges have a more limited market than universities, as they tend to be local rather than national, making them especially prone to a loss of reputation. Word of mouth spreads quickly, and a ‘captive’ audience can quickly become a ‘sceptical’ audience. Meaning that there has never been a more important time for marketing further education and creating student recruitment campaigns that identify with your target audience – and their parents. Selling the total benefits of your college, and not just the courses you offer, is pivotal in today’s brave new world of education marketing.
So, what should be on your education marketing shopping list?
Think about your target audience – students and their parents – and put yourself in their shoes. Your education marketing strategy is about them and what they are looking for in your university or college, so you need to talk their language and use the mediums that appeal to them. One size won’t fit all, so consider how you communicate with both target audiences.
Talk to your existing students about why they chose your university or college, what they like best about it and whether they’d recommend it to friends. Define what makes your place of study stand out and harness that through your education marketing campaigns to engage other potential students.
Identify any barriers that may stop potential students from coming to your institute and tackle them proactively and honestly in through your education marketing programmes. Make them aware of any benefits they are still entitled to and any facilities they can use.
Remember that the best PR is personal recommendation and that your students are your greatest assets. Think of ways to engage them as part of your education marketing strategy, possibly by exploring the opportunities provided by mobile media, or by advertising recruitment events on their Facebook sites.
Don’t be afraid to be bold and depart from your visual identity guidelines. It’s OK to go off-brand for the sake of a one-off student campaign. Marketing higher education and marketing further education doesn’t mean being a ‘same as’, or worse still, an also ran. There are not conventions that marketers must following. Veer off brand if that injects more life into your marketing campaigns. Use a different typeface if it fits your personality, and combine it with vibrant photography if this reflects your institute better. If, by doing this, your previous communications feel more Sunday supplement, it might be time to refresh your identity guidelines.
Learn the lessons of your favourite brands and of private companies, and think about what attracts you to buy their products or use their services. How do they talk to you, how do they make you feel valued and special? Do any of these principles apply to your own education marketing strategy, and how easy are they to adopt?
Harness the power of social networking as part of your marketing activity, but make sure you moderate it. You could even use your keenest students as social media Tsars. Creative use of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is imperative and needs to be a part of your education marketing strategy.
Think about how young people access information and make sure your student campaign design is fit for purpose. Using mobile phones to access the internet is now standard practice which is why you must ask, is your website mobile friendly? Do you have iPhone/iPad versions of your main website, course guides and prospectus? Take a ‘digital first’ mindset to education marketing, making the most of the medium.
Make sure your education marketing strategy is a true reflection of the bigger picture. An engaging recruitment campaign won’t work if it encourages potential students to visit a dry, functional website that doesn’t engage them. Many university and college websites fall some way short of their private-sector counterparts, albeit the comparison is a somewhat spurious one.
Make the investment in original photography, using real people in real locations in real, everyday situations. If you don’t, your education marketing campaigns will not come across as authentic. Royalty free images may be cheaper, but there’s no substitute for using real people of all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnic backgrounds. Forget your digital camera, expert photography is the only professional option.
Last, and definitely not least, make sure that your prospectuses and course guides are engaging, inspiring, easy to navigate and full of useful information and case studies. They need to be aligned to your website, and other education marketing activities, to achieve maximum effectiveness.
The need to increase student numbers is a challenge that calls for creative, innovative solutions. Do you need to recruit an external agency to plug any knowledge or skills gaps, or to simply bring some fresh thinking to the table? Approaching your education marketing strategy from a different perspective could be a first step in the right direction that will boost your profile and, ultimately, increase student intake.
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