Five rules of student engagement for effective university marketing (UK)

Can marketing help in tackling falling university applications? John Newbold offers tips on attracting your target audience.

By Nancy Groves

Establish a link between interests and careers

The end goal of most prospective university students is not attending lectures for a few years; but eventually to embark on a career and, more specifically, a career they are passionate about. Recent social media coverage has emphasised the point that career success and happiness comes from pursuing what interests you, rather than what might seem a good idea from other people’s perspective (teachers / parents / politicians). One video currently doing the rounds on Facebook simply asks the question: “What if money was no object?”

When marketing to potential students, universities should draw this link between student passions and potential careers. Higher education institution Birmingham Metropolitan College’s latest campaign achieves this well, with the strapline “Let what you love become what you do”. Similarly, 
Staffordshire University has this week launched a new graduate campaign spanning TV, cinema, press, radio and digital advertising. The idea is to show students that Staffordshire University is committed to their success beyond graduation.

Don’t talk down to prospective students
Avoid falling into the trap of applying your own experiences of university to today’s students, even if your university days were only five or 10 years ago. The way students access and engage with brands is constantly changing. For many marketing professionals, Facebook didn’t even exist when they were at university, but young people between the ages of 16 and 24 have never lived in a world without the internet.

The trend of talking to students as equals will continue to grow as more universities learn how to speak to young people on their level. However, universities still make similar mistakes in ambiguous and unimaginative advertising. “Your future starts here” is a common line which devalues the learner from the off. Implying that without a university place someone’s future hasn’t yet started completely misses the point. Students bring an existing passion to university – the role of the institute is to accelerate that into a career.

The University of Warwick uses current students to deliver its message, with the tagline “Experience Warwick with us”. The tone is informal and personal, with engaging imagery, and the university is present across all key social sites as well as offering several smartphone apps for both current and prospective students. The value of peer-to-peer recommendation and alumni advocacy is now, more than ever, of paramount importance, as outlined in a recent Guardian roundtable on university branding where experts agreed on the value of “student testimony in marketing material”.

Put out your messages on multiple channels
When targeting students, success comes from knowing how a young connected consumer behaves around multiple channels and how to use both creative and media that draw on and reflect the behavior of their own preferred brands rather than restricting yourself to the confines of a traditional educational institution. When asked, many students say university is more about the experience than the specific degree. Your messages will be more meaningful if wider interests are targeted.
At the risk of stating the obvious, universities should look to communicate with students in places they are likely to be – it is no longer enough to rely on the prospective student automatically visiting your university’s website. Today’s students are bombarded with messages (at the cinema, on TV, on Spotify, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter) and, as there is no longer a ‘first media’, we must try to reach them at each of their own touchpoints in order to cut through the noise.

Many universities are still playing catch-up in this area and there is still a heavy acquisition reliance on printed prospectuses and open days. Good marketing should not interrupt prospective students by buying their ears and eyeballs, but attract them with meaningful and relevant messaging purchased in the correct spaces.

Use creative that aligns with young people’s lives
Students tend to form tight groups and social circles when they reach university, whether through sport, music, or other interests. Universities that find a way to make prospective students feel they will fit in will go far in recruiting them. This means big marketing ideas which resonate with the current nuances and influences of student culture. Success happens when the medium you use is determined by the message, and not the other way round.
Universities would benefit from looking outside higher education to brands that are popular among students and young people, such as Wagamama and Lynx. Wagamama has undertaken experiential campaigns at key student locations such as university campuses and festivals, in order to drive their ‘incentive-based’ campaign and move away from traditional discount-based marketing.

The crux of Lynx’s Fallen Angels campaign featuring Kelly Brook was to make guys from 16-24 fall in love with the brand. To do that they used the wealth of data that is readily available on digital platforms such as Facebook, and created something that adds value to the target audience’s lives and experiences. Rather than drawing audiences to them, they went where the audience were already, and delivered added value to them in their own space.

Don’t be stuck in the past – anticipate the future
As a result of the recent policy changes in England and Wales, there is no longer one clear route into university. Different institutions demand and offer different fee and bursary packages, which complicates the overall marketing message. Both sector competition and student expectations have increased. If it hasn’t happened already, it makes sense for universities to take a fresh look at their value proposition, so they can be crystal clear about what it is they offer to students that other universities don’t, the communicate it across all channels.

Universities in America are really leading the way in using new technology to attract and keep new students. While universities in the UK have been commercialising over the past 10 years, American universities have been acting competitively for decades. Yale is one of several universities using YouVisit to create a virtual tour of the campus for both the web and mobile, enabling interaction with both prospective students and their families.

Meanwhile, the University of Dayton has introduced an annual video scholarship contest for prospective students, asking: “What does leadership mean to you?” Students are allowed to submit a video on this theme as part of their application, instead of a written essay. This communicates with young people in a way they are comfortable with and also gives them the chance to stand out from the competition – something they will want to do in their life and career too.

John Newbold is creative director of Birmingham creative agency 383 – follow the company on Twitter @383project

Guardian Professional