Times are hard, margins are tight, costs are up, student numbers are down, foreign students are harder to recruit, the faculty are complaining, debts are spiraling, Brexit blah, blah, blah.
OK, let’s just say it’s a tough world out there for higher education marketers and many are having to pedal three times as fast just to stay still. When every penny spent must produce instant results, this is no time to be brave and think long-term. Yet, this is precisely what they should be doing. The future will belong to those establishments that think two, five or ten years into the future. Be bold now and the payback will come.
So, in the spirit of crystal ball gazing, here are our ideas and predictions for higher education marketing and how to survive the next 12 months and beyond.
1. The kids are revolting
OK, they’re no longer staging sit-ins outside the Dean’s office as their mums and dads once did, but they hold all the cards and they know it. It’s no longer enough to set up a course and wait for students to beat down the door, all but the elite universities must now get out there and attract, woo, even bribe students into their lecture halls. This is a buyer’s market and the institutions that recognise this will be the ones that prosper.
2. Be bold, be brand
When the pressure’s on to fill places for in the next academic year, it’s easy to park the brand and resort to shouting for attention. Resist this temptation. The successful institutions will be the ones that accept that, apart from the mad Clearing scramble, choosing a university is often a slow, considered process. Building a strong brand, telling a story and engaging the emotions will pay dividends.
3. The medium is the message
The odd poster and bulky prospectus simply won’t cut it any more. Yes, universities will need to make imaginative use of social media and programmatic advertising but this is just the beginning; if your marketing plan doesn’t include Snapchat and social influencers, you might want to revisit it. What’s your message for the festival ticket, the Spotify playlist or the Uber car? The lesson is that the students won’t come to you so you need to go to them.
4. Yes, but….
With a heavy dollop of irony, we’d also suggest that those universities looking to engage could do worse than reconnect with neglected traditional media. What better than a cinema commercial for conveying a grand brand vision to a captive audience? And teenagers these days receive zero mail so if an envelope turns up on their doormat with their name on it, they will be highly intrigued by this strange, alien curiosity. The less these media are used, the better they work.
5. Get ‘em young…
It’s easy to think of teenagers as short-term impulsive opportunists with goldfish-like attention spans. In fact, they are often highly considered and slow to commit – some start having strong opinions about their further education choices from the age of 13 or 14. Universities need to consider whether they are reaching the younger teens and what messages they are giving them. The younger they engage, the stronger the affinity they can build with prospective students and the greater the likelihood of conversion. It’s a strategy that will pay off, not this year or next but in the long term.
6. or old
It’s undeniable that many young people are making the decision that student life and debt is not for them and are opting to start their career instead. But what’s also certain is that some will regret this decision in the years to come and want to backtrack. Universities need to make sure they are sending the right messages to attract more mature students and putting the facilities and flexibilities in place to make mature study easy. Further education is not just for the kids.
7. The times they are a-changing
What are the students of tomorrow demanding? Put simply, flexibility and value for money. The three or four-year degree course is still with us but it’s just one option - some will prefer a two or one-year pathway. The age of jump-on, jump-off further education is here with some students wanting to put their studies on hold and come back to them. Some will opt for a blend of campus-based and online study and others will choose to get qualified through their jobs but taking advantage of work-based learning initiatives such as the Apprenticeship Levy.
Furthermore, the little blighters are questioning the true value of their qualifications, as if an understanding of the Hegelian Dialectic and a lofty academic disdain were not enough! They realise they will run up a large debt and want to know what they are paying for. What financial and lifestyle return will they get from the money? How long will it take for the investment to pay off?
8. The lessons for marketing
For marketers to appeal to this generation, we must frame our messages in a way that shows value for money and value to life. We need to demonstrate payback.
This is about more than just career enhancement, we can also highlight the life skills, the personality development, the contacts, networking opportunities and friendships that make higher education so rewarding. But 2019 is a year when we will need to deep delve into the real value we offer students and come up with some compelling answers.