By James Tout on 2 May 2019
Higher education marketing – where does PR fit in?
I had the great pleasure of attending the Higher Education Marketing Conference in London this week and it got me thinking: where does PR fit into the marketing mix universities have at their disposal?
But after mulling it over subsequently, I can’t help but think I was asking myself the wrong question. PR doesn’t need to “fit in” because the principles behind good PR should permeate across everything. Let me explain:
The big picture
A strong message coming across from all of the senior marketers presenting was the critical importance of using data (qualitative and quantitative) to understand perceptions and patterns of behaviour among prospective students. The macro trends are pretty startling: according to Sarah Barr Miller, Head of Insight at UCAS, the temporary dip in the number of 18-year-olds in the UK population is creating a ‘buyers’ market’, with 23% of British students now receiving unconditional offers from at least one institution (up from just 1% in 2013), and even prestigious universities dropping their average entry requirements.
At the same time, while the UK remains an attractive place to study for both EU and non-EU students (134,000 applied in 2018), the UK (and the US, to an even greater degree) have lost market share for international students to the likes of Canada, Australia and China over the past couple of decades. Nevertheless, the number of international students (especially non-EU) is expected to grow further in coming years.
Furthermore, around 15% of students are now accepted through clearing, especially international students. And many UK students use the annual horse-trade to switch onto courses that better suit their needs (for example, being closer to home).
Learning how to respond to this changing reality was a strong focus of the day and my tweets below summarise some of the key points.
– Greater maturity of multichannel digital campaigns with opportunities for efficiencies
– Automation of processes and diverting resources to other areas.
– All have to become more agile and upskill – old ways will only take us so far
Fascinating insights at @HEMarketing19
— James Tout (@JamesTout) April 30, 2019
Authenticity is key
One word that kept cropping up was “authenticity”. And I was struck by the presentation from Emma Leech, Director of Marketing and Advancement at Loughborough University and current President of the CIPR. PR, she said, was often overlooked as part of the HE marketing mix and yet provided a rich seam of stories that could aid recruitment.
Sceptics might say that this comment is at odds with the hyper-digitalised world of modern student recruitment marketing. Students nowadays, we’re told, are making their decisions on the strength of Amazon-style reviews, Instagram posts from students with model good-looks or tweets about flashy events taking place on campus. Keeping-it-real advocacy is king; scripted promotion is most definitely out.
Without wanting to turn this blog into a discussion about the collapse of traditional distinctions between marketing and PR, I think it’s fair to say that the lines that once divided the camps are blurring to the point of invisibility. And to my mind, that means that the techniques once seen as the preserve of PR/comms should be seen as integral to successful marketing campaigns.
So for instance, while a case study of a student who overcame disadvantage to study medicine at a top university is, fundamentally, a story which can be developed and shaped using PR (or even journalistic) principles, the ways that content can be finessed, chopped up, delivered and shared to audiences now are almost limitless. At heart, though, we’re still using those gold-dust stories to communicate key messages about the type of person who can thrive at our institutions and the difference a particular university can make to lives. Viewed that way, ‘authentic advocacy’ is just as much a PR concern as a marketing one, instrumental as it is to informing audience perceptions of a university’s values.
The untapped power of research
Something that didn’t really feature at all was the role of university research in marketing, and perhaps this is where the old barriers still persist. Research outputs – despite being vital to university funding – are still placed firmly in the ‘corporate reputation’ bracket: of interest to HE funders and policymakers, but tangential to student recruitment.
But I can’t help but think that marketing departments are missing a trick if they don’t mine the core ‘product’ of most universities – research – as a recruitment tool. Because if we, rightly, believe that today’s students are savvy when selecting their university, surely we’re doing them a disservice if we think their interest in a university starts and ends with the state of the accommodation, or the drinks choice at the student bar? I may be oversimplifying, but there’s an undeniable trend towards marketing the experiential aspects of university.
In fact, the evidence suggests that, with tuition fees at an all-time high, many students are sizing up universities at least partly based on the reputational ‘clout’ of institutions, which in the long term is rooted in quality research. So knowing that they’ve been to an institution doing amazing work (like inventing superbug-killing stained glass, for example) acts as an additional validation, a kite-mark of sorts, that can tip the balance on an offer acceptance when added to all of the other micro-factors that influence decision making.
I came away from the conference brimming with ideas. But my key take-away was the centrality of PR to successful, modern content marketing. The smart universities will be the ones that tear down the artificial barriers that still exist between comms and marketing and leverage their intrinsic symbiosis for truly successful campaigns.