University could be your Facebook friend for life

Imagine having to “buy” your best customers. This could soon be the case for higher education providers, warns Sir Steve Smith, the outgoing chairman of industry body Universities UK.

Smith suggested last weekend that the brightest students will be like “gold dust” in an era where universities are charging tuition fees of up to £9000 a year. As universities need the smartest minds to ensure future research funding, Smith says they might have to consider “buying” these people with “an incredibly strong series of incentives”.

This week’s cover story explains how important marketers will be for higher education in helping create the brands and campaigns that will draw in both revenues and the brightest students. For the first time, many higher education institutions are being forced to differentiate themselves with sophisticated unique selling points.

Some are promoting their location as a desirable place to live or work, while others are focusing on the value for money offered by shorter degree courses.

Whatever promotional techniques they are adopting, universities are recruiting more marketers than ever to boost their profiles among potential students. And they are looking to carry out some innovative strategies in a fast-changing environment. So study this area carefully the education sector could be the smartest job move you make.

Our columnist Mark Ritson, an associate professor at various universities himself, also hopes to teach you a few lessons this week, with the second part of his argument about social media campaigns.

He claims that marketers are doing themselves a disservice by refusing to be rigorous about measuring the results of social media. He says that the numbers rarely stack up for social media campaigns and, more times than not, the cash would have been better spent on traditional options such as TV and radio.

I understand why the excitement over social media annoys Ritson so much. But the lesson I’ve taken from observing the marketing sector for many years is that enthusiasm always outstrips measurement and sense in the early days of any discipline. During the dotcom era, I lost count of the times I was told that this would be the end for the traditional bricks-and-mortar high street or the banks or TV.

But it didn’t happen like that. People eventually realised that the internet was just one channel among many others that needed to be skilfully woven together with the others to work best. Nothing operates in isolation. There is no one killer marketing channel.

So I predict that in the next few years we will see social media take its place as simply part of the marketing mix like any other. We will no longer see social media as a standalone channel in itself but part of the bigger marketing toolkit. But, as they say, it’s always easier to learn these things with hindsight..

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