Freshers’ week is either under way at UK universities or about to be, but their marketing teams are already thinking about next year’s student intake. Once seen as fusty old institutions with little commercial nous, universities are starting to take marketing seriously.
In the past five years the higher education sector has undergone huge upheaval, beginning in 2010 with the Government’s decision to raise maximum tuition fees to £9,000 per year, and continuing this year with the lifting of the cap on the number of students that universities can take.
The net effect of these changes has been to commercialise the sector on a grand scale, putting pressure on universities to enhance their offerings.
As the competition to attract students has risen, so too have students’ own expectations about the experience they receive for the high fees they now pay – even though lecturers now have more students to teach. To help combat these challenges, universities are increasingly seeking to professionalise the role of marketing and build compelling brands that stand out.
Starting from square one
Gemmaine Walsh, who was recruited as director of marketing and communications at the University of Reading in 2012, says one of her biggest priorities has been to give the institution a clear identity. Her appointment was prompted by concerns that the university was unprepared for the impact of new market forces created by the Government’s reforms.
“It wasn’t that Reading had a bad reputation – it just didn’t have one,” explains Walsh. “So we decided to think about a wholesale repositioning of the university.”
Prior to Walsh’s appointment, there was no dedicated marketing function but she now works in an integrated internal team of 100 people covering communications, digital student engagement and recruitment. Last year the university ran its first ever national advertising campaign using bold, challenging imagery and the straplines, ‘We’re Ready’ and ‘Are you Ready?’ as a play on the word ‘Reading’.
“We have to build the same engagement, interest and cut-through as other youth brands.”
Gemmaine Walsh, University of Reading
The university is continuing this theme with a campaign launching this month for the 2016-17 recruitment year. In addition to using outdoor ads, it is making greater use of digital channels by running adverts on the Xbox console and by using programmatic buying to target online ads at its young audience. The university also partnered with Reading Festival for the first time last month to provide it with exclusive access and content from the event.
Last year’s marketing campaign saw the university scoop several awards and achieve a 21% annual increase in applications for the 2015-16 entry year – 10 times the national increase in applications. Walsh argues that, given the rate of change in the sector, Reading cannot afford to stand still when it comes to marketing.
“We’re progressing quite quickly because we have to; we have to get ahead of the game,” she adds. “We’re competing against other youth brands these days. There’s so much noise and we have to build the same engagement, interest and cut-through as other youth brands.”
Brunel University London has also sought to stand out with its marketing in order to appeal to an increasingly discerning generation of student consumers. Last month it launched a multichannel campaign aimed at students going through ‘clearing’, the nationwide service that finds courses for those who miss their expected A-level grades.
Every student who was offered a place at Brunel through clearing was sent an ‘I’m #goingtobrunel’ branded t-shirt and a welcoming postcard, all sealed in a silver envelope.
The idea was to welcome the students into the university community, reassure them that their decision was the right one and encourage social sharing as students used the hashtag to post photographs of themselves in the t-shirts on social media.
Carly Marsh, who became head of marketing at Brunel three months ago, says the response to the initiative was so strong that existing students and alumni also got involved, with many asking for their own t-shirts.
Marsh’s appointment is designed to provide a new, more integrated approach to marketing within the institution. This includes a plan to relaunch the university’s website later this year with a greater focus on functionality and useful content for students.
“There has probably been too much of a reliance on just offering a prospectus or a course brochure,” she says. “Young people want to know what the experience is really like day-to-day so we’ve got to take a step away from product-led marketing and move more towards content marketing.”
Achieving a holistic approach to digital communications has also been at the forefront of Salford University’s marketing strategy. Last year it became a client of Hootsuite: a social media management platform that allows an organisation to coordinate all of its social communications via a central dashboard.
Salford uses the platform to achieve a consistent tone of voice in its marketing, as well as to deal with inbound student queries and communications that increasingly come via social channels.
Justin Clark, senior press officer at Salford, notes that as a consequence of higher tuition fees and rising expectations, students increasingly demand a fast and efficient service on the channels they commonly use. The university also launched a “Tinder-style app” last month to help students going through clearing to find the right course.
“We had the idea to become the first truly social university in the UK,” says Clark. “That means embedding it across not just PR and marketing, but opening it up right across the university.”