Engaging millennials is all just part of the job description for marketers in the university sector. While brands scratch their heads devising plans that will resonate with 16- to 24-year-olds, higher education marketers need to find ways to appeal to the Gen Z market on a daily basis.
Following the deadline for UCAS applications last week (15 January) university marketing teams are in the process of assessing whether their latest student recruitment campaigns have proved successful, despite having many issues to contend with.
As costs spiral in the current economic climate universities are coming under increasing pressure to justify why students should attend university at all. In 2017 UK and EU students will be charged £9,250 a year to take a degree, rising to between £10,000 and £35,000 for international students.
This combined with the fact the average annual cost of living is close to £12,000, makes the overall cost of a three-year degree for a typical UK undergraduate £73,000.
Cost pressures aside, competition within the higher education sector is fierce. Alongside the 150 universities and higher education providers in the UK vying for the latest intake, universities also need to persuade students to resist the lure of government-backed apprenticeship schemes, which many see as a quicker route into the job market.
The university sector was also rocked by the result of the EU referendum on 23 June, relying as it does on the recruitment of international students and academics. The Brexit vote, combined with the continued stagnation of applications from international students following the tightening of student visa controls in 2011, means the stakes could not be higher.
Universities are developing creative strategies to attract students like never before, branding themselves in a bid to stand out from the crowd and utilising the power of platforms like Snapchat and Instagram to tell compelling stories.
Putting the brand centre stage
Last summer the University of Reading offered its students a once in a lifetime chance to interview the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and dance duo Disclosure, combined with a crash course in real-time content creation.
Thanks to a high profile tie-up with Time Inc’s NME magazine, 12 student ambassadors were chosen to collaborate with the music publication on videos, features and news content during Reading Festival in August 2016.
The plan was twofold. As well as the giving the students the chance to learn new skills in a fast-paced, dynamic environment, the university was able to put itself front and centre in the mind of 80,000 festival goers, many of whom were prospective students.
“We wanted people’s attitudes and awareness of Reading to change. [We wanted to let people know] that we’re not some middle class university stuck in the heart of Berkshire,” explains head of branding and campaigns Karen Smalley.
“It ticked every box, every objective and delivered far and beyond what we ever thought it could. It was a partnership – NME at Reading Festival, powered by the University of Reading. Our students were very much their editorial team and it wasn’t any sort of patronising work shadowing.”
The students were chosen after an extensive recruitment competition, for which they were asked to submit online content and a story idea to be judged by the university and a panel from NME. The team were looking for prolific social media content generators across a range of degrees, with the creativity and ability to match NME’s needs.
To maintain the university’s profile throughout the festival weekend all co-produced content NME pushed out carried University of Reading branding. To tease the collaboration the students released content just before, as well as during the festival. The breadth of material, however, meant the marketing team has assets it can share all year round, such as at Christmas when new acts were announced for Reading Festival 2017.
The students also deliberately found new angles on stories to match with the University of Reading’s particular specialisms in metrology and climate change, as well as for creating material to promote the university’s new school of architecture.
No-one in the university likes to talk about students as consumers, but that’s what they are and this is the second biggest investment they are likely to make in their life.
Karen Smalley, Reading University
The partnership paid off. Content produced during the festival weekend achieved 10.6 million social impressions and over 200,000 organic video views leading to a 7% increase in attendance at University of Reading open days in October 2016 and a 30% rise in applications during clearing in August. The university had to shut its open day registration in 2016 for the first time ever.
While it would be difficult to attribute the increased interest solely to the NME tie up, Smalley believes there has been a clear halo effect.
“What we can say if you get a significant rise when the rest of the sector is falling, what did you do differently that they didn’t do? I can say boldly I think this [partnership] played a significant contributory factor,” she adds.
“While money is being squeezed and lots of our brand awareness advertising has stopped, we had a pot of money. It was a bit of a risk for the university to put that small pot into one thing, but it integrated with what else we were doing across social and the statement we were making.”
Smalley believes that universities are being compelled like never before to think creatively and let go of the perception that marketing involves ‘dumbing down’.
“For too long there has been a little bit of snobbery about how we market universities, as if ‘we’re not a Dove soap, we don’t have to sell ourselves’. But of course you do,” argues Smalley.
“We don’t have to dumb it down, we have to talk about what you’re getting for your money. No-one in the university likes to talk about students as consumers, but that’s what they are and this is the second biggest investment they are likely to make in their life. Let’s talk about how we position ourselves in a very commercial market, to a very savvy group of people and tell our stories through our students.”
Taking an international focus
The vote to leave the European Union in June sent shockwaves through the university sector as one of the biggest employers of international staff and home to a significant proportion of young Europeans.
“The referendum took lots of people by surprise,” recalls University of Sheffield’s head of marketing Carrie Vernon. “We were getting enquiries from foreign students feeling that the UK was shutting down and wasn’t going to be so welcoming, so we thought there was a great need to dispel some of those myths and to ensure the UK continues to be welcoming to international students.”
The university’s response was to reinvigorate its #WeAreInternational campaign, first launched in 2013 in response to international changes in student visas.
To emphasise the university sector’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity post-Brexit the University of Sheffield created a series of socially shareable images and videos telling the stories of international students and staff living, working and studying in the UK. This digital toolkit was then shared via the #WeAreInternational website.
Supported by over 100 organisations, the campaign is also engaged in lobbying the government to remove international student numbers from its net migration figures.
Vernon believes this is a very important message for the university to convey, which goes beyond pure recruitment to the real issues that matter. “It’s not just about telling international students they’re welcome, it’s about the community at Sheffield as we have a lot of global initiatives, as well as staff and students from all over the world.
“We hope this is something that appeals to home students as well and they’ll respond positively to a university that with that ethos,” she adds.
An important part of the #WeAreInternational storytelling element takes place on social media, creating ‘micro content’ to build advocacy among past and prospective students.
The University of Sheffield is a big fan of using student-generated content on platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, working with student micro influencers who, in many cases, are already big social media advocates for the university.
The university’s Instagram account is run in part by Euysuk Simon Kwon, a PhD student specialising in UK and Korean relations. As well as working on big events like graduations, it also created a YouTube series for the University of Sheffield sharing top Instagram photography tips.
The need to feed social media with creative, engaging and authentic content means having a fresh stream of student stories is so important, explains head of digital Steve Thompson at University of Sheffield, who says student-authored content performs extremely well. “Our Snapchat engagement levels are through the roof, you’re talking 80-90% in terms of open rates and completion rate within our stories.”
While Thompson cannot prove social media heavily influences a student’s decision to apply, he says it does create another touchpoint that keeps the university front of mind. “If we can foster our community to tell the story for us and curate that, then I personally think that’s far more powerful than anything we can say,” he adds.
Looking at the wider University of Sheffield brand, Vernon believes telling authentic stories and responding to the issues that matter to people helps universities define what they stand for.
“You could see a range of university campaigns and struggle to tell the difference so messaging is really important. We try to appeal to the students’ future vision of themselves,” she explains.
“Our strategy around undergraduates has been ‘Transform your future’ and we use it in our campaigns. Not just the experience they get when they come here, but what happens around graduate employability, which is where our alumni stories come in.”
Business savvy social
Constantly keeping ahead of the game is crucial in a sector where your core audience are millennials, acknowledges Dawn Vos, head of undergraduate communications at Aston University in Birmingham.
She argues that finding the right stories is essential and in particular ones focused around employability as students fear fierce competition in the job market.
“A degree is almost not enough anymore, you need something additional because there are so many graduates out there and there are less positions for them to go into, so you need something additional on the CV – that real world experience,” says Vos.
“This is why Aston University is introducing more degree apprenticeships into its portfolio. And it will be interesting to see how universities brand and position those degrees moving forward.”
As 75% of Aston students currently go on placement, the aim of the #yoursforthetaking campaign is to explain the value of taking a placement year. Students on placements abroad or with UK businesses share their stories as part of a combined social media and outdoor campaign.
A supporter of the #WeAreInternational campaign, Aston University is responding to the issues in the university sector post-Brexit by telling the stories of its international placements. Vos admits the referendum result raised concerns for current and prospective students alike.
“Aston has a really international outlook, our mission is to be the leading university for business and professions, and that requires us to really think and act globally.
“We thrive as part of an international community. International students bring in a completely different culture to a campus and bring diversity in a number of different ways, so campaigns like this are really essential to Aston.”
A firm believer in empowering students to get as involved on social media as possible from blogging to Snapchat takeovers, Vos’s team utilises social media to break down academic research in a more friendly and human way.
“Social media allows us to be more personal, so a bit of a change from more traditional methods. We can speak to students in a more friendly tone of voice and it also helps us to better position news and research to make it more appealing to the millennial audience,” she explains.
Aston University is also responding to the changing application schedule, which means students can apply at different points across the year. This makes events like clearing a new opportunity to continue the recruitment conversation.
“Students can trade up or hold off on offers, so it’s a completely different market. That’s why you’ll see more universities putting out really strong campaigns around clearing,” says Vos.
“For us it’s a major thing, an opportunity to reinforce that messaging about why Aston is a great place to come.”
With the marketing activity for 2018 starting from the UCAS fairs in February and March onwards, the team at Aston University are already working on the next stage of the #yoursforthetaking campaign, looking outside traditional channels for innovative ways to promote and profile its placement students to a millennial audience.