At the start of 2020 HE faced challenges, with students behaving more like ‘buyers’, clearing made easier, and an increasingly complex media space. The pandemic, and Brexit have only compounded matters. Despite this, the HE sector reacted impressively and initial worries around student numbers didn’t materialise as expected. The outlook for 2021 is uncertain, however there are opportunities for those that can adapt.
There are still challenges ahead
At least in the short-term, costs are increasing and budgets are under pressure. Due to Covid and Brexit there are financial risks ahead, with falling International/EU students and rise in undergraduate home student deferrals.
Overall revenue across the HE sector is expected to fall by £700M with a 16% reduction in liquidity (WonkHE, 2020) which will invariably impact marketing spend. On the supply side there has also been an intensification in content marketing and social media, with paid promotion on Facebook and Google seeing increased competition and higher costs. For students, both fees and costs of living are still a major factor, so value for money is a key consideration.
The student recruitment demographic is changing
Student profiles and the education marketplace are undergoing a wider change. The international cohort has shifted, meaning universities will have to adapt quickly to these changes. Covid brings short-term pressures attracting students, and Brexit longer-term challenges with the end of Erasmus. With the fall in EU students, it’s uncertain if the Turing programme will provide new opportunities globally.
At home, a recent UCAS survey found that 23% of students want to study closer to home, continuing a longer-term trend. UK government strategy has also continued rebalancing apprenticeships against traditional degrees. Despite this, in the next decade “demand for HE is expected to skyrocket” (dataHE, 2020) with growing numbers of people the second generation of their family to attend university. This is on top of student numbers almost doubling since 1992 (ONS, 2016).
So how can universities adapt and take advantage?
Despite the challenges, there are opportunities for those institutions that are flexible and adapt fast. A key area of this will be about how you use digital marketing and media to engage current and potential students.
Digital is evolving and a driver for student decision making.
A more complex and fractured media landscape requires a creative digital strategy to engage. With increased channels online and campuses closed, traditional touch points with prospective students have been more difficult and meant a radical change in focus. The complexity of media will only continue to increase so it is key to stay flexible, adaptable and up to date with new channels. Don’t be afraid to test out new areas and approaches. Create fresh content that gives some depth, and doesn’t shy away from more challenging areas.
Don’t be afraid to test out new areas and approaches. Create fresh content that doesn’t shy away from challenging areas.
Ensure you are getting maximum value from the content you create.
Given this increasingly fractured media landscape, you need to adapt how you design and distribute content. There are many ways to drive more value from the content you create. For example, an article written for the website or series of quotes taken from past students could easily be turned into short social videos or image galleries. You should also be planning multi-format from the outset of a project.
Implement a technique called ‘Video First’, where content is captured first in video format. Video is a rich format and can be easily turned into a range of other types of media from pictures, to audio and text. For example, filming an interview will lead to a range of video assets. Transcriptions to be made into articles or blog posts, pictures for websites and social media, and even form the basis of white papers.
Measure, track and iterate.
It’s surprising how many institutions don’t effectively measure and track what they do in terms of their marketing. The internet has been built on this very principle. The reason companies like Amazon and Google became what they are is their focus on testing and iterating to success. Without this you’ll be scrambling in the dark, with no real understanding of why things happened, and wasting money which could be used more effectively. Each piece of media should have clear goals, and its impact measurable.
Your students are your best advocates, empower them to create content.
In terms of content, there has been a growth of student-generated information in decision making. University is more than just a degree, it’s an experience. Peers are increasingly seen as more trusted than traditional top-down marketing. Your students are active on social and if you give them the tools they can not only reach areas you can’t, but offer a more authentic voice. Most universities now have ‘influencer networks’ within their campus’. If you don’t you need to be building this today. The key is to give them the support they need, as well as checks and balances to ensure the content created is of a high quality.
Many universities have ‘influencer networks’ within their campus’, if you don’t you need to be building this today.
Although there may be some difficult times ahead in the coming months, with a solid network of student influencers, better planning of your media to ensure it provides value, and a structured way to measure and iterate, you could be building a solid system to drive more engagement and numbers,