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How to avoid being a digital dinosaur

Parts of the university sector are seriously behind the curve on the use of technology to drive reputation and awareness, says Sarah Shaw

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | September 22, 2016 | Higher education

Universities are the forefront of culture, science and technology. In theory. But when it comes to their online interaction with students and the general public, plenty need to modernise urgently. And to do so, they will need the right people with the right skills.

Right now, parts of the university sector are seriously behind the curve on the use of technology to drive reputation and awareness. Every organisation has a website and the basic online building blocks. But a modern digital presence now needs much more than the basics. Seamlessly integrated digital marketing is extremely rare.

Rightly, resources are primarily focused on delivery. Universities are striving for the best quality modern education, within the most exciting and diverse range of courses – often accompanied by world-class research. But all these efforts rely on the right people. Students and staff decide where to pursue their academic career based on online information and digital conversations.

Reputation depends not just on doing great work but on talking about it too. And as modern marketing grows as a strategic priority for UK institutions, many are realising just how much reputation can power even better work – or leave universities in the digital dark ages.

Know your audience

Perceptions are already changing, whether universities are keeping up or not. Students don’t think and interact in the way they might have in previous decades. Higher fees mean students now shop around and think about their education much more like consumers. This means both potential and existing students expect universities to reach out to them in familiar ways – just like the private sector brands and apps that define their modern lives.

It’s not just about young people either. What about mature students? Or everyone else? Many universities attempt to target the entire general public in their overall outreach strategies. But when the general public looks online, digital outreach is rarely at the cutting edge. It isn’t just young people who expect a modern presence and experience online. We all do.

Like it or not, universities are competing for the best and the most engaged people. Without modern marketing methods, that race to keep up with rivals will become harder. So competition means universities need to get better at shouting from the rooftops. 

An investment case for talent

Most universities do understand the business case for modern marketing. In the past, communications from universities were often held back by a procurement approach to this kind of investment. But now the return on investment is becoming clearer. As students ‘shop around’ more, a university’s bottom line is increasingly connected to the reputation of that institution.

Business schools have always been most aware of reputation – but more ‘mainstream’ organisations focused on undergraduate teaching are now thinking this way too. The challenge is implementation. An accelerating rate of change is making it easier to justify investments in innovative marketing agencies and providers, alongside more budget for the best people to get it done.

When looking for the right marketing executives, universities are on the hunt for both deep understanding of the sector and the ability to deliver in new ways

Society and technology are complementary forces in this shift. Alongside new ways of thinking about university as an investment, technology is making it easier to ‘compare the market’.

Students are naturally tech savvy. So they expect the same from marketing at every stage. Through effective marketing, a university’s communication with young people must span all the stages. Communication is key at every moment, from initial enquiries at the age of just 17, through their life-defining decision of where to study, during their years at university, and into their indefinite term as alumni. Good relations with potentially wealthy donors well into their professional lives can be a hugely lucrative investment for universities, and is emerging as an entire sub-discipline in itself.

Universities are trying to make up for lost time. We have also witnessed some hiring interim marketing directors for shorter contracts, often just three months, to work on specific projects.We regularly see universities looking for an interim Head of Marketing to cover off digital campaigns around particular key moments in the academic year. And increasingly, interim marketing executives are also responsible for reforming much wider and longer-term marketing strategies, with the fresh pair of eyes of an outside expert.

When looking for the right marketing executives, universities are on the hunt for both deep understanding of the sector and the ability to deliver in new ways. Naturally the combination is rare and the resulting talent pool much smaller as a result. Interim marketing directors tend to fill the gap in such a fast-changing and talent-hungry environment.

Mostly it’s about finding the right match, especially culturally. I’ll always remember one prospective interim director of marketing, who was exceptionally well qualified – but in the end so far advanced that their would-be employer felt they just wouldn’t be on the same page. This demonstrates just how far some universities still have to go. But it also shows how decision makers are becoming very aware of that gap, and determined to catch up with other sectors. Bringing in the right experts can make a massive difference on any stage of that journey.

Transformative talent

It’s not as if universities are behind the times in other ways – long embracing technology, and often inventing it too! Online collaboration has become a natural part of academia and teaching, with hugely successful outcomes.

Those online conversations should start before people formally join a university, and carry on long after they leave. So in the future we shouldn’t be surprised if online marketing is led by the education sector. Time will tell which universities lead that charge – but most likely, it will be those institutions that find the right people to take their marketing firmly into the 21st century.

Sarah Shaw is a Partner at Odgers Interim, specialising in the education sector

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