Lessons in marketing magic

Kevin O’Malley finds out how schools and universities can utilise digital tools to promote their institutions

As competition between institutions for students increases, the growing importance of marketing cannot be overstated. It’s unsurprising that more and more educational bodies are prioritising advertising. But in the modern day, traditional methods are overshadowed by new means of communication.

“We now live in a digital world,” says George Hughes of Small Films, a UK-based online video content company. “If you don’t do some form of digital marketing, you’re cutting yourself out of a large swathe of the market.” Given the omnipresence of the internet in modern day life and communication, it’s hard to disagree with him. But what benefits does digital marketing offer over previous methods?

According to Emma Procter, digital marketing manager, Claire Kay, senior digital media officer and Teresa Townley, campaign planning manager, of the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan)’s digital marketing team: “By allowing you to target the exact audience you want to reach by selecting specific demographics such as age, gender, location, interests and behaviours, it enables a much more sophisticated process, guaranteeing messages are being consumed by the right people.”

That accuracy in turn allows for tailored content; since the target market is so precise, the advertising itself can be much more specific in how it attracts them. Just by selecting the right social media website, you can choose a demographic. For parents, Facebook is the best venue, whereas targeting students (who obviously skew younger) suggests using Instagram.

You have to harvest the data you get from each campaign so you understand, and then you have to optimise. George Hughes, Small Films

As an example, Hughes refers to an academy that allows for boarding. “You don’t just make a general video that’s about the school, you make a video that’s specifically talking about foreign students, you interview their peers, and suddenly it’s almost like you’re having a direct conversation.” This precision carries through to the feedback that digital media provides. Outlining clear costs from the outset based on KPIs – from video views, website clicks or event registrations – makes the reporting of results far more accurate.

Of course, referring to digital marketing as a singular discipline is misleading; everything from email-based marketing and communications, to video and display advertising, can be considered part of the field. Currently, video is seen as the most popular method available. “Last year, 60% of all UK advertising spend was on digital,” says Hughes. “The increased spend on video was 40%. It’s just the time of video.” Part of this ascendency can be traced back to increased technological efficiency; where once internet ads might be a single static image, now, because of fast internet speeds, feeds can support active video. The benefits to display marketing are obvious, especially considering how engaging audiences find video: “It has the highest click-through rates if you’re running adverts,” adds Hughes.

This is not to say that video advertising is without any issues whatsoever. Interactive, engaging content must be the priority. In this, digital marketing faces many of the same issues as more traditional avenues of advertising. “Quite a lot of people have rushed to digital and forgotten about their brand and school principles,” says Mark Dalton of QS Designs, the education-focused arm of Quantock Designs.

As competition between institutions for students increases, the growing importance of marketing cannot be overstated

UCLan’s marketing team agree: “As a university it’s also integral that every single output reflects our brand, ethos and values.” Any disconnect between digital marketing and the overall marketing of an institution can complicate an already difficult and important aspect of day-to-day business. Given the amplifying effect of the internet, any difference of tone can quickly spread to the target market and drive away prospective students.

The new methods offered by technology must be seen therefore as a sharper, more precise way of engaging with core principles; when you can target a demographic quite so specifically, and receive quite such clear and effective feedback, the results can be notably amplified.

“[Digital marketing] is one part,” says Dalton. “Like a prospectus, like doing an event, like doing adverts, it’s another tool to expand your reach. It’s an important part of the marketing mix, but not the be-all and end-all. Brand, brand character, consistency, etc, are key.”

More unique difficulties can also present themselves. The specificity that digital marketing offers demands just as much specificity in application. “You can’t be haphazard,” says Hughes. “It’s easy to waste quite a lot of time and resources by going into it without a proper plan. I think that the biggest challenge is making sure you’ve got the right supplier and a clear understanding of what you’re trying to achieve.” It’s also easy to fall into the trap of failing to learn from past experiences: “It’s all about collecting data. You have to harvest the data you get from each campaign so you understand, and then you have to optimise.” That specificity can make it difficult to master without outside guidance.


Related feature: How digital money tools can improve student retention


To add to the difficulty are a host of other issues. According to the team at UCLan: “In addition to obvious security and reputational risks, particularly in relation to social media, there are a wide range of factors to consider. This includes making sure information is accessible on mobile as well as desktop, ensuring adverts are personalised to the point of being relevant to the audience, or making sure website landing pages contain the information the user is looking for, and load quickly.”

Despite this, the usefulness of digital marketing is obvious. The specificity and amplification that the discipline provides is too powerful to ignore. A specific example of its use can be seen in its intersection with alumni. It’s long been a truism in marketing circles that the most powerful form of advertising is word of mouth. Past pupils and their parents, therefore, can serve as some of the most useful marketing vectors that an institution has. With social media, this has proved truer than ever before.

“We seek to use both our current students and alumni to act as ambassadors or influencers online to tell true, authentic stories of their experiences at UCLan,” says the UCLan team. “While this can’t always be managed, we can provide guidance in relation to the production of blogs or vlogs for example. In addition to paid social media targeting, we utilise different platforms to target parent and alumni stakeholders with relevant messaging; for example, content shared on LinkedIn is often popular with our alumni.”

Quite a lot of people have rushed to digital and forgotten about their brand and school principles. Mark Dalton, QS Designs

Furthermore, the power of alumni, current students, and their families can maximise existing methods of advertising. “I think we’re seeing a huge growth in alumni communication. They are brand ambassadors, and they’re part of the legacy and story behind the school,” says Dalton. Hughes agrees; “When students engage actively, it’s fun, for a start, but it does get the message out. People are more likely to share it and like it if it’s a pupil posting something than if it’s the science teacher.”

The end result is simple. Digital marketing is a fundamentally important aspect of any educational body’s attempts to recruit students. As the market grows more and more competitive, it could prove vital to a school or university continuing to operate. Future developments in the field must be watched with interest, but the core principles of advertising must hold true; brand identity, clarity and consistency of message have to be maintained.