A digital transformation

UB spoke to Daniel Prendergast, Head of Digital at Sheffield Hallam University, to find out more about the latest direction for digital marketing

Q: What are the key criteria for a successful digital marketing policy for today’s universities?

As with any university, the marketing strategy at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) is ultimately focused on achieving the goals set out in the overarching corporate strategy. Generally speaking, this could be about raising the profile of the University, enhancing the student experience or excelling in innovation. Our ambitions are broadly focused on expanding the horizons for our students, whilst also delivering excellent outcomes and undertaking high-impact research with an applied emphasis.

This translates into a marketing strategy that aims to develop student recruitment and engagement, build the University’s corporate reputation and research profile; and maximise business relationships. To this end, the digital marketing policy is focused on enabling the creation of a user-centric environment where information is easily accessible, and that also gives us the ability to deliver specific personalised experiences across all channels. This requires the unification of the online experience to enhance the SHU community of staff, students and partners, whilst nurturing an online culture that is more collaborative and trusting with shared values. 

We’re also aiming to raise the University’s profile, present an authoritative and clear message about our research and teaching strengths, and be reflective of who we are and what we do for others.

Q: How can you attract new students and maintain alumni successfully through your digital marketing?

Due largely to historical reasons, there are numerous challenges that internal digital marketing teams have to overcome within the university context.

Traditionally, a university web presence has provided a one-way communication model – sometimes described as ‘Web 1.0’. Content is published – lots of it – and people sift their way through it and then act on it – usually offline. This under-exploits the opportunity the web offers and risks an institution being bypassed by established competitors or new entrants who offer, or are developing, more modern web presences.

Content is often also produced in silos across a large university, which can lack cohesion and potentially lead to the creation of a fragmented user experience. It can also lead to inefficiency, through duplication of effort, as similar content is created and maintained in different areas across a great number of loosely-connected web properties. Furthermore, customer service and customer support can often be limited by time (office hours only) and channel (usually non-digital, offline channels, such as telephone or face-to-face). There are many other issues such as usability, discoverability, poor information integrity, not to mention a whole range of complex legacy system issues that underpin a university’s web presence. 

To deliver a 21st-century digital experience capable of successfully attracting new students, a university marketing department needs to be able to successfully manage content; offer personalisation; connect and engage with its community through mobile and social channels, and  provide joined-up services to students, staff, businesses, researchers and other partners over the web. Arriving at this destination takes a concerted effort, with a need to challenge old ways of working, teaching and collaborating. 

Q: Which platforms have proved most popular at Sheffield Hallam?  

One great example is SHU’s high-profile sponsorship of this summer’s Tour de France. July 2014 saw the world’s greatest cycle race come to Yorkshire. Hosting the Grand Depart was a once-in-a-generation opportunity for our region, and we are proud to have played a significant role in its success, as the first-ever educational partner.

To promote the campaign, we created the Grand Depart website (www.shu.ac.uk/tourdefrance/) to reflect on our involvement and provide multi-media memories from the day. Social media engagement was absolutely critical to SHU’s campaign and you can take a look at how we promoted our official Grand Depart events, activities and competitions on social media on our Storify page: https://storify.com/sheffhallamuni/le-grand-depart.  

As a University, we reached out to an incredible number of people – 3,500 pupils in 53 schools and colleges, thousands of members of the public, and millions of spectators cheering our vehicles along the route. Our partnership with the Tour also provided an opportunity for the whole of the Sheffield Hallam community to get involved, providing unique placements and volunteering experiences for our students along with fundraising activities for charity. This was an unprecedented project for the University and has certainly created a blueprint for further cross-university activity in the future.

Q: Where is the technology headed and how can digital marketing professionals in universities keep up?

The existence of many thousands of universities around the world has been anchored on their physicality: you have to ‘go’ to university to meet the subject matter experts who can share their knowledge with you and access the resources required to support that learning – labs and libraries. The internet is undermining this as universities increasingly look to invest in digital learning communities, embedding emerging technologies into the curriculum, improving digital literacy, forging new ways of partnering with business to realise commercial ideas, seeking new collaborations with other universities and centres of expertise, exploring low-cost ways of delivering high-quality education in the face of increasingly higher costs and levels of student debt.

It’s clear that major universities, with globally known brands and comparatively deep pockets can develop online education that is of a high enough calibre, sufficiently assessed, and with an all-round good user experience. This presents a challenge to universities that are regional centres of excellence, which may become threatened with disintermediation, as market share is swallowed up by bigger players. Clearly this is something that universities are exploring. A recent analysis of Harvard and MIT MOOCs found that 72% of the students came from outside the USA1.

There are other examples of new entrants coming into the education technology sector, many of which have the potential to shake things up. Accordingly, it’s important for digital marketing professionals not to get too caught up in the next ‘big thing’, as often, the technology is simply the educational vehicle that facilitates experimentation, which in itself is important.

However, what should not be lost sight of is that a chief feature of the internet is that it collapses the distance barrier to accessing knowledge. Whilst this can only have a disruptive effect on the provision of higher education, it also offers greater flexibility to the ‘consumer’. Over time, multiple variations on the blended learning option might well be the learner experience of the future, enabling learners to still maintain an element of ‘human contact’ as part of their learning, but able to access a significant proportion online as and when it’s convenient to them. What we shouldn’t underestimate is the potential impact on universities to operate differently and at different times of the day to how they still operate today.

Q: Do you agree that digital marketing teams may soon be a thing of the past as ‘digital’ pervades all departments?  

The web is predicated on user choice. Users decide when, where and how they access what you provide, and more importantly, if they access them at all. To meet their needs and expectations, universities have to change their digital thinking to move on from being a publisher of information to being an engaged digital participant, providing fully digital services. 

Therefore each new service you introduce and each service that you decide to redesign needs to be explored as a ‘digital’ service. This does not imply ‘digital only’ – though there are some services it may be possible to deliver this way. Telephony (including text), face-to-face, posters, signage and post can all offer unique features to the mix. Instead of digital being an add-on or supplement to a primarily face-to-face or telephony delivered service, you reverse this: you think how to deliver the service digitally first, and then consider how this might need to be supplemented to meet special conditions or offer a richer experience.  

This goes under various names. The UK Government strategy for the public sector calls it ‘digital by default’. In the private sector, it is sometimes styled ‘digital first’ or, more broadly, ‘digital transformation’. This requires a culture change throughout, essentially putting the customer front and centre, with an ‘outside-in’ approach. To achieve this is no mean feat; it relies on the identification of your internal digital champions, and empowering them to collaborate effectively with faculties and other central departments. I’m not sure if it’s possible, or even advisable, to apply a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. How you set up, structure and mobilise your internal expertise is somewhat secondary to your goals and to a certain extent depends on the nature of the external environment. These are long-term programmes that take a pragmatic incremental approach. They aim to take advantage of digital opportunities and protect against digital threats. So to a certain extent, the ultimate goal is to embed a digital mind-set throughout your organisation, not just in one area.

The other point related to embracing digital by default is the human impact. The issue isn’t the accessibility or the power of the technology, but the buy-in of staff at all levels to think and behave differently; to move the web from being either a massive library of information, or a ‘Wild West’, where everyone feels they have equal right to publish, to a ‘benign dictatorship’, where there are freedoms to publish WITHIN a relatively strict governance structure. The real challenge is how do you ensure that your governance does not quash innovation, which does not conform to any hierarchy.