Putting digital top of the agenda

University Business Managing Editor Hannah Oakman reports from the Universities UK conference on digital marketing

Putting the words ‘digital’ and ‘innovation’ together in the title of a marketing conference for higher education is sure to intrigue and ensure a good turnout. 

Add to the mix some top speakers from the world of HE and even a guest spot from Mr Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis and you have the makings of an exciting line-up.

It was certainly enough to entice me along to the latest session from Universities UK, a look at how adopting digital strategy into marketing is now more crucial than ever in bolstering a university’s brand and reputation. Today’s students are truly a new breed of tech-savvy customers who, for their large tuition fee outlay, are expecting more than ever from their chosen place of study.

This is where digital innovation comes in. It was certainly a popular topic, with a large crowd gathered at University UK’s (UUK) Woburn House conference centre.

Alistair Jarvis, in charge of communications for the body, welcomed us all as Chair of proceedings. He remarked it was the first time that UUK had hosted an event on digital marketing, and probably about time too. 

Speakers up next included a ‘double act of digital experts’ from industry tech experts JISC. JISC Chief Executive Professor Martyn Harrow stated from the outset that: ‘Digital technology is the most powerful tool yet invented to enhance performance, and the fastest developing.

‘We need to take this very seriously,’ he added, ‘as the digital future is going to be considerably greater than the digital past. Our role now is to turn digital into an opportunity and UK higher education must be at the forefront of international practice.’

Professor Harrow also believed that the challenge was the competitive context, both within the UK and internationally. He questioned whether universities should ‘suit themselves’ or work cooperatively in a digital sense so that everyone benefits, especially in terms of international recruitment.

His colleague Dr Phil Richards added that being open minded in the digital sphere was crucial, allowing for the fact that things may fail but trying anyway. ‘You also need strong leadership to develop the right culture for digital to flourish.’

The day featured two panel debates which are a great idea for generating ideas from the floor and getting to the issues which really matter. The morning panel included a dynamic line-up of panellists, invited along to talk about how digital approaches can strengthen a university’s brand and reputation. Jason Geall, CEO of The Student Room (which has around 1.5m community members) talked about the importance of strong content management and data analysis. 

Tracey Lancaster, Director of Corporate Affairs at Sheffield Hallam University, was a great listen. She referred to the ‘anti-hierarchical invasion’ happening in the digital sphere in universities, where junior and, usually, young members of the team are leading the development but without access to the purse strings. ‘When I was at school, computers were something wheeled out of the cupboard for the boys to play with,’ she recalled referring to the current state-of-play as sometimes like ‘talking to dinosaurs.’

She believed the biggest challenge for everyone in the room was where we would be in three to five years time, questioning whether universities would even have digital marketing teams in the future. 

We were also offered a choice of break-out workshops…unfortunately there was only time for one so I plumped for a talk from Mark Leach, founder of the online HE community Wonkhe. I was curious to hear more about the site, having enjoyed its content on policy and politics in recent years.

Apparently Wonkhe is now aiming to move away from the terms ‘blog’ and ‘blogosphere’, as these phrases make people slightly scared.

‘We refer to them as pieces or articles, it’s more inviting,’ Mark explained. ‘There is a certain nervousness among academics about putting their own voice out there. But people often underestimate their ability to influence the world around them. Universities are a hub of brilliant minds and things happening and we really need to get this message across.’ 

I’d say the most enigmatic talk of the day came from the UK’s most famous personal finance guru (and the most googled man in Britain) Mr Money Saving Expert, Martin Lewis OBE. As you might expect, he was an energetic speaker, full of anecdotes and insights into how he turned an initial money saving tips email to friends into a super brand. Spending just £100 to launch his website, his first e-newsletter went out in February 2003. Last week’s mail shot reached 9.9 million people.

As well as telling his own remarkable story, Martin did try to relate his experiences to the university audience. He believed that higher education had a similar paternalistic role to himself: ‘You need to give your customers, whether prospective students or parents, what they need, as well as what they want,’ he revealed.

One key point I took away from the event is that digital should not operate in a silo within universities but should rather pervade all aspects of higher education. As Tracey Lancaster pointed out: ‘Our digital future is too big to be left to experts alone – it needs to be rolled out and invested in right across our organisations. We need these investments now to ensure our digital security.’

I couldn’t agree more.

For more information visit www.universitiesuk.ac.uk