A digital home for digital natives

How do you effectively communicate to over 40,000 students living in 134 properties across 29 cities – most born in the nineties?

It’s arguably a more interesting question for providers of student accommodation than those in other accommodation sectors – hoteliers, for example – thanks to the specific age, needs and expectations of the average student.

In the years before they arrive with Unite, students have been adopting and adapting new media and social media technologies in a way which would amaze previous generations. By the time they come through the doors of their new home, many of these new habits are well in place – and it becomes Campuslife and Unite’s job to know what they are.

(You may well be asking yourself at this point: “What interest does Unite have in all of this? What does it benefit the student?” These are crucial questions, which we will return to.)

So how do Unite and Campuslife learn how current student media interaction works? 

Well… partly they can see it happening. Unite hosts a range of city-based and national Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, provides the World of Unite Facebook app for new students and the My Unite app for a range of service functions.

ABOVE: Unite’s Student Life Hub homepage

In terms of what students want to see, Unite’s student-facing material gets twice the ‘dwell time’ (time spent reading the page) if the content has been written to entertain as well as inform. And far from speaking a baffling new digital language, this generation of social media users is the most analysed in history. That analysis is widely available.

A recent and seemingly irreversible trend is social media – such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – taking over from search engines (primarily Google) in being the medium online content is found and consumed. In other words: students are sharing and consuming content via social media more as time goes on.

‘The preferred content formats are short, snappy and often list-based (so-called ‘listicles’). Buzzfeed and Mashable are big names in this area’

This year, Facebook has overtaken YouTube in terms of volume – there are now over 4 billion videos played on Zuckerberg’s social network every day. The preferred content formats are short, snappy and often list-based (so-called ‘listicles’). Buzzfeed and Mashable are big names in this area.

This shift is largely due to the move away from desktop and towards mobile (which includes tablets like the iPad). In 2014, mobile internet users surpassed desktop internet users for the first time, and the gap grows every day. In comparison to desktop, mobile technology favours consuming and sharing written or edited media as opposed to creating it.

Unite’s student-facing website has seen mobile visitors increase by around 700% since 2013. Unite needed something highly compatible with mobile technology, given to hosting entertaining, short-format and highly shareable material.

So to the key question: why does a student accommodation provider want to communicate to its students in this way? Why did it partner with Campuslife?

When students arrive they bring with them a range of experiences, expectations and requirements specific to that cohort. We’ve just touched upon how they choose to communicate online. In a sense all students are in a transitional phase; but given the average age of Unite’s intake many are still on a path to full, independent adulthood.

Unite wants to offer the benefits of its Home for Success business purpose, Lifeskills and educational opportunities inside its walls. On an elementary level some students will benefit from advice on how to use a laundry, recycle or take out bins. On another, some may find value in becoming NUS Green Impact auditors or accessing other extracurricular training or careers advice.

‘All three levels of messaging – practical, proactive and pastoral – require an effective communications strategy. This will include a range of platforms’

But a vital ancillary to all of this must be recognition that many students are straightforwardly vulnerable. Away, for the first time, from their supporting and enabling structures – the comfort of home – it’s all too common for student mental health issues to magnify or become first apparent. NUS research has suggested one in five students will suffer a mental health issue during the course of their university career. For students who need these services, Unite is in their home and it should offer the most supportive environment possible.

All three levels of messaging – practical, proactive and pastoral – require an effective communications strategy. This will include a range of platforms.

Student Life Hub

Unite chose to partner with Leeds-based student communications firm Campuslife to create the solution to the problem of multiple messages to multiple audiences. One of Campuslife’s products is a web platform called Browzer, which is designed with the first purpose of helping higher education institutions communicate with their students. Indeed, some 18 universities use it for precisely this purpose. Browzer simultaneously shares content across Facebook, Twitter, digital signage screens, and email.

ABOVE: Mobile compatibility allows students to access content on any device

It can also be accessed on a purpose-built app. This ensures the information has maximum visibility to the student community, and they can access the content in the space and format which suits them. Unite has worked closely with Campuslife to adapt that model to its particular needs. Re-branded to Unite and titled the ‘Student Life Hub’, the web interface became Unite’s ‘home site’ portal for students living within its properties in time for the 2015–16 academic year.

There are a range of advantages to this model. Most obviously, content and information is available to students in a highly shareable format which they can access as they choose, or see as a homepage when they log in.

‘The partnership between Unite and Campuslife reflects a shared understanding that student accommodation is about much more than simply providing a room’

The content is tailored to Unite’s students, with the potential to be specific to each of Unite’s 29 cities. It also avoids the need to contact students separately on a range of issues – not all of which will be relevant to all students.

Home for Success

The partnership between Unite and Campuslife reflects a shared understanding that student accommodation is about much more than simply providing a room; it is about providing a Home for Success. Students now entering higher education have ever more complex demands and needs. This new venture shows how the accommodation sector is meeting them in new and innovative ways.

W: www.unite-students.com

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