Boosting student engagement in 2021: Part one Matthew Johnson - Head of Marketing by Matthew Johnson, Head of Marketing

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It almost goes without saying that 2020 was a year of unprecedented challenges for most industries. COVID-19 and Brexit in particular forced companies and service providers of all kinds to look for new ways to engage with their audiences.

Educational establishments are no different with the challenges of attracting and retaining students and high class teaching staff. So what can admissions and marketing teams do in this tricky environment?

For the purpose of this five-part series we’ll focus on Further and Higher Education (F&HE) institutions in the UK, though many of the principals apply to all. 

Firstly, let’s look at the key challenges that need to be addressed in part one of five. Or you can download the full guide here.

How to Market Your Brand so That It Resonates With Students

1. A busy “marketplace”

In 2018-19 the Office for Students stated that there were 414 Higher Education providers in the UK, of which there were 106 universities registered in England (with many more in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). 

That equates to 2.38 million students comprising 1.8 million undergraduate students and 590,000 postgraduate students. 1.9 million are from the UK, 140,000 are from the EU and 340,000 are from non EU countries. There are 284 Further Education colleges in the UK.

Consider then, not only the number of students covered in these stats, but also the number 16-18 year olds and mature students who will be looking for a place to further their study from the UK and beyond. 

Then also the number of quality teachers and lecturers required to fulfill the needs of such a high number of institutions. 

Now think about how you might attract and engage these audiences with their differing wants, needs, goals, and demographic, socio-economic, geographic and cultural backgrounds. The word “challenge” feels like a bit of an understatement. 

2. Media saturation 

When looking for data on how many marketing messages these individuals receive each day, the numbers vary wildly. It’s also difficult to pin down a representative sample group, not least because of the diversity aforementioned.

Some studies estimate the average person (whoever that is) saw up to 5,000 ads per day back in 2007, while others speculate 6,000 to 10,000 today. And that only refers to adverts. There are of course many other channels for marketing messages.

I personally find these stats a little hard to believe but the bottom line is in little doubt – those looking for a place at college or university are being targeted from all angles. 

Further evidence of the battleground for hearts and minds can be found in the disproportionate amount that universities spend on marketing. In 2018, the University of Central Lancashire spent £3.4 million, the University of West England spent £3m and Middlesex University, £2.6million. Standing out from the crowd is harder now than ever. 

3. Being attractive, engaging and delightful

As mentioned in previous posts, there are three main stages to cover when communicating with any new audience; attract, engage and delight

Assuming you have managed to cut through the noise when attracting prospective students or tutors, the challenge of how to keep them engaged remains. 

With the vast majority of these audiences being either Generation Z or Millenials, F&HE establishments have a complex set of challenges to address. 

According to Forbes, Millennials are characterised as being socially conscious, technology based, curious, independent, tolerant, optimistic, ethical, nomadic, health conscious, financially conscious with a high motivation to learn. 

Some of Generation Z’s characteristics include authenticity as a value, they are content producers and consumers, have a preference for independence and they generally prefer cool products over cool experiences. 

As you can see from these characteristics, there are many possibilities for meaningful connection, so the challenge of how to communicate with authenticity and engender long term engagement remains. 

4. Catering for a remote community

Once part of an education community, the pandemic has added another layer of complexity: remoteness. 

Investment in technology has increased with remote learning becoming the norm. This provides for a continued engagement in learning, but does not necessarily address social needs. 

The 2020, UK Engagement Survey by Advance HE found time spent on sports and societies decreased from 56% prior to lock down to 46% during lockdown. Working for pay increased from 53% to 66%. Time spent volunteering increased from 27% to 29% and time spent caring almost doubled (from 27% to 45%). 

Students are increasingly time poor so an effective communications and community engagement strategy should account for this.

In spite of this, one encouraging stat that the survey found was that students were less likely to consider leaving education (down from 27.4% in 2019 to 26.5% in 2020). 

This all comes at a time when there are widespread talks of funding cuts and even descending spending patterns in private sector schools

“With a challenging environment for marketers and admissions teams to work in, seeing a greater return on investment in campaigns in 2021 is paramount. Every pound or cent spent on marketing is under close scrutiny – both internally and in the media.”

A student marketer studying for exams online

5. Personalisation and segmentation.

Personalisation is pivotal to the success of any marketing campaign in 2021. Central to this is developing and maintaining accurate “student personas”.

These are fictional representations of “ideal” students, represented by their varying wants and needs. The aim is to build a series of profiles that allow you to communicate with them as individuals but without having to have a separate strategy for every single interaction.

The better researched these student types, the more likely they are to engage with your messaging and the more targeted you can be in your marketing efforts, boosting ROI. 

These personas should be underpinned by a marketing-focused Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system to track your digital touchpoints, stay on top of the conversations and monitor the student’s journey with you. 

Whilst your existing and prospective students and teaching staff aren’t “customers” as such, they are all looking to interact with you in some way, and these interactions need to be stored and monitored to better understand the priorities of your audience. 

There is of course the fact that students are spending money – either their parents’ or their own – on course fees and living expenses. So the principals of engagement remain the same. 

Having evaluated the market for such systems, I recommend HubSpot. Not only is it built with personalised marketing at its core, but it is also possible to link it to popular Learning Management Systems (like Moodle). It also has an API (Application Programming Interface) which means it’s possible to build custom integrations with other applications you might use. 

We can help with this, so get in touch if you want to know more. 

6. Authenticity and relevance.

A strong driver for Millennials and Gen Z is authenticity. If all your marketing messaging serves to do is get “bums on seats”, recipients are likely to sense this. 

Communications should be tailored towards the true benefits of studying or working with you beyond just joining the courses you have on offer. 

Think about the less explicit benefits, or to use marketing speak, the value adds. Some differentiators might be a broad range of clubs and societies, volunteering opportunities, distance learning provision, part time or short courses, opportunities in the local community, research facilities, bursaries, the local economy, students union activity, the location… the list goes on.  

Adam, who works in Contra’s Marketing team, reflects on his decision making process for choosing the right University:

“I went to Bournemouth University and what attracted me – besides the fact that it was only one of four universities that offered my preferred course – was the location, the clubs and societies (as a drummer I was particularly interested in the Gigging Society), and even the branding. 

When looking for media course specialists, I was surprised that only Bournemouth University seemed to have adopted contemporary branding. Bournemouth’s public image was one of a sleepy town to retire to, yet the marketing material highlighted things like the local student discount scheme and many opportunities for part time employment. There was also a strong student voice which I cover in greater depth later in the series.”

7. Re-evaluation of the marketing mix.

The seven Ps of the marketing mix are Product (or service), Price, Place, Promotion, Physical evidence, People and Partners. This well established planning framework helps when creating and executing marketing campaigns. 

With many education institutions having long established histories, the temptation is to “go with what you know”, or more to the point “go with what you think you know”. To create a truly authentic message, it’s important to ensure that what you say about yourself is amplified throughout the marketing mix, but in particular the physical evidence and people

It’s all very well saying you offer the best course in digital marketing in the world but what proof are you offering and what do people doing it say about you?  

Understanding what drives student behavior and then proving your college or university matches this can be done in a host of different ways across all communication channels. 

8. User intent and analysis.

The main metrics to look at when evaluating the success of your website are fairly well established. Keeping bounce rates low, increasing visitor sessions (both new and returning visitors), increasing session durations and clicks on your calls to action are the main things you should consider, but you should also look for more subtle signs of intent. 

These could include the number of high-value pages viewed, engagement in site chat, following you on social media channels, engagement in social media conversations, downloading a piece of content and many more.  These behaviours can all be set up as “goals” in Google Analytics and other analytics tools. 

Tools within HubSpot for example allow you to assign positive or negative values to specific user behaviour and score your leads. This enables you to automate the process of identifying cold and hot leads. 

If someone views three high-value pages on your website, has a high open rate of an email or regularly interacts with you on social media, you can assign them with positive scores to quantify the strength of your digital relationship. You can then filter and sort your contacts based on their lead score and carve out custom campaigns.

A look at HubSpot for Education marketers

Combine this with your student personas and other data you capture in your CRM, and you will have a truly powerful tool for understanding and communicating with your different audiences. 

You can also use attribution models to help understand return on investment and manage your marketing budget spend. 

Conclusion.

Personalisation is nothing new to marketing communications practice. What I’m advocating here is a need for it to be more granular and more intelligent. If your college or university isn’t already using a CRM tool (or the one you’re using feels a little clunky or lacking the required functionality), then now is the time to consider it.

Whilst the initial outlay can feel daunting, the return on investment in the tracking of your marketing efforts – and then tweaking to maximise success – will ensure that you optimise every future penny and minute spent.

For the next in this series will look in more detail about how you can boost student engagement on your website specifically.

Download our free guide on boosting student engagement in 2021 and beyond.

a free guide on boosting student engagement using digital marketing
Matthew Johnson - Head of Marketing by Matthew Johnson, Head of Marketing
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