Some Challenges and Predictions for Higher Education Marketing
Historically, marketing has not been high on the agenda of many Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Universities’ promotional activity has tended to be focused on tactical communications, rather than strategic marketing, and few have felt the need to articulate and promote a definable brand personality and clear proposition, particularly those that typically select rather recruit students.
We all know that universities in the UK are not the same, but that is not how it seems to the outside world. Very few have managed to identify and promote any meaningful differentiation which is likely to resonate with target audiences. Many ‘traditional’ universities, both redbrick and post-war new universities, make very similar claims, based on teaching and research, and offer very similar courses. Post 1992 universities tend to be more oriented towards the world of work, and have a more vocational leaning. The supply side of HE is, therefore, crowded with groups of broadly similar offerings.
This may not have been an issue in the past but the upcoming increase in tuition fees, and ever growing international competition, is directing the spotlight onto marketing as never before. A fundamental change in the attitudes and behaviours of students, parents, and schools, introducing new criteria by which universities will be judged, will result in a much more financial and commercial edge than has historically been the case.
The marketing challenge for institutions will therefore increasingly be to develop a strategy and proposition which creates a meaningful differentiated positioning, and then to promote this consistently to appropriate target audiences
We don’t need a crystal ball to make five predictions about the future of HEI marketing:
1. HEIs will become increasingly divergent and differentiated
As is the case in many markets, HEIs will start to become grouped, between:
- On the one hand, those who have, and are able to justify, a reputation of excellence, are broadly based academically and will continue to attract the most able students
- On the other, those who are, or will become, more niche; specialising with regard to subject areas, types of students, methods of delivery and even length of courses (Northampton has an interesting point of differentiation based around a social enterprise strategy)
t will be those universities that fall in the middle that will be in most danger of lack of saliency and, as a result, declining numbers and commercial viability. In our view, all HEIs need to think clearly about their proposition and how they can differentiate themselves, particularly those that do not currently have a strong rationale. Importantly, this should be addressed from the perspective of target audiences; an ‘outside:in’ rather than ‘inside:out’ approach.
2. Investment will increase significantly
An increase in investment in HE marketing and communications, both regarding staffing and activity, is already evident (Exeter have recently announced a recruitment drive for new marketers). We anticipate that this will become an upsurge in the coming years, as competition for students intensifies in the UK and internationally, and the pool of available students reduces with the onset of high annual fees.
We currently estimate that most HEIs spend between 0.75% and 1.5% of their revenue on ‘marketing’, including staff costs. We anticipate that this will grow by at least 50% over the next 5 years, as more staff are recruited and more budget is allocated to promotional activity.
3. Marketing high-fliers will be attracted to HEIs
Many marketing staff in HEIs are ‘home grown’, with much of their experience from within the sector and relatively little from more marketing-orientated organisations. We anticipate that a number of HEIs will seek to recruit from outside the sector, to access a new and different skill base, take on learnings from other markets and try to move their marketing on to a different level.
4. The use of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) will become widespread
A CRM approach and technology allows HEIs to create and manage relationships with applicants, students and alumni. This is already the practice of some universities (from personal experience, having an 18 year old, Warwick is well advanced) but, typically, treating them as individual groups rather than having the potential for a lifelong relationship. For many Universities, these groups added together are a sizeable but manageable number – between 100,000 and 250,000 individuals.
Our experience across many sectors is that technology is often the first consideration in developing CRM. This tends to lead to over-engineered and overly expensive solutions; far better to spend time creating and agreeing a robust CRM strategy and then fit the technology to the strategy.
5. Measurement of marketing effectiveness and return on investment will become increasingly the norm
A recent Quadrant benchmarking study amongst universities indicated a somewhat sporadic approach to evaluation of marketing and communications spend, with general measurements such as ‘value for money’ and ‘effectiveness of individual activities’ being typically mentioned.
As investment increases, HEIs will need to focus more attention on outcomes and how greater effectiveness and efficiency can be achieved, and where resources are best deployed. Effectiveness measurement should be one of the first questions in a marketing plan. Ask yourselves, if you don’t know how to measure the effect of an activity, should you be doing it?