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Why are we still uncomfortable with university marketing?

by Rachel Killian | Aug 13, 2019 | Strategy & Transformation

In the last 2 weeks, I’ve taken screenshots of around 40 university adverts for Clearing that have appeared in my Facebook feed. I’m a parent of an 18-year old, so expect to be targeted with digital adverts. Most of us will also have been exposed to radio, outdoor or even print ads in the last few weeks, alongside the hundreds of thousands of pounds that will be spent on Google to reach those who are actively searching for Clearing places.

There is still a sense though, that the higher education sector isn’t entirely comfortable with this type of marketing. It seems to me that there are three possible reasons:

  1. Because marketing is still quite ‘new’ within a university structure and doesn’t have the support of all professional and academic colleagues. According to Marketing Week’s Career & Salary Survey 2017, those marketing professionals working in education are the least positive about their colleagues’ views of marketing, with 14% suggesting marketing is not understood at all. So no matter the strength of the external marketing function, there is still a job to be done in selling the ‘how and why’ of marketing to its internal customers.
  2. Because it feels like blatant self-promotion, a bit too sales-focused, pushy and crude. The Guardian’s recent article following their FOI request on marketing spend and the size of marketing teams epitomised this perfectly; we frown upon investment in something that seems to be only acting in self-interest. But our applicants are making big investments and they need to be able to identify and choose a university that is right for them. By being distinctive and authentic about what they are, what they do and how they do it, they can help applicants to make a better choice.
  3. Because, quite frankly, the standard of marketing isn’t always as good as it might be. Some of the Clearing adverts that have been shown to me are evidence of that; they show very little understanding of who I am (I’m the parent, not the applicant), what subjects might be relevant to me (e.g. automotive engineering, when I’ve most definitely not shown an interest in that anywhere online – I guarantee), and headlines that are dull, badly written and say nothing. Unfortunately, our higher education marketeers are badly paid compared to other sectors (Marketing Week’s Career & Salary Survey 2019), we do almost little to attract the best creative and digital talent into the sector and marketing budgets are often insufficient (see point 1).

So instead of criticising the wave of Clearing adverts chasing after me and other parents this week, let’s agree that if our universities are to thrive, reach new markets, compete effectively and support applicants to make one of the most important investment decisions of their life, then we need to embrace marketing and brand as being a key part in what our universities do. At the same time, let’s recognise marketing as the profession that it is within our universities, give internal marketing the importance it deserves, make strong cases to attract the best marketing and digital talent into the sector and resource it properly so that other sectors might just – one day – look to higher education to learn about marketing best practice.

Rachel Killian is a Senior Consultant for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education marketing and student recruitment