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End of the one-way communication street!

groningen uni

Leading figures from the world of international higher education gathered at Groningen University in the Netherlands for the first ‘Student of the Future’ conference organised by Dutch-based study choice platform, StudyPortals. Here NIC MITCHELL looks at key issues raised for marketing and communication practitioners.

The digital age means an end of the one-way messaging from universities to the next generation of students.

Tony Lee from Study Group

Tony Lee from Study Group

So says Tony Lee, Global Digital Marketing Director of Study Group, which enrols tens of thousands of international students for university education abroad every year.

‘Push’ marketing doesn’t work

Speaking at ‘The Student of the Future’ conference at the University of Groningen (pictured in the main photograph) on April 5, he said: “Too many universities still think marketing is all about them and don’t realise that ‘push’ marketing doesn’t work anymore.”

Lee, who has two decades of experience promoting and marketing to youth audiences, including driving the digital strategy for INTO University Partnerships from 2009 – 2015, said universities may think international marketing is all about getting so many students from countries X or Y, but most have a very poor conversion.

Quoting from research from StudyPortals, he said it was estimated that as little as one student could be enrolled from raising awareness to 8,000 people.

Lack of data

“Universities take a course that is very niche and market it to the entire world. Too much effort is directed to awareness raising because we don’t have the data to target.”

He also criticised universities for relying on email and advertising to try to reach potential students.

“Students get thousands of emails and they are certainly not readying yours”, he said.

“As for retargeting students who have already enquired or made an application, then we have only ourselves to blame if they block us.”

Growth of ad blocking

Lee admitted the dramatic growth of global ad blocking is one of the things that keeps him awake at night and said the only way to avoid that happening to your university was by creating good interesting content that the students of the future will be keen to see and read.

“It doesn’t need to expensive”, he said, citing the example of a budget video showing the joy of an low income family when their graduate son paid off their mortgage after graduating and getting a good job.

“That kind of thing happens every day, but too much time is spent on producing images of happy smiling students and messages about welcoming international students.

Missing authentic content

“We’re missing the authentic content.”

Lee looked forward to the day when students could make one application to universities both at home and abroad from their mobile phones rather than have to fill in a PDF file and email it as an attachment.

He also urged universities to collaborate rather than compete against each other all the time.

Instead of simply ‘throwing rejected applicants in the bin,’ he argued it would be so much better if universities suggested alternatives that might be more suited to unsuccessful applicants.

Neil Kemp from the UK

Neil Kemp from the UK

Earlier international higher education consultant Neil Kemp, former director of Education UK and the Science and Technology divisions of the British Council, looked at what’s next in international education?

Women might chose something different

He said more women were entering higher education even in countries where this might come as a surprise, such as Kazakhstan, and ‘they might well choose to study something different to men’.

The private sector was also likely to rapidly grow as universities ‘contract out’ activities like foundation or English-language programmes and providing student accommodation.

More transnational education was expected with partnerships, franchising and overseas branch campuses, he said. “Half the 16,000 new Chinese students starting at British universities transfer from articulation agreements, whereby they study the first year in China before doing later years at a UK university,” he said.

Students start by comparing countries

As for marketing and communications, Kemp said research by i-graduate, which tracks and benchmarks international student experiences, had found that 84% start their search for studying abroad options by comparing different countries, not different universities.

“They want to know if they can get a job after studying in say the Netherlands and changes to national policy towards immigration can have a big impact”, said Kemp.

He urged universities entering the market for internationally mobile students to be ‘passionate’ about what they were offering and be prepared ‘to talk person-to-person’ in the digital world and not to jump from one country to another in the search for students.

“If you can’t say why you are different, they won’t come to you”, he warned.

Making choice transparent

Carmen Neghina from StudyPortals

Carmen Neghina from StudyPortals

Conference organiser Carmen Neghina, education intelligence specialist at StudyPortals, said the event had focused minds on the marketing and communication challenges of global higher education.

“We are working to make education choice transparent globally so that every student who wants to study abroad has all the information they need to make the best choice about where and what to study.

“That means moving students beyond only looking at the ‘top of mind’ universities and helping them to make the best choice based on what’s important for them personally: whether they prefer small or large classes or studying a specific sub-discipline, their financial budget, and whether they want a more applied or theoretical programme.

Going beyond glossy brochures

“With 9 out of 10 students turning to the Internet to research where to study, they want reliable information that goes beyond the glossy brochures and university prospectus.”

“Digital marketing is a great way to customise communication to a variety of students, but universities must be patient as the study choice process for international students takes on average one and a half years.

“It is also important to be sensitive to students’ need for relevant and timely communication. That’s why we only send information to students who actively subscribe for our updates.”

* Main photo: University of Groningen, the Netherlands  

+ Also see my report ‘New directions – Keeping up with students of the future’ in University World News, 7 April 2016, for a look at the changing shape of international higher education.