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Wake-up call to marketing in the digital age

Gerry McGovern more than lived up to the high expectations in his opening keynote address to 360 EUPRIO delegates gathered in Sevilla for the #EUPRIO2018 conference, writes Nic Mitchell

Young people today feel very empowered. They are very connected, sceptical, analytical and cynical and they are not listening to the experts, warned one of the gurus of recent web developments, Gerry McGovern (pictured), who has worked with some of the biggest names in the business, such as Microsoft, Dropbox and IBM.

He delivered a cracking keynote speech at the start of EUPRIO’s 2018 annual conference on ‘The digital transformation: A challenge for communications in Higher Education’in Seville, Spain, with a call to universities to wake-up to the transformation in marketing to students in the digital age –  where sharing all manner of experiences online, including what they really think of your university, is happening around the clock.

Loyalty can easily shift

No longer does the new generation have the same faith and loyalty to established brands, institutions, religious beliefs and politicians. “Their loyalty can easily shift”, said Gerry, who believes this could have serious repercussions for universities relying on their longstanding reputation or brand to attract new talent and funding.

Just look at the way millions of young people in the UK rejected advice from media pundits and established politicians like Tony Blair in last year’s British General Election and boosted Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing Labour Party after most experts said Corbyn faced electoral wipe out.

Or take the thousands of young Irish women and men who flew back to Ireland for the referendum result, overturning anti-abortion laws, despite the strong calls by the Catholic Church and Irish establishment to stick with the ban.

The Internet has given voice to young people to challenge and criticise and be heard.

Amalgamating their opinions

“The technology has allowed them to amalgamate their opinions through social media and elsewhere on the web,” said Gerry.

However despite their closeness to young people, universities are not getting the message that marketing to the new generation has changed.

“Unfortunately, universities are one of the groups of institutions that do not recognise this shift. They are the most conservative and lagging organisations in understanding what is happening with young people.

Authentic student reviews?

“Where are the authentic student reviews on university websites?”

Gerry said his trawl through university websites had found plenty of young smiling faces and students saying how happy they are at this or that university – but where were the student comments on the weaknesses and what it is really like to be on this or that programme?

“I couldn’t find them on university websites, but the reviews are out there. They are just not on your websites,” said Gerry.

Students are talking online about how stressful it is to live in terrible accommodation and about unhelpful university staff – but not on official university sites.

Comparing how businesses have reacted to the very connected and highly sceptical new generation, Gerry contrasted higher education with the likes of the car industry, where Toyota allows customers to give their real experience and comments about a ‘dead car’, and Dell’s website – with its customer reviews criticising the performance of Dell computers.

Need 1 or 2 star reviews, too!

Successful companies like Amazon have proved that a 5-star review has no value if you don’t also have 1 or 2 star reviews, he pointed out.

“No-one believes everything is perfect. People want to see the imperfections, but when you look at many university websites all you see is “We are amazing, we are amazing!”

Gerry also urged universities to make their websites more useful and behave like airline or hotel booking sites.

He said: “Too many university websites are a jungle of ego and a desert of usefulness. Why is it so difficult to find real information about courses and fees on so many university websites?”

He urged EUPRIO delegates to remember their website is not for them, or senior management, but for the people that actually use it, and suggested they start each with a group hug and repeat out loud: “We are not the centre of the universe. The student is.”

Gerry McGovern is the founder and CEO of Customer Carewords and has worked with some of the biggest names in the business, such as Microsoft, Cisco, NetApp, Dropbox and IBM, on delivering a better customer experience. He has also consulted with the European Union and the US, UK, Dutch, Canadian, Norwegian, and Irish governments. He was described as “one of five visionaries who have had a major impact on the development of the Web” by The Irish Times in a review of his latest book, Transform: A rebel’s guide for digital transformation.