HE marketing in a digital age: ‘it’s not so much about the channels that you use, it’s about the questions that you ask’
“My favourite case study is about the University of Nottingham in 2010, before the UK general elections… Almost every article about the election in the significant UK media quoted a University of Nottingham Politics department faculty member”
US higher education marketing expert Michael Stoner talks to Gerrit Bruno Blöss about how universities market themselves in an age of digital technology and social media. Michael Stoner is author of ‘Social Works’, a book about social media marketing in higher education.
Your book features more than two dozen case studies of universities employing social media in their marketing. Which one of those examples is your favourite, and why?
My personal favourite is the one about the University of Nottingham. In 2010, before the general elections in the United Kingdom, they saw an opportunity to position the staff of their Politics department as expert commentators. There are three reasons why that case study is so interesting.
First, none of the things that the University of Nottingham did would be far beyond the scope that an expert PR publisher in 1985 would have done, except for the fact that they used a blog, Twitter, e-mail, and YouTube, which of course did not exist in 1985. A lot of the conceptual framework for the campaign was based on sound PR practice. You identify the people that you need to reach out to and how to reach them, and then you work the channels. It’s different today than in 1985 because we are operating in a different timeframe, but the basic PR principles still hold.
Secondly, they were very careful in identifying the outcomes that they were seeking. They were very SMART in setting goals – measurable, achievable and realistic – and they blew all their goals out of the water. They wanted to involve four Politics department faculty members, and they actually involved eight; they wanted 20 pieces of international coverage and they achieved 466… Almost every article about the election in the significant UK media quoted a University of Nottingham Politics department faculty member.
“If you are thoughtful about the way you construct the campaign, the effects can be even more far-reaching than the original goals”
A third reason is that the campaign had significant impact not only because they achieved their goals – but they demonstrated that if you are thoughtful about the way you construct the campaign, the effects can be even more far-reaching than the original goals. You could say that achieving a 15% bump in applications is significant, and it is, but, in a university environment, having other faculty members look to your department as a success is a really significant achievement that is hard to measure.
This case study shows that it’s not so much about the channels that you use, it’s about the questions that you ask, the needs you have. That’s basic marketing 101.
In some of the case studies, the reason for using social media for marketing was to build the brand while keeping expenses low.
Social media is often about keeping the external spend low. One of my frustrations with higher education and some of our colleagues is that they look at an external spend as a cost, but they don’t view staff time as a cost. To me, as a business person, it’s a huge cost. If I have a developer who is working on an internal project and not working for a client, then that’s a real expense to me, we’re losing income. Just because the higher education institution is booking revenue in a different way than we do it doesn’t mean that staff time shouldn’t be seen as a valuable asset and looked at in the entire picture of costs.
“If I have a developer who is working on an internal project and not working for a client, then that’s a real expense to me”
That’s one of the big challenges when we talk about accounting for these projects: if you’re really using social media effectively, people will be spending time on it. That’s time that they’re not going to be able to do other things. You have to recognise that. If you don’t, the project is not going to be as successful as it otherwise would be. So the advantage of a project like the one at the University of Nottingham is, of course, they had a fixed timeframe; it’s easier to run a project like that because the expenditure of staff time happened in a much shorter timeframe.
How much does a typical US institution spend on marketing?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. I was on a state university’s campus recently and they had a study done that indicated that the institution was spending US$71 million on marketing. But when you looked at the budget that was controlled by the university’s central marketing unit, the spend was about $3 million. What’s the right answer? I can’t really tell you. That institution is having a struggle now how to answer that question. And this kind of fragmented marketing organisation is really typical for universities in the US, but also internationally.
Do you see differences in the approach to social media between Anglo-Saxon countries, where education is expensive for the students, and “cheaper” countries like Germany, where institutions rely more on state funding than tuition fees?
“You want to build buzz around your institution because you want better students… perhaps you want to be the Harvard of Germany”
Many institutions that aren’t very concerned about marketing in terms of recruiting or fundraising are interested in social media because their focus in marketing is to enhance the brand value of the institution, so marketing is focused on the brand. It’s not related to student recruitment or fundraising. That’s something where social media could be very important and an essential tool. You want to build buzz around your institution because you want better students, even though you are as affordable as any other university – but perhaps you want to be the Harvard of Germany.
Gerrit Bruno Blöss is a Valuation & Business Modelling consultant with Ernst & Young in Stockholm. He assists clients in business plans, financing and business valuations, especially in the technology environment.