Understanding Media Consumption - The surprising truth about prospective student’s media habits (1/3)


Ed Layt, Head of Consultancy, SMRS


Late last year, I was thinking about how prospective undergraduates really use media to make decisions. We have comprehensive campaign performance data at SMRS which shows that engagement with media changes constantly, it’s why continued monitoring and optimisation of campaigns is so important. But the data doesn’t tell us why people are using the channels they do and what their true purpose or intent is.

We’ve also undertaken a number of syndicated research projects over the last 3 years and all have revealed changing applicant behaviours, priorities and perceptions around UK HE – so how does this impact media usage, if at all?

Enter Audience Measurement Platforms (AMPs). Global media consumption surveys like TGI and GWI provide some fantastic insight into media usage and the relationship between digital and off-line channels. But it still misses the mark when considering my original question, in the context of UK Higher Education. The data AMPs hold isn’t representative of the prospective UK undergraduate student audience, nor does it shed light on some of the key channel’s students are turning to – things like UCAS and The Student Room. So, all things considered, there was only one option to provide an answer to my question and that was to conduct our own research.

A few months later and we have completed the first wave of what will be a longitudinal research project that will provide unrivalled insight to support campaign strategy and planning decisions for UK HE providers. We call it SMRS MediaMapper and I unveiled it alongside Jonathan Kirk at the recent HashtagHigherEdUK conference in Newcastle. We’ll also be talking about it at the forthcoming YMS conference in London.

To look at some of the key data, register to download our whitepaper, or read on for a few highlights.


So what have we done?

We’ve spoken to a representative group of UK 16-21 year olds who have enquired, applied or are currently studying at University about their media usage habits – both in their free time, but also specifically when they’re researching University options.

What makes this so exciting is that beyond the headlines of the research findings, we have also built a tool that enables dissection of the data to understand nuances in usage between different groups. So, whether you’re looking to target audiences from deprived backgrounds in South East England, high tariff students interested in Computing, or those who live in the Midlands and are interested in Russell Group universities, we can understand how audiences are behaving and design our campaigns to respond accordingly.


Onto some findings…

Here are a few key headlines, but I’ll be sharing more in some follow up articles over the coming weeks…

Most time online is spent on Social media (83%), Music streaming (57%) and Video streaming (47%). Unsurprisingly TikTok dominates time spent on social channels, with Snapchat and Instagram following.

Although these social channels are preferred in individuals free time, when it comes to researching university options, different media usage behaviours can be observed with YouTube being preferred over Snapchat and Instagram, although TikTok still holds its first-place position of preference.

This position only falters when asking respondents what social channels they notice university advertising on – where TikTok falls to second place and Instagram tops the table. Perhaps a reflection of how much University advertising is on Instagram, or perhaps it’s the format that makes it more obvious to users? Interestingly, Facebook makes it to 4th place for respondents noticing advertising, even though only 6% chose it as a top platform used in their free time.

Now, I wasn’t surprised by TikTok’s dominance, and I’m sure you won’t be either. But what is surprising here are the changes in media preferences when different tasks are being performed. We also explored some more nuanced tasks such as media preference when researching about university location vs reputation vs course information. Again, differences emerged such as Google search being preferred for verifying reputation, University websites being preferred for discovery and YouTube being preferred for course information.


The answer…

So back to my original question… How do prospective undergraduates really use media to make decisions? There is no quick and simple answer. It’s complex, nuanced and highly individualised, rooted in the convergence of personal preferences, social influences, and evolving digital landscapes.

Which means… there’s plenty more to share on this topic. Register to receive the white paper now and keep an eye out for the next blog in this series for more insight.