Personalise to differentiate


By Ed Layt

YMS LDN 2017, Europe’s largest youth marketing conference, wrapped up last week and for the second year running, SMRS were the proud partner of the Higher Education Marketing Stream. The conference is attracting a growing number of HE marketing professionals each year due to its unique proposition of combining education specific sessions with broader youth marketing sessions from big, everyday brands. There are clear gains to be made in finding inspiration from some of the best and most exciting practices occurring in the wider youth marketing sector, and then looking for application in HE – especially in an increasingly competitive market. This year, alongside SMRS featured the likes of Social Chain, Instagram, Google, Coca Cola, UNILAD and Buzzfeed.

Two key themes that stood out at the conference, which I’m going to explore in this blog were:

1. Personalisation

2. Differentiation


The first theme that came out across the entire conference, from all brands, was that of personalisation. The youth marketing sector needs to better understand the audience in order to deliver brand experiences that are personalised and matter. One approach presented by Social Chain was to engage social influencers at a micro level. By using them to share brand messages with a niche but highly appropriate audience group they were delivering far better engagement rates compared to relying on big celebrity influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers.

University brands need to deliver nuanced experiences, across the multitude of devices audiences are using, at the time/pace that suits them. That could mean slowly building up a compelling brand experience over the course of years or helping people get what they want in a matter of weeks. And we must seek to meet our audiences’ needs, not be restricted by a fixed process or communications schedule on a spreadsheet. The ‘micro-influencer’ tactic demonstrated by Social Chain can only work if you understand your audience segments in detail, their interests, preferences, culture, and attitudes. Only then can you shape personalised brand experiences that will meet their needs. So if you think you are delivering personalisation because your emails start with ‘Dear ’, think again.

I was delighted to deliver the campaign marketing masterclass at the conference, and provide insight into developing effective strategies and campaigns for student recruitment. One of the key points of my masterclass, and which also came out in the education stream sessions across the day, was the requirement to better utilise data to deliver a personalised experience to our audiences. I highlighted a quote from Philip Mehl, former Head of EMEA Marketing at HSBC that “Marketing used to be a creative challenge, but it’s a data challenge now”. I like the emphasis on data but good creative is still clearly a challenge, so I’d say storytelling and creating a memory is our challenge through the strategic use of data and audience understanding. Hannah Morrish from The Student Room reinforced this point at the conference, when she explored the need to put people at the heart of your focus when creating compelling campaigns and messages.


Another theme that came out, particularly in the education sessions, was the need to differentiate. I’ve written previously about how university brands can achieve this through content, storytelling and building a compelling brand, but another part of the solution lies in the point above – personalisation.

When seeking a clear point of difference, we are not necessarily competing against every other institution in the sector, but against the institutions our audiences are considering. Take this a step further by understanding the segments that exist across your audiences and the institutions each segment might be considering. We are then able to develop more personalised and differentiated propositions and marketing strategies. We are also able to deliver appropriate and useful communications that meet the individuals’ needs. And in doing so, we can differentiate ourselves from inappropriate mass communications they may be receiving from other institutions.

Not an easy thing to accomplish, but through building our audience understanding and putting the data we hold on them to work, we can deliver more relevant and valuable experiences across every touchpoint.