Universities, content and the customer


It was another chat-fuelled YMS19 LDN last month and SMRS team were running the Higher Education marketing stream on the opening morning. Gen Z, analytics, ad tech, customer journeys and content marketing…we and our partners had some big topics served up.

It should come as no surprise that we thought it was very important. Why? Because universities have a problem, we’ll cover a couple in particular.

Going to university is a big deal in many ways: The “am I just doing this because it’s expected?”. The “going to university is just the thing you do”. The being left to manage your studies and balance that with a part time job. The cost. The 21% of students who have considered dropping out of university (Students Union Research Group 2018). The challenges of mental health and wellbeing that sees 45.5% of students citing mental health as their biggest concern day to day (Wonkhe Analysis 2019). BBC Three did a great documentary, Students on the Edge that gives a real eye into this world.

So there’s lots to consider and deal with for that potential student customer.

Then there’s the internet and the attention deficit and content overload it brings. Mobile phones and other smart devices plug us into the internet as our eyes, ears and minds are on call for what feels 24/7.

This has led to a white noise of content where earning attention is the challenge in an age when we’ve never had so many opportunities to reach the target audience. This has led to the rise of adblocking where 47% of digital consumers use adblocking software because they feel ads are too many, too annoying or too intrusive and irrelevant (Global Web Index 2019).

With university marketeers facing these challenges should they rely purely on advertising campaigns? On the stage we said it wasn’t enough.

Content marketing is all about providing consistent, relevant and valuable content to drive profitable customer action. Not any old content, but content that is part of a strategic plan. It’s the answer to helping students make meaningful decisions and become lifelong ambassadors (and customers) to a university. If you tap into the wealth of knowledge, advice and stories at universities then you have content that really adds value in the decision making process. You also get that all important thumb-friendly content that stands out in the busy news feed of your target audiences.

So, what about practical advice on making this happen:

  • Think audience first. Don’t just rely on demographic data. Talk to your students on campus. Talk to open day attendees. Find out what their needs, doubts and motivations are. Think like an editorial team.
  • Don’t rely too much on content that’s focused on the product. That’s the tip of a content marketing iceberg. Create content that informs, inspires and entertains people to making an application.
  • Have a group dedicated to planning and delivering this: a cross-team group of stakeholders who are bought into this thinking. Or use a partner, someone like us, to help direct and support.
  • Plan your content in advance so you can plan your resources in advance and avoid relying too much on time-sapping ad hoc production.
  • Use your students as much as you can. They know your customer the best and have invaluable advice and stories to give.

Who’s doing this well? One of our clients, Solent University, have a content team who have built 52 Things To Do. They were on stage with us (thanks Toby Ward!). It’s a hub of content that provides advice and things to do every week of the year; all to help prospective customers of Solent University make an informed choice without too much of the big sell. The content experience is enough to position Solent University as a natural part of the decision-making process.