What happens next?


By Dan Beynon

Let’s make sure the research, data and insights we deliver move from our desktops and dashboards and really make an impact on the work we do every day.

We can all be guilty of occasionally overcomplicating the challenge faced by our organisations in delivering successful marketing and communications strategies. The last 18 months certainly hasn’t made the job we do any easier but it has forced us to adapt and adopt more quickly than ever, to innovate in finding new ways to engage with people.

The fundamentals remain the same
Delivering a valuable and relevant message to the right person at the most helpful moment for that individual. To do this effectively we need to achieve much greater understanding of our many and disparate potential audiences as well as pay much closer attention to what it is about our own organisations that will resonate with different groups when we are looking to build meaningful, long term connections. Whether delivering campaigns or understanding customers and markets the greatest advantage that we can generate comes from the insights we discover about our own institutions, audiences and markets.

Directing change
My experience comes predominantly from working with universities and the UK Higher Education sector specifically. Over the last year it has become very clear that there is a big challenge for providers in making the right decisions about what type of research will deliver the most value. And having commissioned the research how to ensure that the insights gathered actually deliver positive change and make an impact every day on achieving key strategic objectives. In many cases these impacts will go beyond marketing and communications performance but also deliver change for the better more broadly across an organisation.

Connecting the dots
Those insights might come from qualitative research that highlights personal preferences and motivations and an individual’s alignment to an organisation’s brand or purpose. They might come through great technology and reveal media habits and content and channel preferences. They might be derived from data analysis and provide accurate indications of an individual’s propensity to enrol at an institution or the likelihood that someone might need additional pastoral support to stay the course. They might support decisions around portfolio, pricing and incentives. But to be truly valuable all this information must do more than point out a challenge or an opportunity. It needs to come with clear plans as to how it can be used to deliver improvements. Otherwise we risk some great work sitting on desktops across the sector and not helping deliver positive change.

A strategic outlook
After a period in 2020 and early 2021 when universities quite understandably focused on what was right in front of them (the student and learning experience and whether or not people will choose to go to university at all) recent months have seen providers able to lift their heads up and focus on longer term strategic objectives once again. This shift has meant that the research and consultancy teams at SMRS have been delivering some very important projects for both the sector as a whole but also for individual universities.

Creating sector level change
Our sector-wide projects have included research into the UK Online Distance Learning market of which the 2nd iteration will go live in January 2022 (contact us if your institution wants to be a part of the project this year). The ODL project has had an immediate impact producing clear areas of recommendation based on the unique level of insight combining views of the market, institutions and learners. Katherine Bull, Head of Insight and Strategic Planning at University of London said “The outputs have been really helpful….and also gave fresh, unexpected insights which will be very useful when formulating our strategies.” And Roger Dickinson, Dean of Flexible and Distance Learning at University of Leicester added “The report provided a lot of pointers that will help us to improve our competitiveness, raise the quality of our programmes, and has brought new thinking to the ways we can deliver our content, recruit our students and enhance the student experience.”

By the end of 2021 we will have delivered 3 pieces of syndicated research partnering with the Universities Marketing Forum looking at the UG and PGT applicant experience during the pandemic. These UMF projects have so far involved more than 40 universities and over 40,000 individual responses. The projects have given participant institutions clear evidence on which to base decision making around issues like the prospectus and how best to combine the role of virtual events and the website and you can read more on how universities are using that research here.

Creating provider level change
In terms of the provider specific research that we are delivering the last 6 months has seen us very busy with a number of portfolio review projects with universities from all parts of the sector. Some of these projects are driven by an established collective will to make real change and some by a desire to help grow greater understanding with internal stakeholders around future challenges and opportunities.

The customer experience was a focus for some universities pre pandemic and has become much more important over the last 18 months. Delivering institutional improvements across the whole customer journey has not only helped make improve audience connections but also provided marketing teams at universities with a really effective way to engage their whole institution with this crucial area not just their own department.

We’ve delivered Persona projects that provide universities with detailed, insight-led personas that are utilised every day through CRM systems that trigger very specific communication plans. The way City University have utilised these insights is a great example of how this audience specific research can deliver really valuable improvements to communications across the whole institution. It shows how to turn personas from pictures on posters into valuable every day reference points at the heart of an provider’s CRM strategy.

Our work on Propensity Modelling is another example of research that is used by the universities that we have delivered it for every day. Whether that’s developing marketing strategies, delivering campaigns or planning outreach and communications. Through identifying the right audience segments and understanding their likelihood to enrol and developing more detailed knowledge of what drives decision making, providers can prioritise activity and deliver growth in student numbers from specific regions and in specific subject areas. It was great to see this work celebrated by our peers with a Gold Heist Award for best use of data and insight in 2021.

We’re also involved in a number of projects relating to brand that are helping institutions understand their brand health and reputation. This work makes it easier to address reputation gaps whether with those a university are seeking to engage or those that wield influence as opinion-shapers. All of this is underpinned by joined-up quantitative and qualitative research and social performance metrics enabling us to match actual perceptions against how providers want to be regarded and allow providers to effectively measure changes in perception over time.

And then there’s the more ad hoc questions that we are asked all the time. This might be about apprenticeships, scholarships and incentives, commercial opportunities and organisational structure.

I wanted to share the type of research projects that we are delivering not just because I am very proud of our team and the work they do every day and not just because I want us to do more of this work. I want to encourage people stop and think when they are commissioning research projects. It’s so important to consider what will happen after the insights are delivered, after the presentation is finished or the dashboard is delivered. Because what happens next is where the real positive change occurs.