While preparing for my keynote address at The Association of Colleges’ Annual Digital Engagement and Marketing Conference in December I’ve recently been pondering some of the digital challenges facing education establishments.
Selecting a college and course to study is up there with the most important decisions of our lives. But what has the greatest influence over this decision these days? Do advertising and shiny prospectuses play the same role as in the past, or are we more susceptible to outside influences like what current students say and the daily chatter on social networking sites?
Today, anyone under the age of 18 belongs to a tribe that sociologists refer to as Generation Z. These young people have never lived in a world without computers. They are a highly-connected, technically savvy, and hyper-informed generation. These are the main constituents of this year’s student intake; a collective of purebred digital natives, who demand flexibility and choice in all aspects of their lives.
So when the time comes to select a college for further education, how do these young people decide? And will their parents or carers also turn to the same sources for advice?
For parents supporting a college selection decision, conventional guidance likely still holds considerable influence. Open days, brochures and course catalogues, will all play their part in guiding the decision. But so too will online channels like the college website and other sites that feature high in search engine results pages. This means review sites, college comparison tools, Ofsted reports, press articles, Wikipedia, and student forums are all likely to play a role in the choices parents make.
For the students, search engine results are also likely to dominate their research, and particularly those sites that render well on mobile devices. But so too will a largely hidden world of online chatter with peers. And it’s this loose, free-flowing banter that will likely have the greatest impact on each student’s final personal preferences, almost irrespective of the official literature a college may publish.
The task then for colleges looking to attract the best students and enhance their reputation, is to understand the full breadth of online and offline channels that are being used to inform decisions today, and to ensure that appropriate content can be found there. And then, by bringing together well-worn marketing techniques (like college prospectus and open days) with emerging digital channels (like chat forums and review sites), education establishments should have a better chance of persuading both parents and prospective students that their college is the right choice.
This means printed prospectuses that feel alive with up-to-date content, filled with the real voices of students speaking their minds. It calls for Open Days that encourage real-time feedback, opinion sharing and reviews. And teaching staff who embrace emerging digital channels and add their perspectives to the online debate.
Done well, the end results should feel accessible to all generations, yet be as authentic and trustworthy as the most socially-driven content on the web today.
It’s a daunting task, but one that every college must undertake. In the intense battle for relevance and standout, those who embrace the future today will be best placed to survive the longest.
I’ll be discussing this and crisis management in my talk in December. And we’ll also be looking at the future of digital marketing and some of the emerging techniques that innovative college marketers will be experimenting with very soon.
Want to learn more? Join me at The AoC Digital Engagement and Marketing Conference 2013 in London on 4th December to explore this topic further. Registration is now open on the AoC site. I hope to see you there.