With competition to attract students now tougher than ever, the challenge for many colleges is how to differentiate themselves. So, what can the FE sector learn from the commercial world when it comes to marketing and attracting students? How can college marketing teams incorporate ideas from fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), higher education and retail into their campaigns to boost recruitment?
When is a student not a student?
In FE there is often little to choose between your college and the one down the road when you consider that course content, teaching practice and facilities are broadly similar. This lack of differentiation is an issue familiar to the world of FMCG products and consumer durables. Joe Chetcuti says, "students are learners not consumers. However, when they are not your student yet, they are consumers. They are consumers because they have a choice. And if they have a choice; they may not choose you.”
So, how do you make them choose you?
Be relevant: embrace technology and reach them on their own platforms; go where your students go by using the most relevant channel with the most appropriate creative and message. By reaching them in their most familiar space, you’re setting the scene that your college focuses on the individual, keeping as many students as possible on the track to completing, achieving and leaving with a positive experience of your college.
Have a sense of place: destination marketing thrives on place. Define what makes your college stand out from the others and harness the powerful bond between people and place. Is it the lure of the big city vs. small town accessibility vs. countryside freedoms? Is it the excellent links with the local university? Or is it the social scene, the sporting facilities or the great links to employers in the area? But don’t forget to focus on the now as well as the next – how does it feel to be a student at your college? That is at the forefront of your prospective students’ minds. It’s not always about the destination, make sure you promote the journey too.
Collaboration is the key: who do teenagers listen to most? Most parents would agree it’s not them. It’s their friends. Yes, your students are your biggest marketing asset. By influencing the influencers your college can use these mouth pieces as your marketing channel and you’ve got a direct line to your audience. Engage with them to discover ideas that they think could be used to recruit your next intake. But focus on the now as well as the next. They chose your college for a reason so find out what that was and build on this message. Five-star reviews go a long way; just look at the success of TripAdvisor…
Be strategic: by setting key objectives and campaign parameters at board level, you can be sure you’re delivering and measuring agreed activity in accordance with the plan from the outset. But make sure you don’t measure everything. Be clever and agile and only measure what is relevant and will have an impact. Money is not always the limiter. The more concentrated focus of a campaign, the greater the outcomes. As Cailean Carvalho added, “marketing and data are the new power couple. Audit: keep, develop, delete.”
Differentiate, differentiate, differentiate: don’t keep doing the same thing as every other college in the area, and don’t keep doing the same thing as you have always done. Students are very commercially aware; they know when they are being marketed and sold to and will turn off at that point. This is where careful use of influencer marketing and collaboration can save the day. Marketing to students is no longer about telling them what you do. It’s now about how your college presents itself and how your interactions make prospective students feel.
Working out what works
Most colleges will be doing an element of this to a greater or lesser extent, it’s now about reviewing what is working, canning what is not and assessing the wide, open future of your college’s marketing plans… I’ll see you all over on snapchat with a floral head-dress, and leave the last word to Joe Chetcuti, “stand up for something and do it differently to the competition. Do this consistently over time with signature activity and in an authentic way to build your brand an unassailable competitive advantage.”
Thanks to Joe Chetcuti and Cailean Carvalho for their contribution to this topic at the UNIT-e National Conference.