The UK Higher Education (HE) sector is stumbling its way through a period of dramatic change.
The cost of a degree is continuing to rise; turning HE into a considerable £27k gamble for the many prospective students who are unsure of what their future will hold and making alternative, more vocational studies, increasingly attractive with each passing year.
The money continues to flow disproportionately to Oxbridge and other big brand institutions, leaving those universities outside of the 'red brick zone' to fight it out amongst themselves.
And, at the same time as all this, new online 'service delivery' techniques and disruptive offerings (such as MOOCS) are causing waves; encouraging many to reassess the value of traditional university brands and their degree offerings.
All of this makes for a confusing picture for the undergraduate of tomorrow: HE's customers.
No-one is suggesting that the HE sector is going anywhere, as the value of campus-based, peer group learning will never be superseded by web-only competitors.
So what's the problem?
The problem is that institutions are facing brand and, more specifically, 'customer experience' difficulties that are leading to a lack of distinguishable differentiators between them and their competitors.
We list these challenges as:
- How can HE organisations become a higher value proposition for prospective students? Can they afford to compete in the 'red brick zone'? If so, how?
- How do HE institutions best differentiate themselves from the mass of competing non-red brick universities? Location? Vocational paths? Facilities? Technology?
- How do they avoid the cattle market of clearing and successfully book more seats ahead of deadline?
- How can HE institutions use technology to transform their offering? Should investment be in course delivery, marketing, student support, or all of the above?
- How can HE make better use of the goodwill of alumni? They are one of your most powerful revenue and marketing assets, but do you know who and where they are?
Show don't tell
The majority of the challenges HE institutions face today are 'experiential.'
A university degree is a three-year investment plan made by inexperienced people who are guided primarily by their budget holders - parents and family - and outside of the 'red brick zone', very few universities carry enough brand cache to sway much influence with this audience.
A university's value proposition is a case of 'show, don't tell': they need to convince prospective students (and their families) that they have the right courses, facilities, student community, vocational opportunities, best lecturers and the most progressive outlook on student welfare.
That's quite a list - particularly if a high proportion of your prospective students don't get the benefit of an open day prior to registration.
How can digital-first thinking help?
Universities deal in complex, rational, big-ticket purchase decisions that confer a sense of 'brand ownership' on the buyer: we want to wear our choice of HE institution with pride and share it with the world.
Digital-first thinking can deliver one crucial benefit here: it can make students feel great about your university.
How? A HE institution needs to consider these questions:
- Do you personalise the key interactions between prospective student and university - especially when first impressions are being made? Are you able to delight your prospects by figuring out what information they want, and giving it to them in the right format?
- Do you learn from your prospective students with each interaction you have with them? Are you able to acquire information on their wants and needs and then tailor this insight to give them a better experience as they move up the decision funnel?
- Do you analyse every touch-point with your students and figure out new ways to turn this information into a set of relationship-building assets that will encourage them to come back to you for more?
- Are you thinking about building a marketing machine that can help you to create and manage great relationships with prospective students - from first contact to registration?
- Do you listen? Every student has an important story to tell. The best learning organisations listen to their customers and take action on the things that really matter - from suggestions about how and when they receive communication to ideas for new learning initiatives; there is no quicker way to kill a relationship than to stop listening.
- Are you providing environments where students can build their own peer group relationships and communities of interest? Whilst studying and after graduation? These key student years are a platform for life, not just for the period of the degree.
- Are you consistent in the student/college relationship? Importantly, a more 'customer experience'-driven relationship can be used to inform every touch-point with your students so that all interactions with the college are personalised and relevant to the need at hand - across web, mobile, social media, support centre or in person.
Here at Squiz, we already work on similar challenges with leading institutions like Oxford University and Middlesex University.
We help them confront these questions and address them gracefully with the goal of helping them to create a new, long-term digital strategy that will generate fresh student and revenue generating opportunities through putting a better digital customer experience at its heart. Contact us today to find out more.