Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Engaging University Brand Advocates

In a service-led industry, such as higher education, customer referrals have a very important role to play in enhancing the reputation and value added aspects of the brand. Therefore, with this in mind, it is important that we do what we can to encourage positive feedback from students and staff alike.

Of course, in order to do this, first and foremost we need to be doing the basics right: provision of a quality service that adds value to the end user, all delivered with a good dose of customer care. Failure to do this will ultimately result in poor customer satisfaction and the rest will be history. However, if you get this right, then you’re likely to achieve high levels of customer satisfaction and be in a prime position to strategize on how to turn this into a means to market your course.

In marketing circles, this is often referred to as referral marketing or word of mouth. It’s a cost effective means to promoting your course(s) to new group of prospects.  And, whilst this can often happen spontaneously, you can influence this by adopting appropriate strategies.

The Importance of Referrals

So, what are the benefits of adopting your students as brand advocates for the university? Here are my top reasons for engaging your students in the marketing of your course(s).

1. Student Experience

Like it or not, you may have all the expertise required to answer all the questions of a prospective student, but you still won’t be able to give an accurate account of the student experience on your course. Naturally, you may have a good idea of what the student experience is like, but only your current students can give a true representation of the actual experience. You are not the consumer of your course; you are the provider.

2. Trustworthy Source

Whatever it is we are buying, we’ve all been faced with the same conundrum. You’ve done your research, considered your options and now you are down to your final few choices. Yet you still can’t decide! It can often be difficult choosing one product over another, especially when they are all making very similar claims. So, what do you do? Well, there’s a good chance you turn to your family and friends to ask for their opinion. And I expect you also look to customer reviews for ratification of those claims.  Remember, your students are also your customers and student prospects are likely to look at those students as a credible source of information.

3. Risk Elimination

People don’t like risk and this is particularly true when a big investment is being made. Referring particular queries to a current student can be a means for gaining an implied endorsement. Of course, we can’t completely eliminate perceptions of risk, but a customer referral will help.

4. Cost Effective

Word of mouth is often referred to as the best form of marketing, simply because of its credibility and its cost effectiveness. In a higher education environment such as ours, more often than not, students live and breathe the university experience, meaning it can be very easy indeed to find students that want to actively promote their university to their peers.

How to Engage with Brand Advocates?

So we know we want our students to talk about us and endorse us, but how do we encourage this to happen?

The traditional way of doing this, which has more than stood the test of time, is to get your current students involved in Open Days and Applicant Days. A good number of departments around the University are already doing this and the value of this shouldn’t be underestimated. The chance for a prospective student to speak face-to-face with a current student at a recruitment event enables them to engage with your service in a way that is far more difficult to achieve online or over the phone. It’s a way of making a real connection to your prospects without the constraints of technology.

But how do you reach out to those prospects unable to attend a university recruitment event? And how can this be achieved in a creative and engaging way? Here are a few ideas for you…

1. Blogs and Vlogs

You probably think your students are all busy studying, but they’re not! It doesn’t matter where they are, armed with their smart phone or tablet, there is seldom a time when they are not logged on. But, beyond their usual social media rounds, what is it they’re all doing? For some of them, the answer is blogging. And some even find the time to vlog!

A culture now exists where it is common practice to write, read, film and share blogs about your interests and experiences. And, if our students are blogging, it’s more than likely they’re talking about us, making reference to their experiences at University.

Some universities have already begun to recognise this and are now posting student blogs on their corporate websites. With a bit of forethought, this is something that could also be implemented at Chester within the web pages of any faculty or department. And, if done well, this would help give prospective students a real and credible taste of the University experience.

There are, of course, a vast number of student blogs online, but here are a couple examples of blogs, picked out at random, where the university has used them to showcase their student experience.

Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, provide a selection of student blogs to read within a section of their website called ‘Life on the Hill’. If you’re wondering what life on the hill is like, you can follow their student bloggers and ‘get an uncut, uncensored glimpse… real students… real stories… real life.’

Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, introduce ‘Life at Flagler’ by means of video blogs, where a couple of their students narrate their latest goings-on.

Whilst the production values of video blogs can often be a little rough around the edges, in being so, they can often stand out as being more sincere and authentic.

Whether or not you like these particular examples isn’t important. However, if you like the concept, speak to your students and speak to us. If you decide to showcase some of your students’ blogs, try to pick blogs that are engaging and bear some relevance to their experience at Chester. Ensure these blogs don’t stagnate, use your social media networks to help raise awareness and make sure you tell prospective students about them.

If you’d rather have your students write an exclusive one-off blog for you, speak to MRA about hosting this on the University’s corporate blog pages.

2. Social Media, Twitter and Student Takeovers

The use of social media as a means to connect with your peers is now almost second nature to many of us. It’s given us all a public platform to share with the world exactly how we feel at any particular moment in time. But, how can we use social media as a means to connect our students with prospective students? The answer: rotation curation.

Whilst this might sound like just more marketing jargon, it’s an idea that is growing in popularity. If you haven’t heard of rotation curation, it all started back in December 2011 when the Swedish Institute and VisitSweden decided that their official twitter account, @Sweden, would be taken over by a different Swede each week. By allowing Sweden’s citizens to become the curators of Sweden, this allowed followers to gain an insight into the diversity of Sweden’s culture, meaning the brand was subsequently enhanced.

So, if it works for a country, can it work for a university? After all, universities are also extremely diverse and complex brands; perhaps difficult to portray with only the corporate perspective on university life?

It’s a bold idea putting your students in charge of your twitter account and something that we, as a University, are yet to try out. And whilst takeovers are not yet common practice with UK universities, there are a few examples of universities overseas, such as the University of Central Missouri, which have experimented with this idea.

By allowing you students to take over your twitter account, you would essentially be allowing your followers to gain a real insight into your brand. Branding is not your logo, it’s not your visual identity and it’s not your product. Branding is all about story. It’s the student experience. And the experiences of your students will tell the real story of your brand.

Of course, the key to this being worthwhile and successful is ensuring that those it is targeted at are aware that a takeover is imminent. Therefore, if you like this concept, speak to MRA about how this can be promoted to prospects and applicants alike.

3. The Student Room

If you’re not aware of The Student Room, it’s a UK web based forum where school, college and university students connect and talk about everything and anything to do with being a student. With over 1.2 million students and over 43 million posts, there’s a good chance that some of your students may already be a part of this community. And if a prospective student is seeking a second opinion from somebody who is already studying on your course, it’s more than likely that they’ll turn to the The Student Room.

If you’d like to find out more about using The Student Room as a means to engage current students with prospective students, speak to our Digital Marketing Officer, Shai Vure and read his blog about the topic.

4. Videos: Student Profiles and the Student Experience 

OK, so we’re all familiar with the concept of the student profile video. In fact, there’s probably not a university in the land without one. If you’re considering doing a student profile video, the key point to remember here is that it needs to be engaging, so you don’t lose your audience, and also believable and credible at the same time. So how do we do this?

Earlier I spoke about the importance of a narrative for creating a strong brand identity. Because people tend to be emotional and reactive beings, choosing a university can often be a gut reaction based whether a prospect feels they will fit in. So, by creating a student profile with a narrative, not only will this keep the viewer engaged, but it will also help to create a sense of identity.

In our latest student profile video, Chester graduate, James Down, tells us about his journey through university; why he decided to go to university, why Chester was the right choice for him and how it has enabled his career to excel. With it being over 5 minutes in length, we knew his story was important, not only to keep the viewer engaged but also because James’ experience reflects that of a real student. And, as I said earlier, it’s the experience of our students that tells the story of our brand.

We obviously like our graduate profile and feel it achieves a number of our key objectives. But let's face it; there are some referral videos out there that are a little predictable and unimaginative... not ours obviously! The questions are set up and the University is praised for everything it does. And if the questioning and content is similar to rival universities, it can often make it difficult to differentiate one university's offering from another. Plus, it can seem a bit disingenuous if it all looks set up. Hmmm, what to do?

Perhaps one solution to this is to be a little less obvious and think of a fun concept that will draw the viewer in and give them a taste of the real Chester experience. Don't worry so much about ensuring you get your students to say nice things about you, but rather focus on an interesting concept and see what happens. Here are a couple of examples to show you what I mean.

University of Portland, Oregon, wonder around their campus and ask their students, what’s the last photo on your phone? With a little probing, we get to find out the story behind the photo and thus capture the essence of being a student at Portland. Whilst Ithaca College, New York, leave ten disposable cameras in various locations on campus for students to capture ‘…one authentic view of a day at Ithaca College.’  

What about Print?

There's obviously no harm in a good old fashioned printed student quote, but in order to give it more credibility I would always recommend reinforcing the quote by integrating it with digital, perhaps by using one of my examples above.

Over to you... And your Students

I hope you've found this blog interesting and insightful. If you're now inspired to get your students involved in your plans for marketing your course(s), please don't hesitate to contact MRA for some help and advice on the best way of executing any ideas you have.

The higher education sector is now more competitive than ever before and with the rise of consumer based satisfaction surveys such as the NSS, it is essential that you provide and demonstrate a student experience with added value. If you achieve this, not only will it help with your conversion of enquiries to enrolments but it will also aid our prospects with making a choice that is right for them and consequently ensure a high level of retention.

Until the next communication…



  1. If you're interested in reading more on this topic, I recently came across this article from the ICEF that identifies student testimonials as an untapped source of competitive advantage in student recruitment marketing. So I thought I'd share: http://goo.gl/GkdnCj

  2. Great article! For an example of a real-life student vlog, we have two students at our Warrington campus who are producing regular videos - http://www.youtube.com/user/dailysquish/videos


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