Bid to boycott the hard sell

July 18, 1997

Marketing departments are being pressed to take adverts in university directories. Phil Baty reports

University marketing heads are calling for a clampdown on publishers of reference directories.

They say the publishers are cashing in on an intensely competitive higher education sector and want a regulatory body to check sales tactics and verify the claims publishers make. Those found to be making flase claims will be boycotted.

The pressure to recruit students is so intense that universities are keen to be listed in as many reference directories as possible, but many publishers charge institutions for the privilege, or press hard for accompanying adverts. The return on the advertising investment can be low - and difficult to quantify.

The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals has produced guidelines for people who place adverts. "As the variety of media outlets increases so will the pressure on institutions to advertise, often simply for fear of being left out," the guidelines warn. The CVCP estimates that universities spend over Pounds 10 million a year on advertising their institutions.

There are at least 50 printed directories providing information to prospective students on institutions, courses and postgraduate opportunities, according to the Higher Education External Relations Association, and the market will boom as publishers wake up to the Internet.

John Callen, head of marketing at the University of North London is hoping to set up a regulatory body through the Heera.

"We professionals are the ones who should cooperate and set a suitable code of practice," he told a Heera discussion group. "We could set up a group to form a sector view on the appropriateness or otherwise of 'key' media and promotions to advise colleagues accordingly and to verify the information from sales people."

Mr Callen said the sector should work together to establish an "absolutely definitive, authoritative" set of guides to higher education - undergraduate, postgraduate and research.

Heera is discussing the proposals, although they are beset by difficulties, not least institutions' desire to maintain a competitive edge by keeping marketing investments confidential from other institutions.

Barry Jackson, corporate affairs director at the CVCP added a positive note: "It reflects expansion. Inevitably publishers are keen to identify niche markets and that is to be encouraged if it means better consumer information."

A central database is being developed to help university marketing heads cope with an "explosion" of publishers' requests for information.

A working group on advertising priorities in universities, backed by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, the Standing Conference of Principals and the University and Colleges Admissions Service, is fleshing out plans.

"University information officers have seen a very significant increase in their workload with a great number of requests from publishers for very similar information," said Anthony McClaren, UCAS deputy chief executive.

The British Council does have a list on its website of directories that it considers to be essential, and that are available in council offices around the world. The council is keen to stress that the list cannot be seen as definitive.

A MARKETING DEPARTMENT'S STORY

"We get a request to enter a new reference book student guide every week," said Revel Barker, director of public affairs at Cranfield University.

"They all say their guides are being held by British Council offices but I can't imagine their offices have enough space. Everyone's tearing their hairout over the persistent demand for information. These people are selling advertising on the threat that competitors will get the students."

Mr Barker has been urging fellow marketing heads to ignore such approaches. He wrote to a Heera Internet discussion group: "If insufficient numbers play along they'll have to abandon the whole idea. And serve them right."

Pat Raderecht, chief executive of the CVCP's careers service unit, which publishes a directory of postgraduate opportunities, thinks that the problem is exacerbated by recent cutbacks in university marketing departments.

"There are fewer central marketing people," she said.

"A lot of universities leave marketing matters to heads of departments and faculties,who are naive, do not know the marketing business and are not set up to monitor the return on investment on the advertsthey place.

"They are spending hard-pressed resources to hard-sell publishers who cannot provide circulation figures and who are making unrealistic claims."

A PUBLISHER'S STORY

Merlin Falcon Ltd has set up an Internet-based higher education reference guide which has provoked a flurry of protests.

Merlin Falcon, based in Maidenhead, Berkshire, went "live" on the Internet in March 1996. It lists postgraduate research openings in the UK and MBA courses. An institution's course details are included in its reference guides free of charge, as most of the details are simply lifted from prospectuses. Advertisements can be bought to flesh out the basic, free information.

But Merlin Falcon also offers a service handling initial inquiries from prospective applicants and forwarding them immediately to the institutions for a fee of Pounds 395 a year.

If an institution declines to pay this fee, they will still receive the contact details of enquiries for free, the firm insists. But they will be sent in bulk, and sometimes months later.

"It's a sort of blackmail," said Christine Hodgson, head of marketing at the University of East London. "They've just sent us inquiry details from as far back as April and said that if we want them immediately in the future, we'd have to cough up the money. If we don't pay, all the students who apply to the UEL through Merlin Falcon will assume that the university has taken no notice of them."

Merlin Falcon managing director Nigel Banks said that his firm was filling a niche and that many universities were naive about the Internet. Buthe conceded that the latedelivery of enquiry details to those who have not paid may put a lot of pressure on themto pay the fee.

"That's a fair comment," he said. "But we're not trying to do anything underhand and we're not trying to make ourselves millionaires out of this. But we're a commercial organisation - we do have to make a living," he said. "We can't provide our services for free and we never said we could."

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