Communications channels open, but the signals are unfocused

Top UK universities' marketing fails to match peers in business or charity. Elizabeth Gibney reports

July 5, 2012

The UK's top universities are failing to describe themselves and their activities in a compelling or consistent way, a survey by a communications agency has found.

Radley Yeldar looked at all the communications channels used by the UK's top 10 universities as defined by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and rated them against seven "best practice criteria".

The study concludes that across their websites, social media channels, reports and prospectuses, the universities scored just 61 per cent against the criteria compared with 72 per cent for FTSE 100 companies and 79 per cent for the UK's leading charities.

Universities' messages were clear and lacked jargon, but they were often unfocused and hard to find, said Jim Bodoh, a brand consultant at Radley Yeldar who led the study.

Institutions also did little to explain what they offer or substantiate their claims, he added.

"The best universities are used to having a queue of students lining up to be on their courses, so the motivation isn't there to tell a particularly compelling story," said Mr Bodoh, who has worked with the academy throughout his career.

"If you were to look at the amount of effort and resources that go into the whole area of marketing by universities, it would probably roughly be inversely proportional to their position in the 'pecking order'. Some simply have to try harder."

The survey also looks at whether the same messages are being presented by universities on social media as on their websites. It found that none of them is being consistent across all channels.

Unfair comparison

Paul Gibbs, professor at the Institute of Work Based Learning at Middlesex University and co-author of Marketing Higher Education: Theory and Practice, said that although there was certainly room for improvement in the sector, he was hesitant to judge university marketing against the standards of business.

To present a coherent communication strategy, "you need a really clear and well-articulated mission", he said.

"That works really well if you're selling tyres or lollipops, but if you're selling something more ethereal such as transformation or to distinct audiences, then you are clearly not going to have a consistency in the way you present yourself," he said.

Higher education also tended to involve marketing services rather than a single philosophy or product, he added.

"In companies such as Unilever and GlaxoSmithKline, the marketers define the product. As far as I'm aware, in universities the market is not yet defining the courses or their content."

Professor Gibbs added that the movement towards more open competition for students and their increasing role as consumers meant that universities were nonetheless likely to end up taking a more corporate approach to marketing themselves.

Mr Bodoh added that although the complexity of each university made it difficult to boil things down to a simple and powerful message that defined their reputations, this should not stop them trying.

"Most have such an utterly brilliant story to tell," he said.

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