Universities must carry out much more “internal marketing” to stop grumbling staff creating a narrative of “mediocre performance”, a marketing expert has said.
Tom Green, a managing consultant at the for-profit consultancy wing of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, also said that universities were “pretty bad” at marketing and needed to be more pithy and disciplined in their messages.
Staff members spend much of their time dealing with student problems, so “the ethos, or the story around your university really becomes one of mediocre performance”, he told delegates on 26 March at the annual conference of the Association of University Administrators in Edinburgh.
To change the common internal perception that a university was merely “OK” or “all right”, institutions needed to target their staff with news of student achievement, awards and successful research, he advised.
Fleshing out his argument that universities were poor at marketing, Dr Green said: “We’re pretty bad at it. We’re unfocused, we’re disparate, meaning we’ve got all kinds of people doing all kinds of things in all kinds of directions - we are extremely wordy.” Universities often made the mistake of putting their “vision” or “mission” statements in their advertising, which did not interest students, he said.
The sector was “not really thinking about what it’s like to be 17”, he said, noting that applicants did not always make their decisions “based on long-term intellectual goals”.
Institutions should not mention the proportion of their academics with PhDs, Dr Green added, because students assume that they all have them. “If you say it’s 93 per cent, you think that’s fantastic but they think: ‘what’s wrong with the 7 per cent?’,” he said.
Listing the names of colleges, the number of books in an institution’s library or the size of a campus was likely to be largely meaningless to potential applicants, he explained.
Universities “somehow think we’re marketing to the person who has already graduated” to whom this information would be meaningful, he added.
Instead, university prospectuses should contain no more than 500 words over eight pages and mainly feature attractive photos of the campus, in which, he said jokingly, “every student looks like Victoria Beckham”.
Specific course information should be presented on the front and back of just one A4 sheet, but with enough “white space” for design purposes, he advised.
Dr Green also suggested that the sector instil corporate discipline into its marketing strategy: if, for example, an employee of Apple decided to promote the latest iPhone without checking with those in charge of the marketing strategy, they would be fired, he said.
But there would be no sanctions for a university department that decided to advertise a course without telling the “recruitment department”, Dr Green said. As a result, he continued, “at universities we tend to speak as 25 different voices”.
Dr Green also noted that in the UK and the US, not-for-profit universities spent 1 to 2 per cent of their income on marketing. However, US for-profit institutions used up to a quarter of their total expenditure on promotion, a marketing effort that posed a “challenge” for non-profit universities.