“The important thing here,” said Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office of Students, at the House of Commons education committee last week, “is absolute clarity to students so they know what they’re getting in advance of accepting offers.”
University marketing departments are in a terrible bind. It’s essential for universities’ survival that they communicate and build relationships with prospective students. Students and their families are desperate for information, and reassurance.
Yet the idea of offering “absolute clarity” during a global pandemic seems impossible. With government plans and advice changing in three-week increments the expectation that universities will be able to say with certainty what teaching in September will look like sets an unreasonably high bar.
Some might argue that the current situation exposes the limits of the idea that higher education choices can function as a transaction between consumer and provider. But prospective students clearly should be kept informed, and have access to accurate information – as a moral imperative, as well as a legal one.
Trust bridges regulation and reality
In my work with more than 90 universities and research with thousands of prospective students on developing rich media content to support university marketing campaigns I’ve become convinced that building trust is the secret of impactful marketing.
One of the presumptions that is often made about university marketing content is that it should not entirely be trusted, given it’s there to persuade, not simply to inform. It is certainly fair to say that the stock image of a diverse group of laughing students lounging on sunny quads doesn’t accurately reflect the realities of the university experience.
Students are canny, and media-literate, and can spot an empty cliche as readily as the rest of us. And now, more than usual, prospective students and their families will be alert to any prospective gap between what a university claims in its marketing and the potentially less rosy reality.
There’s absolutely an ethical dimension to building trust – your institution has to be clear about its mission and committed to being honest about what’s on offer (and, in light of current events, what might not be).
But there is also a technical-professional aspect. Some approaches to content development are more effective than others. And it’s rarely as simple as adjusting the language, or using student ambassadors. It’s a finely-tuned balance between content, form, style and voice.
Building trust is essential across all student groups, but students from widening participation backgrounds are more likely to take longer to make a decision, and work hard to fully understand the details of what’s on offer – they are less likely than more privileged groups to see status and reputation as a proxy for trustworthiness.
Pride and practicality
One of our more counter-intuitive findings is that many students appreciate glossy content with high quality production, not because they necessarily take everything included at face value, but because it taps into the sense of pride they expect to feel in their chosen university. They want to be able to share this kind of content with their families and friends.
Polished promotional content can be perceived as a proxy for high-quality service provision and indicates that the university takes its prospective students seriously as needing to be persuaded and hooked in.
As a prospective student explores further, incorporating authentic student voices and student-produced content across all marketing channels functions as a counterbalance to the glossier material, offering reassurance that the promotional content is not over-selling what’s on offer.
Stories are important, offering emotional engagement and tapping into prospective students’ personal aspirations, but these need to be balanced out with facts and statistics that provide evidence of the truth of what’s being claimed. Facts need not only be in data or text formats – virtual tours can show campus facilities and student accommodation as they really are.
Specific course information is always appreciated – and this includes classrooms, labs and other relevant facilities. It’s helpful to work with current students and academics to showcase the kind of learning communities that are distinctive to that subject, rather than making general claims about university communities, which are less credible.
Especially when developing rich media content, a balance needs to be struck between building an engaging narrative and achieving a sense of realism – prospective students will be bored by recitation of the facts, and made sceptical by presentation of a fairy-tale. The best way to determine whether the balance is right is to co-create and test content.
Above all, consistency is key. When producing content across multiple media and multiple subjects, it’s easy to see how you could end up with a mishmash of styles and messages. This very quickly communicates that your institution is untrustworthy not due to evil intent but through lack of organisation.
Though universities will do their best to offer certainty, it was true even before Covid-19 struck that not every aspect of students’ experiences is in universities’ control. So rather than convincing a prospective student that everything is already settled, now could be the time to focus on winning their trust that, whatever happens, you’ll put their interests first – and then on being prepared to deliver on that promise.