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How is the marketing of education evolving?

How to attract, engage, convert, retain and then educate and integrate international students? Reaching out to the student demographic with your unique message can be the hard part in a competitive industry. Lucy Fisher finds out how expertise is evolving.
March 7 2014
5 Min Read

The marketing of education appears to be playing a game of catch up with many other industries. Dr Stephen Holmes, managing partner and founder of The Knowledge Partnership, points out that, outside the most elite universities, “financial pragmatism and market reality now largely prevail over purely academic ideology”.

He should know. Based in Australia, but working within a marketing consultancy which has offices around the world, he’s got a PhD in the field of education marketing.

Holmes believes that the UK and Australia are particularly innovative in marketing terms, because they have been the most active, historically, within the international education market. Indeed, according to Robert Lawrence, principal of Prospect Research and Marketing, in Australia roughly one-fifth of the total student numbers are international.

With globalisation encouraging many people to consider and to be able to afford an education overseas, schools are turning to marketing agencies to pursue an aggressive international enrolment agenda, often in the face of declining domestic enrolments.

“Over the next five years we will experience more change than we have in the past 100,” predicts Educate’s Richard Badley, who points out that there is a lot of work to be done around accountability and tracking, as well as the use of mobile marketing techniques, which he says have seen triple-figure growth in his business in one quarter of 2013.

“An important consideration in marketing terms is to focus on quality rather than quantity of leads”

He says that international students bring huge direct and indirect financial, cultural and academic benefits and that – although the US market is already relatively mature in relation to lead generation and conversion – such marketing approaches are becoming increasingly evident in other countries, too.

The recruitment process, however, tends to be a long and complicated one. The pursuit of education is no spur of the moment decision, and this means that the marketing ‘funnel’ can be tricky to track accurately.

“Universities are still struggling with the best marketing solutions,” says Amanda Gregory of Education Marketing Solutions. She believes that institutions in Asia, for example, have a lot to offer but remain about 20 years behind in terms of marketing techniques. “Marketing is changing within universities,” she says. “Like it or not they have to become more commercial. It’s not just about straightforward promotion techniques but conversion and retention marketing practices, too.”

Adrian Mitchell, Head of Research and Reporting at Hobsons, agrees that conversion of leads will be a hotter topic of conversation. “The next evolution we see on the horizon is greater emphasis on conversion,” he says. “72% of students told us they decided where to go to university after they applied, so as competition increases, for many universities, simply making an offer will no longer be enough.”

Gregory says that the average attrition (or drop-out) rate at a university stands at around 20-25% which means that an important consideration in marketing terms is to focus on quality rather than quantity of leads. As such, she recommends that institutions do more propensity modelling. Her advice is also to examine the current student cohort and identify what works. “Identify the low-hanging fruit,” is her advice.

43.5% of all students search by course or programme, compared to by university (27.1%)

Mike Elms, CEO of Hotcourses, points out that applicants search primarily by course. According to research he presented at the annual NAFSA conference in 2013, 43.5% of all students search by course or programme, compared to university (27.1%) and location (22.5%).

His colleague Simon Emmett points out that video is an increasingly important element of the marketing mix, too, and especially so for international students who may not be able to visit a campus particularly easily.

Andrew Crisp of Carrington Crisp says that another area which is often overlooked is in making use of alumni. “These people represent a powerful network, with an authentic message,” he says. “Not enough has been made of alumni in recent years.”

Social networks are growing in importance, too, and, like alumni, these channels can help to generate a feeling of trust given the human element and potential authenticity of message. As with any media, however, there will be a need to decide which platform or network is most relevant to your target market. This may necessitate employing people in the target market, and almost certainly those who speak the relevant language.

“Everyone is on Facebook – with the exception of China,” points out Crisp. “Then there are growing amounts on LinkedIn and the many localised versions of social networking such as Hyves in the Netherlands and Tuenti in Spain.”

It is hard to make generalisations about what marketing mix works best, especially when talking about business which is inherently international. “Completely different media work best for different things. Some in New York or California perhaps don’t need to sell the destination, for instance,” points out Marcel Dalziel of PlattForm. He notes, too, that a ‘very general’ rule of thumb in terms of cost per acquisition is about £1000 per international student.

“Alumni represent a powerful network, with an authentic message”

But he says that if institutions choose to work with agents that could rise to around £1200 or £1400 per student once commissions have been taken into account. “But you can’t really put a number on it,” he warns, noting that many universities have started to hire people from the commercial sector: “Every penny has to be justified, whereas 10 years ago people were just talking about branding, and nothing was really tracked or monitored.”

Media fragmentation can make it challenging to identify where your budget is going to work hardest. After all there are so many choices. But the best starting point is always to locate your target market. “It’s also important to get your brand in early,” says Dalziel. “The average lead time is about 18 months. If you leave it too long, other brands will have already been in contact numerous times.”

“Anything that’s search-based converts well: paid search; Google pay-per-click, and also re-marketing – as in when someone has visited your site, you follow them around the Google network,” adds 11ten Group’s Peter Cunningham. “But generating enquiries is the easy part. There are lots of student portals, and many generate large volumes of enquiries, but many are from low-converting countries, such as Pakistan and Nigeria.”

He advocates an integrated approach and points out that what works best varies widely not only by country, but by institution too. Any advice, therefore, can only be on a case-by-case basis, but the one thing that all can agree on is that the marketing of international education has become a whole lot more sophisticated.

This is a slightly abbreviated version of an article that first appeared in The PIE Review. To mail order your copy of The PIE Review, click here

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