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Steve Evans, Founder & CEO, Natives, UK

Our mission is to understand and inspire students, whether it is [through] education institutions or brands
September 18 2019
6 Min Read

Student specialist marketing group Natives has gone from strength to strength since it was founded over a decade ago. The PIE caught up with CEO Steve Evans to talk about new trends in the advertising space, the company’s growth and the launch of Akero, a personalised student advertising plan that uses AI to convert more student enquires into enrolments.


The PIE: How did you get involved in the education space?

Steve Evans: I set the company up 11 and a half years ago. I was the first one in my family to go to university, so I  have a different understanding of education and social mobility.

 The business has sort of grown and evolved over that time, from me being a consultant advising marketers in the education space on how to use digital for student marketing to then very quickly learning that they needed more support. So I started having to run campaigns for them. I launched the company in 2008 and we ran our first Facebook advertising campaign for an education institution in 2009.

“I was the first one in my family to go to university, so I  have a different understanding of education and social mobility”

The PIE: And how has the company evolved over that time?

 SE: We launched our first student advertising campaign in 2009 and early on we knew we wanted to do more than report on the number of people who clicked or saw our adverts, we wanted to see who actually responded to our advertising, to demonstrate more value. In 2010 we launched a technology to do just this, which was our very first version of AkeroThis was the first of the firsts for us as a business.

We were the first student marketing agency to be a Google Premier partner, a Facebook marketing partner, LinkedIn partner, Twitter partner and Snapchat partner.

As official partners to every major search engine, social media network and with our own programmatic advertising desk, we pioneered this concept of agile advertising and tracked everything through in our software. Now we are at nearly 140 people, which we have achieved without funding or debt, so everything has been grown out of our organic profits. When we make money we feed it back into the business.

Our head offices in Brighton with our developers in Portsmouth, plus we’ve got an office in New York which is growing at about 250% year on year. And we’ve got an office in China – one in five students come out of China, so we bought a company in China two years ago so that we can run campaigns within the Chinese firewall.

Alongside the advertising services, the agency is made up of an award-winning creative department working alongside an accredited research business. [We were] recently appointed by Swedish authorities to find out why would an international student want to Study in Sweden and then coming up with the creative to support our findings.  

“We bought a company in China two years ago so that we can run campaigns within the Chinese firewall”

The PIE: What kind of data do you need to source for such campaigns? 

 SE: Underpinning everything has always been data, who’s clicked on what ad, who’s looked at what, who’s inquired from which country and then who’s gone on to enrol. And we started warehousing that data two and a half years ago.

That’s the product that we’ve launched which is called Akero AIAkero uses data and AI to run predictive modelling on where to should spend money and what would be the outcome. And this has been the evolution of the company. Our premium creative student marketing agency used by a small number of global clients and our SaaS software business used by a thousand marketers around the globe.

What’s your overall mission?

 SE: Overall, our mission is to understand and inspire students, whether it is [through] education institutions or brands.

As you have been in the international education space for a while now, can you tell me about any interesting trends you have witnessed?  

 SE: The competition for international students continues now that the benefit they bring to local cultures and economies is globally recognised, mostly. This means that we see more competition to reach and attract at earlier stages in the student life-cycle with education institutions from around the world turning their sights on the students and the students more aware than ever of the opportunities.   

Student’s digital usage has changed drastically over the past five years, with a consolidation of use in the major social networks. But in each region, there are hugely interesting new social media and digital platforms where students spend their time. The key is to constantly research and test. 

The PIE: Any changes in the sector you have seen that have inspired you or even been a hindrance for the business?

 SE: That huge globalisation and commercialisation of the sector has happened over the past five to seven years which has coincided sadly for the UK with a massive lack of strategy and cohesion which was traditionally from the British Council, alongside the sideswipe of Brexit.

“We see more competition to reach and attract at earlier stages in the student life-cycle”

And students are all consumers now. They want to go where they’re going to get the best results, the best impact whether that is the UK the USA, Canada or Australia, and now more and more so in Germany in Norway and France, for example.  

The PIE: Can you tell me about some of the other international education-related projects that you have worked on?

 SE: We’ve worked with a whole bunch of established and new universities and education providers to recruit students internationally – to the UK or elsewhere. 

 In partnership with education giant Pearson, we’ve recruited students from around the world to study online master’s programs with Sussex, King’s, MMU, Leeds and Northumbria.

We’ve got gifted students from everywhere to study fully funded master’s at KAUST in Saudi Arabia, elite professionals to join ISM, a boutique business school in Paris and students from all backgrounds, nationalities and careers to join the UK’s prestigious University of London.

What’s also been really interesting is online courses. So if you’re looking at how online courses and the change in online courses coming through, and we do a huge amount of work with online course providers and how they are then helping international students. Also helping university brands leverage an international market through online and or working with the university’s online course provision has been really exciting.

“Students are all consumers now – they want to go where they’re going to get the best results”

Propensity modelling has really been a big change for us and how we structure campaigns and how we target things and how we change the dial in the conversations with clients, because budgets are tight and it is about ‘what is the propensity likely for us to actually get an enrolled student’ rather than ‘can you target’.

Juxtaposed to that which has been really great to see has been a really good investment in universities and appreciating the fact that they need to understand the value of brands and have a much better understanding of self. Or if they don’t they know they need to understand how to position themselves globally.

And that that previously didn’t happen in the fact that you have these segmented international departments – which is still to a point to the case – but it’s much more coherent and much more joined-up how they understand the importance of brands and what brand messaging is.  

The PIE: What are your plans for the future of your business?

 SE: As a student marketing group, we’ve spent the past nine years investing in our people and our technologies, with the past three investing in overlaying our billions of data points with machine learning technologies.

Now, our future mirrors our clients, which is to use data and machine learning to drastically improve targeting and reduce the cost of international student enrolment and to track that student journey through to enrolment.

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