The higher education (HE) sector is undergoing a seismic transformation at present, and its marketing strategies and requirements are under great pressure to evolve rapidly.

One of the greatest challenges for HE recruitments teams within this context is the fragmentation of the traditional recruitment cycle. Increasing late demand signals a retreat from traditional deadlines, and in line with the increasing commercialisation of the sector exhibits a newly empowered consumer approach. Traditional, above-the-line advertising linked to the legacy cycles is therefore becoming increasingly redundant, as universities need to move to ‘always-on’, demand driven digital marketing strategies.

This brings new pressures for university recruitment teams and media agencies alike. Rather than annual planning, block bookings, and inflexible spending, Universities need to work with their media partners in new ways. To effectively implement this, new digital talent is needed in their corridors – whether agency or internal. And the shifting media paradigm both enables and pressures HE institutions to be alert to new globalised growth opportunities.

A more responsive model

In order to effectively understand and respond to the complex requirements of a large, multi-product organisation like a university, two things need to happen.

Firstly – agencies need to move to an on-site model – building effective relationships with the wide range of recruitment, marketing and faculty stakeholders involved in any given recruitment campaign. On-site presence enables digital media agencies to react quickly and effectively to a HE institutions’ rapidly changing needs (eg. Early warning signal from an underperforming Faculty or Course programme), in a way that remote working cannot. It also ensures inclusive stakeholder requirement gathering, smoothening decision-making cycles that cut through a diverse set of audiences.

Secondly, and linked to the need for reactivity, is digital media’s inherent flexibility lends itself to student recruitment objectives in the new media world. The annual planning cycles, block bookings, and inflexible spending linked to traditional above-the-line media have restricted marketing teams’ ability to react effectively to a HE institutions’ fast-changing requirements – and digital must be fully embraced to effectively support recruitment teams’ objectives moving forward.

Lastly, combining digital activity and on-site working, agencies are able to ensure that if a tactic is underperforming we are able to optimise and re-commit spends efficiently and proactively – reducing the risk of lost opportunities, or wasted budgets across the campaign. This is a strategic opportunity that cannot be missed for HE institutions in an increasingly competitive landscape.

The importance of tracking

In order for universities to take advantage of digital, the importance of analytical integrity within higher education institutions cannot be overestimated, yet it is often sorely ignored.

Digital media has enabled a new culture of tracking, ROI reporting & metric-driven activity in marketing communities and beyond. However outdated web platforms, lack of internal digital resource and multi-stakeholder marketing teams has led to the analytical integrity of HE institutions suffering.

In this context media agencies must ‘step up’, and support their clients with auditing and maintaining analytical integrity within the organisation. Digital Media agencies need to take a pro-active approach to being “analytics guardians”, working closely with internal web teams to ensure marketing efforts can be effectively evaluated and optimised. Long term, digital media agencies need to consult on the potential for ‘joined-up’ data (for example exploring CRM extension with their clients) to effectively track and add value to the multi-faceted university application experience of prospective students.

Seeking new Opportunities

Looking ‘out and up’, the new opportunities to UK higher education institutions abound in this new media world. A recent Google Trends research report showed that 40% of all global keyword searches for UK universities now come from outside the UK. This indicates a phenomenal international interest in UK higher education institutions – and one that international prospects are taking to the internet to research further.

This means it is critical that any university with International targets must carefully consider its international digital presence. Key areas to understand include:

  • What international interest can we gauge – across countries, faculties, courses?
  • What opportunities are there to advertise on local competitor searches – and raise awareness of our own organisation in the process?
  • What are the key information topics that international students are looking for – and how can we better answer those content requirements? (eg. Visa information, Funding & fees, Accommodation etc.)

The findings from this sort of investigation will not only inform International Faculty and Corporate course planning and targets, but will enable universities to spot new digital marketing opportunities and drive new International growth.

Kate Ross

Kate Ross


Kate Ross, Managing Director at eight&four, part of the Cubo Group.