Guest post by Martyn Edwards, Interim Director, Marketing, Recruitment & International at Swansea University.
This is always a pivotal time for higher education marketers – A-level results day [Thursday August 15] signals the start in earnest of Clearing.
The well-publicised and seemingly unrelenting on-going turbulence across the external operating environment, with adverse geopolitical as well as demographic headwinds, has resulted in a harsh new reality for UK higher education (HE) providers and the next 12 months are likely to be as demanding as the last for the majority of university marketers.
I like to think that I am optimist, albeit one living through a time of unprecedented uncertainty. Maintaining a sense of perspective is everything and I feel it is crucial to concentrate on those areas that we can realistically control and influence, to galvanise the collective genius and resilience of our people.
Bob Dylan once wrote that “behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain” and it is clear from the quality of many of the marketing campaigns being executed by UK universities as they face common existential challenges that as we reach the nadir, the tough are not just getting going but also getting increasingly more creative.
Good marketing is imbued with emotion and evokes an emotional reaction; it moves and challenges us, reinforcing or even changing our perceptions.
The only way to create that sort of output is through working in partnership with talented people, encouraging teams to think differently and enabling their creative freedom to try new things.
Universities are all about pushing the frontiers of knowledge in order to have a transformational impact, be it on the lives of individual students or for the betterment of society and the world in general. Human relationships, social connections and contact therefore remain the most important element of why we do what we do.
It is that desire to connect with others, and be understood, accepted and appreciated, that motivates us, our students, colleagues and wider stakeholders. By keeping sight of that reality and effectively reflecting it in our marketing, this is how we ensure impact and is also how we should look to manage innovation.
One of my own sources of inspiration in this area is Pixar and the philosophy of their former president, Ed Catmull. During periods of rapid change, the ability to pivot by innovating quickly and effectively can be an enduring competitive advantage. This will not happen by luck alone, but rather by design and assembling the right people irrespective of hierarchy.
Catmull wanted to ensure a fertile environment where the team could do great things. His vehicle for this was the Brain Trust; an innovation forum, whose focus was the removal of the fear of failure through the simple recognition of the fact that mistakes are not a necessary evil but an inevitable consequence of doing something new, because without them there is no originality.
At Swansea University, we have the Big Ideas Group (BIG), intended as the foundation stone of a sustainable and cohesive creative culture. Providing a safe space for marketing people at Swansea to show and tell about their work, exchange lessons learned and interact informally.
Intuition and decisive action must also be informed and empowered by real insights that are evidence based. Another key part of the puzzle at Pixar was the use of data, specifically the collation of actionable audience feedback as a rubric to refine and improve the current project. At Swansea, we are fortunate to have a dedicated marketing intelligence team that not only scans the horizon for trends and spots gaps in our portfolio but also collaborates with our creative and digital teams to test and optimise our marketing outputs so that we are continuously learning and becoming more agile.
This year two major research projects delivered by the team have focused on developing a better understanding of which rankings mnemonics resonate most with students and the other has been to build a comprehensive suite of personas to allow us to better meet the information needs of our different student audiences.
The ability to innovate is therefore crucial for HE marketing teams but we should not regard creativity as something that can be turned on and off like a tap (much as we would like this to be the case) but rather a force to be nurtured. In practice, this means deliberately creating opportunities where staff can meet, mingle and have unhindered open and honest conversations.
Good ideas after all can come from anywhere.