University marketing has always been a somewhat murky affair. Just looking at their advertising, every university is ‘best’, ‘leading’, ‘#1′.
Many of these claims are based on the universities’ own surveys or analysis of government/public data. They can also be derived from sub-set rankings: the way Indian airports claim to be ‘awarded best airport in the world’ and the fine print clarifies this is restricted to airports of a certain size, with certain passenger count, in a certain location (i.e. this is the only airport in the world that qualifies).
In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority has started banning ads from universities that might be misleading, or cannot be backed up by solid data.
In some cases, they are very strict:
For example, Falmouth University claims to be UK’s No 1 Arts University” and “UK’s No 1 Creative University.”
They are ranked #1 in a newspaper ranking of ‘arts universities’… BUT, if you filter by only arts or creative subjects they aren’t #1.
In a more obvious example, University of West London took a list of university rankings, then created their own category of ‘modern university’ and selected the universities from the ranking that they felt were ‘modern’. This conveniently put them at the #1 spot.
With university selection increasingly driven by rankings, universities face tough choices. They can invest resources in the elements that push them up the ranking table (even if this isn’t what’s best for the students) or they can tweak the way they communicate their ranking. Significant changes to genuine rankings can take decades of investment.
A similar marketing challenge faced the Soda Stream company, which was stuck in a rut for many years. They had defined their target audience as people who use home carbonation machines for making soft drinks. By this metric, Soda Stream was the market leader, with limited space to grow. The new CEO reframed the target audience as anyone who drinks soft drinks, with the goal of converting those people to Soda Stream purchasers. Suddenly the company was a very small fish with huge growth opportunities.
Universities also need to reframe who their student audience is. Targeting students who want ‘the best arts university’ is somewhat lazy, and means that the university is basing its value proposition entirely on an external ranking.
In our own consulting work at IdeateLabs with universities, we’ve identified opportunities to move away from admissions and ranking type marketing, and focus on long-term conversations with prospective students. Using highly-segmented communications approaches, it is possible to learn more about student interests and delivery more personalized messaging throughout the years leading up to admissions decisions. This messaging can emphasize the universities’ real assets – student success stories – rather than endlessly tweaked rankings.