The role of marketing in higher education has never been more important. In an era of higher fees, universities need to work even harder to differentiate their offering from that of their competitors.
Having worked as an advertising executive in the private sector, the idea of creating something that stands out from the crowd is instinctive for me. But moving into higher education, I saw the sector had been slower in realising the potential impact creative marketing can have on student recruitment.
In the last year alone, my own institution, Arts University Bournemouth (AUB), has seen a surge in Ucas applications – 15% ahead of its competitors. And what is our secret, I hear you ask? Well, the five simple tips below are my own humble "how-to" guide to producing similar results.
1) Be clear about who you are. Without sounding like a marketing manual, this is the key to unlocking what makes your organisation unique. By giving it some thought, you can start to build a solid brand identity.
When deciding on the things that set our institution apart, we identified AUB's maker culture – the idea that AUB is an institution defined through the act of making. This may sound simplistic, but it helped us to distil an identity that lends itself to creating stand out marketing campaigns that are relevant to and understood by our target audience of aspiring young creative talent.
2) Go against the grain. Remember there is always a place for subversion. Without subversion there is no progress. This same logic needs to be applied to university marketing. We need to challenge its norms to discover what works best when trying to attract students. For example, the distribution of cumbersome, information-heavy prospectuses at Ucas events probably won't cut it with the creative young people you're trying to win over.
Today's young people are inquisitive, curious and want their information to be easily digestible, as well as fun. It was this insight, combined with our brand identity of making things, that led us to creating a prospectus that can be assembled into a house of cards. This may seem far out to some, but it had the desired effect when it came to engaging and ultimately recruiting.
3) Draw on the talent around you. The advantage of working in higher education is that you are constantly in contact with talented individuals. For a university marketer this
has huge advantages.
Marketing teams need to talk to students in order to find out what makes them tick. By doing this regularly, your department will have its finger on the pulse of what trends, fashions and subcultures they can tap into in order to engage prospective applicants.
At AUB we've gone a step further and invited students to take part in a number of marketing initiatives. Our students have also been at the core of department planning and consulted on the design of marketing materials.
4) Resist the urge to sell. This might sound counter-intuitive to some, but refrain from selling your brand to people. What you need to do is engage them.
It's well recognised that young people are suspicious, even cynical, of the marketing noise that surrounds them. With this in mind, marketers need to ensure that they have a strategy in place which allows potential students to get under the skin of their brand before making a commitment to it. The better a potential applicant understands your brand, the happier student you will have.
Most recently we launched an app called the kscope. It contains scant information about our offer. Instead it allows users to create a unique kaleidoscopic still image or short video through the lens of a mobile phone, upload to an online gallery and share. The purpose of this project was to start a conversation with young people and engage them in making something – we now have nearly 50,000 of them to date.
5) Get help from outside the sector. When considering the options in your quest to increase Ucas application numbers, don't feel bad if you or your team haven't got all of the answers. As a relative newbie to the higher education sector, I was able to bring a fresh perspective to my own department.
But if you're struggling with creative block, why not seek help from outside your sector? Consult with friends who may work in private sector marketing, or even contact a marketing agency who often have reasonable consultative rates for universities.
Simon Pride is head of marketing and communications at Arts University Bournemouth – follow him on Twitter @SimonPride1
Add any tips you have on how to attract savvy students in the comments below.
This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. Looking for your next university role? Browse Guardian jobs for hundreds of the latest academic, administrative and research posts