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Posted by Fiona Stuart on 04 August 2016

We explore why universities need to start taking inbound marketing seriously

It's now not only prospective students who are facing a challenging time when it comes to exam results time - so too are many universities, who in an increasingly competitive market are having to roll up their sleeves and fight hard to fill their admissions spaces.

Growing competition amongst universities

The need to work harder to secure admissions is being felt across the board, with both newer institutions and the more traditional universities all facing this challenge, the days of the top universities oversubscribing on every place look to be well gone.

Figures released last year highlighted the struggle which some of the ‘top universities’ had in attracting students with a number having relatively high volumes of places still to fill at the start of Clearing 2015.

These included a number of Russell Group universities such as the University of Leeds, Glasgow University, Manchester University and Queen Mary University.  And a number of universities also took the decision to drop their grade requirements for certain courses in order to attract applicants, demonstrating the competitive space which the higher education market has become.

Clearing 2016 - latest figures 

Figures released for Clearing 2016 show that 17 out of the 24 Russell Group universities have entered clearing, with 13 offering an increased volume of courses available compared to Clearing 2015, again more evidence of how competitive the battle for students now is;

University name Courses available in Clearing this year Courses available in Clearing last year
University of Bristol 89 53
Cardiff University 344 259
University of Exeter 161 19
University of Glasgow 620 223
King's College London 89 43
University of Leeds 529 395
University of Liverpool 541 396
University of Manchester 274 198
Newcastle University 219 182
Queen Mary University of London 203 193
Queen's University Belfast 204 196
University of Sheffield 376 327
University of York 169 126

Why are universities struggling to attract new students?

There is a long list of reasons why universities are now finding it more difficult to reach their enrolment targets, these include;

  • The rising costs of a university education as fees increase
  • Maintenance grants being scrapped from 2016
  • The fact that the cap on student numbers has been lifted, so for the first time universities can take as many students as they wish – meaning that non Russell Group universities can no longer reply on benefitting from the ‘overspill’ of smart students who have missed out on places at top institutions
  • More competition - between universities, colleges, online training etc.
  • Concerns by prospective students about job prospects upon graduating 
  • Student debt increasing from an average of £19,400 in 2012 to £30,000 in 2015 according to the UK Graduate Careers Survey
  • Concerns over the value of Higher Education

Add to this the big unknown of what the results of Brexit will have on the higher education market in the UK - and all of these factors combined mean that universities now need to market themselves harder than ever, making sure that they communicate exactly what they can offer a prospective student over a competing institution.  

Students are asking questions such as why should they make an investment in a specific university? How will that selection pay off for them in their future career?

Universities need to find the most effective way of answering these questions, and ensuring that this information is found easily by students as part of their decision making process. And that's where digital marketing comes into play, offering huge potential to universities who take a strategic approach to using digital channels to communicate this information. 

Technology is changing how students choose a university

How students behave when they are selecting universities is changing, gone are the days when they would get a UCAS prospectus and rely solely on browsing through that and deciding which open days to attend.

They are now gathering information from a variety of different online sources such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, blogs, student forums, videos, virtual tours etc.

And this move to online research is backed up by the results of a Google and Compete study which showed that;

  • One in ten prospective students search exclusively online for their chosen course
  • Nine in ten enrolled students surveyed had used the Internet to research higher education institutions
  • 72% of education seekers will first visit a university or college website at least two weeks - and often two months - before taking further action. 

Further evidence in this shift in information sourcing is given by a Uversity and Zinch USA study which looked at the use of social media to research universities and colleges and reported that; 

  • 68% of those surveyed used social media as part of their research process
  • 67% said that social media conversation influences their decision on which university to choose
  • 31% of students search for specific #hashtags related to their college search

These stats highlight how crucial it is that universities take steps to use their digital presence more effectively - adopting a strategic approach to engaging potential students at the right time, with the right type of content, on the right channels.

Which leads us nicely on to the power of inbound marketing...

How can inbound marketing help?

In the past universities have tended to focus on outbound marketing methods - such as outdoor or print advertising, exhibiting at a careers fair, mailshots, bulk email marketing etc.  This type of approach is now increasingly being viewed as 'interruption' marketing as uses the tactic of pushing out messaging far and wide, trying to get to as many people as possible, in the hope that if shouted loud enough it will hit the radar of a potential student. 

Inbound marketing is the opposite and ensures your marketing is relevant and welcome, rather than interruptive, and involves the creation and distribution of targeted content that is available where (and when) your target audience is looking for it.  

It encourages a university to take a much more strategic view and align their marketing to the way in which their target audience behaves and thinks when selecting their academic future.

Telling a story through content

By adopting an inbound marketing approach a university can truly differentiate its offering, telling the story of exactly what life at the university is like and proving its value to prospective students.

This story can be told through a variety of different content types including; 

  • Blog posts - which can start at the beginning of the student journey with application tips, all the way through to alumni testimonials on how their university studies helped secure their dream career
  • Videos - can help bring campus life alive, showcasing team sports or outstanding sports facilities etc.
  • Downloads - important university or campus information can be made easily available
  • Infographics - academic results or key successes of the university can be visualised in an easy to digest format
  • Virtual tours - allowing potential students to experience student life without even having to attend an open day
  • Podcasts - can provide a great taster on lecture topics
  • Social media posts - allows potential students access to regular updates on exactly what university life involves

The power of targeted content

Through effective distribution methods (optimised search, guest blog posts, website, social channels etc.) this content will keep prospective students fully engaged - by publishing the right type of content, to the right people, at the right time, in the right places.

When great content is created (and made readily available in a targeted way), then your target audience will take action to get it - providing their contact details such as email address etc, which then allows a relationship with them to be nurtured and the potential to move them along their decision journey with further targeted content.

Content really is King and can provide excellent results when used strategically and in-line with exactly how your audience thinks and behaves.  By encouraging your prospects to take specific actions, at different points in their selection journey, you can significantly improve the chances of persuading them that your university is the right choice for them. 

Next steps

It's clear that the higher education market is becoming increasingly competitive and there is now a real need for universities to adopt an inbound marketing approach in order to attract and convert applicants in a strategic, targeted way.  

In future posts we'll be talking in more detail about exactly how to get up and running with an inbound strategy, including how to fully understand your target audience through persona development - so please do keep updated by subscribing to our education sector blog posts on the top of this page.

And if you need any help with your university's inbound marketin strategy, definitely get in touch - we're always happy to have a chat. 


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