21st century marketing for higher education

Higher education is facing a crossroads. The web was, and remains yet, a wonderful tool for marketing because of its inherent ability to make instantly accessible a wealth of information about an institution, its philosophies and its practice. Recently though, more and more university administrations are realizing that this thing called the world wide web presents not only the professional side of the house but also the far less polished but no less real presence of the average user, be they faculty or student. What was once the exclusive domain of the web programmer is now in the hands of anyone with access to Microsoft Word.

The CIO of our institution aired his thoughts in a recent blog post:

“With the traditional web pages and my.Plymouth*, we now have an opportunity to focus our main PSU domain web pages on marketing to prospective students and outreach in our mission as a regional university. We can display our official pages, current and professional looking, to the world, and keep our business behind the firewall.”

From a marketing standpoint it would seem to make sense for any business to maintain strict control over its branding, the image presented to the world. But I wonder in this age where content consumer has become content creator if this 20th century model is still valid. Our future students are digital natives, born and bred in a world of search engines, blogs and constant communication. Will the sterility of the typical corporate presence serve as a warning flag? How will students interpret the PR spin? Will it be perceived as a lack of transparency and therefore somehow be found wanting? Will institutions be able to rely upon their current status to attract students in the future? And if so for how long?

I wish I had the answers, but right now I admit I am left only with questions.

UPDATE: I’ve started reading “The Cluetrain Manifesto” and what should appear in the first three paragraphs but a discussion about markets as a conversation. From the book (although you can read it in its entirety for free online):

“People of Earth…

A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter – and getting smarter faster than most companies.

These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny, and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.

Most corporations, on the other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do.”

Again more questions, but these have more to do with how we reach our market in the 21st century rather than dwelling on the techniques we’ve relied upon in the past. How do we reach those students in this evolving market? How do we keep pace with their almost insatiable demand for information? How do we provide and make accessible the information that we feel is most important? Or is that omitting our focus on the needs of our future learners?

* myPlymouth is our campus portal, powered by SCT Luminis, behind which lies access to the electronic services available to our campus community. It is one-stop shopping for email, campus news, e-learning, student and faculty services, library resources and other tools of use to the citizens of the modern campus. And while it holds great promise, I find it lacking in some fundamental features and functionality. But that is for another post.

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