The challenges of marketing in the education sector

From funding and staff restructuring to the natural fast-pace environment of the education sector, my experience of working full-time in education has been both a personal highlight and proven to be the catalyst for a career in media and marketing.

There are many unique challenges and obstacles which face the education sector as a whole — namely welfare, safeguarding, moral compass, socio-economic issues, as well as maximising stakeholder engagement.

Knowing your audience

Fundamentally, it’s undoubtably important to know your audience; traits and audience demographics. This includes:

  • Age
  • Local diversity
  • Geographical targeting
  • Browsing habits
  • Preferences and interests
  • Their method of travel;
  • And not forgetting their individual needs.

There will usually be a primary and secondary audiences for each marketing campaign. For example, for promoting 16-18 A Level or BTEC courses, 14 and 15 year olds would be the primary target audience. Secondary audiences may cover the families and parents of these young people who interact with the college through the mediums of events, open evenings and digital presence.

In this case, the parents of learners will likely have at least some influence and be part of the decision making process over the course choice, desired career direction and chosen college. This may come down to word of mouth and local reputation, their own background, recent interactions with the college as well as their first impression.

Your secondary audience for one campaign — parents being secondary, in the example of a 16-18 learners’ prospectus — may be your primary audience for another campaign. This is also easier for audience targeting and delivering messaging as you have, potentially, already developed that relationship.

For each campaign there may also be differing target audiences according to the campaign’s purpose and the brochure should be tailored to suit. One example of this is 3 different prospectuses — 16-18 courses to highlight the student learning experience, technology-first learning and public transport links for students wishing to commute vs adult learners aiming to highlight relatable skills, available funding and benefits of part-time studying.

With print marketing and long form content, you may wish to use bullet points to pin point content in a clear and concise way, numbered lists to emphasise ordering of items and making text bold to mark buzzwords.

Keeping sentence length short and succinct will be critical to retain attention and deliver the essential information.

By using acronyms and subject-specialist language, you would end up alienating the audience. This would be ineffective and defeat the object of communicating in the first place.

Being aware and exercising both caution and independence in views on socio-cultural topical issues is equally important; students are invaluable in shaping your future marketing output. This ranges from supporting Covid-19 recovery, business and economy, volunteering and hard-hitting issues such as family welfare and signposting support.

Student engagement vs content standards

First and foremost, your MarComms strategy and campaigns must complement the organisation’s vision, ethos statement and brand. More than likely, particularly in an education setting, that will be to deliver a good standard of learning with quality, trained staff and encouraging opportunities for all (think diversity and inclusion). That is before you even consider brand guidelines during the execution stage of a marketing campaign or project (E.g. new website or prospectus).

Striking the right balance with your target audience when it comes to pushing engaging content, tone and platforms you choose, can be the difference between mission success or your social platforms becoming stagnant and uninteresting.

Content should be tailored to your audience according to their recorded preferences and interests, such as which course they have shown an interest in enrolling on. This may be through employing email marketing, social media posts with hyperlinks to specifically designed landing pages or SMS text messages. Personalisation in marketing involves using data about your target audience to deliver effective, timely and highly relevant content. It is also about using tone to make your campaign messaging more personal and inclusive — the collective belonging associated with “we”, and second-person pronoun “you”. The latter is used to communicate the content was intended for them and develops that personal relationship, even if the written or email communication was bulk sent.

When I was working at a sixth form college, teachers were running social media accounts for their own curriculum subjects. It was my responsibility to record account login details, with the social accounts incorporating the college’s name and imagery. Understandably, the college wished to have password records covering every department social media. Monitoring, overseeing and auditing teachers’ activity in running their own social media pages gave the college the assurance of overarching control and ensuring comms remained appropriate.

Applying a suitable tone in your written communications reinforces the intention that marketing and advertising within education should act as a ”soft sell” — at no point should there be a ”hard sell” as you are highlighting study courses that correspond with career opportunities and the learner’s student experience (e.g. specialist facilities, locality, campuses, tech etc).

For safeguarding reasons, repeat private communications over official social media platforms should be avoided unless it is resolving a direct query or question. This ensures the official channels within policy are followed and that social media acts as a dual internal and external comms tool with a set purpose — that it is not there for reporting daily issues or grievances.

Setting standards of SPAG

Maintaining standards of good written English can be the tipping point for prospective learners or other decision makers, such as their parent. This comes down to spelling, punctuation and grammar impacting on the organisation’s credibility and reputation.

Spelling mistakes can give a bad impression on a school or college as an education provider. Proofreading acts as a good measure for quality assurance and it is always a good idea to get an independent pair of eyes to review quality and accuracy of external facing content.

Safeguarding and data protection

It is good practice to explore the following:

  • Refer to student information portal — this sometimes lists a symbol indicating any safeguarding case or issue;
  • Photo permissions addressing age of data consent vs vulnerability and school or college policy, e.g. getting parents’ permission if under the age of 16;
  • Evaluate methods where data is stored, collected and how long data is retained for and recording the strict data processing purpose for consent given.

There is a welfare responsibility on the school or college to ensure the safety and privacy of all students. This is a matter of risk management, minimising the risk of grooming and social engineering techniques exploited by individuals wishing to use this for malicious purposes and potentially inflict harm. Marketing professionals also think about the positioning and angle of photography during events or photo shoots. If capturing the backs of heads where individuals cannot be personally identified, consent may not be required by default.

Young people may be under the care or protection of the local authority, potentially be vulnerable in other ways including health and well-being, or be involved in guardian custody and court interventions. Exercising common sense, discretion and gaining consent, as well as using any internal contacts to understand any concerns. Better to be safe than risk the health or safety of a learner.

Capturing case studies, engaging with stakeholders and working around project deadlines

Project deadlines tend to be minimally flexible due to the fast pace nature of the education sector and changing business needs.

It is crucial to engage directly with learners in a marketing role which is ultimately a customer-facing role in a business serving people. This may be for case studies, quotes to reuse across marketing materials or act as feedback part of a focus group when working on larger projects. This can be seen to positively value the opinions of the learner, who are one of your stakeholders in your MarComms strategy.

I discovered the importance of encouraging the young people I was interviewing on camera to be themselves when responding on camera. Also I avoided asking closed questions to avoid a typical ”yes” or ”no” answer. Encouraging detail in written answers proved to be important, especially on case study request forms. Not being afraid to respond with follow-up questions to add more detail to the article I was drafting too.

^ A message I received from a teacher at a past employer. (Personal details removed before publishing, for GDPR) ^

Addressing your audience’s accessibility requirements

From disabilities and mental health to eyesight, hearing and face-to-face considerations for events.

Important to remember that not all disabilities are physical or obvious. I engaged directly with students who were completing their studies supported by the special educational needs (SEND) team. This included young people with ranging levels of dyslexia, autism and cerebral palsy.

One example from past employment was a learner who was using a Lightwriter text-to-speech typing device — a student who was non-verbal, so he used this device to communicate.

I found it inspiring that he wished to be part of the video that I was producing. I consulted with colleagues to overcome an initial accessibility point. I provided him with flashcards with the questions I was due to ask, in a clear and concise way. This allowed him to still be part of the video and gave an inspiring message to all that no disability should prevent you from being involved, being recognised and achieving the best.

Other considerations include presenting content using dark coloured text on a light background (such as black font on yellow background for presentations). If possible, text on white backgrounds should be avoided, where dyslexic learners may struggle to read from the screen.

The website should also, ideally, offer accessibility features to allow the individual to adjust the background and text colour and font size.

Running workshops

My role at the college was a newly created one, encompassing all elements of marketing. When arriving at the college, I reviewed the college’s social media activity, conducted analysis and compared/contrasted against our competitors.

I read through the 2 policies covering privacy/data protection and safeguarding. I put my learning into the context of the college setting. Being asked by the senior leadership team to present a workshop session on social media usage and GDPR, I delivered my presentation to staff, touching on the areas of GDPR photo permissions, consent and safeguarding in the context of social media.

My first workshop session was delivered during a lunch break yet attracted the attention and attendance of curriculum heads, lecturers and support staff. I wrapped up the workshop session by opening the floor to a Q&A session. This gave staff the opportunity to ask questions and address any queries about various complex topics.

The questions asked and staff feedback from the first session allowed me to tweak the presentation, when I was requested to deliver the workshop again during a staff development day. The workshop aimed to encourage staff to think differently in the context of their day job, in addition to running any social media pages, about data protection, consent and safeguarding responsibilities.

Undoubtedly, the education sector is faced with unique challenges including funding and independent scrutiny and changes influenced by regulatory bodies. Marketing in an education setting can all drastically change, in order to respond to changing organisational focus, internal structural changes and funding reviews.

The natural beauty of marketing in an education setting is that it is fast-paced and keeps you on your toes, your skills will be called upon by teachers who you develop great working relationships with and the constructive honesty of staff feedback. When your marketing is performing, you certainly know about it!

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