Universities’ marketing is out of date, says web guru

Universities have been accused of lagging behind in understanding what is happening in marketing for young people in the digital age, according to one of the top visionaries of recent web developments. He urged universities to allow authentic student reviews on their websites.

Speaking at the annual conference of the European higher education PR and communication network, EUPRIO, in Seville, Spain, on 4 June, Gerry McGovern said young people, under 24, no longer trusted institutions and brands. “They trust what other people say about using a taxi service or Airbnb bed and breakfast place.”

It is time for universities to wake up to the huge changes in customer behaviour, particularly among the younger generation, he urged.

The Seville conference was titled ‘The Digital Transformation: A challenge for communications in higher education’ and attracted 360 representatives from European university marketing and communication departments in 24 countries.

McGovern, who was described as “one of five visionaries who have had a major impact on the development of the web” by The Irish Times in a review of his latest book, Transform: A rebel’s guide for digital transformation, said: “Trust has not disappeared. It has just shifted, with less trust in brands and more and more younger people trusting others like themselves!

“This has led to ‘current customer’ obsession. The most important driver in new purchases is the actual customers and not the potential customer.”

McGovern said: “Traditional marketing was about getting attention. Digital marketing is about giving attention.”

However, the marketing revolution seems to have passed higher education by, despite the closeness of universities to young people, said McGovern.

“Unfortunately, universities are one of the groups of institutions that do not recognise this shift. They are the most conservative and lagging organisations in understanding what is happening with young people.”

Authentic student reviews

“Where are the authentic student reviews on university websites?”

McGovern said his trawl through university websites had found plenty of young smiling faces and students saying how happy they are at this or that university – but where were the student comments on the weaknesses and what it is really like to be on this or that programme?

“I couldn’t find them on university websites. But the reviews are out there. They are just not on your websites,” said McGovern.

Students are talking online about how stressful it is to live in terrible accommodation and about unhelpful university staff – and the internet and technology has allowed them to “amalgamate their opinions” through social media and elsewhere on the web.

Comparing how businesses have reacted to the very connected and highly sceptical new generation, McGovern contrasted higher education with the likes of the car industry, where Toyota allows customers to give their real experience and comments about a ‘dead car’, and Dell’s website – with its customer reviews criticising the performance of Dell computers.

One-star reviews add credibility

“Successful companies like Amazon have proved that a five-star review has no value if you don’t also have one- or two-star reviews.

“No-one believes everything is perfect. People want to see the imperfections, but when you look at many university websites all you see is ‘We are amazing, we are amazing!’”

McGovern also urged universities to make their websites more useful and behave like airline or hotel booking sites.

He told University World News: “Too many university websites are a jungle of ego and a desert of usefulness. Why is it so difficult to find real information about courses and fees on so many of them?”

He urged EUPRIO delegates to remember their website is not for them, or senior management, but for the people that actually use it, and suggested they start each day with a group hug and repeat out loud: “We are not the centre of the universe. The student is.”

McGovern is the founder and CEO of Customer Carewords and has worked with some of the biggest names in the business, such as Microsoft, Cisco, NetApp, Dropbox and IBM, on delivering a better customer experience. He has also consulted with the European Union and the United States, United Kingdom, Dutch, Canadian, Norwegian and Irish governments.

One site, Studyportals, the study options comparison search platform for international students, has introduced student reviews focusing on universities offering bachelor and masters degree courses taught in English in Europe and around the world.

A pilot scheme involving some European universities was deemed a success and is now being rolled out to the 2,000+ universities using Studyportals to promote their English-language taught provision.

Among those already getting plenty of reviews on their Studyportals sites are KU Leuven in Belgium; Radboud University in the Netherlands; TU Munich in Germany; University of the West of Scotland in the UK; Maynooth University in Ireland; Aalto University in Finland and EDHEC Business School in France.

Studyportals spokeswoman Carmen Neghina said: “We started introducing reviews on the portals two months ago because they were one of the most requested features by international students.”

Peers’ opinion valued

She told University World News: "Students are more informed than ever about their study options and have become more critical towards university marketing messages.

“What they value more is the opinion of their peers, other students they can identify with and who can paint a more realistic picture of what studying abroad will mean for them.

“That's why we decided to bring reviews to the portals, and help students make a more informed decision about where and what to study, and so they can find the university that best fits them personally."

She added that their research had found that students prefer to read reviews by people they can relate to, who are of a similar nationality, age and gender.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He provides English-language communication support for Norwegian, Czech and UK universities.