The squeaky wheel gets the grease

We welcome ContentEd 2017 speaker and Co-Chair, Andy Blair, to the blog where he discusses how the demographic downturn in 16-18 year olds has created the need for high-level content strategy at an institutional level and why it’s more important than ever before.

When I started my career in higher education in the late 1990’s, calling students ‘customers’ would still turn the average senior academic slightly flush in the face. Nearly 20 years on, I still find the whole conversation around the commodity of education baffling.

It’s the only sector most people will come across where the customer doesn’t ultimately get to choose if they can buy the product/service, irrespective of whether they have the money or tariff requirements to pay the advertised price.

After buying a house, paying for a university education is likely to be the second most expensive financial decision one will ever make. So it still seems strange that the only reason the customer vs student debate persists comes down to who now holds the balance of power: the market or the institutions?

There has never been a better time for the education sector to recognise the value of a landmark event such as ContentEd Live. When everyone is No.1 for something in a league table – or voted best in a student opinion poll – getting back to the real story of why a brand of education is worth paying for is more critical than ever before.

We need to reach people with that story, broken down into manageable, persuadable, confident parts. Positioning is everything. Our content plans require consideration, co-creation with our audience, a balance between variety and chaos, and a clear ideology if we want to deliver a real return on our investment.

The initial UCAS (University and Colleges Admissions Service in the UK) application deadline passed on 15th January 2017. Senior university teams across the United Kingdom clenched their buttocks to see what the net effect of a tumultuous 2016 would be on the attitude and volume of potential new undergrads. To anyone working in the UK in January, the shockwave of a c-10% downturn in applications at the early census point sent shockwaves through Planning and Finance departments, no doubt putting strain on the National Grid with the simultaneous opening of Excel spreadsheets to remodel forecasts for student numbers.

Teenagers talking

The demographic downturn in 16-18 year olds has clearly placed a stranglehold on the sector this year. The timing of Higher Education and Research Bill – which aims to remove some of the barriers to new private providers entering the market – anticipates an increasing likelihood that several established institutions will fall from their horse during the battle for income from teaching and research. All of which makes the UK sector increasingly more open to the true effects of the marketisation of higher education.

Every university has a corporate strategy, or a set of mission statements defining its raison d’etre. But many institutions are now genuinely embracing the role that a strategic approach to content management brings to true brand strategy.

The aim is to embed a curated narrative across content/communication channels, and build a common belief structure about the organisation.

A strong content strategy is no longer simply the preserve of the Comms/PR or Marketing teams. It’s an institution-wide commitment to a set of behaviours and values when engaging audiences around the brand, focused on driving income for investment back into ‘the business’.

It always seemed likely that this recruitment cycle would be heavily influenced by the politics surrounding Brexit, the challenging political landscape on both sides of the Atlantic, a destabilising of the political status quo in the West and the outing of ‘fake news’.

European flag with star missing representing Brexit

As we’re being led to be suspicious of rogue content, universities have to strike the balance between being aspirational, relevant and present in the right place at the right time. The adage that it’s ‘not what you say, it’s how you say it’ can probably be replaced by ‘it is what you say, how you say it and when you say it’ that requires proper consideration.

Who says it is also integral to the cause when you consider that the Content/Communications teams no longer hold the megaphone. Every academic, course, Faculty, student and graduate has a share of the voice. If that doesn’t motivate you to want to think about how content is delivered across your institution, not much will.

Cash used to be king. Then content came along. Now the two things are interchangeable at the highest levels of business strategy.

Every university is looking for a return on investment, and true ‘customers’ rather who may go on to enrol rather than those who click and walk away. And, yes, the world is full of content. But being efficient, purposeful and well-thought-out is the key to leaving universities truly contented.

After all, ‘the squeaky wheels get the grease’


ContentEd is back in London next year on 14-15 June. Booking is now open for team and single delegate passes! Book your ContentEd 2018 ticket now.

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