Friday, 30 July 2010

Educating in the face of economic cutbacks: the importance of marketing

Government borrowing to promote the recovery of UKplc from recession will have an enormous impact on the public sector over the next economic cycle.  The forecast budget reduction in Departmental spends are already cutting deep into the sector’s strategic planning processes.  However, it is perhaps important  to remember that research from previous major recessions[i] indicate that those companies continuing to invest in marketing activities through the recession gained market share over those competitors that reduced their spend.
Therefore, in the radical business transformation and recovery processes that will now be launched within the public sector it is important to ensure that efficiency gains obtained or proposed are not at the expense of capacity and capability to deliver the changes required.  Cutting staff resources in the absence of parallel infrastructure changes or product offer normally leads to inefficiencies in delivery and staff burn out as work flows actually do not diminish.
In this discussion with Dr. James Macaskill, who has successfully led two higher education and further education colleges through previous reforms, we talked about the role of Marketing and Communications during periods of change.
What do these changes mean for the Education sector?
Cut, cut, cut.  With universal agreement the most important aspect to any education sector is its reputation for delivering a high quality curriculum and employing motivated academic staff to engage and immerse students in studies that provide vital, vibrant and viable routes to learning and employment.  For any individual institution it will be managing this reputation within the niche market it is serving.   Public sector providers are coming under enormous pressure to change in response to industry criticism about the work readiness of students leaving teaching and learning institutions.
Thus the future Education sector will have to deal with less income from government sources, more competition from the private sector for profitable areas of delivery and generating more income from private or alternative sources of income.  They will have to come to terms with managing quality enhancement resources in different ways in general admissions procedures, curriculum development and in streamlining point of delivery and assessment methods.  Given the diversity of learning needs in the student population institutions will have to balance teaching time, quality assurance time and income generation time. Getting closure to the industries they serve will have to be a major activity to rebuild confidence in their ability to deliver work ready work force entrants.
Historically most institutions in the sector have based their business strategy on delivering an assumed annual allocation of central funds and recruited accordingly.  A few have chosen to develop new strategies of dynamic growth and development thus diluting their dependency on conventional funding streams.  Moving forward the certainty of these funding levels, year on year, is less clear and institutions will be forced to devise sustainable business strategies based on identifying and developing the demand side of their business while retaining core capacity to deliver the supply side requirements more efficiently.

What  part does Marketing have to play?
In an uncertain future, institutions are or become more risk averse and always tend towards a refuge of certainty.  However, moving forward institutions will need a wider appreciation of uncertainty and their Johari profile.  That is a higher probability of certainty is based on your understanding of uncertainty through  “known:knowns”, “unknown:knowns”, “known:unknowns” and “unknown:unknowns”.  This requires the buy in of all staff across the organization to adopt a marketing orientation and for the infrastructure to capture and track market related information.
This is a challenge for traditional marketing departments who have been primarily seen by the organization as a promotions and advertising service team.   New marketing departments have to have a more authority and an integrated approach with front of house, admissions and quality assurance systems and have authority within the institution to determine market responsive business strategies.  This will result in more effective market intelligence, better use of data in general and help build customer relationship data bases to understand market shifts or trends.
Managing brands through a recession[ii] requires
1.       Maintain level and volume of your marketing activity and where possible your budget to ensure your brand remains visible to your clients;
2.       Maintain contact with your clients and speak directly to them using your knowledge of their buying preferences to segment your market and through personalised mailings and sell your brand values not just product benefits;
3.       Automate your data and build up a customer relationship management system that improves the data mining and performance management capability for your marketing investment;
4.       Be innovative in your approach to the market and through new product development that allow you to quickly respond to market conditions ahead of your competition;
5.       Ensure an effective search engine marketing strategy is developed using branded and non-branded keywords.
What challenges does Marketing face?
One of the biggest challenges for education Marketing is the diverse range of target audiences  and customers for its services while ensuring a strong call to action and potent marketing message.  The recovery process will require key corporate decisions about centralizing marketing budgets or decentralizing marketing budgets as well as prioritizing high impact areas and building in measurable  parameters for the return on investment for the marketing budget deployed.
In a planning scenario where budget cuts are being sought marketers have to compensate for the absence of sufficient budget to cover all the demands arising from staff for their course recruitment activities and traditional media activities.  The available funds have to be stretched across lower cost web enabled services, social media and PR strategies.   Therefore, the main challenge facing marketing has to be preserving the market orientation of the organization while it is making budget savings across the organization.  However, managing social networks effectively and producing sufficient relevant information to distribute and gain traction is itself a time consuming activity.  Therefore, for the social media strategy to be effective it should be developed and communicated effectively to internal gatekeepers and embrace the students body to ensure that the required activity levels can be maintained consistently across the year.
An effective brand strategy is critical to ensure control of sub-brands, product ranges and their impact on the corporate brand and message.  However, does the business strategy require these sub-brands to compete against one another for resources or is the curriculum specialism the brand and therefore determines the niche marketing strategy.  Again key gatekeepers have to make choices in the strategies they pursue but should be informed by appropriate market information.
The brand strategy must be clear in its approach to internal brand communication and support the change programme to bring all staff on board. This is critical in moving the organization forward and in making customer facing staff comfortable with brand changes and relevant updates in information.   By providing a coherent internal branding strategy with easy access to online support there should be parallel improvements to customer service.
At a time where marketing budgets are increasingly under scrutiny it is crucial that education marketing plays its role efficiently in developing and deploying:
1              Brand Strategy;
2              Marketing and Communications Strategy ;
3              Social Media strategy.

[i] Alexander L Biel, “Converting Image into Equity” in Brand Equity and Advertising, ed. David A Aaker and Alexander L Biel ( Hillside, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993), 67-82.
[ii] JAMacAskill “Five tips to retain brand value through a recession” M4siz Limited white paper Spring 2010. (

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