Keep Calm and Enrol!

As we are immersed in enrolment in colleges this week – many marketing managers will be on the receiving end of panic requests from their bosses as the numbers are tallied on a daily basis.

This blog shares my thoughts about managing expectations during enrolments – but also how with a more strategic approach to your marketing, you can secure a stronger market position resulting in a more confident recruitment profile – where conversion is high, resulting in far less reliance on late enrolments.

What’s the Message?
We spend all year communicating the quality of the offer and telling our fantastic success stories, urging early applications from the start of the academic year – to seemingly throw that all out of the window in August by shouting how we’re still open to ‘anyone’.

Time has told that relying on late enrolments is a rocky road. Yes of course not everyone gets the results they wanted and have changed their mind about where to go, but those that haven’t bothered to apply anywhere and are reluctantly dragged through the doors at the last minute are unlikely to be your high flyers.

However, that’s FE! We do provide a second chance, we do have depth in the curriculum from entry up to HE and we do have amazing successes with the most unexpected of students. So, the message is right – there is still time to apply and we need to get that message out there loud and clear. However, we still need to recruit with integrity and place students on the right courses at the right levels if we are to hit retention and achievement targets and focus on quality and the student experience, that will ultimately improve reputation.

More importantly we need to shift the focus away from remedial marketing activity in late August, to establishing a more robust market position that pushes your college up the reputation rankings.

Conversion is Key
If you have spent all year (and a not insignificant budget) on growing applications – how much effort is going into conversion? Are the marketing messages synced with admissions? Has marketing had any input into the content of communications? We have done a lot of work with clients in reviewing their direct communications with applicants.  While we found most letters and emails to be clear and accurate, they did not connect on a personal basis at all. A slight change to language and tone can make a big difference to conversion. We want our prospects to feel part of the college and that we’re going to know them as people and care about them. Writing in a style that conveys that is important, as well as ensuring they have a personal contact at the college.

Speed of Response
As the results come in, there are those who may want to ‘trade up’ and those who may need to ‘trade down’. How are you handling this? Most admissions teams will be flat out handling the mechanism of mass enrolments – queues, queries, quibbles! Who is providing the first line response? You might have put all the relevant information in your website, but those in a panic may not have the access or patience to follow what you think is a clear pathway.  They need other more personal options – phone lines, live chat, social media messaging and they want a quick response. Making this a priority during enrolment will help to reassure your applicants and move them to convert as well as putting you ahead of competitors for new students. You don’t have to put busy admissions experts on the end of these comms tools either – just someone who can triage, reassure and find the right person to provide an answer. Being in the system and being dealt with is a critical first stage towards conversion. Waiting 10-20 minutes for the phone to be answered or a day for an email response is not going to cut it.

Keep a Cool Head
Senior executives can also be panicked by the fluctuating numbers and will frequently look to marketing for the answers! This is where rational thinking and a cool head is required by the marketing lead. It is very unlikely that an additional press ad is going to make a difference despite what your competitors are doing. Like many of you, I have been there - urged to run expensive last minute press ads that have had little impact and wasted not only valuable budget, but time that could have been better spent analysing metrics or improving response options.

As part of our process checks with clients we have focused on tightening the user journey and as a result have uncovered problems such as glitches in course display on specific mobile devices and browsers – which we were able to patch. We have responded quickly to feedback from customers about online application problems with additional pop ups and messages. We have suggested boosting resources on telephone response lines. We have made sure the landing and course pages are up to date and are clearly linked to online application processes. The list goes on. So, I would suggest that before you panic that your summer campaign has failed and you go down the road of placing more press ads - examine your metrics and analytics, test all the processes, make sure you are responding quickly, make sure your website is clear and being changed and updated regularly. Then, if you do identify any gaps in your campaign, boost your online budget and closely monitor impact to optimise results.

Make sure you are looped in to the enrolment analysis reports and conversations. You may be able to provide valuable insight and link the recruitment trends to your own metrics and analytics informing any additional activity that may be required. A boosted Facebook post or a timely e-mailer could make a small but significant difference. Close analysis of the outcomes should also be part of your evaluation and inform your planning for next year.

The Cycle Starts Again
Enrolment is not only the beginning for students, but for marketers it represents the end of our promotional cycle. Those astute marketers out there will already be way ahead with the cycle for 2019. However, I wonder how many of you have taken the time to review the strategy before leaping forward with the next round of promotions? Do you even have a strategy to review? How are you evaluating impact? How is this being reported to the executive? Has your new strategy been ratified i.e. is there collective buy-in, or are you just rolling over the same format from last year with a new strap line or new creative?

Our approach believes in establishing a clear proposition and strategic foundation that will structure and inform your marketing outputs, so you build on your successes and strengthen your market position and reputation. We recognise that many colleges are facing the same issues in their marketing approach so will be sharing more resources, information and ideas in the coming weeks and months in regular blogs and workshops. We are also launching a new FE Marketing Newsletter – The FE Mix! Designed for FE Marketers and solely about FE Marketing. We hope you will subscribe to the newsletter (complete the form on the right) and join in our conversations.

Why Strategic Communications and Public Relations should be at the heart of Merger and ABR Planning

By Ben Verinder (Chalkstream Communications) and Fiona Carthy (Carthy Communications)

Click here for the recording of our webinar from 7th July.

Preparing for merger is fraught with risks and hurdles - in this article we explore why it’s critical to keep strategic communications in the planning framework from the outset.

Experience and guidance are clear - if colleges focus on the process rather than the people in their plans for partnerships or mergers, there is a significant risk they will fail or at best, make an already difficult process more fraught. Successful change requires the support and consent of others and that means ­­­meaningful consultation and professional, two-way communication.

Sadly, poorly managed communication and fragmented messaging is all too common in the world of merger, and this risks seriously undermining the success of the proposals and damaging existing reputations and relationships along the way.

Recent examples include colleges that have brought private partnership discussions prematurely into the public eye before agreements have been met, and merging institutions issuing contradictory public statements, each putting delicate negotiations in peril.

In Scotland we can see the legacy of mergers that failed to achieve the consent of vital stakeholders in the emergence of unprecedented levels of industrial action and discontent.

Analysis of over 135 post-incorporation mergers in England reveals that success requires high-quality leadership at the planning and decision-making stage of merger, which in turn requires absolute clarity on the purpose of the change, and as stated by BIS ‘an ability to reinforce the purpose constantly across all internal and external communications’.

Yet we see colleges treating communication as an after-thought or insufficiently important to require professional attention, manifested as shallow consultation about a narrow range of options or broadcast messaging once a decision has been made.

There needs to be a clear educational and economic case for a partnership or merger proposal (whether that be to merge or remain independent), one that has developed from a realistic assessment of local social and economic need and through genuine consultation with all key stakeholders internal and external alike.

A clear mission needs to be established, particularly when there are conflicting perspectives from each organisation. Internal dialogue needs to take place in private and a clear public position agreed. This is where strategic public relations comes into its own, helping to reconcile the differing agendas and manage internal and external expectations. It helps a new or emerging board or leadership team sift through the noise of misinformation and speculation, itself a symptom of nervousness, to draw a clear conclusion based on the intelligence that matters.

It is also critical to build an understanding of the market position and the reputation of all colleges in the proposal, to start developing a future positioning strategy and that can only be genuinely assessed through impartial research with target audiences.

This assessment of reputation is also useful for ABR submissions, where colleges are seeking to establish a stand-alone position. What is the strength of your brand and reputation? How much brand awareness is there in the community – what will that look like post-merger? As outlined in the Furthering Reputations report in 2009: “Reputation is the product of cumulative activity and evaluation and once earned it has a resilient quality. This is why a good reputation is technically an asset”. How much assessment of the value of reputation is going into discussions and what is this based on? The colleges’ own perceptions or those of the community it serves?

Corporate reputation is closely aligned to the quality of its staff and their commitment to and engagement with the organisation. As most mergers will rely on their middle managers to pave the way - smoothing the clash of systems, processes and cultures into a new harmonised way of operating, open and consultative communication will pave the way to retaining the best people – whereas latent, directive communication could lead to an exodus of quality staff potentially fracturing quality, outputs and in turn community perception and reputation.

And finally to the issue of brand and market position – with a clear mission in place the merged entities can start to form the basis for a new value proposition to the market. This can be achieved either through the maintenance (and development) of existing brands or the introduction of a new brand or group entity.

There is huge opportunity to establish a new, stronger, revitalised market position through merger and the rejuvenation of brand position - but this is needs to be strategically managed and communicated not just through visual representation but more importantly through messaging, online and offline communication and internal values and behaviours.

Click here for the recording of our webinar from 7th July.


Recommended reading

Association of Colleges. (April 2016) An analysis of college merger issues

Calvert, N. and Rosner, M. (2010) Understanding FE mergers and making them work, LSN

Learning and Skills Council and Centre for Education and Industry, University of Warwick. (2003) An Evaluation of Mergers in the Further Education Sector: 1996-2000

 Payne, L. (2008) The Evidence Base on College Size and Mergers in the Further Education Sector, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

Roberts, D. and Thompson L. (2009) Furthering Reputations, Knowledge Partnership

Stewart, G. (2003) College Mergers: Lessons to be learned from other sectors, Research in post-compulsory education, Volume 8, Number 3