Another year

Well we have reached the end of another academic year, the last of our exam boards (at least in my area) are complete and its a time to reflect on the year and quickly shift to think about the year ahead.

I think this year was even more challenging for most of us than last. The impact of COVID was significant last year hitting at a really awkward time for staff and students but we did respond in the most part pretty quickly and though there were a few mis-steps I think there was a lot of support from staff and students and we were able to get to the end of the year and ensure that students could move complete or move forward.

Heading into this session i think the collective view was that the first few months before Christmas would be tough and then things would improve as we headed into the New Year. That of course turned out not to be true and it made the planning for staff and students very difficult. The lockdown in the New Year was not easy and for many and of course those with children had them back home when it was much more difficult weather wise to at least be outside a bit of the day.

I don;’t get a lot of chances to see the work of students in my network, I do look at ethics applications for projects and research activity which is always interesting in giving me a sense as to the key areas in different parts of our portfolio but the exam boards at end of year really are a key time when you begin to get that clearer overview. This year it has been remarkable how many students have been able to complete. Not all have of course and some of the students have been very smart in how they have prioritised elements, with work heading towards our resit boards after the summer. Some of the work at a modular level has been of a very high quality with really good marks which to me is remarkable as the staff and students have had to adjust assessment tasks as well as teaching to cope with the pandemic context.

This shows to me some of the potential creativity within the higher education system. When presented with a problem the teaching teams seek a solution, finding creative ways to help support their students. Those same students when faced with different activities than they had anticipated or when in the midst of assessments particularly the research activity find ways to adapt creatively to help ensure they can deliver the outcomes required.

I do wonder if in normal times we lose some of that creativity. I certainly don’t want to have to keep dealing with pandemic like scenarios and am really hopeful that we can begin to head more towards “norma;” at least for us with students back on campus next session. We have so many really practical courses that really work better with that but the disruption of the last two years has taught us much about our own creativity and resilience.

The key question for me would be how to we capture the essence of some of that and build a bit more of the opportunity to develop those skills further in our students to better prepare them for what seems to be becoming a more uncertain world. Something to ponder as we take a little more down time and think about the planning and logistics for next session. Still likely to be challenging at least for a bit longer so need to make sure those creative parts of my ageing brain are kept going for a few months longer.

Social media marketing

I’ve been working away for a few months on some research I’ve undertaken that is exploring the use of social media to support marketing of taught postgraduate programmes at Scotland’s Post 92 universities. The research has explored views of those working in the sector and it seems clear that social media tools are increasingly important to the sector. Part of this reflects the ability to micro target to particular groups and the ability to control costs something valuable to the Post 92s because budgets and resources remain tight. The ability to invest in a controlled way and to track the impact and value in real time is something the sector seems to understand and value, though there is also a decline in use of more traditional marketing methods because they value for universities don’t seem to be as clear as to whether there is value with them.

There is a lot of interesting detail in the views from the sector but the focus on this post relates to a disconnect with potential students. The research included a small scale student survey and amongst the questions was one related to the different methods or information sources that students found valuable in them selecting their postgraduate course. The most valued sources of information were the university’s web site which was important for more than 90% of the respondents and the university’s brand which was important for almost 75%. Social media was only important for just less than 1/3rd. Interestingly almost 40% of respondents viewed social media as unimportant.

I fuese I was surprised by this data and even when you look at the data broken down by two different age groups (39 and under as one group and over 40 for the second). The data showed 20% of the under 39 group viewed social media as very unimportant against only 12% of the 40 and over age group. The sample sizes for the different groups are relatively small but interesting that the younger age group had a more negative view on social media.

The survey participants were in the main pretty active social media users, just over 80% indicated they were, though with the 39 and under age group it was almost 90%. On average the respondents were active on almost 2 and a quarter social media platforms.

This is interesting to me as the respondents are active on social media but they don’t view it is important for when they are looking for a postgraduate programme and I have been wondering why that is. The wider literature on social media marketing suggests that potential customers use it to help find out about products and services and I guess the questions I have is whether higher education and particularly postgraduate markets and programmes are so different that social media is not valuable at all.

I don’t know but have a different theory that universities are not great at promoting their postgraduate programmes. Another part of the research highlighted that the Post 92s in Scotland posted very infrequently about their postgraduate programmes with for example on LinkedIn, a platform that might be well suited to postgraduate recruitment, with only around 6% of posts related to postgraduate awards. There was certainly some elements raised bu the students that suggested issues with content, with either the content not there or not viewed as relevant to the particular students.

I have to think there is an opportunity for universities to seek to develop their brand and position through social media but they maybe need to think a little differently about their content and I have some thoughts on that based on teh research but will leave that for another day.

Change management

So a lot’s been happening and though of course I’ve had time to pause and think about things I’ve not been blogging. Feels like it’s a time to change that and to begin to pull together some thoughts more regularly. I’ve said that before of course like I’ve said I need to eat healthier or take more exercise and not always meant it it, though this past year thanks to COVID I have actually increased my exercise so you see some changes can be made.

What’s on my mind today is thinking about change and balance to things as you change. I’ve been working for a few weeks now looking at the curriculum portfolio we offer and pulling out a lot of data to try to get a better handle on what seems to be working and what seems to be working less. The university is needing to make some changes and those changes may well be overdue but it’s also important to find a way to ensure that there is some degree of balance. Any change is disruptive but big changes particularly in the context of the last year create I think additional risks and the question is how far should you push. I’m viewing the changes in phases, with the first phase looking to do some of what might seem pretty obvious, and then re-grouping to see how far that gets us before thinking about Phase 2. The problem is time.

That first phase might take three to four years to initially implement and then review the impact, at least in any kind of meaningful way. I think I’m fearful in my own mind that suggested changes and developments won’t likely go as far as might be hoped but I’m really not sure. I keep thinking of Goldilocks and the porridge, are the changes too hard, too soft or about right and it’s really difficult in a complicated system to really be able to accurately predict such things.

This though has me thinking about the value of strategic planning and thinking and leadership. A lot of time leaders can be trying to do things that have or seem to have an immediate impact. A long (long) time ago I taught a module called contemporary management issues which looked at the evolution of management fads, with ideas re-cycled and brought back with fancy language. The ideas underpinning some of those fads may have been pretty solid though often the implementation was weak, with leaders looking for a quick fix and not really interested in the longer-term position. It seemed the focus was on looking like you were doing something rather than actually trying to fix things.

Strategic planning and positioning is complicated and in an organisation like ours with many stakeholders and interest groups with different and competing demands perhaps impossible to balance perfectly. In trying to think about the foundations for my area going forward I think the taking of time to try and craft a solution makes sense, though it might be something I’m not able to see through and that creates other risks. Really is difficult to think through some of the implications of all this but I think I have a clear(Ishbel) plan in my head that is being sense checked by others but I guess if endorsed it could be an interesting period as we try and change things. The hope will be to disrupt things in a way that leads to the creation of better foundations that allow us to develop more strategically going forward. here’s hoping anyway.

Social media marketing and universities

Am continuing my work to try to explore if and how social media can aid the marketing of universities.  As previously considered the traditional view of social media and relationship developing, helping improve loyalty leading to repeat business seems a little less useful to universities.  One small point though on that is I think universities are not great at at communicating with undergraduate students about post graduate opportunities and need to get slicker with the way they communicate and engage their existing customers.

That said while internal marketing could be slicker in communicating with existing students, social media may need to work differently  to help universities engage more widely.  One area I have been looking at closely is how universities can use existing students on programmes to talk about and in essence become advocates for those programmes.

Relationship management and the use of social media to help support relationships has a key aim to help build advocates for a business and its products and services and this does align, I think,  with something useful to universities.  Further in utilising students to support social media engagement universities can help resolve challenges they may face in the technicalities in using social media, questions of authenticity and even resource to support marketing that may be helpful.

There is certainly a wider sense in the literature that the views of real customers are viewed as more important and hence become more influential in impacting the buying decision of other customers.  Students then can potentially prove a valuable resource to universities and the sense of connection to their programme and institution could be important in helping develop the brand and competitive position of the university.  The longer term impact of this may not be increased repeat business but improvements in reach that help the institution engage new customers, who have a clearer sense about the authentic value proposition of the programme.  This may help lead to them  being more satisfied with their programme of study and therefore improved potential to help convert them to advocacy.

Connecting to students in a deeper way may help universities longer term particularly in having those voices advocating for the programme but additionally in having access to their wider social networks.  Much still to go with my review but looks like an interesting line developing that may help shape some of my real research.

social media, relationships and brands

Have been doing a lot of reading, and even a bit of writing, of late examining the ways that social media may be useful in helping organisations develop relationships and brands.  The aim of this of course in using social media is to improve sales in a business of either products or services and my interest is can social media tools be used by universities, particularly in supporting recruitment for taught postgraduate programmes.

A lot of the literature explores the ways in which social media may be used to help relationship development, though a lot of the research seems based on opinions that social media can be helpful to organisations. There are some though that dispute that with a sense that customers may not actually want organisations to interact with them via social media, viewing them as interfering in their networks.

The empirical research that I’ve been able to access to date seems to evidence that social media has a positive impact for many organisations though there do seem to be nuances around different sectors and indeed cultures suggesting that social media may suit some organisations and not others.  Where they seem to be helpful is in the strengthening of relationships with customers, helping take customers through stages that over time help them become brand advocates for the organisation.

The difference for a university is that it might be selling only now or two products to someone, initially an undergraduate degree and then perhaps a postgraduate award (though many students don’t study their postgraduate award at the institution they undertook their undergraduate degree).  The interest then in a university may be less about the creation of repeat business but in building some kind of connections that help attract and support students making one significant purchase decision.

In Scotland the number of Scottish students are capped and universities gain their funding from the government and the challenge to recruit through normal processes, whilst competitive, is to some degree relatively straight forward currently.  Universities are increasingly focussed on other kinds of students whether postgraduate, international or rest of UK (RUK) and so marketing for these customers is becoming ever more important.  It may be that for universities the challenge is not the same as other organisations in building loyalty, through building trust, but in utilising the potential for social media to develop trust to help support complex buying decisions, like buying a postgraduate programmes.  The developing of relationships by universities (and any organisation) through social media may require a different type of marketing approach and focus, with again some evidence suggesting that it needs to be much more clearly related to customers, being more engaging and creative and not seeming to be “marketing” information.

The question then really is how.  There remains little empirical evidence to help this, there is a fair bit of “advice” but how useful all that advice is and what the impact of it might be is not always clear.  The evidence from the literature seems to point to the stages that may well work through to help build relationships and trust with potential customers though the how seems less well developed and is I hope something that if I cant find may emerge from the research.  I am hopeful but can see so far that in realty things may be less planned and more messy and I’m interested to find if that approach seems to work and if such approaches captures the brand well and helps then with trust development and does that then help recruitment.

Wonder where this will lead?

Getting back to it

Well a good week away at Glasgow Caledonian University for my professional doctorate. Been an interesting few days presenting to colleagues about where I am in my research journey (right at the beginning) and hearing from others about their own journey.

Although Ive now been on the programme for two years really feel that where i am is right at the beginning of the core reason for me undertaking the programme, but that those first two years have helped be build a foundation for how I can hopefully navigate going forward.

I think the week has again forced me to spend time thinking about where I am going and why and the presentation and feedback have led me to a place where at the moment I feel a little clearer about that.  One of the struggles I have had is that there seems very little published literature around social media marketing for universities, indeed marketing literature generally around programme recruitment seems similarly limited.  Yesterday I was asked a question as to why I think that is the case – with a concern that the reason being that it may not be an important or useful question.  I think i did have a fair answer to the question explaining that i’m not sure universities are as interested in researching their operational aspects as they are in areas of teaching and learning and leadership.

That of course may or may not be true but it has got me thinking a little about there ultimate value and impact of what I do.  It seems to me though that social media presents a real opportunity for universities as the compete globally to get known for they way the positively reach out and engage potential customers, seeking to develop relationships that have value to the customer (student) and the institution.  Social media conversations are clearly already happening with or without the university engaging but my experience in talking to students across the sector is that the universities are not as engaged in developing relationships.  They at times feel ignored even when trying to find out more about potential programmes which can lead them to drift around various options until they find a place that will at least respond to them.  I’d like to think there is an opportunity for a university to authentically connect with students, not with the hard sale but with an approach that engages and listens to them and tailors communication and responses to them.

In that I think social media provides tools to help universities try to do that better but there are challenges and its not simple.  They need to make sure that the approach aligns with the strategy and marketing of the institution and I think it should be a bit fun and different but if it can also engage and draw in potential students maybe then it can help them improve recruitment and their financial sustainability.

Lets see where the journey goes from here.

Social media

So its been a while (again) but I do keep coming back.  Things have been working away in the background a little in a range of projects and activities but one that i think is going to be increasingly important to me and which does relate to my work in the school is social media marketing.

Almost two years ago (though I did try to start this four years ago) I started a professional Doctorate programme through Glasgow Caledonian University which has been interesting and despite the hard work pretty enjoyable.  I knew at the outset broadly what i was interested in studying specifically trying to understand how to better use social media marketing to support recruitment to taught postgraduate programmes.

The of course relates to the work of the management school that has a number of postgraduate programmes like our MSc in Leadership and Management our MBA and indeed our MSc in Human Resource Management.  Like most universities in Scotland and beyond we are keen to increase recruitment to such programmes, particularly international students as that can help strengthen the financial sustainability of institutions, at times when public funding is challenging, and because they help the institution develop its brand and position.

As someone working in a new university without the hundred of years of history and prestige we have both opportunities and challenges.  Opportunities in that we can be a bit more flexible and creative and challenges int hat it can be bit harder to get recognised for your innovations.  Social media brings a rich new tool set that can potentially help them connect with potential future customers / students.

The sense I have from what Ive been looking at and reading is that how to use such tools to help universities achieve their objectives is not that clear.  I hope through my project that has now been signed off that I’ll be able to look at how universities are currently suing such tools and gain some insights as how it can be developed further.  I’m hoping to use the blog a little to capture that research journey over the next two or so years so there may be a little more social media posts but I do hope to keep up to date with some of our other projects as they work through.

Social media marketing

Have been doing a little work over the last few months exploring the ways in which we (as a university) can use social media tools to help marketing particularly for our postgraduate programmes like our Masters in Leadership and Management or our MBA – both of these programmes (and they’re not alone) are available online and hence the possibility is that we can reach a global market for them.  Online marketing and social media provide a tool set that can help with the marketing of such awards and provide a means to reach this global audience.

I’ve been having a look at how universities at least in Scotland go about this and the evidence I’ve been able to gather thus far (and its pretty limited) is that the focus of digital marketing and communication activity is less about programmes and more about broader brand marketing.  In terms of social media it seems there that the focus is as much communication to existing students as an attempt to reach out beyond to engage potential students.

I’m intrigued by this – social media tools are being used by many organisations and across different sectors to reach out to and engage potential customers.  Is it the case that  universities have used such tools and found that they don’t work for them or that really they haven’t tried to focus on a more product orientated marketing approach.  I certainly see a lot of marketing effort in universities that is brand focused but I have thought for some time that product marketing may have benefits in terms of helping directly with recruitment of students and be easier to measure in terms of impact and value.

Am very much hoping to do a little more work on this in the coming weeks and months to see if I can understand more fully and perhaps explore if there are ways to develop the product marketing activity in universities and use that to help develop relationships with potential students.

Our new project

Well its been a while but have been busying ourselves with our new collaborative project (an MBA) which is taking shape really well.  We have built a really strong team at our end and are working across a really exciting partnership and I think are beginning to get in place a really strong product.

I’m feeling increasingly confident with the product and we are rapidly moving towards approval which is only a couple of months off, having had a really good advisory meeting and building a sense that we might have something with a fair bit of potential.

The challenge still is how we can make sure we can reach and engage a market for the product.  The market place for MBA’s is really crowded and though there are some interesting niche markets within that overall market place it remains I think challenging to break into.  We are seeing some new products come into the market which shows that others at least think there is potential and there are of course lots of students looking for such awards but the key question is how you enter a mature market even with a really good product and get noticed.

Traditionally of course you could spend a lot on marketing and promotion and we may need to spend a bit of money of course and this we know that but we are also looking at how innovative we can afford to be to try to build a position.  There are many new approaches and much flexibility but I think if we can find ways to build relationships with potential students, engaging them effectively maybe we can be successful in getting good numbers on the programme.

Has to be worth a try – will keep you posted.


We have a potential new project brewing away that looks really exciting.  We’ve been very lucky the last few years to be allowed to grow our student numbers from within Scotland and have had strong support and a very clear focus on significantly increasing our numbers in the past 4-5 years having grown in that time by about 70%.  Its a huge achievement and has seen us focus on undergraduate programmes in the main.  Now we see a shift in our strategy, as we have reached our agreed limit, and now looking at how we can grow our rest of UK (RUK) and international numbers.

We do already of course have RUK and international students but the shift is to seek to grow those numbers as significantly as we have Scottish and EU students in the past few years.  The market though is of course really crowded and competitive and increasingly international.

Scotland and Scottish Universities continue to have a strong reputation for quality but high quality institutions are emerging all over the globe and international students in particular now have a huge array of choice.  RUK students similarly have the established institutions but there are new and often very well funded entrants particularly around London and niche providers with a strong focus in a particular field or type of programme all over the country.

We have our own strengths particularly with niche provision however we are looking more and more at the bigger opportunity.  One that we have spent a bit of time looking at is the MBA market.  We already have two successful MBA programmes though until now they have been on campus programmes which will remain a key market for us, though we think there is a market for a more flexible global programme.

It’s difficult as the market is extremely crowded and it is I think almost impossible to develop a USP in such a crowded field.  The market though is not one single homogeneous market.  Though overall there are large student numbers globally there will be different types of consumers that value different elements of the offer.  We have been working with another University (not in the UK) to look at the market and to examine whether our combined strengths can help us come up with if not a unique product then at least a distinctive one.

I’m struck with how well we have worked together thus far and hopeful that we will get a product to market in the next 18 months to 2 years (which is not bad going with something so complex).  It has me thinking about the benefits of wider collaboration.  We are still a relatively new University (though we have a fair track record dating back now 20 years or so) but still a long way short of the ancients in Scotland which are hundreds of years old.  In being new we have perhaps a different perspective on the opportunities and threats facing higher education institutions and perhaps a more flexible approach to genuine collaboration and partnership working to develop new products and services.

Heres hoping anyway might be an interesting and very busy next few months.