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5 digital sparks to inspire Higher Education

Posted on Jan 17, 2016
5 digital sparks to inspire Higher Education

Recently I was lucky enough to deliver the opening keynote at the DHENIM conference in Utrecht, Netherlands. DHENIM is mainly made up of talented international marketers from across the Dutch university world and many of them took part in our unique voting system (yes stickers!) to determine some of the most inspiring examples of marketing for them to learn from. In typical Future Index style, I shared initiatives from HE marketing worldwide, but also from the wider world of consumer brands. Not surprisingly, the top 5 that people voted for had featured in many of our Index sessions throughout the last year or so. All of them were digitally based. As we’re starting a new year in the UK, I thought I’d share the 5 with you as part of our very own retrospective.

One. Full Sail University – Pathfinder

This came top with about 70% of responses indicating this as an inspiring example. This course finder browser app has actually been around a lot longer than 12 months but still proves as popular as ever in our sessions. It stands out because of 3 key reasons. First, it is so simple: no sign up required, no personal details, and everything you want within 30 seconds – all within a web browser (no downloads required). Second, it is personalised: despite not collecting any personal information at the start, the content output is entirely focused on the needs of the user. Third, it looks great: mixing dynamic, creative visuals and a range of useful information – from industry feeds to examples of student work and future careers. This is a creative institution and so it reinforces the brand very nicely!

Key Learning: A CRM (Customer Relationship Management) approach is important – and there are lots of good software options out there – but don’t get lost in the system! It’s not all about collecting personal data – in fact what’s the point if you’re not sparking a genuine relationship? What is vital is creating an amazing first impression and giving students what they want quickly. Secure your competitive advantage! Get that right, and then collect the data, fuse with your CRM and follow up with similarly engaging and useful content.

See also: Columbia College Chicago is worth looking at too. Whilst Full Sail works particularly well for students with a specific career goal, Columbia College provide more generic routes in – based on interests as well as careers. After all, many students don’t know what they want to do just yet. In the UK, Leeds Beckett University launched their own stand-out course finder: creative, simple, user focused, and packed full of useful content.


Two. UK Visa Application Video:

The second most popular example was created by the University of Sheffield and supported by the UK Home Office, Universities UK and a number of other universities who have shared the video. Essentially, it’s a behind the scenes look at the visa process for international students – including actual footage of the process in Beijing, with the documentary style video filmed in both English and Chinese. Best of all, the video includes insight from a Chinese family, showing what it’s really like to be a student moving to the UK, and to be parents worried about their child moving thousands of miles away. The video cuts through the superficial (but also important) web content we often see and gets deeper and more personal, appealing to real feelings and emotions, answering the big questions such as ‘what is it really like?’

Key Learning: Many universities have learned to do targeted, contextual, ‘how to’ content. The next step is to get deeper and work at a more personal level. This video shows how real, emotive footage shows what it’s really like, complete with fears and motivations.

See also: Stanford University have been involved in some of the world’s most important research. Watch how they share a personal, and highly emotive touch in documenting a major scientific breakthrough. Almost 3 million have watched on YouTube!


Three: KLM – Must See Map:

If you want to see some of the most inspiring use of social media then follow KLM. Their ‘Must See Map’ still stands out as a classic example of personalised relationship building on a global scale. Access a city map online, add pins of your preferred places to visit, use Facebook to ask your friends to pin on their own recommendations, and you have a useful bit of kit to take away with you. But you can go further and get KLM to print the map and send it out to you. Just imagine taking a real map in your backpack, populated by trusted recommendations of places to visit.

Key Learning: Whenever we have shared this with Higher Education marketers they have all agreed that this idea could be the perfect springboard for their own map-based communication, especially for prospective students. The beauty of this approach is how it combines location, personalisation and peer-to-peer endorsement – all crucial elements of student recruitment. Above all, this is something useful. Try and create something that students will feel compelled to use.

Four: Huddersfield Explorer

The University of Huddersfield has identified that prospective students want to know more about the town and exactly where it is. And so they created a range of content to help do just that. As well as their ‘Lonely Planet’ partnered guide, they developed an app that enables users to piece together video of their perfect day in Huddersfield, covering all aspects of student life – from the campus to the shops, nightlife and countryside. The completed video comes with its own personalised twists – as you’ll find out when you suddenly see your name and photo on a student id card.

Key Learning: What really stands out here is the video quality. In a world where we recognise the importance of ‘real’, quick, smartphone video, we mustn’t forget that a young, prospective UG audience is used to some polish too. The Huddersfield video clips are contemporary, applying the nice soft-focus and field depth variations the audience is used to in their wider viewing.

See also: Staffordshire University’s ‘Opening Doors’ TV advert appealed to a younger demographic by adding the walkthrough narration of up and coming actor Amit Shah, whilst De Montfort University used the voice over talents of ‘Skins’ actor Merveille Lukeba and the soundtrack skills of Jacob Anderson aka ‘Grey Worm’ in Game of Thrones – both stars on the radar of DMU’s young target audience.


Five: Lewis Hamilton Highlights

Fifth on the grid was this example of video storytelling from the team behind Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton. Whilst Higher Education marketers continue to crowdsource video from students, staff and alumni, the output from Hamilton’s camp proves just how effective it can all be – if done right! In this example, we are overwhelmed with the raw emotion and energy of following Formula One, all through a montage of very short, selfie style, video clips.

Key Learning: Throughout 2015, our Future Index sessions have been showcasing this video as an exemplar in co-created storytelling. The biggest lesson is that once you have crowdsourced the video you want, you have to apply the right skill to make it really work. Somebody who can storyboard, cut up short edits and apply appropriate music, will make all the difference to what is still fundamentally a very low-cost exercise. And, don’t forget to zoom in on the emotion – think results, graduation, acceptance, and anything else to get the pulses racing!

That’s a quick look back at just 5 highlights. But our main focus is to look forward and identify the trends and opportunities that HE marketers need to know about. We’re looking forward to providing our UK ‘Exclusive’ clients with the very best insight over the next academic year, and we’ll continue to share the occasional highlight through our blogs and tweets. We’ve a few conferences lined up and you can catch us at the CASE Europe event in Manchester later in August. And, we’re always open to spreading the word globally, just as we did in the Netherlands. Please do get in touch via or visit us at

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