Peter ReaderToday’s guest post is from Peter Reader, Director of Marketing and Communications at the University of Bath. Peter will be giving a plenary talk entitled “Marketing Man takes off his Tie: Customers, Communities and Communication” at this year’s Institutional Web Management Workshop (which, incidentally, is now fully subscribed). And, as you’ll see from Peter’s post, he will be address a hot topic of the moment, which has been the focus of recent discussions on this blog – the role of social networking environments such as Facebook.

When Brian invited me to speak at IWMW 2007, little did I know what was to follow. I’ve very much a data immigrant, but I’m also an ideas person and, for example, I treat my PC as I treat my car. I plug it in and switch it on – and I expect someone else to be able to turn my ideas into reality, just like I expect the garage mechanic to know that ‘it’s got a little rattle’ means exactly what needs fixing. But I still know what I want. Where my approach differs is that I don’t want to pay garage bills for my ICT.

I am absolutely convinced of the importance of e-communications and e-marketing, not just for the recruitment of students but in all the other markets in which universities operate. As my University’s Marketing Director, never a day goes by without me being offered one package or another, including advertising of course. What’s more, it is clear change is taking place ever faster. Take the media – remember when the Times Educational Supplement was, in effect, a listing of all teaching jobs in the country. Not any more; it’s now a magazine. And The Higher, trade paper for universities, is also seeing its advertising revenue disappear; is that, maybe, why Murdoch sold The Times supplements?

PR and marketing used to be all about campaigns, controlling the message, managing the communication channels and promoting the product. Product, Price, Place, Promotion. All neatly defined. But these old ideas of ‘control’ look more and more unrealistic. Now the talk is of focusing on the idea, ‘influence’, public reactions and not public relations, viral marketing, students as customers, B2B, client management and CRM, with the web and web technologies seen increasingly as the university’s most important marketing tools.

As for social media, when most of our students arrive at university with a Facebook account, why are universities bothering to think about our own sites? Most prefer to use their own email address; the vast majority have their own account when they arrive and the old idea of universities offering email accounts is no longer any big deal. And, too, the idea of there being one youth market is just rubbish. Superbrands, such as Nike, are giving way to technology brands, such as Google, which has just been voted one of the top 10 companies for whom students would like to work. And all the time there is the staggering growth in user-generated content.How can universities harness this opportunity to best advantage? The product is still the key, but we have to give the customers, including our students and potential students, something worth talking about, to differentiate themselves. And universities are not very good at doing this; evidence from the Open University is students cannot tell the difference between institutions. What about their Web sites? We need to innovate, but universities are just so conservative.

I said I’m an ideas person; what about yours?

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