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Placing the student at the heart of communication: An op-ed by Brigitte Fournier about communications in higher education

Posté par Pascal Petitjeanil y a 3 annéespas de commentaire

Brigitte Fournier, directrice fondatrice de l' agence Noir sur BlancCommunication within higher education is a challenge that is as exciting as it is complex for communication professionals. Exciting, because we are at the crossroads of some crucial and decisive issues for the future of our societies and our children. But the challenge is complex in its structure, with several sectors and audiences coming together, each with their own interests.

 Education is not a product. Choosing what and where to study represents a crucial moment in our lives. It is a commitment to the future in which we invest in ourselves. Our qualifications follow us throughout our lives, most notably on our CV. This « purchase » therefore needs to correspond to ourselves; not only should we feel in agreement with the content of the programme, we should also be in tune with the values, the arguments, the history and the atmosphere of the institution. This emotional aspect creates an attachment that cannot always be explained rationally and for which there is no magic recipe. It is difficult, in these circumstances, to apply the traditional rules of marketing.

In its 25 years of existence, NSB has seen the industry evolve, both its constraints and opportunities. Communication services in the sector did not exist 20 years ago. These days a revolution takes place every year and schools and universities find themselves facing the same challenges as companies.

As a specialized agency, we see every day how higher education institutions have paradoxical facets: even though their objectives and operations are becoming more and more like those of large enterprises – including their competitiveness, communication and race for national and international recruitment – they cannot however borrow any of their methods.

Take as an example product communication. French universities and schools do not communicate much on their actual programmes, or “products”. In reality, in the higher education sector, communicating around a master or bachelor is a difficult exercise because it cannot really be thought of outside of corporate communications. The institution’s brand has a major impact on the image and reputation of its product. If the brand is tainted, the impact on that brand’s product can be immediate. This interdependence between brand product and corporate brand requires institutions to communicate effectively on all fronts and to adopt an extremely powerful and complementary brand strategy in order to exist.

The brand is the name of the game. A strong element of identity is the only thing that can differentiate an institution from its competitors. In higher education, more than anywhere else, the reputation and image of an institution greatly influences its development. And more than in any other sector, the attachment to a school or university requires trust that is placed in it. This plays a key role in the image of an institution. It is also why certifications, labels and international rankings blossom in this sector, as in the equally delicate and complex health sector. Trust and brand equity are a long-term task fraught with pitfalls. Each discourse and communication action must strike a chord with a very heterogeneous audience (including government, alumni and current students).

Today, international development is essential for those involved in higher education and that need to communicate to exist in the market. For there is no doubt about it, higher education is a globalized market. NSB has seen it for over 20 years, accompanying institutions from around the world in their global communication strategy. In most cases, schools and universities have understood the importance of this issue and also use it as a strong argument for their communication. But they are struggling to make themselves visible internationally due to a lack of knowledge, understanding, methodology and resources. The thought process needs to be made ahead of time, and should be given an important place at the heart of the strategy. You need to know how to understand the valuable expertise and which markets to address. This is rarely the case. To capture the international higher education market, we must understand the reasons for student flows, whether they are cyclical or structural, recognize opportunities consistent with the institution and communicate accordingly. This requires devoting time to the observation of the international environment and responding to it.

Also, and this is a point on which schools and universities do not have control, the policy framework governing international programmes in France must become more flexible. If international communication is an essential need for an institution, it can also come back like a boomerang and leave a positive image in the French market. The Financial Times ranking is a concrete example. In the future, it will be increasingly difficult for schools and universities to ignore this point, although for some, their recruitment goals will not be found there. The competition is twofold: on the domestic market and the international market. The ambition of studying abroad is growing among the French: parents, like students, present this as a key argument in choosing a programme. Along with this, there is a real increase in international rankings, information tools and reassurance for parents and students. An institution must therefore be able to master these rankings, knowing how to integrate them and exploit them in terms of communication opportunities in a global market. I am betting that these international rankings will experience exponential growth in the years to come for international students who are increasingly mobile and who lack information on the programmes available.

Digital also plays an indispensable role in international communication. The internet abolishes geographical boundaries and challenges the established codes of education. What emerges from a school on the internet is a reflection of an institution’s global communications. Articles on digital media, visibility of research, « customer » relationships through comments on forums, product communication, videos, social networks, etc. Working your influence on social networks and mastering digital tools is therefore crucial, but requires certain skills. Indeed, you need to know how to use social networks in your target countries as well as in their language, as with Weibo in China for example.

The impact on recruitment is important, especially when we see the breakthrough of tools such as LinkedIn or the rise of YouTube channels, buoyed by the buzz of creative videos. But internationally, the digital issue has too seldom been a real upstream strategy for schools and universities. Hurried along by an increasing competition and under pressure to innovate, institutions have developed low quality tools set up by inexperienced teams and thus unsuitable for the audience. As businesses place the « final consumer » more and more at the centre of their strategy, digital allows schools and universities to focus their communication on students and their needs, which can be achieved through the students themselves using the feedback principle of web 2.0.

Downolad the White Paper (in french) fom Audencia website

 


 

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