We are often told that what happens today in the US will happen here tomorrow. So what can we learn about FE marketing from US colleagues?
Well let me start by saying that I'm not convinced that the sequence of events is always from the US to the UK. In the digital and retail worlds the UK often leads. Take for example online shopping and supermarket home deliveries. UK consumers shop online far more than our American cousins. And whereas supermarket deliveries are common in the UK they are far less common in the US and much more expensive.
Always eager to learn more about marketing I was recently in the US to discover more about how US colleges market themselves to prospective students.
A few days after the US Presidential elections I visited Miami Dade College, the largest college in the US, to compare and contrast college marketing across the pond.
MDC is an real eye opener. The main campus covers several blocks, is just a few minutes from sea, and has its own railway station. In total 165,000 students attend the college each year.
The average student age is 26, 66% of students are part time and 75% are in work. So MDC is unlike the typical UK FE college. But with more and more emphasis being placed on working with employers, traditional budgets being cut and the rise of the LEPs we can learn a lot from a college that specialises in being very employer and business focused.
My host for the visit, Dr Achie Cubarrubia, explained that MDC has a strong focus on student access, equal opportunities and institutional agility.
Miami Dade county is unlike the rest of Florida. Florida voted for Trump in the elections but Miami Dade county voted for Clinton. This was largely due to the Hispanic population which is significantly larger than in other parts of Florida.
But what of marketing?
I was surprised to be told that MDC hadn't done much marketing during the recession and it was interesting to hear Noah Brown reflecting the same message in his recent FE News video interview.
In recent years MDC have undertaken more marketing activity. This includes each school within the college having its own prospectus, various other printed material, radio, TV, and a schools push.
But MDC is so well known that courses previously filled without much effort, simply because it is so well known.
My experience in the UK of stopping people In town centres and asking for directions to the local college or private provider indicates that few U.K. providers have the same level of recognition. I often get vague answers and too many people have little or no knowledge of their local providers.
There are various reasons why MDC is better recognised. The student age range at MDC is much older than in U.K. colleges, with a very high proportion of students employed and attending college part time as a means to grow their prospects and career.
And MDC is a community college in a sense unlike UK providers. Community college status in the US means links with the local community are far stronger than anything I've seen in the UK. And MDC are focusing on exploring partnerships with local employers including the Transportation Security Administration at the local airport, to name but one of the larger ones.
Community events such as film and book festivals are one of the most visible community events run each year and give MDC massive profile. While I was there they were in the middle of a book festival. The local streets were closed to traffic and hundreds of stands had been erected. Street after street were about to see thousands of people flock to a week long book festival. A book festival seems to be at odds with the notion of America being the home of the Internet; of Google, Amazon and most of the social media platforms, but this event sees packed streets with thousands of visitors vying for everything from first editions to comics.
In Miami it seems impossible to be unaware of the events, stands, speakers and other related events run by this local college.
Could UK providers replicate something similar? I believe so and I'm already sharing ideas with some providers. I can't see a book event taking off in the UK but there are alternative events that could be in demand.
As Noah Brown indicated in his video the marketing situation has changed since the recession ended. More active marketing is now indicated and the marketing I saw was very similar to what I see in the UK every week.
But there are gaps in what I saw. MDC are currently exploring CRM. Few UK providers have mastered the art of CRM as well as they might. In fact many providers don't use a full CRM system at all. I was surprised to see a major US college not using CRM to the full.
On the positive side the attention to detail MDC gives retention and progression is remarkable. I think we can learn a lot from them in this area. I still see many providers in the UK without formal retention and progression plans. Far too often we depend on a wing and a prayer and think teaching staff will deal with it. My question of UK based senior managers is whether there is any evidence of staff undertaking any retention and progression activity in their organisation. Few can actually demonstrate it in my experience. Too many think it is a marketing activity. Few see that it is an integral part of the teaching strategy and that marketing only plays a marginal part in this. These strategies are absolutely key to maximising income and of ensuring survival.
Prior to visiting MDC we had agreed to spend a large part of our time looking at careers advice provided to potential students. I was well aware of the criticisms made at school level in the UK and personally feel too many UK providers focus on courses rather than careers.
MDC are using a number of software systems to provide career advice to students. Some provided up to date information on vacancies, typical salaries and career prospects whilst others specialised in resume production.
One stood out however and I’m aware is being used by MDC and a number of UK providers. Having some knowledge of this system I had a lot of questions. What ensued however was that my questions prompted questions in return, and we both came to the conclusion that these systems were not being used as effectively as they could be in Miami or the UK.
When I enquired about how careers advice was provided to prospective students at MDC there was a lightbulb moment. It was being used very effectively to aid progression but not at all as effectively in terms of prospective students. I provided some UK case studies and a decision was immediately made to remedy the MDC situation. I eagerly await the results.
What was clear to both myself and MDC was that the provision of careers advice prior to course advice makes a lot of sense. In fact I'd go further, it is absolutely vital as part of a progression strategy.
A number of UK providers have invested heavily in career advice software. Some use it internally as part of the careers function, some use it for marketing with a small percentage embedding it on their website. In a very small number of cases I find individuals using it in class as part of their teaching. But I've yet to find a UK provider using it at marketing events, on their website, as a planning tool, for retention and progression in the classroom and as a teaching aid as a concerted strategy.
We are not alone in this. MDC used career guidance software quite well internally for progression purposes but hadn't, when I visited, embedded it in their website. It seems we all have a lot to learn about the plethora of new technologies now available.
One thing is certain. By sharing experiences between providers and countries we can understand how to market more effectively. Travel certainly broadens our experiences, minds and expectation. But the first step is to truly look at ourselves and be critical about what we are doing in reality as opposed to what we think we are doing. We need to consider how we can be improve against benchmarks, even where our benchmarks are only internal.
Lastly I’d like to offer my congratulations to Dr Eduardo Padron, MDCs President. During my stay in Florida Eduardo was one of only 15 people presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. This followed Obama’s recent visit MDC’s Wolfson campus where he spoke with passion about his Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
About Stefan Drew
FHE Marketing Consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for the last decade has worked with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US
Visit: www.StefanDrew.com and http://www.providermastermind.com