From education to employment

How to engage college customers more effectively

This is what we do every day isn’t it? It is something we are very good at.

Or is it?

Engagement in action

Let’s look at engagement in action. Some years ago I needed some business advice and went to a government agency. They made all the right noises and finally sent someone to visit my office. He asked many questions and subsequently sent me some information.

He went back to his office having engaged with me but I never heard from him again.

The only problem was he didn’t really listen to me. He sent me the information he decided I wanted rather than what I actually wanted and I felt very disappointed. He also failed by not coming back to me a few weeks later to check how things were going and if I needed any more help. That government department has now closed .. but of course it was “very successful” at engaging with the business community.

So, in the FE world, how do our customers perceive us?

Do we really engage with them? Or are we like the defunct government agency?

From my observation I know we are very good at telling the business community what we are going to deliver next. Over the years hundreds of employer and curriculum groups have been established in colleges. They have presented their latest courses, only for the group to quietly die due to lack of support from employers.  The problem is that most of these groups are about the colleges and not the employers’ needs. The result is employers voting with their feet.

Have often do we ask customers what they want?

Sadly the above is the norm. Admittedly there are a few colleges that ask the employers what they want, but from working with many colleges, I find this to be the exception rather than the rule.

One college that does engage customers very well, via employer groups, is Warwickshire College. Their Pershore Forward group was established in 2007, following merger with Pershore College, and is still going strong. This group was set up to listen to employers. To prevent the perception of it being a College group, rather than an employers group, an external chair was appointed. The chair is a person well respected by the industry and college and holds both to account. From the outset the members of this group have represented the leading employers from the UK horticultural industry with members travelling considerable distances to advise the college. A measure of the engagement is the impact the group has had on the curriculum and structure of the College.

Local Employer Engagement

Not all forms of engagement are national. And sometimes letting customers them vote with their feet .. or computer mouse .. is the way forward.

For example many colleges produce digital or hard copy business newsletters. Analysis of these demonstrates there is a strong tendency for them to be college centric sales documents and not engagement tools.

However it isn’t difficult to make them into powerful engagement tools. One college recently tested two versions of an online business newsletter. One version was all about new courses. The other focused on business tips followed by a brief mention of available courses.

The college concerned split tested these newsletters by sending a different version to two randomly selected groups. The sales version was opened by a handful of people but no one actually clicked on a link to obtain more details.   In contrast, many more people opened the business tips version and 12% of those people clicked on to a link to read more.

More significantly the business tips version of the newsletter saw several people email with the college with positive comments. Unsurprisingly the college concerned has listened to the employers and now send out tips with every newsletter. Consequently, “open rates” are increasing and long term engagement between the college and local employers is improving at a steady rate.

Engagement is clearly more than just a newsletter but it is one tool in the marketing arsenal.

Stefan Drew is a marketing consultant, and was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges. He now works with providers throughout Europe and the US

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