What we can learn from Essex

The Results Day and Clearing period is always an interesting opportunity for marketers in higher education to gain an insight into competitor campaigns. Every year there are shining stars that use inspired tactics, and every year there are those that miss the mark. Usually, if the mark is missed, it impacts solely on the university’s applications rates. This year, well, this year we saw what happens when a university takes aim and misses.

For Clearing 2018, the University of Essex’s tagline was “WE NEED TO TALK”. Never has a tagline been more appropriate as Clearing, for them, descended into questionable territory which had followers deeply divided.
Targeting their campaign to the “bold”, “brave” and “to those who challenge why”, it was inevitable that they were always going to push boundaries, as we all aim to do. After all, if we’re not pushing boundaries then we’re not growing and learning. Starting out on Twitter with pop-culture gifs, they set the bar for the day:


The use of gifs in social media for HE institutions is one that is heavily debated across the industry, with some considering them a fun and easy way to connect with our ever digitally focused target audience, and others believing the use of them cheapens the University by undermining the intellect and reputation of the institution. In the balanced diet of the digital world, we believe that they fall into the category of “use in moderation”. And, just like you wouldn’t take a takeaway into the Ritz hotel restaurant to eat, you wouldn’t put a gif in the wrong in the wrong conversation on social media.

The trouble for Essex started when their “sassy” gifs changed to “sassy” tweets and then in turn this:

What we can learn from Essex’s mistakes

It instantly split their audience with some praising their “bold” move:


while others weren’t so enamoured:

It certainly sent shock waves around the social stratosphere, with Essex defending their actions as an attempt to lighten the tension that Clearing usually brings:


However, many felt they had crossed the line, including the University of Leeds, which came to Leeds Beckett’s defence:

before Beckett responded themselves with “we’re too busy”:


It took a few days but news clearly spread in the Essex marketing office and an apology was issued:

Dragging another business into a marketing comparison is something that must be thought about to ensure it is done well. It requires precision, consideration and a level of respect that it seems this tweet failed in delivering. A storm in the teacup of Clearing it may have been – but there are lessons to be learned here.

The first lesson is that publicity stunts like this only work if everyone is on board. Leeds Beckett and the University of Leeds clearly weren’t and did not appreciate the “banter”.

The second is that we need to choose our moment. Clearing is a very tense period for all involved. It’s maybe not the best time to start social media campaigns that emulate keyboard-warrior behaviours. At the very best, a bad post will get ignored and will fall under the radar, wasting nothing but time spent composing the offending message. At the very worst, it will damage the institution’s reputation and make the marketing team look like novices in a field they really should be experts in.

The third lesson is more learned from the involvement of University of Leeds: supporting other universities is paramount. While, yes, the industry is arguably growing more competitive than it ever has been, we must remember that Higher Education is about collaboration. Some of our main competitors are our main supporters and supporting each other adds more value to our own institutions. Undermining other universities will do nothing but reflect badly on your own.

And, finally, it serves as a lasting lesson that marketing a university is very different to marketing a product. As expectations from students grow and the market for applications grows along with those expectations, HE institutions must remember their place. There may be more scope to interact with our students or potential students in a more lighthearted, less formal way to showcase our personality as an institution, but we must remember that the personality needs substance too – and one that shouldn’t be undermined with the wrong style of campaign.

We, as an institution, have a strong set of values that are now clearly outlined in our Strategic Framework and Brand Guidelines. And, while we ourselves are also aiming to be bold and brave, and we are pushing our own boundaries, the frameworks and guidelines are there for us to check back on.

One final note to leave you on: we have spoken to plenty of staff members over the past few months who are making their first steps into the world of social media from a professional point of view and are concerned about things like the above.

There is a lot of worry about “saying the wrong thing” and getting into trouble for what you say. I’ll reiterate what I say to everyone that says this to me: you are experts in your fields, you need to own that. Be proud of your knowledge and understanding, share your opinion and be open to discussions. Providing you keep your opinions and discussions professional then you shouldn’t come into any trouble.

As always, we’re here to help, so if you have any questions around social media, please get in touch on digitalsupport@derby.ac.uk or come along to one of our monthly drop-in sessions which are publicised through Derby Daily.

This blog is about how we can make our website as accessible as possible

Do you understand what this blog is about? If you believe it will give you information about how we can make our website as accessible as possible then the title has done its job.

I have, obviously, over-egged the pudding to make a point [do you all understand that metaphor? If not, it is not accessible]. But the first step on the road to an accessible website is to have a title for each page that tells the reader what they can find on the page. And that continues through the initial content, the subheads, the images, everything. At no point do we want our audience to be wondering what our page is about.

That is the first stage of accessibility. And it is also the first item in our content checklist titled How to achieve AA accessibility rating:

  • Your web page must have a title that describes its topic or purpose

You will be thinking that goes without saying but one of the biggest blockers for accessibility is assumed knowledge.

A short story

Let me tell you a story. A short one.

I put together a list of 15 points specifically relating to content and how to make it accessible. I shared this list with a few people and asked for feedback. I was slightly embarrassed to get replies back saying: “What does this mean?”

Clearly my list wasn’t accessible. Not everybody knows what an “alt tag” is and what it does. I do and had assumed everyone else did as well. The checklist has now been updated with better descriptions. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. All feedback welcomed.

It’s the law

We have an approaching legal requirement to make our website accessible. And we need to achieve an AA accessibility rating. We have put together our content checklist on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. This is what WCAG says about accessibility:

“Following these guidelines will make content accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity and combinations of these. Following these guidelines will also often make your web content more usable to users in general.”

computer keyboard

Our checklist

And this is our AA content accessibility checklist:

  • Your web page must have a title that describes its topic or purpose.
  • All images must have “alt tags”. This is a description of the image and can be added in the Media Library in the “Description” field. NB when creating a media gallery, ensure you use a different description for each image.
  • The purpose of each link on the page can be determined from the link text alone. Do not use simply ‘Click here’ or ‘Read more’.
  • Use easy-read alternatives to technically advanced text. Ideally text should be written to be easily readable by all levels of ability.
  • Only play sound if user activates it [unless there is a good reason otherwise].
  • Do not rely solely on shape, size, visual location, orientation or sound for understanding or navigation. Eg avoid content such as “click on the triangular button on the right when the music starts”.
  • Do not change context (eg go to another page, play video) unless this is activated by the user. We want our users’ journey through our website to be as predictable as possible.
  • Provide submit buttons to initiate change of context (eg go to another page, play video) and warn users in advance when opening a new window [opens in new window].
  • Avoid images of text as these cannot be read by screen readers (logos are OK – with the appropriate alt tag).
  • If language changes within the text, mark it in the source code so it is recognised by screen readers. Eg if there is a paragraph in French, use code <p lang=”fr”>Il y a un paragraphe en francais.</p>
  • Information conveyed by colour differences should also be explained in text. For instance, the following four points are technical and will need to be discussed with video/audio providers.
  • Provide a text transcript of audio-only content.
  • Provide captions for all prerecorded audio/video content. Note: captions include subtitles plus text to describe important sounds.
  • Provide a second audio track on all prerecorded video to provide audio description – or a second version of the video with audio description.
  • Provide captions on live audio content.

What’s next?

We are testing our accessibility regularly using the SiteMorse platform and updating our pages where necessary.

We are also taking steps to improve our methods and our content types as we learn more about what is required. For instance, users can now toggle captions on and off on video within the website, and we now have the provision to add text transcripts to video files. We are also investigating the possibility of users being able to toggle to pared down, less visually noisy versions of pages. Every day’s a school day.

A close-up of the YouTube caption button

What we need now is for our content producers to make sure any new content achieves these AA standards.

All new video we upload to the website must have captions and we also want to add a full transcript of what is said in our videos. By the time the law applies to us, we need to make sure EVERY video, new or old, on our website has both of these features. NOTE: We cannot rely on YouTube’s auto captions. They seem to work OK a lot of the time but will then say something jawdroppingly embarrassing. We do not want this. We now have guidance on how to correct subtitles and create transcripts.

Accessibility is a challenge and one we intend to meet well before it becomes a legal requirement. The bigger challenge is to make sure the website is accessible while also being appealing and engaging to all our users.