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.

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