Want to attract the world’s best researchers? They all started as undergrads

Broadcast recently on Radio 4, The Chemistry Between Them by Adam Gantz imagines a real meeting between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her former chemistry tutor, Nobel Prize winning Dorothy Hodgkin.

The new academic year is nearly upon us, and for me the play was an enjoyable reminder that even the world's most powerful people were once youthful, idealistic freshers, setting out to change the world.  

This is a key time of year for anyone marketing to students, and it can sometimes feel as though if you haven't introduced your brand to a student in the first  four minutes of arrival, you've lost for them next three or four years, but that's not the case.

For many students in the Western World, their first year as undergraduates is the first year of their adult life, and it's not only academic and scholarly companies that are clamouring for their attention. Bank accounts, contents insurance, supermarkets all know that if they can achieve some familiarity with these burgeoning adults, they can get brand loyalty that could last for decades.
It's notoriously difficult to get undergraduates to concentrate on the fact that they attend university to study. And it's no wonder. I often talk to companies searching for a cheap, swift way to get their service under students' noses, who don't realise that they are competing with the world's largest brands, and largest marketing budgets, for the attention of this extremely important group of consumers.

So what's to be done?

There are a number of approaches that academic publishers can use to cut through the noise and attract student's attention.

1. Offer help
Do you remember the most bewildering aspects of your first week at university? For most of us there was one aspect that brought us to tears – for me it was the university laundry – but I'm sure everyone has their own horror story. Students might be enormously digitally savvy, but they don’t know how to use your database, or access your books through the library catalogue.  
They'll have no clue until someone tells them. And lots of them won’t be able to find their way around campus well enough to make it to library tour their university has arranged. If your online product is used by undergraduates, its tutorial pages should have been looked at by communicators throughout your company – including product specialists and marketing, and ideally read by an eighteen year old to see if they can understand it.

Use visuals if you can, video if you can, and if you offer an online ticketing system switch off any drop down menus divert users to a FAQ page. Put the effort into answering even the simplest of questions for first time users; the Return On Investment for great customer service at this time of year is the long term brand loyaltyyou get. Users who feel supported to use your product won’t go elsewhere.

2. Keep offering help
If you produce an online tutorial, add the link to universal navigation. It’s really only useful if students can find it over and over again.

3 Repeat your messages
And repeat, repeat, repeat. Lots of student will only sit down to attempt their first essay or project in the forty eight hours before its due in. If you've blown your marketing budget in fresher's week, you won't reach these users. Even the student who noticed you in freshers week will need reminding, reminding, reminding. In my experience by far the biggest factor that holds back many publishers is a reluctance to keep pushing their message to give potential users the chance to find them.

4. Review your approach.
Library posters, postcards, a Facebook page – all marketers know the basics. But steadily repeating these channels isn't enough. In 2013 more than 25% of 13 – 17 year olds with accounts left Facebook. Teenagers prefer social media platforms that allow more privacy and anonymity and, quite frankly, where they don't have to be friends with their mum. Meanwhile, they're more and more likely to use YouTube to research a project.

Teenagers move fast, if students are your market, make sure you've spoken to one recently. Focus groups, online discussions, finding ways to incentivise feedback and market research, these all contribute to marketing plans that approach the right channel, in the right way at the right time.

5. Use the institutional channels
The advantage of Facebook should have always been that it's large amount of personal information allowed highly targeted advertising, whether it ever managed it is a moot point. As they move to other platforms students are arguably becoming less identifiable online – but they are still member of their university, and their university knows who they are. Universities differ widely in their approach to marketing to students, but you should know which universities hold your key markets and what the potential for official communication is.

6. Incentivise
Far too often companies who can see the value in what they do undersell themselves to their potential market, because they don’t realise how hard they have to sell it. Students don’t realise that wider reading can get them higher marks, or sophisticated search technology can save them time. And they’re not enormously interested, they just want to hop to the end product, so to pull them in, you might have to incentivise them, don’t trust in your product to speak for itself, it’s rarely that simple.

7. Show them the future
Among the drunk, isolated, confused mass of students starting university this year are policy makers, researchers and academics who may develop a lifelong attachment to your database or publications. Ultimately you’re entering into a relationship with them that runs deeper than their bank account, or which brand of powder they tip into the university machine before accidentally washing everything at 90 degrees. It’s worth spending time and effort and keeping your communications going until the day they realise what they’re really at university for.

Author: Megan Toogood