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Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
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9th Oct 2013

The human side of content marketing

As much as business operations and marketing are different now than decades ago because of the Internet and consumers’ increasing gravitation online for information, entertainment, and … everything … we sometimes forget that there is much that hasn’t changed. For example, the following five facts are as true today as they were 100 years ago:

  1. People like to buy from people they like. As much as we are “wired,” we remain human and we continue to seek out people we admire and trust. We look for those people even as we search and investigate URLs – looking for testimonials, videos, people to talk to one-on-one, content that seems personal and authentic.
  2. Customers trust other customers more than they trust businesses. Businesses, including schools, have had vested interests from time immemorial – they have to in order to survive – so they can’t help but put their best face forward and downplay their weaknesses. What’s most compelling to a potential customer is encountering current and prior customers who speak honestly about their experience with a business. It is within schools’ best interest to locate and engage such customers (i.e., students), as they are immensely valuable to and credible in the marketing effort.
  3. Customers like to associate with businesses that make them look good and smart. This is as true of a current international student as it was of an early-1900s gentleman buying a suit – when proud of their investment they are more likely to share their excitement about it with others.
  4. Businesses that succeed listen to and honour their customers. Take two neighbourhood grocery stores in the 1900s, one which was never influenced by its customers’ opinions and input and one which encouraged and acted upon feedback and suggestions. Which would be the more likely to succeed? The latter, of course. The same is true for education institutions today: an ear to the ground – and respect for students’ feedback and sense of what is new and thrilling – is a competitive advantage. Highlighting students’ ideas and accomplishments (e.g., via a Facebook page, blog post, or otherwise) is also wise.
  5. Customers that are buying a big-ticket item, like an international education experience, gravitate to businesses that look stable, organised, confident, and as close to a guarantee (of a successful career, for example) as possible. Today as 100 years ago, “proof points” are hugely important.

These five consistencies between today’s sales and marketing environment and the one 100 years ago carry important implications for a school’s content marketing effort. As a refresher, content marketing is defined as “a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.” It’s based on a simple idea: I give you something valuable for free – information – that can help you, you appreciate it and become more willing to consider buying from me (in an education context, by enrolling in my programmes or courses). That’s really it in a nutshell. And the nutshell is human in many ways.

Responding to good content

The problem is that “content marketing” – an area of considerable buzz in online marketing these days – can be just the latest “must-do” for an institution’s marketing team. But the idea behind content marketing is both simple and profound, and it is more likely to be executed properly when fully understood as a strategy of providing good content and communicating it in human – if digitally enabled – ways. The key here is to understand content (e.g., a blog post, a video, a testimonial, a research paper) as existing within a community of individuals who may or may not decide to pay attention to it and promote it. To increase the likelihood they will engage with it, we can turn back to our five unchanging principles of business and apply them with content marketing implications, such as: 1. People like to buy from people they like. Assess your website, Facebook page (and other social media platforms), emails, and front-line staff members’ approach to make sure they are not just professional, but also friendly.  When students or other businesses go out of their way to share your content, thank them, follow them, and pay attention to them. 2. Customers trust other customers more than they trust businesses. Make students’ voices an integral part of your institution’s marketing. Think testimonials, videos, photos, achievements. As much as possible, let students speak for themselves – it’s more authentic. Monitor what they’re saying on social media and when it’s appropriate, share it and engage with it. 3. Customers like to associate with businesses that make them look good and smart. So publish good content – and make it applicable to your target markets (e.g., geared to the programmes they’re considering). Promote it strategically where students are online (e.g., LinkedIn Groups or if applicable, LinkedIn University Pages to encourage sharing). For more on promotional channels, check our previous content marketing post or branding firm Hinge’s post, “The Missing Piece to Your Content Marketing Strategy." 4. Businesses that succeed listen to and honour their customers. You want your content to be accepted into a community, so be a good community member. Listen to the conversations out there about content that is similar to yours. Comment on other blogs and posts. Guest-blog where appropriate on influential sites. Thank people. Share others’ good content. Listen to students and stakeholders, and provide content that fits their interests. 5. Customers that are buying a big-ticket item gravitate to businesses that look stable, organised, confident, and as close to a guarantee as possible. Let strategy drive your content creation, and execute it well. Wherever possible, have content reaffirm your institution’s competitive advantages – and make sure to have plenty of evidence ready to students who follow your content to your website’s real “conversion” pages: those key points where they take actions that drive your recruitment (e.g., requesting more information or applying for a programme).

A picture is worth a thousand words

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: students are becoming much more visual regarding their content preferences. According to recruitment blogger Cara Joens of the educational marketing firm Converge, when it comes to researching educational choices, prospective students are not just looking for photos and videos of an institution… they are looking for student-produced/starring photos and videos (leading us back to our second marketing constant: Customers trust other customers more than they trust businesses). Joens writes: “On countless occasions in my work with prospective students and families I hear: “What type of student goes there? Will I fit in?” My advice to them: Check out the student-made videos on the college’s website. While the college-created videos are a good start, the real bread and butter are the student-made videos. Here you can see what the students value, what they think is funny and how they interact with each other. From synchronised dance routines to a love of furry creatures, these videos are great!"

"Colleges and universities would be remiss if they weren’t paying attention to the student-created content that is out there on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The good, the bad and the hilarious… it’s what your prospective students are turning to as they do their research and may be the most influential piece of the puzzle. Scary right? Empowering your student population, especially the ones you trust with a camera or a keyboard, to publish more videos, blogs and content will help the right students find their way to you.”

Want to see some inspiring examples? There's tons out there; here are a few to get you started:

  • British Columbia, Canada-based Thompson Rivers University’s myTRU blog is a fantastic example of how an institution can capture, celebrate, and leverage student-produced videos and other content.
  • The nonprofit, non-governmental organisation specialising in international education and exchange CIEE has countless student-produced blogs on a variety of experiences such as high school abroad programmes or gap years.
  • Generator Hostels has some authentic guest blogs from people who have stayed in any of their seven hostels in Europe.
  • For the K-12 sector, here's a long list of videos housed on Kentucky Educational Television's platform and made by Kentucky K-12 students, classes, and clubs which can inspire students, parents and teachers.
  • There's a reason why this video has received over 10.7 million views - nearly 200 communications students at l’Université du Québec à Montréal in Canada created an energetic video that shows students having fun and takes viewers on a fast paced tour of one of the university buildings in their “I Gotta Feelin’” video (view it below and you'll be smiling for the rest of the day, we guarantee it).

We encourage you to explore these examples and when doing so, imagine you are a prospective international student, and see if you don’t...

  • think international students look like they’re having a pretty fabulous time;
  • come away with the idea that the university/organisation is caring for, valuing, and getting in the mix with its international student population/customers;
  • want to go to that school, go on that trip, stay at that hostel... and produce your own video or blog post (oh, and study!).

These are all excellent examples of content marketing, and a great indication of how fun and effective this strategy can be when done well and with the readers and viewers in mind.

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