The authentic student voice: A key asset in higher education marketing

Photo by Adem AY on Unsplash

In this extra post, Ari Badlishah highlights the benefits of using authentic student voice in university marketing materials. Ari is a Digital Engagement Officer working for the University of Edinburgh’s Online Learning Marketing team, but wrote this post when she was a MSc Marketing student at the University, working part-time as a Digital Marketing intern for the team.

Like any other student at The University of Edinburgh, I have been on the receiving end of several communications and marketing messages from the University. However, I am in the unique position where l also play a role in distributing these messages to students. Alongside my MSc Marketing studies, I’m working part-time as a Digital Marketing Intern at the University’s Information Services Group, and also as a Business School Student Ambassador. The fusion of these experiences has provided me with deep insight into the importance of showcasing the authentic, raw and genuine student voice.

Ar Badlishah in Princes St Gardens with view of Edinburgh Castle behind her.
Ari in Princes St Gardens, Edinbrgh. Photo credit:: Ari Badlishah

I started my journey into higher education marketing as a Digital Content intern for Newcastle University during my undergraduate years. Creating content was a fun job; my fellow students and I were being paid to share about our student lives. From content on the university application process, to the best study spots on campus, to celebrating graduations during a pandemic. I remember how I also sought out this type of content when before I started my undergraduate years – reading blog posts from students to get further insight into life at Newcastle.

Slightly more than a year ago, I found myself back on the heavy receiving end again. I was a prospective student looking to continue into postgraduate study in the UK. One of the things that got me super excited to come to Edinburgh was a promotional ad for my course, featuring a student from India and his experience. I also attended a webinar introducing my course, where I found incredible value in the experiences shared by the student panel. I even made the effort to connect with them via Linkedin right after the session ended to ask them more.

Take these hypothetical marketing messages below: what potential impact would they would have on students?:

Our online degrees are designed to suit you – study from wherever you are with The University of Edinburgh.

We have a strong commitment to mental health in line with policy X. Our students’ wellbeing is our number one priority.

We produce the most employable graduates in the world – X percent of our students land jobs at top companies within one year of graduating.

and these three:

The nature of my diplomatic job required me to shift back and forth between Sweden and Turkey. Luckily, I could access my lectures from anywhere with a good internet connection. (Lars, MSc International Development)

It was tough to cope during the COVID-19 pandemic while being a mother. Luckily, I managed to get automatically-approved extensions on all my assignments. (Suhaila, MSc Epidemiology)

Doing an online degree wasn’t a walk in the park. However, it all turned out to be worth it when I landed a job at the Fortune 500 company of my dreams. Now, I’ve been working with them for 5 years. (Alfred, MSc Data Science, Technology and Innovation)

I think it’s fair to say that both forms of communication (rational and emotional) are important to promote the University. However, I would argue that the latter three messages would resonate in a more personal manner with students. Knowing the stories, names, and possibly even faces of these very real students make them feel like friends or peers rather than just another institution claiming to be better than others. Prospective (or even current) students appreciate insights from fellow students because they are more authentic – they don’t necessarily polish everything about their student experience, making everything prim and proper for display the way marketing departments typically do. They are more honest about their struggles and challenges, and this provides remarkable value.

It’s possible that there are employees working for a university’s marketing team who studied at the same university, but you can’t beat direct, relevant experience from current students who know what it’s like to be a student at the present moment. The most prominent example I can give is that the COVID-19 pandemic would have made a 2020 final year student’s experience extremely different from the cohort before them!

4 images of student testimonials on Instagram photos
Social media content. Credit: Ari Badlishah

The authentic student voice can be shared in several different formats: graphics, videos, blog posts, quotes, and more. Some of the top-performing social media content I’ve posted for the University were content stories of students. See some examples below, ranging from UniBuddy Ambassador profiles, to celebrating a student being listed in the Forbes 30 Under 30, to online masters graduations, to stories about how students apply their skills in the real world. One could assume that the high engagement of these types of posts may indicate that they are meaningful to prospective and current online students.

Finally, from a more business-like perspective, authentic student experiences are essentially testimonials from customers. Furthermore, when students see themselves or their friends in marketing material, they are more likely to share those arefacts within their circles or engage with them (personally, I like to inform them soon after their content is published!). When they do this, it tends to boost brand awareness and favourability for the University.

Focusing on the ‘human’ aspect is a strategic decision in marketing. As this Forbes article mentions, “Once you’ve succeeded in winning your customers’ hearts, winning their minds should be relatively easy”. I firmly believe that one of the biggest assets in higher education marketing are the students themselves, as they can make or break a university’s reputation.

Ari Badlishah

Ari Badlishah is a Digital Engagement Officer working for the University of Edinburgh’s Online Learning Marketing Team. Her main role is to promote the University’s online masters programmes and free short online courses / MOOCs. Ari is eager to help people discover that they can access a wealth of academic knowledge remotely – simply by surfing the internet. Previously she worked as a Digital Marketing Intern within the same team while completing an MSc Marketing with the University.

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