How UNSW's new marketing division is tackling digital strategy

Newly appointed vice-president international marketing and communications talks about the legacy issues and the opportunities thanks to digital investment

UNSW’s dedicated new marketing division is beefing up its digital marketing strategy as it looks to centralise operations and make marketing a formidable force, according to its newly appointed vice-president international marketing and communications.

“We want to be the leading university in the digital marketing space across a higher education sector globally,” Fiona Docherty, the former international pro vice-chancellor, told CMO. “I am excited to flesh out what our digital journey is going to look like and the investment we are going to make to modernise our activity.

“We want to transform ourselves from a team of marketers that don’t really use technology, don’t really handle the online world as best we can, to be a team that is acknowledged globally as not just the same as everybody else, but having leapfrogged the best in-class within the higher education sector. That is the journey we are on.”

Targeting the right audience

A core part of the digital marketing strategy involves reaching a new target audience - high school students - via digital marketing campaigns that educate and support potential students and make it easier for them to envision a future at UNSW.

UNSW's Fiona Docherty
UNSW's Fiona Docherty


“We understand a great university is not just about enrolling the brightest students, but providing opportunity for those that have potential," Docherty said. "One of our tasks of the digital marketing strategy is to reach out to groups of students who wouldn’t normally come to university - or consider university [such as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds] - and give them support. This is where our digital marketing strategy can help support students much earlier in the high school system.”

Centralised force

Docherty said UNSW is also working to centralise its marketing operations after the new marketing division was hatched in October 2016.

Across campus, more than 250 marketing and communications staff previously spread across nine different faculties in a “very dispersed approach in terms of marketing activities” are now being more centrally managed as part of a more integrated marketing and communications plan locally and globally, she explained.

But while centralisation of the marketing and communications teams is ideal, the goal isn’t to squash its rich storytelling approach by over-centralising and ignoring individual faculty team efforts, she said.

“One of our great strengths of our approach has been the ability to tell stories around our research, our teaching. The fact marketing people can actually be on the pulse of what’s actually happening across campus has created a rich bank of stories that we’ve been able to tell in a very genuine way and we don’t want to lose that, but we do want to have a much more unified approach to position the university,” she said.

Docherty acknowledged universities have been slow to adopt change, and UNSW is no exception in that it is having to deal with a number of legacy issues at a time of great shifts and technological transformation.

“Partly, universities are playing catch up with other sectors,” she explained. “The university is going through one of the most significant transformations in our brief history. We were established after the Second World War, we’ve built ourselves up to be one of the world's’ top 50 universities.

“Even in our short history, we’ve done amazing things, but our new strategic plan challenges us to really transform ourselves again and have a really ambitious agenda to 2025 across academic excellence. But more importantly, how do we take our fantastic research and teaching and translate it into real benefits for the community we serve in Australia and globally?”

Embracing technology

Arguably, one of the biggest challenges is dealing with the lack of technology systems in place at the university - a situation that Docherty hopes to rectify with the rollout of a new CRM system. Pilots started in March and will run until the end of the year.

“We don’t have a lot of systems that we use to support our marketing and communications activity so we’re starting from a really low base," she said. “We’re just on the cusp of having our first-ever university wide system in place at UNSW - that speaks volumes about how technology has featured in our marketing activity. I’m excited because the technology will help us unleash a whole raft of new initiatives and ideas.

“We have been a very successful organisation, but technology hasn’t helped us, so I can see huge potential in taking that step forward when we actually have the tools to help staff do their job much more effectively.”

Provided the pilots go well, the university expects to have all of the student recruitment locally moved over to the new CRM system by the end of the year.

“If the system works and there are no glitches, we are going to move as quickly and as rapidly as we can. Although many of the staff have not worked with a CRM system before," Docherty continued. "My anxiety is not over the technology - that's proven. My anxiety is more around the staff members capability to harness the system to run campaigns. That’s where I see investing a lot of the time as well as making sure the technology is embedded and works.”

In addition to a lack of knowledge about CRM, Docherty grapples with the fact the marketing crew needs to modernise its skillsets and become more like marketing scientists, given the rapid rate of transformation, technological development and access to data.

“We have incredibly committed enthusiastic passionate marketing communications staff working for us, but I feel we need to send them back to school to train them to be more like scientists rather than creative marketers,” she said. The aim is to have staff making more informed decisions - and better contact with students - thanks to the raft of customer data now available.

But Docherty argued CRM technology does have its limitations and won’t entirely meet the needs of her marketing department.

“I do think it has its limitations when it comes to really connecting with our social media strategy and our digital marketing strategy. And I’m interested to explore platforms that enable us to embed our CRM system into a much more integrated digital marketing platform," she said.

“Our challenge is looking at the level of investment we want to make to not just help us catch up but to leapfrog some of our competition. Understanding the limitations of CRM and what other systems we need to invest in to future proof our marketing strategy - and not just catch up - is key. There aren’t that many people who make that easy to do to develop that platform that is truly integrated.”

Looking ahead, Docherty is interested in garnering more information from UNSW’s social media activities.

“We tend to use social media just to listen and look at what people are saying about UNSW, keep our finger on the pulse, but I think there’s much richer data that we could, and should be collecting, on students who are researching their university choices to help us tailor our marketing campaigns.”

She noted the UNSW doesn’t do a lot of testing on its online campaigns, another gap in its digital marketing skillset.

“We don’t test, adapt, and test again. We launch a campaign, and we wait until the end to see if it has worked. That is the old-fashioned approach to marketing activity," she said. "Some of the strongest gains will be made in us really testing and refining our marketing activity in real-time. But we don’t have the tools at the moment to do that easily.”

The team is also keen to better determine advertising effectiveness, and how UNSW reaces out to niche audiences and build prospects, particularly its student recruitment activity.

Strategic partnering

It's not just about internal focus, either. Docherty said the marketing division needs to step out of higher education and network with partners locally and globally in order to forge “strategic partnerships” that will open up new possibilities.

“We need to get a taste of how things are done in other areas and then bring that learning back into the organisation. We need to determine how to partner very strategically with organisations that are prepared to welcome our marketing staff if it allows the company to access our interesting research in a particular field that might be of interest to them?”

Key areas of partnership could include energy and environmental endeavours (looking at solar), or social and business pursuits, including how to empower students to start their own businesses.

Docherty agreed there’s lots on her plate, a situation she calls both “energising and scary in equal measure.”

“You wake up every day and there’s new technology, there’s new ideas, and it sometimes feels like you are running all of the time to catch up. However, it is hugely energising as well. For me, being open to new ideas and harnessing the talents and skills of our community will be the thing that keeps us grounded and keeps us focused on all of the positives of technology transformation.”

Check out more of CMO's coverage of digital marketing transformation across Australia's tertiary education sector:

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