‘Marketing for a college also promotes the wider FE cause’

Competitive marketing between neighbouring colleges was criticised by FE Commissioner Dr David Collins when he wrote to principals and chairs with his view of a collaborative future. However, Andy Wilson explains how marketing has played its part in his college success story.

Even by the Alice in Wonderland standards the sector has become accustomed to, the FE Commissioner’s recent letter was particularly noteworthy.

I only knew the October 30 letter existed through an FE Week tweet on November 10. Yet its main wisdom, apart from that large class sizes are more efficient, is that FE colleges spend too much money on individual marketing rather than taking a collective approach.

We can all learn and benefit from the more successful college brands.

Following the commissioner’s practice it seems we should all post on a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills website and hope the press pick the message up.

The effectiveness and efficiency of marketing or, more specifically, publicity are an area of regular soul searching at Westminster Kingsway.

We sit at the centre of London and maintain a comprehensive offer for local students by attracting others from all 32 London boroughs and beyond.

We were a regional specialist centre for hospitality long before it was fashionable. However, young people not in education, employment or training (Neet) escaping postcode wars and A-level students wanting to feel close to prestige universities travel considerable distances to us.

Maintaining this wide reach requires buying in the most expensive advertising market in the country.

We use the Evening Standard and commercial radio, albeit sparingly, because it is more cost-effective than the alternative network of local outlets.

Our strategy has helped us grow 16 to 18 numbers by 50 per cent in six years, hit almost all our funding targets and maintain financial reserves which provide some hope of continuing survival. Oh yes, and we have an average class size around 19.

Nobody wants to spend large sums on marketing and everybody believes they are an expert in marketing.

Course marketing is always guaranteed to generate lively debate at meetings of teaching staff. Westminster Kingsway has a small team of well-regarded marketing professionals who regularly contribute to sector events and win awards.

My prejudice is that most of our students initially select us following word of mouth recommendations. However, our research is clear that these tentative decisions are reinforced through publicity be it open days, school liaison or radio adverts.

More than ever, FE is required to create its own markets. We have been at the forefront in reducing Neet numbers and widening access to higher education.

We must now encourage more people in to science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects, apprenticeships and routes to employment.

Even the government acknowledges the ‘Green Cross Code Man / Clunk Click / AIDS iceberg’ approach to advertising no longer works. Today brands and identities matter.

The successful promotion of a brand increases sales across competitors as well as for the brand itself. Where would tablet computing be without the IPad?

We know that FE itself lacks that strong identity but we can all learn and benefit from the more successful college brands. The challenge I now pose our marketing team is to understand how to promote Westminster Kingsway to employers as successfully as they have done to 17-year-olds.

Last month’s survey of FE marketing activities by Carthy Communications found an average spend of 1.8 per cent of turnover, a drop in the ocean compared with the cuts we are suffering, or even the public sector ‘rule of thumb’ of 3 per cent.

In the private service sector a spend closer to 10 per cent is common.

My biggest beef with the commissioner is his willingness to pick a soft target when the issues we face are so much greater.

Like many others, Westminster Kingsway has seized the challenge to develop a commercial mindset and adopted business strategies to succeed in a difficult market place with uncertain trading conditions.

Am I the only one to detect a nudge away from this back to an old-fashioned, public-sector view of deferential colleges? As the Mad Hatter said: ‘Why is it you’re always too small or too tall?’

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  1. Marketing is a major part of careers advice and is necessary to attract sufficient numbers so that classes are of a viable size not to run at a loss (the first thing Dr Collins would rightly criticise if run at a loss). If only the schools would tell their pupils about the alternatives to A levels, and be honestly sanctioned by Ofsted for not doing so, the sector could probably spend less on marketing. Is there an effective national web site or careers service where young people and adults can go to get a really well informed view of impartial careers advice? If I was a Londoner and wanted to become a chef I would have a priority list of colleges (with ‘Westminster’ at the top because of inspection reports, reputation and famous ex-learners)and training providers for apprenticeships. A few years down the line from now the intelligence from Ofsted reports about where it would be best to train to become a chef will have gone with the cessation of SSA inspection and ever skimpier reports, so it will be up to colleges to push their best points by marketing learner success stories and facilities.