SUDDENLY everyone appears to be calling for authentic student reviews on university websites – a public place where existing “customers” of higher education can say what it is really like to be studying on a course at this or that university.

Focus on existing customers, says Gerry McGovern

Among those leading the charge is web guru Gerry McGovern (pictured), whose key message is: Focus on existing customers to gain new prospective new ones!

Speaking to higher education marketing and communication professionals from 24 countries at EUPRIO’s (the European higher education PR and communication network) conference in Seville, Spain, Gerry said it was time for universities to wake-up to the huge changes in customer behaviour, particularly among the younger generation.

Digital marketing is about giving attention

Gerry, who The Irish Times called “one of five visionaries who have had a major impact on the development of the Web” in a review of his latest book, Transform: A rebel’s guide for digital transformation, told the 360 EUPRIO delegates:

Gerry McGovern Transform- a rebels guide

“Traditional marketing was about getting attention. Digital marketing is about giving attention.”

“Unfortunately universities are one of the groups of institutions that do not recognise this shift. They are the most conservative and lagging organisations in understanding what is happening with young people.”

Student reviews

“Where are the authentic student reviews on university websites?”

A trawl through university websites had found plenty of young smiling faces and students saying how happy they are at this or that university – but where were the student comments on the weaknesses and what it is really like to be on this or that programme?

“I couldn’t find them on university websites. But the reviews are out there. They are just not on your websites,” said Gerry.

“Students are talking online about how stressful it is to live in terrible accommodation and about unhelpful university staff – and the Internet and technology has allowed them to “amalgamate their opinions” through social media and elsewhere on the web.

Young people and trust

According to Gerry, young people no longer trust the big brands and institutions or the so-called experts – and this could have implications for universities trading on their reputation and past glories!

Jeremy Corbyn caused a youthquake at the General Election

Just look at the way the young flocked to Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn in last year’s UK General Election after media pundits and established politicians like Tony Blair said the left-winger faced electoral wipe out. Or take the thousands of young Irish women and men who flew back to Ireland for the referendum result, overturning anti-abortion laws, despite the strong calls by the Catholic Church and Irish establishment to stick with the ban.

“Trust has not disappeared. It has just shifted, with less trust in brands and more and more younger people trusting others like themselves! This has led to ‘current customer’ obsession. The most important driver in new purchases is the actual customers and not the potential customer.”

1 star reviews validate the 5-stars

Specifically on student reviews, Gerry pointed out that successful companies like Amazon have proved that a 5-star review has no value if you don’t also have 1 or 2 star reviews.

“No-one believes everything is perfect. People want to see the imperfections, but when you look at many university websites all you see is “We are amazing, we are amazing!”

He also urged universities to make their websites more useful and behave like airline or hotel booking sites. “Too many university websites are a jungle of ego and a desert of usefulness. Why is it so difficult to find real information about courses and fees on so many university websites?”

And Gerry is far from being alone in telling universities to stop seeing themselves as the centre of the universe – and remember the student is!

Let students talk, says ICEF

A new blog posted by German-based ICEF Monitor on 13 June 2018 made many of the same points, under a story headlined ‘Let them talk: The power of student reviews’

The article highlighted that

• Prospective students are highly influenced by online peer reviews of schools and destinations
• The availability of candid student reviews has been shown to have a profound impact on prospect engagement, search optimisation, and the overall effectiveness of the recruitment marketing effort

It quoted a recent global KPMG survey found that online reviews are the most-searched-for source of information about products or services (55%), ahead of company websites (47%) and speaking with friends or family (23%).

The power of peer reviews

The blog said: “International students – social media enthusiasts who spend hours of their time on the Internet – are highly influenced by online peer reviews of schools and destinations, especially when the destination is far away and they can’t visit before enrolling.

“They are well aware that institutional websites tend to showcase only positive testimonials, and so they often turn to third-party school selection and review websites such as CourseFinders, Go Overseas, Student Hut, and Hotcourses Abroad. These websites post both positive and negative reviews about schools and universities.

“Their existence, and their popularity, has profound implications for educators. Some of the most successful schools today encourage their students to post reviews on these third-party sites.”

In the ICEF blog, Ross Holmes, CEO of CourseFinders, was quoted saying that research shows that consumers trust the reviews attached to a brand more if there are both good and poor reviews. “It demonstrates that the company isn’t hiding anything. If people see only positive reviews, they become suspicious, and many of them will search elsewhere on the Internet to look for other opinions.”

Studyportals introduces them

Also catching the tide with the changing trends in marketing in the digital age is Studyportals, the study options comparison search platform for international students looking for universities offering bachelor and master’s courses taught in English in Europe and around the world.

They recently completed a pilot scheme offering student reviews on some of the European universities sites using their portals to advertise courses and it was so successful they are rolling it out to the 2000+ universities using the service to promote their English-language taught provision abroad.

Studyportals’ Carmen Neghina said: “We started introducing reviews on the portals two months ago because they were one of the most requested feature by international students.

Introducing reviews: Carmen Neghina from StudyPortals

“Students are more informed than ever about their study options and have become more critical towards university marketing messages. What they value more is the opinion of their peers, other students they can identify with and who can paint a more realistic picture of what studying abroad will mean for them.

“The reviews will help students make a more informed decision about where and what to study and so they can find the university that best fits them personally.”

She added that their research had found that students prefer to read reviews by people they can relate to who are of a similar nationality, age and gender.

So, it looks like the clamour to get real student reviews on actual university websites isn’t likely to go away any day soon!

Also See:

Let them talk: The power of student reviews
ICEF Monitor 13 June 2018

Universities’ marketing is out of date, says web guru

University World News June 13 2018

EUPRIO blog: June 13, 2018

Main photo: Gerry McGovern