The complex branding challenges of higher education institutions in emerging countries can seem unmanageable. First, services and degree programmes offered by universities seem to be identical, making it hard to stand out. Second, universities in emerging countries often suffer from a lack of formal communication methods to connect the value of their brand to their target audience.
But building a brand for higher education institutions in emerging countries needn’t be a nightmare – especially if you know how to use social media marketing to develop brand credibility and brand equity. In this research, emerging countries are considered to be countries that are on a path towards prosperity with economic development, low per capita income and high potential for growth, such as Vietnam, Thailand and Tunisia.
We examined students’ perceptions of marketing on social media based on two communication methods: user-generated content and institution-generated content to develop brand credibility and brand equity, using data from a survey with 936 undergraduates, from two emerging countries, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Here we present advice based on our findings.
User-generated content vs institution-generated content
To create and exchange information about the university brands with prospective students, social media marketing is developed in two forms: user-generated content and institution-generated content.
User-generated content refers to the media content created by students, staff, alumni and other stakeholders for the educational institution that can be shared directly or repurposed. It could be them capturing their personal journeys, the university campus, graduation ceremonies, festivals or simply sharing memories.
Institution-generated content is the media content created by university marketing team on official brand pages and social media channels.
Although these two forms of content are equally important, students are highly reliant on and follow user-generated content as it is not designed to serve a commercial purpose. Authentic and entertaining, user-generated content makes a big impact on institutions’ brands because it presents an authentic view of campus life.
User-generated content motivated prospective students in Sri Lanka and Vietnam to develop positive feelings towards an institution, our research showed, due to the collectivist culture in these countries.
Peer-to-peer marketing of this nature is not new, but institutions still miss opportunities to pivot their content strategies towards authentic, student voices. Here are some easy ways to encourage students to create more content and build a positive brand value for their university.
- Understand what motivates prospective students to connect with institutional brands, ie, relatable student-generated content. There should be a balance between the social media content created by the marketing team and other stakeholders in order to present the university from different angles.
- Let students play a role in managing the institution’s social media accounts. Universities can form a social media managing team with a student ambassador. They can capture the student experience and share this via the official social media accounts. They can also help promote the institution’s hashtag to encourage more students to use it in their own posts.
- Get alumni on board. Former students have lived and gained rich life experiences at a particular institution before moving on to other projects and professions. Current and aspiring students will look to them for inspiration.
- Embed user-generated galleries on the institution’s website. Showcase the engaging content that your students, alumni or staff create on your website. It is a great way to bring some colour to your university website and create a positive and friendly image.
Driving factors of institutions’ brand equity
Brand equity refers to the value endowed by the institutional brand, which helps to mitigate risks, such as fewer applicants or student attrition, and differentiates a university from its competitors.
By building credibility, a university will increase its brand equity, our study shows. To make enrolment decisions, prospective students are dependent on universities providing accurate and truthful information. They want to know that the institution they apply to will deliver on its promises. As institutions increasingly use social media to share, communicate and collaborate with current and potential students, they must ensure that the information shared is trustworthy. To address these challenges, universities can:
- Talk about students’ pain points. For example, the marketing team could research what worries students most and run a campaign covering key pain points and highlighting the support available.
- Create engaging video content: using short videos, institutions can better explain degree programmes, what they will involve, and the benefits to prospective students via social media.
- Virtual campus tours: give prospective students an insight into what the university is like in real life by creating virtual tours of the campus. It can help prospective students get a more authentic feel for the institution.
These strategies to help develop an institution’s brand equity should be used in combination in order to engage potential students and encourage an enrolment decision.
This insight is based on a recently published study: “Higher education institutes’ brand equity in emerging markets: Impact of social media marketing and brand credibility” in Q1-ranked Journal of Marketing Communications.
Charitha Harshani Perera is a lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Law at Northumbria University.
Rajkishore Nayak is an associate professor, and Long Thang Van Nguyen is a senior lecturer in the School of Communication and Design at RMIT University, Vietnam.
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