10 predictions for education advancement over the next 10 years

By Posted in - 10th birthday & Advancement on August 8th, 2017 0 Comments

If there’s one thing we’ve become known for at Pickle Jar Communications, it’s our relentless mission to spot and engage with emerging trends in marketing and communications – helping schools, colleges and universities plan for the future.

So, it only seems appropriate – in the week in which we celebrate our 10th birthday – that I pause for a moment to reflect on what I think the next 10 years have in store for education sector advancement, and the impact it will have on our roles, requirements and activities.

1. The brand challenge

In yesterday’s post I looked back over the last 10 years of education advancement. I observed that brand strategy had been embraced and recognised as important in the sector. However, while we’ve embraced it at an institutional level, we still haven’t really nailed it sector-wide. In other words, we’ve become good at talking about ourselves, but not great at how we talk about differentiation and distinctiveness.

I’ve recently contributed a chapter on the role of content strategy in influencing, shaping and implementing brand strategy to a forthcoming book being published by CASE. It’s called The challenge of being distinctive, edited by Susie Baker and Anna Myers, and it’s being launched in September.

It’s my argument and belief that content strategy has the power to absorb brand strategy and take it to a whole new level. That in turn will enable us to unlock our distinct identity and differentiate more effectively – not just between institutions, but also in different relationships with different audiences.

2. The pressure to demonstrate return on investment (ROI)

Let’s face it, in the current political climate there’s no sign that the education sector is suddenly going to get a windfall cash injection. Schools are struggling, and universities and colleges scratch their heads over the challenge of identifying and thriving from alternative income streams.

Alongside this, advancement as a discipline and as collection of roles has grown. As we’ve invested more in resourcing this within our institutions, so too will we increasingly be held to account over the impact of our work.

ROI is often muttered, but rarely fully considered, and it is even more rare to find an institution that has truly planned their measurement and evaluation techniques to really tell an actual story about the return that different approaches really give in – excuse the crudeness – hard cash terms. Over the next 10 years we will almost certainly be called upon to demonstrate our worth and our value-add as advancement professionals to the institutions that we serve.

3. The science of influencer engagement

Alongside the need to demonstrate our ROI, we’re also going to find smarter and more scientific approaches to demonstrating and advancing our influence over networks and communities.

We already see the rise of the influence of individuals online. From YouTube celebrities to individual journalists or commentators developing voice and influence outside of media outlets, to powerful and knowledgeable figures in niche fields of interest engaging small but highly significant communities. Our approach to understanding and planning influencer mapping activities has to extend far beyond nonsensical, over-simplified methods such as Klout scores.

Last year we led a pioneering piece of influencer mapping work for University College London (UCL) in which we developed a methodology for assessing influence online and identifying influential networks. We’re expecting to be increasingly be called on to help other schools, colleges and universities understand how to assess influence, and plan for advancing it.

4. Artificial intelligence and conversation design

2017 is the year of the chatbot… they say. And while there have been significant leaps forward in messenger bots and artificial intelligent devices in our homes, smart phones and even cars – from the Amazon Echo to the Google Home to Apple’s Siri to the dodgy bots on Tinder, and many more. But, let’s face it, we’ve all had those experiences where we ask a question or give an instruction and it just doesn’t quite work out right. You know, when you ask it to set a timer for 15 minutes, and 50 minutes later you hear the sound heralding the news that your pizza is burned to a crisp (or is that just me?)

Nevertheless the technologies that facilitate conversational interfaces and the advancements in natural language processing (NLP) are leaping ahead, and over the next 10 years (almost certainly less) we’ll see adoption of these in education advancement roles and more… maybe even at the expense of roles filled by real people. From handling recruitment enquiries, to managing student services, to getting help with using a printer, to finding a room on campus, to asking for financial advice, to…well, whatever else we can imagine.

Right now, we should be planning for this by understanding our audiences, their needs, and their language better. We should also be preparing for this by deconstructing our content more, and building meaning into that content through semantic markup. I’m running a full day workshop on this in London on 26th October 2017 if you want to find out more about communication professionals can do now to prepare for this and many of the other predictions in this post.

5. Personalisation and automation

The technologies are already available to create highly personalised experiences for our audiences in how they engage with our content. From content management systems (CMS) able to deliver personalised web pages, to marketing automation platforms delivering personalised emails and other content in response to audience interests and behaviours.

There are barriers that we have to first overcome. Firstly, we need to know our audiences in greater depth, getting to the heart of their values, their interests, their pain-points and their motivations. Secondly, we need to plan for the increased volumes of content that personalisation demands and align resource to this. Personalisation also demands tighter approaches to content governance. Finally, we need to plan better triggers to be able to tell us more about who the audiences are, what they’re interested in, and therefore what personalised content we ought to serve to them, and when.

As our teams, our skills, and our approach to content strategy evolve over the coming years, we’ll be ready in the sector to fully embrace this and really make personalisation and automation work hard for us, delivering greater relevance to our audiences.

6. Experience design

While we are great at creating some great content for our audiences across the breadth of advancement professions, we’re often still a little stuck in message mode: what do we want to say to them, rather than what are they actually interested in or bothered about.

Experience design is the practice of shifting from message-led approaches to engaging with our audiences, to approaches that really inspire and engage them aligned to their needs, values and interests.

This goes far beyond the classic “user experience” notion of creating great web experiences, and applies it at every touchpoint from print, to events, to digital, to conversations, and looks at how we attract and retain their interest by creating meaningful and valuable experiences in our communications and marketing, not just pushing messages to them.

7. Information management

As we embrace content strategy as a strategic discipline that helps to connect and maximise the impact of work across the various advancement disciplines, and well beyond, we find ourselves developing skills and competencies that may shift our responsibilities in a new direction: information management.

Who actually controls – at a strategic level – the information that your organisation holds? It’s not the Freedom of Information officer – that’s something different. It’s not IT services – they may manage the systems that hold the information, but they don’t have responsibility for the information itself.

As we evolve content strategy and experience design within our institutions, often starting with advancement professions, the need for us to connect content and information across silos will encourage us to start taking on the role of information design and information management across the board, not just for engagement purposes.

8. Embedded and continuous audience research

To achieve everything that we’ve outlined above, we need to understand our audiences in much greater depth than we ever have before.

In universities we may have market research officers – or even a team – providing audience research and insights. This role is unlikely to exist in a school or FE college, but in a university it’s not uncommon. But the approach is often still to gather audience insights as a snapshot of a moment in time.

Instead, I predict that audience research will become a more continuous process, facilitating by emerging technologies available to us, and become embedded in the roles of all advancement professionals, not just the responsibility of an insights team.

9. Product influence and design

The classic marketing mix tells us that marketing has a role to play in defining product. Yet in the education sector, development of new products (programmes, courses, services, curricula) rarely involve marketing or advancement professionals beyond the need for their help with another “P”: promotion.

As we advance our audience intelligence through advancement activities, we’re able to increase our value and ability to become a strategic lead in the product design for our organisations, aligned to the needs of our audiences and the communities and business that we serve.

This goes beyond course development, and it’s essential that it does as education policy and funding pushes us towards the need to develop new income streams and ways to serve society.

10. Decline of the website as a destination

Lastly, I predict that over the next 10 years we’ll see the decline of the institutional website as the main destination for communication with our institutions, universities and schools alike. As our audience experiences increasingly extend beyond single websites to apps, aggregated information feeds (including social media sites) and to sources that extend beyond screen or page-based experiences (reminder again of the growth of conversational interfaces).

This doesn’t, however, mean that the content that we create for the website is any less important. In fact, it will become more important that we fully embrace content strategy in its fullest sense to ready ourselves for this. Our websites will still remain a source of information, but intelligent systems, apps and aggregators will extract the content that they need from our sites and display that content in other locations. So, the way in which we structure and assign meaning to the content on our websites will be become critical to ensure that the right information displays in the right place, at the right time and in the right format. And therein lays the greatest need for content strategy.

Of course, at Pickle Jar Communications we hope to be around for at least another 10 years to work with you as you embrace and rise to theses changes and challenges. We can help you get started now with more in-depth emerging trend reports, audience research, digital and content strategy and planning, and developing new approaches to measurement and evaluation. Get in touch for a chat.

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