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A new approach to education

12 May

It was always evident that whoever formed the new government, higher education would face a period of retrenchment after the rapid growth of the past decade. We're still waiting for Lord Browne's review to report, but can expect it to recommend raising the current ceiling on student fees.

Many complain about education becoming a market. Educators are faced with growing demands from students, who complain loudly if they don't receive what they feel they've paid for (this is never about good teaching, note, but about good grades).

For a marketing perspective on the problems in higher education, read Seth Godin's analysis of university courses in the US. 'Most undergraduate college and university programs are organized to give an average education to average students.'

Let's hope average courses are squeezed in a more competitive market with rising fees. But how could the education we provide become less average, while remaining affordable to many?

Here's one approach. We should welcome two-year undergraduate degrees, but under the following conditions:

  • Students should be older when they start university (either having taken a gap year, or worked, or studied for a foundation degree). We teach too many school leavers who aren't yet ready to learn.
  • A two-year degree should not simply teach more to compress the syllabus (that only encourages students to learn less). 
  • Students would be expected to meet minimum attendance requirements – at risk of losing the opportunity to be assessed.
  • Work placements should not be abandoned: space would ideally have to be made for two three-month placements as part of the course.
  • An academic year would have to become fuller: I suggest nine months, plus three months on placement. (Paid work outside the course would have to become a secondary commitment.)

Academics and university administrators will resist this fiercely: the status quo is very comfortable for very many. But Godin's right: an average education for average students is untenable in a world of rising fees and greater competition.

Community conversations: a case study

12 Nov

We took a look at the conversations surrounding a brand in class today – but I did not get to choose the case study.

ASOS sounds to me like a Taiwanese laptop manufacturer – but it's a brand that means a lot to my students.

We started with the website, and took a look at news reports, then moved onto blogs.

With Twitter it became really interesting. An appeal for photos of customers wearing leather garments was responded to within minutes. These photos became potential content for the ASOS Life Community site.

Customers were raving about the brand and its offers – and so were doing the marketing for the company. I could barely find a critical voice on the social web.

People are clearly happy to share their love of fashion and I can envisage this being true of music or sports fans – but it's not so easy to see how other organisations can so easily recruit customers to become fans.

PR and the media

5 Nov

I asked a group of students to list all available media channels for an imaginary local awareness campaign.

They began with mass media (print and broadcast) but quickly added social media. Soon they were thinking more creatively about the meaning of media ('means of communication') and were creating events and other opportunities to meet important groups of people.

Contrast this with the chapter I've just consulted in a very recent – and rather good – textbook on marketing communications. The chapter on media management is a straightforward (and very old-fashioned) account of media buying for a conventional advertising campaign. Social media and unmediated communication received no mention.

I recognise that I'm not comparing like with like. I also see that it's easier for students to think broadly since they've not been conditioned to focus on one channel (eg editorial coverage) – but I find the contrast highly encouraging.

The CIPR student representatives I met yesterday proposed many very good ideas for Behind the Spin magazine. Also very encouraging.

If less is more…

2 Oct

If less is more, then logically least is most of all. This takes us into the debates around Chris Anderson's latest book, Free.

Today we learn that the London Evening Standard is to be given away free, despite the closure of The London Paper.

It's easy to envisage there being a large market for free in the digital world (websites, music, software), but it remains harder to see the commercial case for free in the world of atoms (eg newspapers).

Somewhere in between free and expensive, we can anticipate the emergence of niche markets for 'less'. Here's Mark Simmons introducing his latest venture, USE LESS – a for-profit business in the US that's more about the message than the product (encouraging a more sustainable model of consumption). Simmons is the co-author of Punk Marketing; to make a full disclosure, he's also my brother in law.

Public relations literature barely touches on these concepts, even though a free model has long been built into the publicity and media relations models. Yet, in defending the excellence theory, Grunig and White wrote in 1992: 

‘In short, excellent organizations realize that they can get more of what they want by giving publics some of what they want.' 

The inherent compromises built into public relations (whichever model is practised) suggest PR should be flexible enough to cope with different business models – even free.

Reasons to love advertising

6 Aug

We'll miss it when it's gone. In a week when there's news of ITV's half year results being 'hit by the worst decline in UK television advertising on record' and when losses at News International (owners of The Sun and The Times) are causing a rethink on free access to the newspapers' news websites, now is a good time to consider what's so good about advertising.

  • The strict separation of editorial from advertising is important in defence of press freedom and in helping consumers make choices. (Public relations can tend to blur these boundaries).
  • The advertising-funding model has given us an abundance of free television, free magazines, free commercial radio and nearly-free newspapers as well as free websites and some free products. How much are we willing to pay to keep these?
  • Commercial-free spaces (such as the BBC) are welcome – but a world with no commercials would be a greyer place. Some of us can remember the communist Soviet Union; it was commercial-free, but there was no lack of government propaganda.
  • Advertising can be entertaining and even culturally important. Look at a newspaper of a hundred years ago, and the advertising is more interesting (because more culturally specific) than the news. Look at an old photograph of a street scene in a major city and you can date it from the transport, the fashions – and the advertising and branding.
  • I'll find it much harder to teach public relations to first year undergraduates without reference to advertising (young people are particularly responsive to advertising – and public relations concepts and practices are elusive at first).

Now for The Fall of PR

22 Jun

Humans need narratives to simplify the muddy complexity of life. These narratives (stories) sometimes become so compelling that they appear to be the truth. But a narrative isn't the truth, it's a convenient and sometimes prevalent world view.

Here's a compelling narrative. Ten years ago The Cluetrain Manifesto proclaimed that 'markets are conversations' and that marketers should stop shouting and start listening. The text wasn't comfortable reading for public relations practitioners, but it suggested they were closer to mastery of the conversational style needed in the online age. (The book was written in the early years of Google and before the rise of blogging, social networks and twitter.)

Then, in 2002, brand evangelists Al Ries and Laura Ries narrated 'The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR'. Their thesis turned the normal thinking upside down: 'You can't launch a new brand with advertising because advertising has no credibility. It's the self-serving voice of a company anxious to make a sale. You can launch new brands only with publicity or public relations (PR).'

In The Long Tail (2006), Chris Anderson turned to markets. The whole process of launches and hits was becoming less important than the aggregate sales available in niche markets over time. Publicity was becoming less important than discovery in our Google-mediated world.

Continue reading

Authentic marketing and PR

10 Mar

It’s easy to get excited about the ‘new new thing’ and forget that principles don’t change that quickly. So when Anna Farmery described her farming ancestor bringing cattle to market, she said that he would be judged on his reputation. You see, reputation and social networks have always existed.

After a century of mass production supported by mass advertising, we’re returning to a more organic approach to marketing and promotion using social media tools like blogs and podcasts. (To keep the analogy going, some farmers are returning to organic principles in order to capture a more lucrative and sustainable niche. Remember that all farming was once organic so this approach is old, not new.)

One of these organic marketing promotional tools might be podcasting, but it is only a tool, not a strategy.

Most engaging of all, Anna spoke for over 90 minutes with little need for technology. Social media is often merely an attempt to replicate the authentic experience of people talking to people.