Freaking out the neighbours: How universities pull the strings online



Back in the old days, a name would do. ‘Harvard’, ‘Oxford’ and ‘La Sorbonne’ would attract thousands of bright – and rich – students, with just academic reputations. But as the higher education sector grew more competitive over the last three decades, world university rankings made their appearance in order to help students make up their mind when choosing an academic institution. It seems, however, that a new beast has entered the game, and it is literally uncontrollable.

Today most students may only have a rough idea of what they are looking for, but they do know that they can find everything online: not just what a university claims to be, but what it really is. Prospective students can contact current ones and ask for feedback on campus life, facilities, tuition fees, subjects offered and professors. What can a university do to take advantage of this incredible amount of information? Too much and almost nothing.

Online marketing is a relatively new tool for most universities. They have only recently started adapting to a globalised market for which holding a university fair is not good enough. An essential tool when it comes to online marketing is SEO (search-engine optimisation). That is the art of ranking a website at the top of the returns for a Google or Yahoo search on keywords such as ‘Master’s Degree’ or ‘American universities’. Particularly for universities chasing international students, it is the Excalibur of online marketing, as the homepage of a university gives the first – and in most cases the last – impression that a prospective student gets from a university. According to Charlotte Fenney, head of education marketing at Manchester-based marketing agency Euro RSCG Heist, academic institutions with a global outreach should even consider developing online campaigns segmented by country, subject and study level.

Many universities have chosen to sharpen their online marketing policies by contacting Google directly. In the case of Spain, several universities took part last month in the Primer Encuentro con Google para el Sector de Universidades, a seminar organised by a local marketing agency, Marketalia Marketing Online. The seminar exposed the participants to the latest trends in SEO and online marketing in general, such as video marketing. Given that SEO keywords are different for each language, there are niches waiting to be filled by leading countries and universities. In the case of the Spanish universities a main target market is obviously Latin America, as pointed out by the CEO of Marketalia, Javier Maldonado, but that does not mean that SEO knows any boundaries.

Exploiting the gifts of search engines is a relevantly recent tool. Back in 2007, the most popular marketing method for higher education institutions was by e-mail, according to a survey conducted by, an agency based in Maryland. Although direct marketing through emails and newsletters is not always the most effective way to raise awareness, it could hardly bring any negative headlines for a college. Then Facebook came and made everything more complicated than ever.

Anonymity is a basic feature of social media, and that\’s where things get serious – it is for obvious reasons a new frontier for marketing experts with a flair for defamation. More and more students seek information for universities on social media, and ‘trolling’ is a widely used way to disrupt online communities, forums and social media with derogatory or irrelevant content.

Trolling can be a zero-effect online game with a bored teenager behind it, but it can also be a powerful propaganda tool. According to Le Monde, ESCEM Paris-Tours-Poitiers lost around one third of its first-year students last year after an obscure online campaign regarding the EQUIS accreditation of the school. Hence, many higher education institutions decided to take collective action. Four prestigious French business schools, EM Lyon, ESC Rennes, ICN Nancy-Metz and EM Strasbourg Business School, recently signed a code of ethics regarding trolling. The code includes, inter alia, a pledge to avoid any kind of online propaganda against one another.

Universities acknowledge that their reputation can be put into danger by an unpredictable asymmetric threat, such as a negative comment on their Facebook page. Unsurprisingly, they monitor social media activity revolving around them and in some cases take action against perceived potential threats. That is the case of Saint Augustine’s College in North Carolina, which barred a student from commencement after he complained on the college\’s Facebook page about its crisis management in April 2011, when a tornado hit North Carolina.

Such a policy obviously raises the question of whether freedom of speech and privacy online should be protected under all costs. How far can a university go to protect its brand? Students assume that they are free to comment on all issues and find it hard to restrain themselves in a realm where authority does not exist. But that’s also why online marketing is such a challenging field for ambitious universities with a plan – anything goes online, as old hierarchies don’t count much on Google and Facebook.

Article published in Observatory on Borderless Higher Education