Digital strategy for higher education: complexity, identity, promise?

Academic institutions have enthusiastically jumped in digital communication: reasonable financial investments and quick feed-back could only seduce these organizations on lack of time, task-force and credits. However, beyond the apparent fluency of the new media, what real strategy is being implemented? Social networks have great potential in terms of exchanges at all levels, but are they really at the service of higher education transformation?

When we look at the overall digital communication of a few universities, and more broadly of public institutions such as territorial communities, we are struck by the heterogeneity of practices, when large companies seem to have relatively normal digital strategies.

Is this heterogeneity the sign of a welcome diversification of the academic offer, adapting to a complex and multiple world, or is it just the result of a still little theorized profession?

The taboo of communication

The communication and marketing services are part of the day-to-day life for large companies, and clearly appear in budgets. They work pretty much in the same way: ROI is set up in such a way that financial and material resources are put at the service of precise and quantified goals. External communication activities focus on supporting sales forces and the brand’s positive reputation, internal actions towards group cohesion, management, motivation or CSR, Social and Environmental Responsibility.

On the other hand, communication strategies in territorial communities or in academic institutions appear to be unequal and heterogeneous, and it is sometimes hard to discern coherence in content. A careful reading of the French Cour des Comptes “Definitive Observations Reports (RODs)” shows the lack of data with regard to communication expenditure, making it a strange function, a taboo expense: Communication remains in the shadow.

For communication and marketing professionals, working for academic institutions or local authorities is often a totally different world, implementing communication operations that allow themselves less rules but paradoxically more constraints, many of which appear largely unexplained.

The digital strategy, at the heart of the strategy

As much as the contents of digital communication, the organizational contexts of the digital strategy of academic institutions are heterogeneous: multi-purpose communication teams, dedicated teams, outsourcing processes …

One of the great assets of web 2.0 is that it seems accessible to all: it requires reasonable financial means, and the deadlines for completion are short. Digital tools fascinate by their apparent easiness, allowing all institutions to address specific messages to specific targets. Internet allows free and direct exchanges, especially on blogs and social networks.

However, many officials saw in the participative web a dangerous Pandora’s box. For in this potential of exchanges lies the dawn of a new two-directions mode of expression: we go from  “top down” to “bottom up”, from “one to many” to “one to one”.

At the end of the day, this is what academic institutions have to build:  a strategy, not just digital.

Complexity, identity, promise

Whatever the apparent heterogeneity of academic institutions’ communication, it is always lived in a complex way, between information and advertising, in a bitter struggle for conquest of what has become a market: the best students and / or Best professors.

In a congested and rapidly changing world, each institution must reveal its own identity and the promise it carries. New communication campaigns can only have an effect if the institutions agree to differentiate. The question is to identify heterogeneous publics to discover its own niches, to help build a framework of membership, satisfaction and development with particular « clients »: students and their parents, prescribers, teachers, employers and companies. It is necessary to set up a range of lexical fields whose aim is to match a supply to a demand, by establishing a sustainable win-win relationship (which is the fundamental basis of marketing) …

Is this personalized communication with discreet appearances, and the positioning strategy it implies, compatible with the fascination stimulated by the major medias and newspapers, including their famous « rankings »?

These channels are often anachronistic but remain very important to the clients of academic institutions and their dependents. Though the driving of communication by these normative systems could be at risk for the necessary effort to adapt to a diverse world. A well-integrated two-way digital communication would allow the academic offer to meet the reality of today’s needs, very diverse by nature.

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