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Five ideas: Improving engagement with students

Tuesday 05-08-2014 - 00:00

The mantra for all of us working in students’ unions these days is student engagement. By achieving meaningful engagement, we build legitimacy and, ultimately, support for what we are doing. But how do we do it?

University of Bristol Union

Tom Berry, marketing and communications manager at the University of Bristol Students’ Union, has five ideas.

It’s readily acknowledged that the game has changed. The media landscape is much more fragmented and complex than it was. Social media is king and we need to engage in two-way communication rather than simply broadcast what we are doing. But what does this mean in practical terms?

Here are just a few thoughts on things you can be doing right now to ensure that your relationship with students starts off on the right foot.

1 Social media

Let’s cover the obvious things first. If you are serious about reaching students in this day and age, you must invest in social media. This isn’t about tagging it onto the role of a marketing officer, but using it all day, every day, with dedicated resources if at all possible.

You also need a multi-platform approach. Facebook and Twitter are great but you may also need to be thinking about Instagram, Snapchat and Whatsapp too. Message-based platforms in particular are where the social media action is right now and students’ unions need to get to grips with them quickly if they want to be relevant.

The real strength in social media is that it enables you to listen as well as talk, so make sure you use it as a tool to solicit feedback as well as using it to enable students to document key events.

Plymouth SU recently used Instagram really effectively to get students to tell the story of their summer ball – the result, massive engagement!

2  Content is key 

Understand what students are interested in and make your content relevant. Sadly, for the vast majority of students, this may not be campaigning issues but is more likely to be around lifestyle events in their own lives.

This could be anything from music festivals to Christmas. Think about what you want to talk about and then find a way to link it in some way to something that has their interest.

Sheffield Union recently did an excellent promotion in their cafe based on the cuisine of World Cup participating nations. 

3 Understand what students want

Set up simple surveys or a student consultation group to check what you are doing around organising events and other projects. The best way to find out what students want is to ask them.

A focus group that is representative of the student body as a whole (and this is key!) can be a great way to check on what will work and what won’t. This could be a great tool for planning welcome week, summer ball and much, much more!

4  Don’t treat students as a homogeneous group

Make sure you tailor communications to postgraduates, international students etc. Our research told us that mature students weren’t interested in alcohol-related events during welcome week so we’ve set up a programme of events just for them.

Similarly, our international students wanted an opportunity to see local attractions so we’ve laid on trips to Stonehenge and Glastonbury. 

5 Go out and talk to them 

You can do all the digital marketing and print advertising in the world but nothing beats face-to-face contact, especially for your officers. Make sure they get out on campus and articulate what you are doing.

We ran some excellent exam support sessions as part of our Just Ask initiative and this proved to be a brilliant way of telling students about other services we provide.

These are just a few thoughts, but the best advice I can give is to involve students as early as possible in the delivery of your communications and engagement activity. It is in all our interests to build a stronger movement, and this will only be achieved if we understand their needs and interests.

You can discuss student engagement with Tom by emailing tom.berry@bristol.ac.uk

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