By Andy Parsons, Union Director, Loughborough Students’ Union
Imagine you could get all your members together in a football stadium. You could blast all your messages out through the PA system and everyone would know everything.In practice of course, after the first few messages, people’s attention would start to wander. They would talk among themselves, organise trips to fetch hot pies, plug in their earphones, and generally get on with their lives.
If you knew, however, that all the students studying graphics were sitting in section 3C, you could pop down and explain about the opportunity to design graphics for the big screen. Once they knew this was for them, 3C might take out their earphones and get involved.
This analogy is about targeted communication. Having a big public address system, like the Internet, doesn’t mean you are going to get anyone’s attention. To communicate effectively, you need to explain to people why your message concerns them and what you want them to do.
Collecting data about your members can really pay off, but you have to work hard to make the best use of it. If you do it right, you can measure the effectiveness of your communication, and we have been astonished at the difference it makes.
1. Get your data
If you have not done so already, getting data from your institution on your members, their courses and where they live is a pre-requisite. This is now a very well-worn path, and institutions not willing to share are becoming the exception not the rule.
A data protection act opt-out box in the institution student registration form does the trick, along with reassurances that you will be able to keep the data safe. You do need to get solid procedures in place to protect people’s privacy.
A robust system like that offered by UnionCloud should be the one way you keep records – no separate files or spreadsheets. UnionCloud has been designed to make it easy to interrogate the data and find your target groups.
2. Make membership fees electronic
What happened when we started to collect all subscriptions for clubs and societies electronically? Subscription income increased by about a third!
We were puzzled by this at first, so we looked into it. Membership numbers did increase a little, but what we found was that, previously, committees often didn’t get round to paying and subs never quite made it into the club funds.
The next stage was to get clubs to use the e-shop for their kit, clothing and trips. This saved no end of problems for the club officers, but has also given us real data on levels of participation in our clubs.
3. Target volunteers
Often, open invitations to get involved in a new project don’t do the trick, and we have found that a more targeted approach can turn things around.
Make it clear to your target group why they have been ‘specially selected’ and give them an easy immediate action to take to move things on. Most often this will be ‘reply to an email to get more information’, or ‘join a Facebook group’. It needs to be something easy they can do right away, not ‘come into the advice centre next Monday’.
You can then enter into a personal dialogue, give them more information and ask for a commitment. It really works.
4. Use entertainments door-entry data
We have swiped the membership cards of everyone who comes into the union building for almost ten years. But it has only been in the last few years that our Head of Venue Services, Claire Delaney, has finally cracked how to use this data.
We wanted to give people incentives to come into the building without wasting too much time on people who were going to come in anyway. Claire has become great at finding the ‘sweet spot’ – people who are unlikely to come without a push, but who will come with a push.
This works even better when you couple a target group with a suitable night. We got 25 per cent of returning Erasmus students to come to our international night with the promise of a free drink.
We also found a group of students who had often attended a night in term one but not in term two. A free drink email brought in 200 of them, which was also about a 25 per cent hit rate.
More general promotions reward regulars with drinks and VIP privileges. One six-week period of this promotion was carefully monitored and brought in over £20,000 of additional profit.You can also see who you are reaching and who you are not.
We now know that we are not just serving the same students over and over – we have a wide reach, so our marketing strategy is centred on increasing frequency of attendance.
5. Test, test, test!
Targeting allows you to test different variations of the email or message with similar groups of students to see which works best.
Should you send it from a named individual or the students’ union as a whole? What makes a good subject line? Do pictures make a difference? There are literally hundreds of things to try.
We have started along the road but have a long way to go. However, these three things seem certain: small changes can make big differences, trial and error is the only way to get good, and it takes a lot of effort but the effort pays off!