Content marketing and electronic internationalization of universities
University is a place where meanings are created.

The university's website is the place where such meanings are conveyed. And this becomes especially relevant in conditions of digital restrictions in which we have been since February 2022.

The question arise: What are meanings? What are we like, how do we treat others, what is our atmosphere and corporate culture?

How can we convey them? — In digital relations with foreign Internet users.

There are different ways to build such relations:
  • You can tell about yourself, focus on direct advertising and "push" your educational services to the market;
  • You can share useful content with users, respecting the information needs of people on the other side of the screen, and focus on organic output (not when you force them to read ads, but when they visit the site themselves, because they're interested).

The first method does not work in the era of social relations marketing. A key feature of this era is this: the Internet has turned from a channel for communication into an environment for building relations. Relations require honesty, openness, and mutual desire to interact. If you want people to interact with you, you have to earn trust. Trust is the foundation of modern marketing. Therefore, we need to move from the concept of positioning, when we drew a beautiful picture about ourselves or told a beautiful story and then promoted it with advertising, — to designing a mission and implementing through real actions. Today, brand actions speak much more than words.

The tool for managing social relations marketing is the brand balance sheet, when we divide all our marketing activities into two types. Liabilities are the payment for your services, the efforts that your students or partners spend on using your services, and direct advertising that takes up their time. Assets are the value of the services you provide, the features that accompany these services, the useful content that you create not for yourself but for your target audiences, the events that you arrange for them, the user experience that you create for them.

You see, relationships require that people want to interact with us. And this is perhaps the most serious challenge for us today. About 20 years ago we solved the task of creating a reputation for ourselves (people wanted to interact with us), 10 years ago we solved the task of strengthening our reputation (people knew about us and wanted to interact with us), and now, what task are we setting? Now we not only need to create something or strengthen what we've created; we need to "work our way up from the bottom".

To do this, we need to stop asking the wrong questions and wonder how we can get foreign applicants to come to our university, or how to get foreign partners to start cooperating with us. Instead, we need to ask ourselves, what can we do for them to get them interested?

How does the "era of social relations" differ from other stages of marketing development? In the product era, marketers talked about the functional properties of a product. In the marketplace era they talked about how their product differed from the competitors'. In marketing era, they tried to evoke emotions and strengthen associations with the brand. Back then, the main media were TV, radio, outdoor advertising and printed products. People could not influence the content in these media. In the era of social relations, people began to communicate with each other and with brands via the Internet, which led to the following challenges:
  • information noise: by the age of 35, the average person sees more than 60 million advertising messages;
  • transparency: it makes no sense to create a beautiful brand image on the Internet where someone will tell about any of your mistakes in real time;
  • the dominance of social media: you can no longer tell people something, you have to enter into a dialog with people and make them interested;
  • social responsibility: more than 55% of people in 2014 were willing to overpay for brands that make our world a better place.

How to respond to these challenges in conditions of digital restrictions?

  1. With the access to social networks being blocked or restricted, it is important to pay attention to niche networks (for example, scientific ones like ResearchGate, or Discord), as well as messengers. But we must remember that messengers do not allow viral coverage, it is rather a tool of communication and direct advertising. According to research, a person is able to monitor 7 Telegram channels simultaneously. What will it cost you to enter this "seven", to keep the attention of foreign target audiences, not ending up in the archive?
  2. Given the limitations of micro blogging and video hosting, we can create blogs on our own website (this has been a common practice of foreign universities for many years). Blogs are able to attract organic traffic to your site. But you'll have to make blogs for target audiences, for example, a scientific blog in the section of the website "Science", an expert blog in the section of the website "Expertise", and a blog for applicants in the corresponding section. It is important to create content that is valuable for applicants, not just something you can create (or what already exists).
  3. While we have no access to contextual advertising, we still have organic output. This is when the applicant enters a search query with a formulation of their problem. For example, "what profession to choose". And you have an article with this title on your website, in the applicant section. The applicant opens that page, the article attracts their attention and meets their information needs, and inside there are hyperlinks to the pages of educational programs of your university. This is a quick transition from the stage of coverage to capture, and maybe heating the reverse funnel of marketing.
  4. In the conditions of withdrawal from foreign portals, the role of a university's website as the image of its brand is increasing. And this is very important. Opening the main page of your website or the applicant section, anapplicant immediately makes a decision whether to stay on the site or close it.
  5. As our opportunities to participate in events are limited, the role of educational exhibitions and other online events is increasing as well. And besides choosing the right event and the format of participation in it, you should decide what to tell about yourself. Can you briefly explain to applicants, for example, how you differ from competitors and how you can best meet the needs of your students?

Today, your resource is not information, but the attention of users. Attention is time, time is life. The goal of digital marketing is to become part of someone's life. To do this, you need to become really useful. According to research, 74% of users trust the content that companies make for educational purposes. For example, we can teach our applicants to enroll, and students — to study. Or post open online courses that will allow applicants to try an educational service or prepare for entrance tests. All this forms a trusting relationship between you and your applicants.

Bill Gates in 1996 said his famous phrase "Content is king." Today we say that the last thing left at the disposal of modern marketing is content.
Olga Bakumenko, Ph.D. in Economics, HSE — Saint-Petersburg. Expert on International Digital Marketing for Universities. Olga has been working in the field of administration of university's international activities since 2008. She got her degrees from leading Russian and international on international marketing, internationalization of universities, scientific journalism, and digital marketing. She is an author of courses on digital marketing for higher education and developer of digital international marketing for universities.