My notes on What image types do universities post online?

Twitter has become a mainstream activity for universities in the UK and the US, with most institutions now having a presence. The platform has taken an image based turn over the last few years, since native photo sharing was introduced in 2011 and Twitpic et al vanished, in common with social media more broadly. This presents us with a question: what types of images do universities tweet? Emma Stuart, Mike Thelwall and David Stuart analyse the use of images by university twitter feeds in the UK and consider what this can tell us about how universities see the platform and how they seek to relate to the audiences found through it.

This twitter activity is connected to rising competition, as universities compete against each other to increase enrolment following the reduction of government support. Social media offers a means for universities to differentiate themselves, including through the use of images which express a visual identity. Platforms differ in what they offer for this. As Stuart et al observe, Instagram images tend to “focus more on the aesthetics of individual images, whereas images on Twitter tend to supplement or complement the text of a tweet”.

Their study is a companion to a 2016 investigation in which 51 Uk universities (out of 128 with multiple units of assessment in REF 2014) were found to have an Instagram account. It focuses on the Twitter presence of the same 51 in order to facilitate comparison. A random sample of 20 images was taken from a date range overlapping with Instagram activity (I presume for each university) to produce a final sample of 1,020 images. They undertook a content analysis using a coding scheme developed in a previous study of Instagram use within organisations by McNely (2012) given below. Images were classified based on their content, accompanying text and the interaction they generated.

  1. Orientating: “The primary focus of the image is of specific and unique university (and university associated) locations, landmarks, or artefacts (e.g., buildings/public areas/statues/university affiliated objects)” (4.8% of Twitter images, 14.3% of Instagram images)
  2. Humanising: “The primary focus of the image is of things that add more of a human character or element of warmth/humour/or amusement to the university’s identity” (20.9% of Twitter images, 31% of Instagram images)
  3. Interacting: “The primary focus of the image is centered around people interacting at university (and university associated) events rather than people merely posing for a staged photograph” (2.1% of Twitter images, 5.7% of Instagram images) 
  4. Placemaking: “The primary focus of the image is concerned with the university ‘placing’ their identity within locations or events” (2.7% of Twitter images, 12.8% of Instagram images)
  5. Showcasing: highlighting some event, success, course, service or product of the university (61% of Twitter images, 28.8% of Instagram images)
  6. Crowdsourcing: “The primary purpose of the image is that it has been posted with the intention of generating feedback, interaction, engagement, and online interaction with viewers/followers” (7.7% of Twitter images, 7.5% of Instagram images) 

They found that 41.8% of images had no retweets, with an average of 2.7 retweets per image. It was interesting that showcasing images (most popular type) were significantly more likely to be retweeted than humanising ones (second most popular type) but I wonder how much of each can be explained in terms of staff and students at the university retweeting an expression of support or loyalty rather than an endorsement from those outside the institution? They found far more Twitter images than Instagram images overall from the time period under investigation (7,583 to 3,615) yet a few universities shared more images on Instagram. Does this suggest the influence of an Instagram enthusiast on a university’s comms team? They suggest the discrepancy has its roots in the norm of posting less on Instagram, the service being newer and the restrictions on how one can post to it.

They suggest the popularity of showcase images on Twitter accords with it being an information source rather than networking tool. The two most popular categories of humanising and showcasing seem to be externally-orientated towards potential students. Interestingly, they suggest that not only might universities benefit from posting more of the other categories, doing so “could be aligned with the practice of content curation, whereby the staff member(s) in charge of the Twitter account would specifically attempt to highlight a range of interesting and meaningful content that they think would appeal to their followers”.

There’s a gently scathing inditement of university marketing in today’s WonkHE newsletter. I’ve been interested in university marketing for years, without ever having written properly on the topic. I find it fascinating to see how universities choose to position themselves to (imagined) publics, as well as what this positioning says about them and the context within which they work. As WonkHE observes, what’s striking about advertising (in the UK) is how familiar it all seems, making reference to their place within an imaginary league table without any evidence that students or employers care about this:

Sector PR teams need to wean themselves off league tables and find more transparent ways to highlight their individual qualities. That’s the primary message falling out of six Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rulings concerning different – yet somehow depressingly similar – advertisements from six universities.

In each case the institution in question had sought to position itself towards the top of a largely imaginary league table. The use of sector jargon (what is a “modern university”? or an “arts university”?) and unqualified claims (who said you were “university of the year”? why?) serves, in the eyes of the regulator, only to confuse people further.

Being slapped down for these practices isn’t just a bad look for the sector –- it’s bad marketing practice. There’s little evidence that students or employers care that you are in the top 5% of modern universities in the Greater Stroud Valley region, so why make the claims in the first place? It seems a risk not worth taking.

We need a turn-around in university marketing practice because the current trajectory could lead us to some pretty appalling places. On pg 20 of her Lower Ed, Tressie McMillan Cottom observes how marketing related spending outstrips tuition at some for-profit colleges in the United States:

If budgets are moral documents, the fact that some financialized for-profit colleges reportedly spent 22.4 percent of all revenue on marketing, advertising, recruiting, and admissions staffing compared with 17.7 percent of all revenue, on instruction speaks to the morals of financialization.

I assume we’re a long way from this in the UK, though there is no comparative data available to the best of my knowledge. But the reasons for growth are structural, as Andrew McGettigan makes clear in The Great University Gamble:

There are obvious inefficiencies in this competition as increasing resources have to be devoted to marketing and recruitment … The cost of financing higher education through the botched loan scheme means that the Treasury has insisted on an overall cap on student numbers. This creates a zero sum game where the sector is unable to expand overall and individual institutions are fighting for market share.

The ‘depressing similarity’ of university advertising suggests this process is expanding in a similar way within otherwise different universities. Some of this activity reaches into areas where I can claim some expertise, such as the growth of viral videos which often create a backlash for the institution. But it strikes me the overarching process is one which is ripe for analysis, providing a productive lens through which we can investigate transformations underway within the university. For this reason, I find it hard not to welcome the ASA judgement, as well as to hope it leads to a different direction of travel in university marketing.

I’d like to keep an Instagram of university advertising in the UK:

Please get in touch if you have any pictures you’d like to contribute!

In the excellent Lower Ed, Tressie McMillan Cottom reflects on the market-orientation of for-profit colleges, tending to seek a continual growth in student numbers. This growth imperative can manifest itself in marketing and recruitment outstripping teaching in institutional spending. From pg 20:

If budgets are moral documents, the fact that some financialized for-profit colleges reportedly spent 22.4 percent of all revenue on marketing, advertising, recruiting, and admissions staffing compared with 17.7 percent of all revenue, on instruction speaks to the morals of financialization

Since the previous Labour government kicked off the radical changes in higher education in the UK, I’ve been interested in the transformation of university marketing. The reforms created a pressure to differentiate but to what extent did that incentivise the growth of marketing and communications at the (potential) expense of investment elsewhere? I hadn’t thought about this issue for a while but it occurs to me that the extreme end of the US for-profit sector represents an exemplar of where the market logic now taking hold in the UK could lead, in so far as that linking financial performance to student numbers increases the structural importance of marketing and communication functions. How this logic plays out in practice depends on many organisational and sectoral factors which I’d like to understand better than I currently do.

How do we characterise the broader change in the sector? Cynics would see it as a distraction from the core functions of the university, with increasing resources being directed to marketing exercises with a possibly uncertain payoff in terms of recruitment. What concerns me is the competitive escalation that can arise in a (relatively) undifferentiated sector where actors compete for scarce attention: how can universities be heard above the din? One way is to accelerate the investment in marketing and communications, expanding into new arenas and further investing in staffing and systems. This is something which those staff are liable applaud, a message that might have particular force when their function is on the ascendency within the university and they can speak with authority gleamed from work outside the sector.

But others would argue that any uncertainty could be overcome by instilling a “marketing culture” in which “return on investment of each activity is carefully weighed up”. This is how Communications Management, ‘the education specialists’ report on findings of a project they were involved on:

Key findings

  • Over two-thirds (69%) of UK marketing directors have seen an increased investment in marketing over the past three years
  • Branding is often still not understood within the higher education sector
  • Modern students are ‘demanding customers’ looking for a response 24/7, meaning that a shift in marketing techniques is crucial
  • Social media must be handled in the right way to avoid “pushy communications” and encroaching on student space
  • Increase in senior strategic marketing appointments in Higher Education Institutions

However survey respondents – a third of the UK’s HE marketing directors – also stated that though budgets still rarely approach those in the private sector, they consider short term funding to be less important than moving to such a “marketing culture,” in which return on investment of each activity is carefully weighed up.

There are many things to explore here. What particularly interests me is the role of professionalisation (within the sector) and external agencies (from outside the sector) in shaping the new common-sense concerning marketing in the digital university.

I just stumbled across an interesting report, Trends in Higher Education Marketing, Recruitment, and Technology, focusing on the United States context and would welcome any suggestions of reading that focuses more on the UK.

From SymOmega here:

Our previous but now-outdated motto was “Achieve International Excellence” which is pretty clunky but at least the intent is clear. Even earlier we had a much more succinct motto with which surely no-one can disagree  – “Seek Wisdom” – and to which I think we should return, if we really think a motto is important. But actually, what is the point of a university motto/tagline at all? Do students choose universities based on the motto? Is the motto intended to convey to the public some deeply held core value? If so, should it really be chosen by some marketing consultant?

Watching channel 4 this evening, I encountered the NPower Price Promise which communicates their guarantee to always let consumers know the cheapest tariff available to them:

Except this ‘Npower Price Promise’ isn’t a deliberate policy to ‘stand up for customers’. It’s a requirement by the regulator that came into force on 26 August 2013:

Give all their customers personalised information on the cheapest tariff they offer for them. This information will appear on each bill and on a range of other customer communications.

This was required to be implemented by March 2014. So the self-congratulatory advertising campaign the company has launched seems in actuality to be an announcement that they’re belatedly complying with legislation.

I’d love to know more about how these adverts came to be made and how much was spent on them. Should we expect more of this in the future? Large companies presenting regulatory requirements as beneficent corporate policy is certainly in keeping with the spirit of the age.

I don’t like ‘viral videos’. I like many videos that have gone viral. But the notion of producing ‘viral videos’, with a deliberate strategy to engender virality, irritates me – it entrenches commodification of internet culture, often involves trying so hard that it doesn’t work and contributes to the blurring of the boundary between commercial and non-commercial contributions to the internet. When deployed for marketing, they attempt to highlight the specificity of an object but paradoxically obliterate this specificity by drawing on the most generic cultural forms in circulation – by their nature viral forms lend themselves to infinite substitutability and thus trivialise their object rather than valuing it.

They particularly vex me in higher education because they’re one of the most distinctive expressions of marketization. They reflect a change in higher education marketing which can be traced directly to the government’s higher education ‘reforms’, with the sudden imperative to differentiate prompting an expansion of investment in marketing and communications – I’ve tried to argue, in a conference paper at WES 2013, that this creates a vested interest in intensifying what are fundamentally deleterious trends. I don’t think marcomms creates the trend but I think its expansion, as well as a growing centrality within institutions as a whole, creates incentives to discursively exaggerate the necessity of this activity, lobby for further investment and contribute to a marketing arms race which risks consuming ever greater proportions of university budgets:

There are obvious inefficiencies in this competition as increasing resources have to be devoted to marketing and recruitment … The cost of financing higher education through the botched loan scheme means that the Treasury has insisted on an overall cap on student numbers. This creates a zero sum game where the sector is unable to expand overall and individual institutions are fighting for market share.

– Andrew McGettigan, The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education

I’m not personally hostile to people working in communications (far from it) but I believe something is happening in UK universities that I find both sociologically interesting and politically worrying. I’m not advocating that we should resist viral videos or anything like that. I think they’re pretty inconsequential. But I do believe they reflect the aforementioned trends and that it would therefore be valuable to consider alternative ways in which universities and departments can promote their activity. So here are a few ideas, in a list I contemplated formatting in the style of BuzzFeed but couldn’t be bothered:

  1. Find innovative and engaging ways to highlight the work your PhD students are doing. Such as these ‘your PhD in 60 seconds’ videos that my university produced a couple of years ago.
  2. Help promote the research culture and facilitate the vibrant life of the institution. See informal events as a resource to be supported rather than an irrelevance or potential threat to the brand – put resources into improving internal communications, helping initiatives that come from staff & students then use what you’ve done as a selling point for the institution.
  3. Highlight the opinions of your students about the university rather than seeing them as a threat. RT positive comments but engage even with the comments that aren’t positive.
  4. Support a departmental presence on social media across the university. Encourage them to be engaged, answer queries and provide resources for this if necessary. See this as a practical contribution to enhancing ‘student experience’.
  5. Encourage your staff to use social media freely and help them build an audience through RTs, twitter lists and well advised departmental accounts.
  6. Provide training and drop in sessions for staff and students. Demonstrate the technical capacity of tools but also encourage debate around best practice.
  7. Support initiatives which profile your staff, particularly those who have been part of the institutions for a long time. Don’t trivialise these by reducing them to sanitised talking heads – take the lead from the staff themselves and let each project unfold by its own logic to the greatest extent possible. This is one of the best examples I’ve seen of this sort of activity.
  8. Encourage best practice by recognising and profiling staff who are active on social media and are using it to contribute to the life of the institution.
  9. Be open to aspects of your institutional identity which emerge naturally through social media. Some of these might not be positive and it would be a mistake to promote them. But don’t see this solely in terms of potential threats and instead engage with the online culture already in existence (and that grows through your encouragement) – otherwise you’ll miss important opportunities for the elaboration of institutional identity.
  10. Curate the content which is being produced within your institution and support the creation of further content! Encourage and support multi-author blogging. Track new social media initiatives and offer practical support. See this as content marketing from below.

There are obvious inefficiencies in this competition as increasing resources have to be devoted to marketing and recruitment … The cost of financing higher education through the botched loan scheme means that the Treasury has insisted on an overall cap on student numbers. This creates a zero sum game where the sector is unable to expand overall and individual institutions are fighting for market share.

– Andrew McGettigan, The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education

(1) It’s in this climate that marketing and communications takes on a new found importance within higher education, as the situational logic within which HEIs now find themselves enmeshed creates opportunities for communications departments to approach their task of ‘managing reputation’ with a heretofore unparalleled scope and proactivity. What they do has become a core function of the university to a much greater extent than it previously was. Though how effective the ensuing initiatives tend to work is open to question. The transfer of resources to marcomms also creates opportunities for individuals, with rapidly shifting institutional priorities (and the associated transfer of resources) creating new markets for hyper-mobile consultants able to ameliorate a real or perceived internal deficiencies in these areas. This also creates a vested interest in cultivating a sense of epochal change with higher education, with the associated ‘tsunamis’, ‘avalanches’ and other cliched ways of expressing TINA. I’m not suggesting this discourse is a creation of marcomms consultants but I am suggesting they have a vested interest in perpetuating it.

(2) This empowerment of marcomms is happening concurrently with a broader digital turn within social life which is transforming the set of opportunities for ‘making public’ open to academics at a time of endemic uncertainty about future structural change in higher education and top-down ‘role stretch’ driven by the impact agenda in terms of what it is to be an ‘academic’:

By publishing we mean simply the communication and broad dissemination of knowledge, a function that has become both more complex and more important with the introduction and rapid evolution of digital and networking technologies. There is a seemingly limitless range of opportunities for a faculty member to distribute his or her work, from setting up a web page or blog, to posting an article to a working paper website or institutional repository, to including it in a peer-reviewed journal or book.

Brown, L., Griffiths, R., Rascoff, M., & Guthrie, K. (2007). University publishing in a digital age. Journal of Electronic Publishing, 10(3).

So what happens when (1) meets (2). This is the question I’ll be working on over the summer and trying to answer in my talk for the Digital Sociology panel at the Work, Employment and Society conference in September.