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Global University Systems CMO: How to commercialize higher education, US style

Graeme Simpson, CMO of Global University Systems, wants to help institutions the world over win new students via digital marketing strategies and social media.

“Marketing is no longer just about images, color or branding, it’s about the impact you’re having on the bottom line, the leads you’re generating, and how many of those leads convert into sales.”

Graeme Simpson paints a picture of a shifting landscape, a function which has had to adapt to the prevalence of data and analytics to aid a marketer’s strategies.

As the Chief Marketing Officer at Global University Systems (GUS), with 12 years experience in digital marketing, Simpson recognizes the “added value of a creative marketer who knows their numbers and its impact”, within the education sector in particular.

Simpson’s quantitative mindset is down to his background in the financial industry.

For eight years he acted as Head of Global Marketing for the investment specialist ADVFN, aiding its growth from a UK-based company, to a multinational operating in 16 countries.

Today, his outlook for education marketing whilst at GUS is not dissimilar.

GUS is an international network of higher-education institutions, boasting a network of over 40,000 students at the London School of Business and Finance, The University of Law, the University Canada West, and others; campuses are based in cities such as London, Toronto, and Singapore.

Once a brand is acquired, GUS helps the institution develop its reputation globally by connecting it with education providers that GUS also owns, or works alongside, to improve courses, student experience and student uptake.

It’s an education marketing and sales focused system that GUS feels gives an edge to its collection of universities and colleges, and Simpson agrees that the model’s aim is to commercialize higher education.

“The US is a lot more commercially-minded in this sector compared to the UK, for example, but in the last three years, education markets are becoming more aggressive as higher education becomes successively more expensive.”

The UK Government agreed to increase university tuition fees to £9000 per annum three years ago, forcing institutions to market themselves when student numbers began to flatline as a result.

Universities can be good at reaching out to a local marketplace through events and fairs, but Simpson thinks that to properly position themselves as an attractive destination for students, nationally and internationally, they need to embrace digital marketing, and behave more like a brand.

“GUS is different because of how we use our expertise in marketing via digital and social media channels to promote our portfolio, which foreign markets are already engaging with.

“The trend is starting to reach other markets, but universities in particular need to rethink their traditional strategies: they need to make sure that they have a voice, and are building content; whereas research was a priority for many institutions, now social media presence is the key factor.”

Education marketing follows other sectors that have had to rethink their marketing strategies, and like other sectors, particular challenges still present roadblocks, according to Simpson.

“Because of the way marketers need to act today, and because of the speed at which this change has occurred, there is still a knowledge gap for a lot of marketers within the data segment. It’s still difficult for some people to understand the impact of each strategy on their company’s bottom line.”

Brands like GUS engage with cloud technology in order to streamline processes and reduce departmental costs, whilst digitizing aspects of their repository systems so that they can improve remote access and customer experience.

Whilst engaging with innovation, internal functions have had to change the way they work together too.

“We decided to merge our social media department and our SEO team three years ago. Social media has such an impact now on the content we reach out with, and the importance of making sure our online scores rate well, means that it makes sense for them to interact much more.”

Rather than housing an SEO expert for each university or college, Simpson decided to centralize the service which looks after the whole group portfolio to make sure they are up to date with the latest algorithm changes from search engines.

That thinking was then replicated across affiliate, buying, and pay-per-click digital education marketing.

“Our aim was to make sure that we’ve got a service which is central and which supports the whole group and our partner institutions.”

New technology has enabled internal operations to merge, changing the focus of education marketing to one from visual and aesthetic, to a data-driven, analytical function; GUS and Simpson have adapted their own teams alongside this trend to help higher education facilities embrace digital marketing.