The Pros and Cons of Always-On HE Marketing

Over the past couple decades, UK universities’ marketing approaches have moved on significantly. From the rather primitive efforts of churning out tens of thousands of bulky printed prospectuses to give away at HE fairs, we now see a much more professional approach. Prior to the ultra-competitive environment of higher tuition fees and the removal of Student Number Controls – which ushered in a more commercial mindset – the former method was the Higher Education marketing world to which I was inducted when I started my HE career in 2009.  

It’s not Amateur Hour any more… 

During my 15 years working both in – and around – UK Higher Education marketing, I’ve often felt as though we’re not professionalising things quickly enough. However, when viewing progress, it’s often wise to zoom out, taking a longer-term view.  

In so doing, it’s clear to see that the 2024 version of Higher Education marketing and advertising has clearly evolved into a much more commercially savvy operation, with expertise within teams spanning creative, digital, SEO, product management, and much more. And said expertise is often ably complemented by a plethora of brand, digital, and creative agencies with specialist HE knowledge. Despite this, there remains some resistance to one of the true tenets of commercial marketing and advertising: maintaining an Always-On advertising presence.  

Let’s explore what this means, before taking a look at some Pros and Cons.  

What is ‘Always-On’ marketing? 

Always-On refers to a strategy of maintaining a continuous and consistent presence across various paid and organic media. This means consistently engaging with your target audience across multiple channels without distinct start and end dates. It is basically the antithesis of running campaigns seasonally or intermittently, which is traditionally what universities tend to do.  

Always-on is an approach to remain accessible to the audience at all times through paid advertising, promotions, sponsorship, etc. throughout the entire student recruitment cycle. You’re already always-on with your web presence, tweaking content as needed. Why not extend this to your promotional efforts to drive more and more relevant traffic to said pages?  

Having an always-on marketing presence for higher education institutions can offer several advantages, but it also presents some challenges.  

Let’s delve into the pros and cons: 

Pros of being Always-On 

Increased Visibility:  Maintaining a constant presence ensures that your institution remains visible to prospective students, parents, and stakeholders. This visibility can lead to higher brand recognition and consideration when prospective students are making decisions about higher education at key times in the cycle.  

Continuous Engagement: By consistently sharing relevant content and updates, you can keep your audience engaged throughout the year. This ongoing engagement helps to build stronger relationships with prospective students and encourages them to stay connected with your institution. 

Lead Generation: An always-on approach enables you to capture leads on a continuous basis. By strategically leveraging various marketing channels such as social media, OOH, email campaigns, and content marketing, you can attract prospective students at different stages of their decision-making process. 

Adaptability: With an always-on strategy, you can quickly adapt to changes in the market or shifts in audience preferences. This agility allows you to refine your messaging and tactics in real-time, ensuring that your marketing efforts remain effective and relevant. 

Competitive Advantage: In a competitive landscape like Higher Education, maintaining a consistent marketing presence can give you an edge. It allows you to stay top-of-mind among your target audience, making it more likely for them to choose your institution over your direct competition.  

The Cons of Non-stop Campaigns

Resource Intensive: Sustaining an always-on marketing presence can sometimes require significant resources in terms of time, manpower, and budget. Continuous content creation, monitoring, and optimisation across multiple platforms can strain your marketing team. This may not be the case though with a high-level brand awareness campaign, which may be designed to be always on. Though for a conversion type campaign, resource intensiveness could be an issue.  

Content Fatigue: There’s a risk of overwhelming your audience with too much content if it is not managed properly. This can lead to content fatigue, where your messages are ignored or perceived as spammy, ultimately diminishing the effectiveness of your marketing efforts. However, this can be mitigated by careful content planning at the outset. 

Message Consistency: Maintaining consistency in messaging and branding across all channels could become more challenging with an always-on approach. Without careful coordination and oversight, there’s a possibility of weakening your brand identity or confusing your audience with mixed messages. Again, this can be alleviated by thorough planning and joined-up thinking.  

Audience Saturation: Overexposure to marketing messages can lead to audience saturation, where individuals become desensitised to your communications. This can make it harder to capture attention and generate meaningful engagement over time. 


Should you be Always-On?

This question is nuanced and depends on a variety of factors and moving parts. While maintaining a constant presence can offer benefits such as increased visibility, continuous engagement, and lead generation, it also poses challenges such as resource intensiveness, content fatigue, and the risk of diluting brand identity. The suitability of an always-on strategy varies across the diverse landscape of UK higher education institutions, including Russell Group universities, post-92 institutions, and specialist providers.  All of whom face unique challenges and priorities, as well as those shared as a sector

Some institutions may find value in an always-on approach to stay competitive and maintain relevance. Others may need to carefully evaluate whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and if there’s alignment with goals and resources. Ultimately, the decision should be based on a thorough understanding of your institution’s target audience, competitive landscape, resource readiness, and strategic objectives.