Marketeers gone rogue

You know the world has gone slightly crazy when marketeers are at the rational end of the scale.

David Tennant as Hamlet (2009), being filmed

Last week, my new director asked me if I’m enjoying my job. It struck me as a perfectly-poised question. If I say it’s perfect, I’m in the good books. If I say I need help, which is closer to the truth, I’m bypassing my manager and CMO to mention it.

It hasn’t been a great summer so far. We’re a team of two, looking after half-a-dozen projects and a huge selection of immediate requests. I often spend more time arranging for things to be done than the time it would take to do them myself.

I didn’t move jobs just to delegate more. That’s not where my value lies.

But while I was digging for an answer, I discovered that those concerns about value are exactly what makes some of my dullest responsibilities among the most enjoyable.

Capturing the spirit of a rule

When I arrived at Greenwich last year, I was immediately drawn into an overhaul of our undergraduate course webpages, which came about following a dossier of recommendations from HEFCE (now the Office for Students).

Experience tells me that recommendations such as these need to be filtered and interpreted.

If we’d followed the brief to the letter, as our then-Content Manager was planning, it could have created course pages of 3,000-4,000 words. We’d have been calculating the exact total number of ‘contact hours’ that students receive on a 3-year course and stating it arbitrarily. You’d see ‘952 hours’ or similar. What help is that to a time-starved teenager?

Much of this dossier is worthy, it’s worth stating. The OfS wants students to be able to compare courses across institutions to gain a sense of their ‘value’. A prospective History student should be able to see that they would get 8 contact hours per week at university A, versus 12 hours at university B and 16 hours at university C.

While the presumption of ‘value’ and the commoditization of education are both inherently problematic, the principle of transparency sounds good to me. If you’re paying £9,250 per year, you’re entitled to know more about the output. It might influence your choice.

It also forces us to deal with our weaknesses and compete properly. If we don’t like that a competitor’s course offers more contact hours than ours, we can either wait around in hope or offer more contact hours or something else unique that makes up for it.

If our teaching structure looks weak (because we should now be stating the percentage of teaching staff on a course that hold a teaching qualification), we can build something into our training to address this.

So, it’s well-intended direction – just not necessarily created by people who understand digital or modern best practice. Higher Education governance and effective web writing have always been poles apart – partly because there’s not a lot of youngsters working in HE and partly because the sector doesn’t always appreciate digital literacy as a skill-set.

But that’s fine. Once you learn not to be frightened by the word ‘regulation’ or ‘recommendation’, you can begin to interpret the spirit of what is being requested. And as you can sense from the above, I’m on the students’ side.

In fact, interpreting the spirit of a rule can help you make it more useful than it would have been. For contact hours, for example, we got quite creative. We now plot the most popular route that students take (accounting for options), providing a true representative example rather than a static number or a mean average.

In this vein, I plotted a schema for our course pages and – long story short – launched it while some departments were still kicking and screaming. Is it perfect? Not quite. I’m not allowed to touch our often terribly-written entry requirements and I’ve had to write a 15-page document for our faculties on how to tighten up their copy. But it’s heading in the right direction.

Now I’m onto postgraduate courses, where some of the research centres get involved and the writing gets knotty beyond belief. Some of these are distance learning. Some are blended learning. The schema must be adapted to account for all of this.

And even here, I find myself calling upon experience. “Why don’t we talk about SCONUL?” I’m asking, looking at the PhD programmes. “What’s SCONUL?” is the response around me.

Of course! I’m the lone nutter from Marketing who has used it before and knows that it exists. That one is between me and the academics. The state of reality versus the alternative foregone.

Since I’ve dipped in both pools, I know what to ask that nobody else would.

So, in sum: interpreting recommendations, supplying a schema to accommodate them, and completing them clearly and concisely. Doesn’t sound too difficult? Try it for yourself and find out.

It can be really hard work. Excruciatingly hard. Troubleshooting, optimising, and problem-solving for a course portfolio of 450. But who better than me to make this work? A faint glimpse at what you offer makes for a gratifying moment.

Marketing isn’t glamour. It’s compliance.

It’s not that I don’t care for appeal, but I care for accuracy more.

Look at politics right now. It’s not even ‘post-truth’. It’s just fiction. Lie after lie, with barely an attempt to filter any of it. There are no visible consequences to prevent it.

Mercifully, in Higher Education, there are rules. There should be. We deserve to be a bastion of truth, and that comes about from marketeers going rogue and putting transparency at the top of the priority list.

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