University Challenge

Jeremy Paxman poses some tough questions to the fearless contestants who volunteer to showcase their general knowledge on TV. At Metricomm, we have long experience of working with universities to help them answer their own questions about the competitive landscape, the impact of media coverage on reputation and how to evaluate communication campaign success. None of those topics ever came up on the telly, but we thought it would be fun to set out some of the recent questions we’ve addressed, to help the audience understand why, in 2023, University Challenge is far more than a BBC2 staple.

So, let’s go straight to our starter for ten…

1. What’s the biggest challenge facing the UK university sector?

Actually, there are multiple challenges, including financial constraints, the need to compete globally for academic talent and of course the mandate to attract students from the domestic and lucrative overseas markets.

In a sector with almost 2.7 million students (source hesa.ac.uk), worth billions to the nation’s economy, some are starting to identify the outstanding challenge as reputation. After all, reputation influences the ability of each and every institution to achieve commercial and academic objectives. When reputation is negatively impacted, it can produce an immediate competitive disadvantage.

2. What are the key issues affecting reputation for UK universities?

This is something of a trick question. Most Vice Chancellors would like to believe that academic results, the subjects on offer, the quality of research published and the profile of leading academics are the most important contributors. Nowadays a business school is an essential ingredient and a handful of recognised research institutes are also nice to have. It’s true that, among their peer group, these are probably the aspects of reputation they get most competitive about.

In truth, though, there are many undercurrents which have adversely impacted universities’ reputations over recent years and many of these have more to do with the student experience than academic excellence.  There are societal issues such as mental health, diversity, sustainability, free speech and racism. Worse still, there are tragic situations such as student suicides and on-campus rape. Compounding this are service-related issues such as lack of accommodation, value for money, contact hours and lecturer strikes.

And the bonus question for ten points:

3. Why does this matter?

Pre-Covid, media coverage about universities followed a regular pattern, echoing the rhythm of the academic year. This has completely shifted in the UK, with media interest in the university sector now significantly higher than it has ever been, even after the obvious discussion about the impact of the pandemic has decayed.

The broader issues outlined above have been driving much of this media attention. Like all businesses, universities are being judged on their behaviour and particularly on their response to sensitive issues. When stories like this appear, they influence potential employees, potential students, schools which advise their students on higher education choices, students themselves and, of course, their families, carers and friends.

4. What can universities do about it?

Don’t ‘pass’ on this question. Ignoring the reputational impact of media coverage is a poor strategy, especially if competitors can score bonus points by having a more considered response.

The first step is to understand how your institution’s reputation is currently coming across to people who consume media articles and to determine which media content is likely to have had most influence on the audience. There’s a short sample report here. You can also benchmark your reputation against that of key competitors, either in the UK or overseas.  The findings will help shape communication strategy and future media targeting.

5. I’m going to read out a list of things that could be benchmarked against the competition or analysed in detail for an individual institution. For each, you must decide whether they are of value to your university

  1. The size of engaged media audience that reads content about your university and takes action as a result
  2. The effectiveness of that media coverage in generating interest in your university, for instance through greater Google searches for it
  3. The named media which are most influential in shaping stakeholder perceptions and behaviour, at home and abroad
  4. How visible your institution is in overseas markets, where competition to recruit students and academics is fierce
  5. The subjects and academics which are doing most to enhance your reputation
  6. How ‘crisis’ issues affect opinions and audience behaviour

For many years, Metricomm has been using search as a solid proxy for consumer interest.  It is also a great barometer of marketing effectiveness, allowing analysis of which campaign activities contribute to increases in search. We don’t simply do this by looking at the trendlines; our analysis uses sophisticated statistical techniques to reveal the relationships between different, independent data sets, for example looking at the impact of media coverage on Google search and sales.

Well, it seems we need a tie-breaker question. Fingers on buzzers please. The first correct answer will secure their team a place in next week’s semi-final.

6. What is the main advantage of working with Metricomm?

No, I’m sorry, it’s not just about traditional media evaluation. Metricomm has a unique methodology for generating audience-focused insights and consultancy which feed into communication planning and strategy, helping universities and other commercial organisations obtain the right data to make better decisions. And yes, we’ve worked extensively with the nation’s favourite broadcaster, as well as organisations across many other segments and international markets.

If you’d like to know more, contact us for an informal chat about your requirements. Meanwhile, it’s goodnight from me…

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