Conversational Marketing: 5 Engagement Methods Universities Should Borrow from Commercial Brands

Conversational marketing is one of the recent buzzwords in the world of intelligent product and services promotion that has a unique focus on the ‘hear and now’ experiences of brand communication. As opposed to more traditional approaches, it is customer-centric at its core and reflects the willingness to provide instant response and support ‘on client terms’ to win their trust. It values every contact with prospective and existing consumers and views it as an opportunity to make a new step towards building deeper relationships with them rather than annoying extra work for the support department. According to a recent survey by the UK Office for National Statistics, more than one-third of students in the UK were extremely dissatisfied with the quality of their communication with universities during the COVID-19 period. They criticised both the way learning processes were organised and the way education providers treated their requests for assistance and support. This indicates a serious problem that can further intensify the rejection of traditional universities due to the decreasing cost/value ratio. The following analysis suggests a number of engagement methods these institutions may borrow from commercial brands successfully adopting conversational marketing to regain the trust of students and increase their loyalty. 

1. Customer-Time Conversations

Academia is renowned for extreme levels of communication formality. In many cases, you get automated response messages in the line of, ‘Mr. Smith’s working hours are 12:30 to 16:30 on Mondays and Thursdays. Please, contact them during these periods’. While this approach reflects the actual resources of a busy education specialist, it also puts enrolees, students, and other ‘customers’ into the waiting position. This effect becomes even more disturbing when these persons require immediate assistance or information support and are stressed by entrance exams, COVID-19 university closures, visa issues, and other problems. In the long-term perspective, this creates dissatisfaction and negative word-of-mouth that may decrease the attractiveness of university brands. One of the possible methods for reducing these tensions is the use of customer service lines during working hours and multi-language AI-powered chatbots during off-work hours. This will speed up the resolution of any emerging problems and will provide clients with a specific ‘helpdesk ticket number’ showing that the system at large has recognised their issue and is already working on its resolution. 

2. Extensive FAQs and Up-to-Date Instructions

Any commercial firm has encountered multiple issues of macro-environmental uncertainty ranging from global pandemic lockdowns to political tensions and regulatory changes. Most customers understand these challenges and are willing to tolerate a certain degree of inconveniences caused to them if the company demonstrates a genuine willingness to recognise their problems and promptly resolve them as soon as it gets an opportunity to do so. During the pandemic, many universities failed to maintain ongoing communication, assist their students with temporary accommodation options due to the closures of campus areas or provide the required visa support. This approach is clearly counter-productive and does not lead to strong brand power. While the aforementioned resource limitations may prevent some practitioners from offering 24/7 live customer support, any organisation can develop a comprehensive FAQ like on the PhD Centre website and provide daily updates on the situation to give students accurate and reliable information and instructions. 

3. CRM and Big Data

One of the ‘instant seller’ engagement methods is actually knowing your customer. When a specialist greeting a returning customer remembers their name, background information, and past issue details, this makes people think that you genuinely care for them. Actually, this is also easy if you manage a good CRM system for tracking any contacts with existing and prospective clients. The use of big data can also bring valuable insights into your audience composition and needs making it super-easy to build the aforementioned FAQ or offer the products that everybody secretly wants. In the world of academia, this will allow you to keep students 100% satisfied with the support and guidance you offer and suggest the classes and additional programmes that are highly demanded by them. This method also reduces your ‘customer support bottlenecks’ since the customers whose expectations have been met have no need for complaints or extra assistance from the company. 

4. Multi-Channel Communication

One of the main differences between conversational marketing techniques and traditional communication in academia is the focus on consumer convenience instead of brand convenience. Anyone would agree that it is weird to loudly recite your offerings in a place where nobody would hear them. However, most academic practitioners continue to use internal email systems, voice support services, and other means of communication that are inconvenient to modern student audiences. Greater use of popular social media can be a major step in the right direction showing greater openness and allowing universities to establish deeper relationships with their customers. In combination with the earlier suggested CRM systems, this method ensured an uninterrupted flow of communication where questions asked via any platform can be continued during live visits to university premises and vice versa. 

5. Questions Instead of Full Stops

While FAQs and instructions help conversational marketing practitioners reduce workloads and sparingly use their resources, they cannot resolve complex problems of customers. In this scenario, asking questions may be the best way to understand client needs and pain points and offer the best possible solution for every particular situation. In academia, this may lead to personalised learning plans, suggestions on the optimal choice of educational programmes, and more intelligent use of extensions and leaves of absence. Since an educational journey spans 4-6 years on average, a single individualised act of communication can go a long way toward creating customer value and forming a highly positive impression of the university brand. 

While the survey discussed at the start of this article reported multiple claims from universities related to the need for extra resources to provide greater support to students, the concept of conversational marketing does not necessarily imply the need to follow this straightforward strategy. The crisis reflected in these ‘customer reactions’ suggests that the problem is deeply rooted in the system itself rather than the mere lack of funding. Hence, a new vision may offer better results in the long-term perspective in comparison with the promoted ‘Band-Aid’ approach. 
Catherine Smith is an online Marketing Manager at PhD Centre, specialising in PhD thesis writing. She is passionate about researching and writing on various topics, including Education, Marketing, and Technology.