The further education sector is entering an exciting period of change, as colleges rapidly turn away from traditional attitudes and towards a much more competitive, target-driven, commercial way of thinking.
With such a range of career paths and options now open to learners – from apprenticeships and employer programmes, to sixth form colleges – it is no surprise to see FE colleges starting to pay serious attention to their competitiveness as they strive to attract the best candidates, raise funding, engage better with employers, and promote dialogue with policymakers and other stakeholders.
Today, many colleges would even say that their digital properties are the most important real estate they have; long before a learner steps onto campus for the open day, enrolment, or the first lesson, almost every individual will have made their decision to engage with the college based on their experience with its website or a digital recruitment campaign.
Creating a piece of digital real estate for a college is massively important, and has to be done right. Colleges need their digital footprint to be responsive, accessible and feature-rich in order to perform its many functions.
First, we have observed in recent years a marked shift in the way the sector talks to its customers - and I use the word ‘customers’ deliberately. This means moving away from FE jargon and coming up with a new way of communicating that will get people excited, engaged and emotionally invested, but more importantly speaking to customers in a way they understand and are most likely to respond to.
Having defined a language and tone of voice that creates aspiration, attraction and demand, we must also ensure that our digital experience is truly inclusive: it will mean something to all stakeholders – and most importantly it will be emotionally mature. It must make learners feel supported, and follow through on that brand promise.
Today’s learners are digital natives – they will instinctively and intuitively seek relevant information online, expect it instantly, and turn their backs just as quickly if unsatisfied.
The website, therefore, needs to work hard. As well as being simple, accessible and responsive to any device, it also needs to sell. It must promote more than just a course, but an entire career path.
The application process must be as easy as possible, and minimise the risk of individuals losing interest halfway through. In order to make websites ‘sticky’ we can take advantage of personalisation technology, to allow every individual a user experience that is as unique to them as possible.
One final key point is the need for insight. A digital property does not just have to look and feel right, it needs to be rooted in research and understanding of the behaviours, habits, and psychology of the target audiences. This could include learners, staff, government, industry and other stakeholders.
Only by taking this approach to creating a digital experience can we be sure that it will be truly powerful.