‘and you have to have a fly’s eye to see it…’

The expanding range of student blogs is giving the world a multifaceted and sometimes surprising view of Edge Hill University. It is particularly interesting to get a sense of what arriving at Edge Hill feels like. Some of the bloggers on the Hi applicant website are describing their experiences of returning to the University and passing on their wisdom to the freshers. Subjects like houses, housemates, summer jobs, making the most of Freshers’ Week and dressing up in silly costumes (before Freshers’ Week has even started?) are explored along with insights into nearby places, sport, arts and culture.

Another blog I’ve been enjoying is The Adventures of Abby and Catie: Two Friends, One Year Abroad, One Adventure of A Lifetime, which has so far described the planning, anticipation, journey to and arrival at the start of a year at Edge Hill for two US students. It’s really interesting to get a sense of what the University and its surroundings feel like to people for whom England itself is a ‘novelty’ – the sense of estrangement caused by all the minor differences (‘from the brands and foods sold in the stores, to the WAY things are sold (meat at a real, live butcher’s shop to eggs not being refridgerated) is just…fascinating. Even the keyboards are set up slightly differently…’) within the broad US/UK similarities. Things we all get used to and which don’t seem special can take on an allure when seen by fresh eyes:

Ormskirk is amazing. We arrived on a market day, so the entire town, it seemed, was out to greet us. There are stalls with everything you could possibly imagine, from fruit to dog beds.

(‘From fruit to dogbeds’ will now become the official term for ‘a surprisingly large range of disparate objects’ in our household, replacing ‘suits of armour and wool’.)

I suppose markets should be exciting*. Any crossroads with a few stalls selling things is a node in a vast network of interactions, a sort of provisional axis mundi for those who are there. What could be more exciting than that? The marketing metaphor applied to HE hypothesises universities as places that meet needs (like markets, but not by any means only markets) but this meeting-of-needs can’t just be a mechanical transaction. The process needs to include excitement and emotion, at least at certain points. Some of these just happen, and some need managing. (For instance, I’m writing this on ‘Welcome Sunday’, looking out of my office window at students arriving with parents – there is a palpable excitement in the air, like a nervous carnival, coming-of-age with lots of queuing – and a mass of processes and meticulous planning behind it all.)

Anyway. The point I set out to make is that those of us who work in HE marketing can learn a lot from the the rich and diverse range of viewpoints out there in the blogosphere. Alongside the statistics and focus-group results, blogs give us access to real-life viewpoints that deserve attention. But one needs a way to give that attention to a profusion of blogs happening simultaneously (hence the Captain Beefheart quote that titles this post) – if a fly’s eye proves impractical, a direct-to-cortex RSS feed would be handy…

*Coincidentally, when I finish this I’m heading off to Liverpool for the annual Hope Street Market, which this year includes a ‘Market of Optimism‘ – that could be a nice metaphor to live in for a while.

CASE 2008: Brighton Beach Memories

Having read Mike Nolan’s series of posts on the 2008 CASE Conference, I thought I would set down some thoughts of my own, before the memories fade like abandoned flip-flops carried away by the tide.

As a marketer, I’m defaulting to the classic ‘four Ps’ structure. Normally these are Product, Price, Place and Promotion but in this case I’ve let them undergo a kind of Brightonian candy-floss mutation into Professional Insight, Pub Time, Psychogeography and Personal Grooming…

Professional Insight
I won’t attempt to summarise all 150 sessions, or even the dozen or so I attended. However a few nuggets have stayed with me from some of the talks, workshops and roundtables…

The plenary of the Marketing Track (which I had programmed alongside Emma Leech of MMU) was a firework display of ideas from trends researcher Sean Pillot de Chenecey – a rapid-fire, blink-and-you’ll-miss-five-ideas overview of emerging brands and communication trends. One thing I took away from it was the idea that older people are cool (‘Iggy Pop is 60!’) – having lived with youth culture since 1954, an exemplar mature person could be someone like Mick Jones (former Clash member, half of Carbon/Silicon and Libertines collaborator) rather than, say, Terry Scott – so no need to design materials for ‘returners to study’ to look like The People’s Friend or an Ovaltine advert.

Lorraine Westwood from Foundation Degree Forward challenged our thinking on working with employers and work-based learning, with real examples of fruitful engagement in this challenging area.

The next day, a Breakfast Roundtable on Marketing the Multi-Site Institution, led by Martin Wright from the University of the Highlands and Islands (which is about as multi-site as you can get, operating from the Shetlands to Argyll) provided a thought-provoking start to the day. Being physically distributed is just one of the inherent complexities of HE, and internal communication with staff is a key aspect of holding together a coherent brand.

Claire Brown and Matt Smith from Liverpool University delivered a fascinating session on Consumer Buying behaviour and the HE Decision Making Process, showing how academic research had informed successful recruitment initiatives. It would be interesting to see if the model described works similarly with different groups of students (thinking in particular about Paul Greenbank and Sue Hepworth’s research into working class students and the career decision-making process ).

Using Research to Develop a Market-based Portfolio, by Helen Clapham and Abigail Harrison-Moore from Leeds University again showed marketing thinking turned into real outcomes. It was particularly good to see a collaboration between an academic department and the professional marketing team producing demonstrable good practice. Academics and marketers don’t always understand each other, and there are unfortunate examples of each diabolising the other as the source of all problems, so an example of positive collaboration was very welcome.

Another day, another Breakfast Roundtable – this time lead by Alison Wildish: Web + Marketing = the Future. There was a lot of Web 2.0 discussion at the Conference, to the point of overlap, but this session added some useful points to the ongoing convresation.

Marketing Success through Diversity, Nicola Dandridge (Chief Executive of the Equality Challenge University) contributed to another ongoing conversation – the relationship between the equality agenda and the marketing communications that emanate from HE. All of us want to move beyond compliance and avoid tokenism, and Nicola’s presentation and the discussion it led to were helpful in thinking through how to achieve this. A topic that needs to be revisited.

Pub time!
Conferences aren’t just about the formal sessions. The aura of enthusiasm from nearly 1,000* colleagues being in the same place at the same time would give the most jaded professional a transfusion of jouissance. And there was networking a plenty, like a superaccelerated Brownian motion. I can already attest to the fact that the camaraderie of fellow professionals lives on beyond the event. Thinking about it, I didn’t actually get to any pubs after the mini-tour of Sussex real ale I contrived with Mike on Bank Holiday Monday, but the social programme (in the Pavilion, Dome, and (endlessly) in the hotel itself) was good and ‘very Brighton’.

At least one reader of University blogs likes to be given a proper sense of place, so here goes. The conference was based at the Brighton Hilton Metropole @50.822130, -0.149340 in the zone where the central retail district hits the sea and transforms into the tourism, entertainment and business accommodation band of the coastal margin. Having been born in Brighton and lived there for 25 years, coming back as a business tourist was weird – like revisiting my own life from the outside. The Metropole is next door to the Grand, where (as the tourist guide reminded us) an IRA detonated a bomb in 1984. I used to walk to work along the seafront and remember that day, the beach transformed into a crime scene and an odd sense of carnival as routine was broken and we all had to walk to work a different way.

Personal grooming
I was due to pick up the certificate for our Gold Award from the CASE Circle of Excellence during the gala dinner on the last night. By then my normal suit was like a limp rag, and as I didn’t want to shamble across the stage to collect an international award looking as if I’d slept under the pier, I dashed out to Mod clothes shop Jump the Gun in the North Laine and got reclothed from neck to toe, including the narrowest trousers I’ve worn since 1978. (I resisted the temptation to ride across the stage on a Vespa, even though to do so would have been technically possible given the proximity of a loading bay hidden just behind the stage.) Crossing the platform amidst swelling applause was quite a thrill, so much so that, in a moment of introvert flamboyance, I made a two-handed ‘fists of rock’ gesture… which amused my team but, given its vast array of meanings, may have confused delegates from around the world. But I’ll always be welcome at Satanist groups and Texas Longhorns games…

* Statistics show that, out of this number of visitors to the town, 10 will now remain on a permanent basis: eight to work in bars and restaurants; one to open a bar of their own; and one to make a living as a street performer.