Katy Jo Stanton, Head of Marketing at The Student Room Group, tells us about meeting the needs of a young, digitally-driven audience and explains why a thriving community begins with open communication
FD: Can you give us a quick introduction to The Student Room? What can users get there that they can’t find elsewhere?
KJS: The Student Room Group comprises The Student Room and Get Revising websites and is the world’s largest online student community and free learning educational resource for 14-24 year olds.
We provide student-to-student advice on studying, educational/career options and lifestyle choices to over three million members worldwide. Whether it’s getting help with their studies, choosing a university, their A-level subjects, a new laptop or what career to pursue – learning from the experiences of their peers is an invaluable part of student decision-making.
For example, students can find people who are taking the same courses at college or university that they’re thinking of taking – and then ask others what it’s really like. That’s so powerful.
We also provide free peer-to-peer learning, with over 195,000 learning resources online, covering more than 100 subjects, created and shared by students and teachers. There’s a 95,000-strong teacher community using Get Revising to support their lessons and create A* quality content.
Our goal is to increase the number of students able to access high-quality educational support services and our research has shown that using our free learning and revision resources can boost students’ grades.
It’s also a great place for companies and organisations to connect with students, with a powerful range of services enabling brands, education providers and recruiters to engage with students effectively.
FD: At the Student Room you’re catering to a young audience of digital natives. Are you seeing any notable trends in the way users are engaging with content online?
KJS: It almost feels old school to say ‘mobile’! However, that really is one of the most notable trends in terms of changes to the way young digital natives are engaging with content, sharing content and connecting/talking with each other. As we handle study time as well as chat, there are often quite logical but notable differences in the devices used for different activities online.
We have learnt that you really don’t have to be all things on a mobile, just the parts your users actually want – getting on top of that, listening to what our community are asking for and getting developments in place to build and deliver those changes are some of the most exciting projects we’re working on right now.
Another notable trend is the consumption of video content onsite and on social. With evidence that video consumption is overtaking TV, video marketing is featuring heavily in our current and future marketing strategies. We are really enjoying building up our assets here and the key thing about our audience is that they make a tonne of video themselves, so their expectation around production quality is focused on quick and simple rather than glossy and high-end. This actually makes it an incredibly accessible medium for us.
I’d say another notable trend of the 14-24 year old digital natives is that they are very open – they are used to commenting, giving feedback and expect a two way relationship with a brand.
We are deeply in touch with our community. When we change things, they spot it straight away! We get sincere, helpful and honest feedback. We don’t have to ask for it and frankly it’s absolute gold dust. We get to do a lot of user testing and research both on and offline and that’s a really powerful part of what we do in Marketing at The Student Room Group. We get to research, listen, create and plan around what our community and user groups are telling us. Our challenge is being able to do everything they’d like us to!
FD: Do you have any tips on how to establish a thriving, loyal and active online community?
KJS: This quote from Dr Stephen R. Covey has inspired us this year: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.”
In order to build a loyal, active community you really do have to listen to your audience. Research, test and plan with your audience in charge. Get to know their needs, worries and cares. Find out exactly who they are, what they like, what they dislike, keep abreast of how that changes and you won’t go wrong.
Here at The Student Room, we have an incredible (and super-cool and relevant) community management team who work as a touchpoint between our audience and what goes on behind the scenes. They are backed up by what we call our support team – an army of community members who are effectively super-users. They engage with new and existing users every day, and they retain a focus on specific areas of our forum to make sure visitors to each section have a great experience every day. We work really hard to ensure we’re all trained up and armed with the most relevant and useful information our members are looking for.
It’s really important not to dictate as a brand. Our audience is diverse and unpredictable. You can’t be a friend one minute and a corporate wall the next. Another key element is to be consistently helpful, enabling members to find what they’re looking for (even if they don’t know what that is yet!). We have found the sweet spot is to tune in to users’ existing online engagement and capture trends through listening, then start conversations with relevant content, join in current conversations and be open and transparent as a brand ourselves.
FD: Social media clearly plays an import role in The Student Room. What are some of the key aspects of your social strategy?
KJS: We read a lot about the general population hitting digital overload. Think through the daily life of the average 14-24 year old. This is our core audience and this is one of the craziest times of their lives, with big decisions to make, heavy competition and economic stresses. It’s not all lie-ins and partying!
Our biggest challenge is therefore shared with most brands: how do you engage someone who’s already engaged with something else? As a brand we have to earn the right to their attention.
Social media is incredibly powerful for us, but we’re also like a social platform in our own right. We have tailor-made relevant content, members can have private and public group conversations and we have the support team army on hand for help on anything more specific around study and life advice.
We’ll often share the conversations happening on The Student Room with our social media communities so they can come and have their say or grab the answers or info they need. We share a mix of informative, fun and discussion-based content and we will be doing more with our video assets too, as these are increasingly popular. Feedback and conversation is really important to us so we invite direct messages, posts and comments on social which helps to reinforce and inform our growing community on The Student Room.
Social media techniques, paid and unpaid, work consistently better for engaging our youth audience than most standard advertising and we involve our social audience by posting relevant content at times that suit them. That’s constantly changing so we’re constantly monitoring! Imagery on social is also key for us. A great image can take post engagement from 10 per cent to 40 per cent.
We always try to engage with our social audience in the same way we do on The Student Room. For example, during A-level and GCSE results days we aim to provide personalised help and advice for every question we receive on The Student Room and our social channels. That personal engagement experience is key to having the expected two-way relationship with our audiences and demonstrating that we are listening.
FD: You’re in the process of launching a new eCRM project. Any tips on how to do this effectively?
KJS: For our digital natives, a two-way relationship with a brand is becoming more and more important; the expectation for personalisation and getting a user experience tailored to them and their complex preferences is something that’s coming through from our research time and again. This has given birth to our new eCRM and personalisation projects.
In terms of top tips around implementing a new eCRM programme, the most valuable thing we did was research and listening. We did a mixture of surveying our current audience about what they like and dislike as well as a number of live face-to-face user research sessions and stepping up our tracking and data available for performance measurement.
This let us know what we want to get rid of as well as what we want to develop. There’s no point developing/implementing something because it’s 2015’s biggest trend, if it’s not what our members wanted, or vice versa. We could have removed something the data was saying they absolutely loved (even if they’d never mentioned it in the research pieces!).
Another top tip for an eCRM overhaul is to try an ensure whatever system you go with for delivery of your triggered email programme, you have the ability to test your creative. Iterative testing is proving invaluable, even for our standard contact emails and often informs our promotional email programme in the process.
Additionally, I think it’s a myth that you can send too many emails. However, they have to be relevant and tailored to an individual user where possible, and if you can get that right (something we’ll always be working on!), the results from your active users will be tangible. This is where personalisation becomes key for us. If a member can tell us what they want, they can have more control of their experience with us. We can then make that happen and get the best results – both brand and members are happy.
FD: Anything else you’d like to tell us about what you’re up to or what you think will be shaping digital marketing over the next year or so?
KJS: I’m looking forward to our mobile challenge and some of the current mobile product developments coming up are looking really good. I can’t wait for them to be live, to see members actively using them and grab that feedback, so we can continue to develop useful features for them.
I’m really excited about our current eCRM and personalisation plans and the power of using our data to create a brilliant experience on our sites for our members and our clients.
We’ve spent some time listening to our community of students, teachers, parents, plus universities, schools and colleges and we’ve got some exciting new developments being created that I cannot wait to see in action. They really will continue to make a positive difference in the lives of students and help them, their teachers and their parents through key life decisions, such as what subjects to study at college and where to go to university.
I think personalisation and customer experience improvements both on and offline will be a continued and growing trend for the next few years in marketing, as more and more non-ecommerce businesses are able and willing to invest in the technology developments required to harness the data they have available, converting that into awesome, delightful experiences for their users.
Mobile will continue to feature heavily over the next few years; the audience behaviours are changing so rapidly in the 14-24 year-old space, keeping up with their early adoption habits and being lean enough to experiment with them will be key for us and anyone else working on digital in the youth market.
So, really looking forward to the next few years. Some fundamental changes coming up. It won’t be easy, but it’s exciting times ahead.