Steve Hook

Addressing #DigitalPoverty before the learning process even starts 

During the 12 years I have been increasing student numbers in colleges it’s been very clear that their central ethos is the belief that everyone should reach their potential regardless of their background.

This principle underlies everything from the development of curriculum to making the case for improved funding – and the focus has only been sharpened by the unequal impact of the Coronavirus crisis.

All our good intentions towards the least privileged in society must be matched by a determination to effectively reach and engage people right from the start of our relationship with them – and that means marketing communications have to be spot on.

In particular, I’d like to focus on the digital divide which has been concerning David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges.

As we know, lack of good internet access and the right tech is a major handicap in the learning process, particularly in these times – but the disparity starts much earlier than that, at the point we try to recruit students in the first place.

In most colleges’ marking departments, considerable energy is invested in digital activity. There have been some tremendous improvements in website design. Digital advertising once left to agencies is increasingly being understood and operated in-house. Social media channels are exploited. There’s an increasing amount of content, some of it very good.

A question though...

In this scramble to become more sophisticated online, are we leaving some people behind?

For many young people, an indeed adults, there is no wifi in the home and the only device to hand is a cheap small-screened smartphone which relies on constantly being topped up with credit.

I was reminded of this when I was in a mosque and education centre doing some business on behalf of a client college.

The manager took me into the office and opened a draw. There must have been more than a dozen smartphones, which had been temporarily confiscated from youngsters who were using them in class on that very day.

All of them were cheap smartphones of the kind likely to be running on top-up credit. It was explained to me that these youngsters didn’t have access to computers or tablets at home. This is a surprisingly common phenomenon and by no means limited to the one particular community.

If you do a casual survey of teenagers in any setting, but particularly in less affluent locations, it’s not long before you find people who say their only access is a cheap mobile running on an expensive pay-as-you-go-plan without a contract.

When you consider this section of our audience, it raises some very serious questions about how we assess the effectiveness of the digital approaches we take. 

Generally, website content is created by people on large screens and with good internet connections. They get their feedback from other similarly equipped colleagues. Very soon, the stuff we do seems very good indeed – at least within our own bubble – and so we do more of it.

Yet out there is a very significant audience of people who experience this content very differently.

If we want to reach and engage this audience, we need to have its needs in mind every time we consider any form of digital content – and we should make the working assumption that our audience isn’t simply going to switch to using a £2,000 Apple Mac as soon as our brilliant website content fails to cut the mustard on a small screen.

We certainly could do more research, by digitally tracking the spec of devices as they come onto our websites and seeing what bearing this has on behaviour. We could work with potential applicants during schools visits to test the website user experience. We could get back to people who have dropped out of the online application process and get an understanding of why it has failed for them.

That application process, just by example, has enormous potential to alienate prospective students – and lose them to other more customer-savvy colleges.

The common requirement for registration before application (a can of worms in itself) generally involves confirming a password via an email link before the application can even be started. 

This email link is easy to access for us people with an email client on our phone but it’s a total faff for a 16-year-old who hardly ever uses email and now has to separately log into their account. We may only be talking small numbers, but at £4,000 a pop it’s not long before the deterrent effect of the registration requirement has cost a college the equivalent of several lecturers’ salaries.

The drop-out rate from overly complex application processes runs at around 50 per cent in many colleges. Some of those users come back. It’s clear that many don’t.

In the worst cases, the process is so off-putting that simply fixing it can have more impact on recruitment numbers than tens of thousands of pounds worth of advertising.

Here are a few other examples of website complexity which disproportionately effects those without ready access to big-screen devices:

1. The downloadable prospectus

Most are extremely difficult to digest on a smartphone screen. Given that the relevant information should already be on the website, these documents actually run the risk of increasing the workload for the audience rather than reducing it.

2. Virtual events

If these are rich with text-heavy content and complex interaction, they may look great on a 17-inch laptop screen but be worse than useless on a small smartphone.

3. Website text

Is it concise and to the point or verbose and flowery? Cheap small-screened smartphones are not a great medium for a long read.

Let’s be clear

Addressing this audience’s needs will improve the application rate across all audiences, so what works in terms of inclusivity also makes hard commercial sense.

There’s a very good reason why commercial websites tend to interact with customers using big bright buttons, sparse text, uncluttered layout and, perhaps most importantly, an emphasis on tap and swipe in favour of squint and type.

They don’t throw the kitchen sink at their sites in terms of interactive content because they know the audience is minded to buy - and they want to get the sale secured in the shortest possible time without distraction and complexity.

Given that an easy customer experience makes sense-across the board, colleges’ effectiveness at reaching this audience is a good litmus test for the overall effectiveness or their marketing communications more generally.

So if colleges want their digital comms to work for them, they need to set the bar high and ensure everything they do works for those with the most limited digital access.

Steve Hook is a college marketing consultant and previously FE editor of the previous newspaper version of the Times Educational Supplement.

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