The ‘Aristotle of our time’ Robert McKee, a guiding guru for writers of all kinds everywhere, says that storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world. Have universities grasped this simple but paradoxically complex truth and used it to good effect when it comes to telling their own stories?
Well, the answer might be that they are good at telling big stories (meta-narratives if you want to be all postmodern about it) but not so hot at relaying the myriad endeavours and achievements that would grip the attention of smaller groups of people, who might not even know they constitute a group.
Universities, you might say, are more Proust than Carver. Increasingly this matters in the digital age because thanks to social media and other channels there are numerous mediums of communication – and one big size does not fit all.
All this has massive implications for university marketing (a form of storytelling, hopefully non-fiction) because there are not only multiple stories to tell, but also multiple audiences who desire their own bespoke message.
In a thoughtful, incisive analysis in Times Higher Max du Bois warns universities that if they continue to use traditional means of marketing themselves then they risk becoming faceless or irrelevant.
In a world where league tables often act as judge, jury and executioner, he says, “universities need to delve deep into their hearts and define unique facets that will resonate with an increasingly savvy and critical audience”. They must turn their existing digital apathy “into a transformative force for change”.
Du Bois identifies five key states of university brands, ranging from the poor to the much rarer excellent. This “fifth brand state”, he says, constitutes a higher state of being in which connectivity is used to co-produce the brand.
“By involving all stakeholders in the co-creation process, the university taps into their combined ambitions, wisdom and passions to define what the brand is about. This empowers the student to become part of the brand. This is using digital to revolutionise the way a brand is shaped, to transform it into something living and therefore fundamentally more powerful.”
In other words, many story-tellers tell many different stories each of interest to their listeners. The stories are relayed back and forth in conversations, a move away from “mass personalisation” to “tailored communications channels”.
To succeed in this universities need a big change in attitude, which allows them to be shaped by their audiences and the needs of society.
“As terrifying as it may sound, relinquishing control is part of the necessary change in behaviour that a university needs to accept before being able to become a transformational organisation.”
At base, marketing is about telling a good story in a compelling way. If someone has a great story to tell, be it academic or student or alumni, why not let them tell it?