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The value of market research

September 4, 2012

In the 25 years of the College Marketing Network, colleges have gone through feverish competition, uneasy collaborations, central and regional planning, and now the “freedom and flexibility” for colleges to develop and serve their chosen markets. The need for market research has ebbed and flowed over the years, as centralised planning and regional research informed and directed college planning through FEFC, LSC and other bodies.

The current government agenda is for colleges to work with employers to develop and upskill the workforces they need, to generate income with adult full cost as well as provide relevant HE and FE. All of this means colleges need to know their local markets inside out: we can’t rely on external research any more to give us the depth of information needed to plan the curriculum and meet the needs of our potential customers.

Research has always been a high priority for The College Marketing Network, and our Summer Conference this year examined best practice in commissioning, carrying out and making use of research data in marketing, as part of a research project with LSIS and RCU. We heard from the marketing teams at DerbyCollege and BedfordCollege, both of whom source and provide detailed research for  strategic and departmental planning, and work directly with course teams to plan curriculums that meet identified needs.

We heard from Kirklees College, where year-on-year, a picture is being built up of the community and the college’s reputation as a provider within it, as part of a longterm strategic positioning initiative. And we learned how Solihull College is making effective use of analytics and web statistics to research its online presence, and then tailor it to the demands of this critical new market. What was clear from all speakers was that the time and resources spent on research, whether internal by specialist staff or commissioned from external agencies, was seen as critical to the overall success of the organisation, and is now embedded in quality, planning and SAR procedures.

We also had a run-down of the top ten tips for sourcing and ensuring the effective use of research data, collated by the RCU from all the respondents to the surveys carried out during the project. A Good Practice Guide will be published by LSIS soon.

During the research for the project, we heard from a number of colleges where SLT level support for market research was felt to be lacking, or where research was held by senior managers and not shared with marketing teams, who are simply told to “sell this: it’s what we’re offering”. However, in high performing and effective colleges, where staff and/or resources are devoted to gathering LMI and other research regularly, marketers are showing that they can provide information that is critical to effective strategic and operational planning.

This focus will continue at our 25th Annual Conference in November, where one of our workshop strands will be “using data”. We believe that research is a fundamental marketing skill and as such should always be part of the marketing team’s role: one that many college management teams are under-exploiting at the moment, and one that in-house marketing teams are well-placed to offer, given the knowledge they already hold of their college communities. For more details about the conference, see our website at



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