A shift to experiences
In 2019, Audrey set out to conduct a cultural analytics research project. Through 45 focus groups with hundreds of students, the aim was to investigate the impact of culture on the decision to study abroad.
“The point of this project originally was to look at educational cultures: how and when students study abroad and how they conduct their university search,” explained Audrey, “and what we found was that the way that the application process works in a student’s home country, and the way that universities market themselves, really informs how students interpret and go through that process when they’re looking in other countries.”
But something also came up in the research that Audrey wasn’t expecting: an enormous shift towards experience, rather than just traditional information.
If you work in the retail sector, this shift might not be a surprise. When you can get any item to your door within a day, shops need something more to get you into the physical space. And so, they turned to experiences. Retailtainment: the fusion of retail and entertainment was born.
And as online learning grows in popularity, Higher Education can learn from retail: experience matters.
“Our cultural analysis of international markets reveals a need for a shift to focus on marketing ‘experiences’, not just traditional information,” said Audrey.
Prospective students have a very clear idea of what those experiences will look like.
“I spoke to an American student,” said Audrey, “who said she envisioned this idea that she would find a bakery somewhere in town. It would be the best bakery, and she would get to know the baker. He would know her name, he would know what project she was working on at school and he would ask about it every day when she went to buy her bread.
“Then she’d go to a local cheese shop. The cheese shop owner would also have a different recommendation for her every day of what she should have on her bread. Then she would have this bread and cheese sandwich looking out over the cobblestones with a cappuccino.”
This American student had this clear image of her life in Sweden – and when it came to picking a university her objective was to find somewhere that let her do it.
Every prospective student has a vision like this. Whether it’s a British student imagining drinking light beers out of plastic cups in an American fraternity, or a European student imagining submitting their essay from Bondi Beach.
And then they enrol.
Expectations meet reality
“When I then asked her how often she went to a bakery for her breakfast since she’s arrived, she said she did it exactly one time.”
As is so often the way, the reality of an experience does not match up to our expectations of it.
But what Audrey’s research found was that – perhaps counterintuitively – reality not matching expectations didn’t matter so much when it came to enrolling at an institution. Students know that the reality won’t match their expectations.
Even though they know their daily bakery trips won’t be realistic – they want to know it’s possible.