The Student Experiencescape

The Student Experiencescape

Lund University, Sweden, redefined student recruitment by focusing on the Experiencescape

Article by Michael Mander
Photos by Mats Hagwall, Albacono

Since the phrase was termed in 1998, the Experience Economy has become more important than ever in the 21st century. 

It refers to an economy that trades, not in goods or services, but in memories and experiences. It’s not about what we own, it’s about what we live through. And it’s growing – fast. In-person experiences like escape rooms, mini golf bars or extreme sport centres are expected to be worth $12 billion by 2023

And it’s no secret what’s fuelling it: Instagram. Young people are seeing experiences online, visualising themselves taking part, buying a ticket, and then broadcasting themselves doing it – perpetuating the cycle

But what does all this have to do with Higher Education? 

Because students are choosing what university to go to based on a mental ‘experiencescape’, the experiences they imagine they will obtain at your institution, in your city, in your country. 

And Lund University, Sweden, have made this a central part of their strategy. Junior Marketing Officer, Audrey Savage, explains more. 

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. 

“Students are aware that these experiences they’re imagining might not actually come true once they get to your university,” said Audrey, “but it’s still an important part of their university search that they’re imagining these sort of things.” 

Having established the importance of the student vision, or the experiencescape, the next step was to determine how this related to student recruitment.  “We wanted to really make sure that everyone in our team understood that even if you’re doing something that’s not directly related to recruitment, like if you’re sending a migration email or working on a more academic side, that you are still serving in the role of a recruiter. 

“Students are still taking that experience as part of their experiencescape to decide if your university is right for them.”

So students imagined ‘experiencescape’ – even though they often know it is an idealised reality that won’t necessarily come true – forms a significant part of their decision-making. And every interaction with an institution either confirms their expectations, or denies them. 

Lund made that concept a principle part of their strategy: and also recruited current students to act as advocates that could share their own experiences. But more than that – those students also acted as consultants for the university marketing team. Their own stories, feedback and experiences informed the marketing strategy that Lund University adopted. 

The results

“We’ve had the highest number of applicants on record this year,” Audrey said, “and so far it’s looking like we’re going to be on track to either match or exceed the numbers that we had from last year. Even we were surprised by that, in these coronavirus times.” 

But just as importantly, the marketing office has built strong relationships with current students – and made their office more accessible to their input.

And that student input matters. As Audrey said: “it’s really important, especially as you start to shift to more digital methods, that everything that you’re creating and everything you’re working on is student informed and that you’re checking in with your current students to see if that’s something they would actually have paid attention to. 

“You need to know if the content you’re creating would have contributed to their experiencescape – because if not, you’re just producing something that no one’s going to watch and you’re wasting your resources.” 

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