10 takeaways from the CASE Europe Annual Conference 2017

10 takeaways from the CASE Europe Annual Conference 2017

From the new CEO of Universities UK using his first public speech since taking the role to fire shots at high-profile critics of the sector, to a football formation of big ideas that will help us move forwards (via a shedload of brilliant and inspiring breakout sessions), this year’s CASE Europe Annual Conference (CEAC) was quite the event.

Hundreds of folk from the sector descended on the ICC in Birmingham for three days of learning, networking and more learning. Here are ten things that I used my best handwriting for when taking notes.

Shots fired and a call to arms

Even if you didn’t attend CEAC, you’ve probably already seen what Alistair Jarvis, the new CEO of Universities UK, had to say to people like Lord Adonis (even if he didn’t mention him by name) and their Twitter ‘discussion’ – I hesitate to call it a spat as it was far too tame.

But, pushing aside the headline-grabbing quotes from Jarvis’ speech, there was a rallying battle cry for us all to respond to:

  • A plea to fight back against those saying degrees aren’t worth it with evidence – evidence such as the fact that graduates earn substantially more than non-graduates, that they enjoy better health and that employers continue to want more graduates.
  • A plea to smash the idea that Universities are Ivory Towers that offer nothing to their local communities. Forget about developing compelling narratives around the world-changing research that our institutions have produced, the number of students who volunteer in the local area of their University and the thousands of doctors, nurses, dentists and teachers we train every year.
  • And a plea to show how our global links make our local impact even stronger.

A look inside Number 10

The opening plenary for the Marketing and Communications Track was delivered by Alex Aiken, Executive Director for Government Communications and, as it happens, former flatmate of the multi-talented George Osborne.

Alex is really helpful, really open and really interesting. As well as a potted history of UK Government Communications (which turns 100 this year as it happens), Alex took us through the OASIS method of communications planning (that stands for Objective, Audience, Strategy, Implementation and Scoring by the way, nothing to do with any Gallagher brother), as well as setting out how he expects his team to show leadership – by inspiring others, creating confidence in their teams and by empowering each other.

Also, there was plenty of practical advice, my favourite being around evaluation. There is a host of useful stuff over on the Government Communications Service website that is well worth checking out on your next coffee break.

Writing copy? Have fun with language!

Have fun with puns. Be silly with language. Hire people who have confidence with wordplay. All top tips, on how to breathe new life into your copywriting, came from the team at the University of Warwick, who managed make a 9am session about writing straplines one of the conference’s highlights.

To be honest, it’s probably not surprising that someone who, in a former life, had to write copy about horse genital wash is imploring us to up our copywriting game, but it’s not without reason. How many of us simply slip into those comfy copywriting slippers of calling our campuses ‘vibrant’ and telling prospective students they’ll ‘challenge themselves’ at your University? Without taking more of a risk with the language you use to describe yourself, you risk just sounding like everyone else. Instead, how about trying something different and surprising your audiences?

But, of course, we are still serious institutions so there is a cut-off point – you need writers who can be a mixture of ‘Creative Kevins’ and ‘Sensible Susans’.

Build voices, not brands

In his mid-conference plenary, Harvard’s Vice-President for Public Affairs and Communications, Paul Andrew, did a couple of things. First, his Scottish accent confused anyone who hadn’t heard him speak before and might have been expecting something more American. Second, he echoed the cries of Alistair Jarvis 24 hours earlier for us to improve how we communicate our work.

If we can get beyond the bubble, engage with our audiences in new and unexpected ways, be as relevant as possible and let people behind the scenes then we can bridge the communication gap that is slowly growing between Universities and the wider public and, crucially, build back the trust that politicians seem determined to take away from us.

And don’t forget your alumni either. They want to feel part of the University and be connected to your faculty in a way that isn’t just centred around fundraising. Think about how you can improve your storytelling for alumni – like this film that Harvard made with one of their grads.

There’s some research coming next month that looks like a right hoot

Sponsors’ who showcase sessions at events like CEAC can often be a blot on their copybook – too pitchy and nothing useful to take away. Thankfully, that wasn’t the, erm, case at CASE, helped in no small part by a stats-filled session from Hootsuite.

Among other things, those owl-loving social gurus teased some of the data from their upcoming Global Survey of Social in Education and it looks fascinating. Things that caught my eye included the fact that most social media professionals in the sector see defining a clear social media strategy as key for 2018, that most institutions are looking to increase their spend on paid social next year and, very interestingly, that Higher Education leaders are more active on social media than Fortune 500 CEOs.

The full report comes out next month and I can’t wait to get my teeth into it!

Pecha YESka

During the conference, there were two Pecha Kucha sessions – both proving so popular that it was standing room only.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking…Pecha what?

Pecha Kucha is a fantastic form of delivering presentations without being killed by PowerPoint. Each presenter has 20 slides to accompany their talk, and each slide is only on screen for 20 seconds. They literally move on automatically, so there’s no time for dawdling. It means presenters have to get to the point, use their slides effectively and not waffle, as they have less than seven minutes for the full shebang.

Having watched plenty and even presented one of my own, I think they’re a great way of learning and a brilliant addition to a conference programme. For example, from just two designated Pecha Kucha sessions, I was able to learn about the University of St Andrews’ Fundraising Ball in New York at the end of 2014, the wonders of DMU Global’s mass overseas trips, all the details about the relaunch of #WeAreInternational and Nottingham in Parliament Day, how you can do graduation ceremonies Eurovision style, a load of current digital trends, how WhatsApp can be used for recruitment, how chatbots can add real value, how we have to adapt to the ever decreasing attention span of human beings and how the Library at the University of Manchester helps students settle in at the start of their studies.


Forget about being a jack of all trades

In their session about communicating research, the University of Glasgow took us through how they came up with their six key research themes, around which they can build strong narratives and more effective communications.

The biggest thing that stuck out to me was their advice to look at the evidence and really nail your colours to the mast when it comes to talking about your research strengths. Don’t just try and claim that you’re good at everything and hide behind descriptors like ‘a top 100, research-intensive University’ because, let’s face it, that could be a lot of institutions. Find out what you actually are good at and build some pillars around them.

You need to be planning for your next crisis

Despite the fact it took place at 9am on the conference’s final day, the very practical session on crisis simulation was so popular people had to be turned away. I can tell you, if any of you ever have to suffer the week of events that Communications Management’s Justin Shaw and the University of Nottingham’s Tim Watkinson cooked up for us then I really hope you have a robust crisis plan. Taking the time to practice some scenarios and really look at your plans is well worth doing and will serve you well in the long run.

Also, is it just me, or is dealing with ‘difficult’ situations actually quite fun, in a perverse sort of way?

Oh, it is just me? Ok.












Want to give your next campaign a flying start? Embrace the power of dugnad

For the final breakout session of the conference, we got to go behind the scenes of what was, without doubt, one of the best Higher Education marketing campaigns of recent years – BI Norwegian Business School’s ‘Flying Start’.

In case you’ve somehow never seen it, here’s a reminder.

And yes, that’s over a million hits on that video.

Now, clearly, this campaign was so well put together that it was going to get people talking. But, as Anette Scott – the marketing whiz behind the idea – explained, they were given a massive boost thanks to the power of dugnad.

The power of what?

Well, like hygge, kura skymning or Tore Andre Flo, dugnad is a wonderful Scandi phrase that doesn’t really have a like-for-like translation into English. The closest I found was ‘a type of community day where people get together and fix, clean, paint or tidy things up’.

Apply this to online activity and it’s essentially around getting your community – your campus accounts – to get behind your campaign and share it on their own spaces. And this is what happened here. In fact, it got shared so much on launch that YouTube temporarily flagged the video because they thought it must have been a fake.

All hail the power of the dugnad.

But, that wasn’t the only interesting thing to take away; BI actually hired someone off the back of this – Emma – and did everything they promised, branded drinks, massive posters and even a mini documentary.

Emma is now doing wonders in helping BI recruit more international students, while the campaign has significantly boosted their numbers; 64% more recruitment in the US, big increases in their other target markets of Sweden, Germany and the UK and even brand new markets.

Impressive stuff indeed!

Big ideas, expressed simply

The closing plenary looked at 10 ideas for how everyone in the room can help secure the future. That’s a tough sell at the end of three days of intense conferencing, so displaying it as a football team formation was a cracking idea.

Well played CASE, I’m even happy to put aside the fact that I’m more of a 3-5-2 fan myself.

Overall, a fabulous conference – do check out #CEAC17 on Twitter to see what everyone thought of it all. Looking forward to next year already!