Inside Red Brick: Improving your Student Union communications strategy

In Education, Inside Red Brick by Jen Steadman


Our latest Inside Red Brick piece is by Research Manager Zoe Revelldrawing on her wealth of expertise with Student Unions to share some recommendations for enhancing your SU communications strategy.

Student Unions are widely misunderstood. Many people think that ‘the SU’ is just a building, a rabidly political entity, or a group that organises club nights.

This perception can often lead students to assume their Union is irrelevant to them. That’s a real shame, because Student Unions offer a variety of important services that can benefit students in many different ways.

Overcoming this perception requires them to not be ignored by the students they represent – which requires a smart communication strategy. Increasingly, Student Unions come to us for insights that will help them communicate more effectively with their students, improve perceptions of how relevant they are, and raise awareness and engagement in all areas of what they do: academic representation, advice and support services, careers and employability services, events and activities, and much more.

There are some simple steps that SUs can undertake in their communications strategy to improve their reputation, clarify their offer, and increase engagement with their student bodies.

Shape SU perception for new students before they join

Our research has shown that a large proportion of students arrive at university without a clear understanding of what a Student Union is, or what part it can play in their university experience. New students are bombarded with information in Fresher’s Week and a Union’s message can get lost in the tide, leaving students none the wiser.

A more effective first impression can be made before students arrive at university – there is a real opportunity to capture incoming students’ attention in the build-up to their arrival, and to help shape their expectations for the Union from day one. A simple one-page document that outlines the main areas of SU provision and guides students on where to go and who to speak to in order to get involved when they arrive can be powerful in challenging assumptions and clearly explaining the role and relevance of the SU.

You should then recap this throughout the year – things that may not have seemed relevant initially may be more so once students have arrived or settled in.

Demystify your services

Increasing awareness of what’s available is great, but it’s important to go a step further – promoting how services work for example – as many students need more information on what to expect before they feel confident using them or getting involved. A fear of the unknown may deter vulnerable students from seeking the help they need, or may hold back less confident and outgoing students from broadening their horizons and trying new things.

Case studies using individual students are a great way to provide more insight into what getting involved looks and feels like, and reassures students who may be nervous about using services or participating in events and activities. More generally, ‘humanising’ the whole SU offering is really important, for example putting people front and centre when producing Student Union video communications; it reinforces the fact that the SU isn’t a building, or a shadowy cabal – it’s a group of real people who are motivated to help students and ensure they get the university experience they want and need.

A crowd watching a band perform.

Tailor your pitch

A big challenge for Student Unions is communicating a diverse mix of messages to a diverse mix of students. Many fall into the trap of trying to say everything at once, with content-heavy newsletters that cause most to switch off.

What you can do is break these down into shorter, more targeted messages, tailoring the style and tone of messages depending on the subject. You might even consider asking your students to tell you the subjects they do and don’t want to hear about to help ensure your messaging is more relevant.

You can also identify distinct groups to target within the student population through segmentation projects, which identify clusters of people based on shared characteristics and behaviours. Segmentation can tell you a lot about what different groups are interested in and the types of communications that will resonate with them. [Click here to learn more about segmentation.]

Given the ubiquity of social media, you may find that offline forms of communication are more powerful and effective. A tangible presence of Student Union representatives around campus will put a human face to the SU and make it feel more accessible to students who may feel disconnected from it.

Be explicit about the benefits of getting involved

It’s all too easy to put effort into setting up a club night, society or fundraiser, and assume people will know and support those efforts by turning up. But ‘if we build it, they will come’ might not be the best approach to take!

Students do not always recognise the value of what you’re offering. For example, you may think the value of a careers fair speaks for itself, but students may have been to lacklustre ones in the past, or not be thinking about their future at that particular time. Additionally, they may be interested but need more of a nudge to turn up for whatever reason. This is particularly relevant for hard-to-reach or inhibited students.

Outlining the benefits gives students an incentive to come along and helps them to recognise and articulate the value that they’re getting. If they feel the benefit, they’ll then spread the word, which lessens the amount of promotional work that you have to do. Students are your biggest advocates.

Young people hugging and laughing.

Let students speak for themselves

Is there anything more embarrassing than brands or organisations trying to ‘get down with the kids’ and imitate a student voice? It’s counterproductive, ineffective, and just plain cringy.

Given that a Student Union will represent thousands of students, it’s so much simpler to use real students’ contributions. Again, case studies can be a great way of doing this: students speaking naturally will be far more compelling, sincere and trustworthy than a marketing bod trying to sound ‘cool’ and youthful.

Case studies representing a range of students who have benefited from the SU will also help to increase perceptions of the SU as accessible and open to all.

Be more vocal about what you’ve achieved for students

Perhaps the best way to improve perceptions of your SU is to promote your victories – and the small ones that make a big difference to individual students’ lives may be especially compelling. If students feel like the SU is personally beneficial to them, or students like them, they’re more likely to feel the Union is a force for good, and be more engaged with its activities and services.

Consolidate your digital efforts on this front by promoting SU victories in eye-catching ways on campus, for example, by putting up banners and utilising screensavers.

 Three students sitting on some steps.

Little things have a big impact

Don’t undermine all your good work by neglecting the details!

There’s no point organising a great careers fair and leaving its promotion until the last minute; this makes it hard for students to plan. Students often tell us that they’d love a big timetable for each month that has details of all the events they can take part in, clearly visible both on campus and online.

Using lateral thinking to inform decisions can really help too. There’s been a lot of recent coverage of ‘Generation Z’, who now make up the majority of undergraduates. So consider what is known about Gen Z in your strategy: short videos, memes, and short and snappy messages are all effective forms of communication. Text-heavy messages, not so much. [Learn more about Generation Z here.]

Student Unions have such challenging jobs, with limitations on their finances and resources, yet are still able to provide a variety of vital services to students. But by implementing these simple tips, you can protect your hard work from going to waste, and help to ensure that your students truly benefit from – and appreciate – what you offer.

Follow Zoe for more professional insights on LinkedIn.

Part of the new Inside Red Brick content series.

Inside Red Brick