How to use marketing effectively When establishing an international campus

18 December 2015

Dr Vicky Lewis

Higher education consultant
Vicky Lewis Consulting

Vicky Lewis, an international higher education consultant, has interviewed some senior managers with responsibility for international campuses to gather advice on how to use marketing effectively during the development process. Good practice recommendations and lessons learned have been turned into a downloadable guide for those embarking on an international campus project. She walks us through the four key pre-campus launch stages when marketing expertise is needed.

After a ‘growth spurt’ in the early 2000s, the rate of international campus launches has slowed. It has become clear that they require long-term commitment, high investment of time and resources and robust risk management. Financial returns may be a long time coming and this is now much better understood.
Most consider the risks too high – and that’s a good thing. The home campus must be crystal clear about its motivations and about the amount of work needed (at development stage and beyond) to ensure success. It must also be clear about how that success will be measured.

Whatever the measures, one key ingredient is effective use of marketing (to inform strategy as well as promotion). Sometimes those with marketing expertise are brought to the table too late and expected to work miracles with a portfolio or delivery model that doesn’t quite map onto market needs. It is important to embed a marketing dimension into discussions from the very earliest stage.

When is marketing expertise needed?

Before a new campus launches, there are four (often overlapping) stages when marketing expertise should be applied:
  • Concept and positioning
  • Strategy formulation (including business case and business plan)
  • Resource allocation, staff appointments and infrastructure
  • Marketing and student recruitment planning
Internal and external communications also need to be tightly planned and implemented throughout the project.

Stage 1: concept and positioning

This is the stage when motivations need to be tested, commitment established and position within institutional strategy determined. It is also when the rationale for the development needs to be communicated and staff support built up. 

It is important to involve in-house marketing, international relations, communications, PR and branding professionals in ‘concept stage’ discussions. They can ask challenging questions to test the initial proposition. Having been privy to early debates, they are equipped to explain how the planned campus fits with wider strategy, pre-empting objections and responding to challenges. Internal communications experts play a major role in helping to engage home campus staff. Specialists in brand development can start to consider the impact of a new campus on university branding and how best to articulate the relationship between home and international campuses.

Stage 2: strategy formulation

This is the critical stage for demonstrating viability. The business case must be built on robust market intelligence. Once approved, this needs fleshing out into an initial marketing strategy linked directly to the business plan.

The local operating environment should be evaluated, evidence of market demand gathered and competitor activity scrutinised. This intelligence should inform the campus proposition and portfolio. Overestimating demand is a common mistake and can cause problems further downstream. Marketing strategy and business plan should be developed hand-in-hand via an iterative process. If they happen in parallel (or if the marketing strategy is an afterthought), the business (and financial) plan may not stack up.
Balance traditional market research approaches (eg. surveys) with more qualitative market intelligence gathering – and triangulate findings by using more than one independent source. The right questions need to be asked of the right stakeholders. Intelligence from external agencies should be supplemented by a senior university representative engaging with government stakeholders, regional employers, college principals etc. – which doubles as a relationship-building exercise. 

The benefits of the campus proposition need to be captured in a (costed) marketing strategy which includes the initial academic portfolio, timetable for expansion, enrolment targets, pricing and entry requirements, target market segments and strategies to reach them. Key messages (including how the campus differs from competitors) should be tested with target audiences. Marketing strategy delivery costs must be included within financial plans. 

Stage 3: resource allocation, staff appointments and infrastructure

The marketing budget and resource base should be agreed at this stage and appointment of key staff commenced. The new campus is effectively a start-up business in an unfamiliar market context. Budgets and staffing should reflect the fact that, however well-known the institution is at home, awareness is likely to be low in the host country. Profile-raising and marketing cannot be done from a distance or squeezed into existing staff workloads. 

Ownership of the marketing budget and allocation of spend to home and international campus must be determined. Decide which skillsets and experience are needed most urgently. Initial in-country marketing posts (usually starting with a strategic marketing lead) probably need to be recruited earlier than you think, with a schedule drawn up for appointing further staff (particularly student recruitment specialists). 
Consider home and international campus marketing staff as a single distributed team, clarifying roles and responsibilities, addressing induction and training needs (factoring in enough budget for regular inter-campus travel), and fostering a cross-campus team culture from the outset. Decide on the most appropriate location and reporting line for each post. 
Agree which marketing services (PR, media buying, design, printing etc.) will be sourced locally and which provided from the home country. Where the home campus marketing team provides a service, draw up a service level agreement and identify a single point of liaison.    

Stage 4: marketing and student recruitment planning

This is the final pre-launch stage and the ground should be prepared via relationship-building and ‘soft marketing’. Involve a range of well-prepared staff in engaging key stakeholders to build reputation, raise profile - and gather market intelligence. 

This includes reaching out to employers, potential sponsors, school and college leaders, government officials and agencies – through public lectures, guest seminars, alumni events, creation of industrial advisory groups etc. The focus should be on raising the profile of the institution as a whole, not just the new campus. Senior leaders and academic staff from the home campus need to play their part.
This provides the foundation for effective marketing and student recruitment, which should be guided by a fully costed operational plan. This needs to be in place well before the start of the recruitment cycle for the first intake. It should be jointly owned by all involved in delivery (whether at home or in-country) and more than just a list of planned student recruitment activities. It needs to include: marketing communications (including website and social media), profile-raising and PR, market intelligence gathering, enquiry-handling and conversion, international and domestic student recruitment. 
It should fully acknowledge the local context and draw on local expertise (what works well in the UK does not necessarily transfer) and, like any good marketing plan, include clear accountabilities and mechanisms for measuring, reporting on and monitoring progress. 


  1. The campus proposition should be demand-led, requiring a deep understanding of local market and operating context.
  2. Sufficient resources (human and financial) should be allocated to profile-raising, marketing and student recruitment.
  3. Local and home campus marketing expertise should be harnessed and collaborative working facilitated.
  4. Relationship-building, marketing and recruitment activity should be rigorously planned and start early enough to generate the required momentum.

A word of warning, and further advice

The way this post is structured makes the development process look neat and linear, which it is not. There will be unexpected challenges and hold-ups. However, having clarity on what needs to happen when from a marketing perspective helps to keep things on track.

A fuller pdf version of this guidance can be downloaded from:​