Sway to the sound of TikTok, Zoom and Vloggers

22 June 2020

Chris Stokel-Walker writes about the new marketing and delivery in higher education.


The coronavirus has upended business practices, and put paid to most business travel. But when it comes to business education, it’s likely to reshape, rather than destroy, the norms. The light at the end of the tunnel is becoming brighter, and countries across the world are slowly opening up. The next generation of leaders and executives still need educating – but reaching them then teaching them is slightly different.

The physical open day is no longer feasible, and so – like many impacts on society, what was already a long-term shift towards the digital has been accelerated out of necessity. Business school websites were already an important front door into a school’s programmes, but now must be augmented with cannier marketing off-platform, on social media, including video.

More than half of prospective students turn to social media to find a more unvarnished view about business schools and their offerings, which they all find one and the same. Authenticity, honesty and differentiation are some of the key components prospective students are seeking – alongside a reassurance that the school they’re intending on choosing has the technological chops to sustain digital learning.

It’s for that reason that digital marketing has become the most important part of a school’s promotional toolkit. The videos, testimonials and posts aren’t just being judged by students for their gloss and ability to convince people to sign up: they’re also an indication about how smoothly a transition to online teaching will go.

The corporate veneer beloved by business schools in the last decade or more isn’t what people want now. More than ever, it’s important to try and replicate the personal connection that can best be felt on an open day. Personal testimonies of alumni, highlighting the support and structures in place, are the best adverts. And it’s important to let honest appraisals flourish: in the post-YouTube world, people appreciate admissions of faults and flaws as much as they welcome endless positivity.

The raft of “edutubers” who post vlogs detailing their lives on campus are the example to follow: people like Jack Edwards, Vee Kativhu and Simon Clark show how the chaos of the personal can be more authentic than the gloss of the professional. While we’re entering a strange new world where there isn’t pre-existing footage of how to do online learning, alumni diaries of their new work from home setups, and how their schooling helped them adapt, would be a powerful testimonial for the quality of a school’s curriculum.

Any tech-savvy academic staff willing to record the way they’re adapting and developing learning materials for digital delivery should also be encouraged to do so in an engaging way. However, some caution is needed: this is your shop window to an audience of millions, and the strongest indication of what online learning is likely to look like. Therefore anyone going in front of the camera should be bubbly, energetic and energising – as well as comfortable in front of the camera.

CarringtonCrisp’s own research shows 45% of students say cost is an important influence on their choice of business programme, and that’s becoming even more a crucial factor as the way students are taught changes. As well as being a working journalist focusing on business education, I also teach a Masters journalism programme at a UK university that has shifted to online learning for its summer semester. Students’ immediate concerns focused around value for money: were they getting a second-class degree taught online compared to the first-class physically-taught one they had signed up for?

Reassuring students that their learning experience has been designed specifically for online education – and has taken advantages of the benefits of digital technology – is vital. Simply cutting and pasting Powerpoints and case studies into an online learning environment won’t cut it, and students can see through it. Software like Microsoft Sway allows material that would ordinarily have been presented in a slideshow to be done more dynamically, and the addition of short, personalised videos introducing the content and expanding on key concepts throughout adds a level of interactivity.

Off-campus meetings can take place digitally through video conferencing services like Zoom or Microsoft Teams – and help replicate small-group teaching. Keeping the importance of interactivity in the forefront of your mind when developing learning materials is crucial for this new blended learning environment. Many business schools will simply suffice with posting pre-existing materials and allowing students to learn in their own time: reading and digesting. But the best learning comes from interactivity and off-the-cuff conversations, so build in those changes during teaching.

It’s important to allay students’ fears and to present this not as a change forced upon schools that they’re stomaching, but as an opportunity to rewrite curricula and methods of teaching wholesale, bringing business education into the 21st century. For schools that can harness the power of YouTube, of influencers, of TikTok and blended learning and the opportunities it provides for interactivity, there’s an enormous opportunity. And for the students who study at those schools, they’ll be able to re-enter the job market saying they’ve managed to study during a time of seismic change – and come out the other end conversant in the technologies, and with the skills, they’ll need to chart the next several decades of business.

Photo by Cristian Dina from Pexels


Chris Stokel-Walker is a journalist and author of 'YouTubers: How YouTube shook up TV and created a new generation of stars' (Canbury Press, 2019).

He writes about technology, digital culture, online video and business schools for Wired, The New York Times, The Economist and Bloomberg Businessweek.

He is also a lecturer at Newcastle University, teaching on the BA and MA journalism courses, refiguring content for online delivery in summer 2020.

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