Spot the difference

How do you differentiate your university from all the others in the world when you are all, essentially, offering the same “product” – research and teaching? Websites are now the main way that students and researchers access information about a university so it is becoming increasingly important that universities are able to stand out from the online crowd.

This is why our research project for this year is looking at the strength of online brands. Our project, Brand Snapshot: Measuring online brand strength in world-class universities, will look at how some of the world’s top universities differentiate themselves through their websites.

A good place to start is the “about us” section of a university’s website. Most universities have a page like this. It is the place where they try and describe their brand attributes to a wide audience. But it is often a neglected part of a website that does not get updated and is often forgotten.

To highlight the importance of differentiation and to introduce the topic of this year’s research project to our members, we devised a game for our members who attended our Annual Conference in Utrecht in October.

We generated word clouds from the words on our member universities’ “about us” pages and anonymised them. Could the Directors of Communications or Marketing from 43 of the world’s top universities identify their institution from the words used on their own “about us” page?

Well, they tried very hard, but ……no. And when you see them all displayed together, you can see why – they are all pretty much the same. Some have “research” as the most common word, while others have “students”, which is not surprising. But many of the other descriptive words are also the same.

What I found interesting was that even the few word clouds that were different – they features words such as history, innovation, international and strategy as their most-used words – were not recognised by their own directors.

This was all meant as a bit of fun, but it did raise a few serious issues. The exercise showed how few universities truly stand out and how challenging it is to differentiate one university from another. Several delegates realised that their “about us” page does not reflect their brand accurately while others realised how neglected this part of their website was.

The research project will delve deeper into which universities do best at differentiating themselves by looking at their whole website and a selection of social media channels. We are currently developing the methodology for the project and will soon be moving into the assessment phase.

Nadya Anscombe
Acting Research Manager