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Kate Owen on how multifaceted ABM can be applied across higher education

In a recent B2B Marketing Podcast, David Rowlands, editor at B2B Marketing, spoke with University Partnership Programme’s (UPP) CMO Kate Owen, last year’s winner of 

B2B marketer of the year

. Kate discusses how to approach ABM within the higher education sector, cross industry collaboration and how she’s applying ABM to both the B2B and B2C sides of the business.

What it takes to run a large company

With over 20 years experience in marketing and comms across both B2B and B2C, private and public sectors both globally and nationally, it’s safe to say that Kate has a plethora of experience. Having previously worked with organisations from Adecco and Starbucks to Thomas Reuters and the NHS, Kate has joined UPP as part of the executive leadership team where she’s responsible for B2B and B2C marketing, press and public affairs, internal communications, student experience, and more. 

Providing homes to over 30,000 students through partnerships with 15 universities and investing over £3 billion in the UK higher education sector since 1998, UPP is one of the leading providers of on-campus and academic accommodation. They generate revenue through:

  • Student rental income.
  • Commercial revenue: vending, laundry and provision of extra services.
  • Summer vacation revenue: renting rooms for summer schools, conferences, etc.
  • Securing and delivering new transitions which rely on high quality B2B marketing.
  • Supporting partners’ marketing activities to their students, a task which has become “ever more important as universities find themselves more and more in a competitive landscape due to increased student demand.”

ABM in both B2B and B2C

Having set up new ABM functions at both Thomson Reuters and Capita, it comes as no surprise that Kate is pushing for the same at UPP. “We are re-focusing the marketing function with greater attention on corporate marketing and brand,” Kate states, adding that UPP plans to introduce new B2B and B2C campaigns in the name of wider brand promotion. 

In addition, UPP has integrated new ABM capabilities into the team with the view to “leverage ABM strategies on a one-to-one basis in order to help further university relationships and bring the two facets of demand generation marketing and brand marketing together.” This move serves wider aims to:

  • Align university partners.
  • Promote these partners and help them in their own strategies and brand awareness.
  • Showcase common values and purposes at UPP.
  • Bring greater student voice and insight into marketing approaches to refine how to position product and brand to ensure it remains relevant.

Although having student experience, internal communications and public affairs teams within one’s remit may sound like a lot to handle, for Kate, this actually signals a “joined up unit”; a singular team working together across multiple marketing and comms disciplines. The aim of this? “Leverage the great initiatives UPP is working on to maximum effect,” Kate states, threading this through ABM approaches.

Despite only being there for less than half a year, Kate sets her sights high when it comes to results: becoming “cleverer in delivering fewer, bigger and more impactful campaigns that can span across both B2B and B2C and make a positive difference.” As Kate outlines, the higher education sphere has faced a varied audience, ranging from investors to universities and their students. Therefore, how do you draw focus? “Creating excellent experiences for both our customers and our customers’ customers has to be the main objective,” Kate maintains. “Leveraging one-to-one ABM strategies will really help enable us to do this.” 

Tactics and tech when taking a multifaceted approach to marketing

When it comes to tactics to deliver a multifaceted marketing approach, Kate outlines the importance of categorising focus across different areas. The top three elements that UPP are focusing on are as follows: digital marketing (research and sector/customer insights); process and technology; and peer-to-peer collaboration.

1. Digital marketing

Digital marketing is growing, and growing fast. “New players are on the scene all the time,” Kate states. She adds that, within the higher education sector, capabilities are noticeably varied; some universities have sophisticated engines, whilst others lack a CRM system to email students. For Kate, this marks an “opportunity to work with our partners in a collaborative way and bring B2B practices into marketing approaches” in both digital and offline spheres.

2. Process and technology

When it comes to their own technology, UPP is expanding across new CRM systems and models, multi-channel marketing campaigns and ‘integral’ personal buyer journeys, which have been created to “make sure our approach and brand is shaped using external insight versus internally led.”

3. Peer-to-peer

For Kate, co-collaboration on content, ideas and campaigns is on the horizon. Building a wider network externally across marketing and communication teams “makes the job even more interesting,” creating an opportunity to leverage expertise and ideas across the sector. Cross industry views prove indispensable when approaching marketing function challenges. This serves the dual benefit of learning from peers across different sectors, but more broadly leads to a better “understanding of competitor approaches in ways that help enhance our own individual and tailored approaches to suit the end goal.” This, as Kate reminds us, forges excellent experiences for customer and end customer.

ABM: A strategy that can work across higher education?

Although new to UPP, Kate is ready to “take ABM to a different level, applying it as a strategy in ways that other organisations and sectors are not currently exploring.” When it comes to the question of making ABM work in higher education, for Kate it’s a simple question of taking the principles of traditional ABM (“client centricity, insight, partnership reputation, relationship and tailored programmes and campaigns”) and ‘tweaking’ them. 

“In the same way the university partners are our high value accounts, the same could be said for different student cohorts,” Kate suggests. The figures certainly don’t lie: the UK university secretary contributed £21.5 billion to GDP (1.2% overall), generating £95 billion in gross output for the economy. Looking at this with a specific student lens, Kate maintains, student spending supports over £80 billion of the UK economic output.

Dynamic customer and dynamic spending

When dealing with such a large sector, the question of who your customer is, is not always so clear. Kate maintains that the parental voice is an interesting factor to take into account when working in the education sector, a sphere which faces multiple, alternative buyer journeys that need to be considered as part of wider outreach. “Who really are an organisation’s customers nowadays and what constitutes the definition of ‘accounts’?,” Kate laments. She even goes so far as to suggest that children choosing schools at primary and secondary school are future contributors to the £80 billion figure. In that vein, Kate expands, “why would they not be considered high value accounts?”

This dynamic element spills into the question of student spending. It goes without saying that spending depends on students, whether that be in relation to year of study, if they’re a commuter or an international student. In line with this difference, so too varies “how and what they advocate for in terms of brand and what keeps them satisfied.” Shaping propositions in line with what the customer needs, based in an environment characterised by unique needs, sounds like ABM to Kate with the exception that “except for students being accounts, they are people, and different cohorts of consumers.”

Customer insight: B2B and B2C approaches

Equipped with a research and sector engagement function coupled with a strong employee base, UPP’s insights are “competitor beating,” Kate maintains. “Of course it’s about leveraging data and tech to capture customer insight,” Kate explains. However, organisations often forget the “most powerful insight of all: the people and employees who interact everyday with their customers and consumers.”

With employees onsite with university partners and students, it’s clear that reporting on customer satisfaction sits well within UPP’s remit. “We are able to really look at the analysis on a real-time basis to make improvements and suggestions,” Kate explains. This is then relayed back into the business with the aim to drive growth strategies and areas of focus on a “more commercial aspect”. This, of course, helps with ABM strategies and account prioritisation.  “It’s hugely refreshing with every department feeding into this,” Kate adds, rather than sticking to the norm of sales and marketing departments.

Kate stresses the importance of this work being completed from a customer intelligence perspective. She cites the example of UPP’s app which is used across campuses to “bring greater insight and analytics back into the business.” This holistic approach combines people, data, innovation and technology together to further develop capabilities and direct focus and help us to improve in areas where we are being told need further development.

B2B versus B2C: Who comes out on top?

Debates over B2B versus B2C seems almost like an age-old sibling rivalry: who’s more creative, who’s really driving change? Kate plays the role of peacemaker when it comes to battle. “I don’t see why there is such an element of competition here,” she remarks. “Surely it’s about leveraging the best of what works across both B2B and B2C and applying the right marketing strategy to achieve the objectives each organisation needs to adopt?”

She expands by adding that “the most useful initiatives” she has participated in are those that bring B2B and B2C together. Despite this, there are, of course, massive differences in how marketers view the two audiences: B2B with a single view of account and multiple buyers versus B2C that focuses on the view of the individual. However, Kate seeks to challenge this. When taking into account the fact that buying journeys are becoming ever more complex and similar, marketers need to “embrace agility so we can learn from each other to approach new strategies, tactics and tech to meet the ultimate goal – making every CX the best it can be.”

Look out B2B and B2C, there’s a new kid on the block. Welcome B2E.  For Kate this term represents the culmination of working together with experiences at the heart. Perhaps it’s time we did a bit of rebranding?


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