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digital research methods
CC image courtesy of Duncan Hill on Flickr

Since moving back into academia a couple of years ago, I've been thinking about digital marketing research and in particular, digital research methods.  My belief is that the digital age requires a rethink on how we approach and treat data, and that there's a need to develop a new and innovative research methodology.

I advise my dissertation students (of social sciences, digital media, and marketing) to expand their literature search to include grey literature (particularly, reputable industry surveys, research reports, and blog posts). These sources are often more current than academic literature, and complement theories with for example latest social media usage statistics, mobile adoption, changing digital consumer behaviour (such as conversational search) or the effect of Google's and Facebook's algorithm updates on small businesses' ability to compete effectively online.

When it comes to Methodology, I favour an experimental approach largely driven by the nature of the business or research problem. In my PhD (Webfilm Theory), I used a mixture of Actor-Network theory and Discourse Analysis, and the beauty of ANT was that it allows you to pretty much follow any nodes. It's a meta-methodology!

For researching social media communications and online communities, I recommend to my students Kozinet's Netnography as a good starting point. And in terms of methods of data collection, I teach them how to use real-time data (e.g. from Facebook / YouTube analytics, search data, or Google Analytics).

Let's demonstrate this novel approach to research with an example involving the analysis and evaluation of search data!

Digital Research Methods - Search Data

Non-traditional data can be collected from search engines, for example, the terms people use to find information using Google.

This could also involve analysing and evaluating the html markup, content and link profile of other sites, to understand how they perform in the search engines (essential for competitor analysis, if you're a business using digital to sell online).

Below are two methods from search engine marketing that demonstrate why search data can be highly relevant to academic or business research.

1. Customer search analysis


Knowledge of consumer behaviour in relation to online search is essential to developing content and strategy that meets customer needs.

This isn't just relevant for market research - I've recently conducted an analysis into consumer search behaviour around suicide (in a post titled How to Kill Yourself). Try using this type of data instead of a focus group to uncover consumer behaviour around your research topic.

Data type

Primary, e.g. search volumes / related search / auto-complete (Google suggest), etc.


Google Keyword planner, Webmaster Tools, related search / auto-complete,, ubersuggest

Further reading

2. Competitor SEO Analysis


Knowledge of a competitor’s SEO strategy and profile is essential to discovering competitive advantage.

This applies primarily to business and marketing research, not so much social sciences. A while ago, I conducted a (light-hearted) competitor analysis of London's first Cat Cafe vs. the UK's first Cat Cafe (in Totnes) and discovered that the former's success had largely been driven by digital PR / use of social and the resulting earned links.

Of course you could extend the competitor analysis to social and online community research - just supplement the search analysis with Netnography on their Facebook / Twitter / any other social network pages.


Primary, i.e. html / meta data; Domain authority / backlink profile


Screaming Frog SEO spider, Open Site Explorer,  Majestic SEO

Further reading

Digital Research Methodology - Conclusion

CC image courtesy of PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE on Flickr
CC image courtesy of PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE on Flickr

The digital age has resulted in an explosion of 'big data'. Large-scale real-time customer data is now readily available for free, and search and social media data are excellent primary sources to conduct research, both in the social sciences and business and marketing (e.g. consumer behaviour).

For academic researchers at all levels (including student dissertations, PhDs and post-docs), a comprehensive search of sources must increasingly include grey literature and real-time sources such as industry-specific blog posts and other content available in the public domain. The risk of ignoring grey literature is that the resulting research will be at best out of date, and at worst, simply wrong.

Last but not least, a modern digital researcher must have a digitally native mindset. S/he must be able to master digital research and survey tools (such as Google forms / Google apps), collect and evaluate digital and social analytics data (such as Facebook Insights, Google Analytics), and overall be very comfortable with technology.

Above all, s/he must be a citizen of the Internet!


This week I attended a guest lecture on digital student recruitment by Christian Bremicker, Head of Social Media and Online Marketing at Benedict Education Group in Switzerland - specifically its internationally renowned Business & Hotel Management School (BHMS).

I'm currently teaching a New Media Marketing module to MSc Students of RGU's International Marketing Management, where digital marketing including social media feature prominently.  To give my students a real-life case study of using digital media in student recruitment, I took them along to Christian's talk as part of their afternoon lab session.

Digital student recruitment class

While I can't and won't reveal specific business data or any other secrets from his excellent and persuasive talk, here are some tips and ideas to consider if you're keen on using digital channels, especially in international student recruitment (one of BHMS' key target markets).

Effective student marketing in the digital age

digital marketing funnel
CC image courtesy of Eric delcroix on Flickr

Christian is an experienced marketer working in a commercial environment - BHMS is a private Business School. He treats digital not as an 'add on' but, like any good marketer should, as a key and cost-effective tool in an integrated marketing strategy.  Specifically, he uses digital channels to fill the top of the marketing funnel thus generating leads into the sales pipeline.

BHMS' target audience are international Generation Y, and it goes without saying that student recruitment strategies for this segment must be digital (and mobile) first!

In a nutshell, Christian's digital marketing strategy aims to drive quality traffic (= his international target audience) to the BHMS website, where these leads are captured and nurtured via an online chat (with REAL people, not robots!), on the road to conversion (applying to / studying @ the Business School).

I love it because it's simple and effective, and it focuses on the bottom line. Christian also shared some recent success metrics, which I'm not going to publish here but let's say it's impressive.

Digital student recruitment

digital student recruitment - quote
CC image courtesy of Ken Whytock on Flickr

While the underlying approach (1. get people to site; 2. capture leads through live chat) looks simple, digital student recruitment is in fact hugely complex due to the characteristics, behaviour and most importantly customer needs of a global digital audience in their 20s.

I have previously talked about how to earn the attention of this audience in a post on teaching Generation Y. It follows that student recruitment strategies in the digital age MUST consider the following Gen Y audience characteristics:

  • Short attention span: your website has 3-5 seconds to make an impression
  • Mobile first: mobile features prominently in the customer purchase journey (often first touch point)
  • Audience fragmentation:  'segment of one' marketing

BHMS has tackled these key challenges in a number of ways, including:

Short attention span:

  • Easy, fast user journey (website UX);
  • Multi-touchpoint (e.g. social ads, PPC, organic social);
  • Personalisation (e.g. using data from user website browsing data to inform live chat)

Mobile first:

  • Responsive website;
  • Key conversion tool (live chat) is both mobile and desktop

Audience fragmentation:

  • Hyper-targeted paid advertising;
  • Global - local integration (e.g. leads generated through digital handed to local experts in territory to close)
  • Personalistation (using both digital data and cultural insight to tailor application experience to individual's behavioural, psychological and cultural needs)

There was plenty more meat in his presentation, especially in regard to international student recruitment and the challenge of China - a country that is a key target market for Western and in particular English-language Universities. However, as Christian eloquently pointed out (and which I've explored in a recent talk myself), traditional or even progressive Western digital strategies (both channels and approach) won't work there (e.g. Facebook isn't even allowed across there. One of my past students from China told me that people who get caught using Facebook may get a 'phone call' from an official).

Social media for international student recruitment

Finally, let's look at the role of social media in Christian's digital marketing strategy. It's important here to differentiate between organic and non-organic (i.e. paid) social media marketing.

BHMS have a global Facebook page and use both organic and paid social media for student recruitment.

Social advertising (on Facebook) is unsurprisingly Christian's best-performing (most efficient and effective) acquisition channel. This stuff works! I'm not going to go into detail here but paid Facebook advertising when used right is a low cost channel to generate traffic that also convert into leads due to the extremely targeted advertising options. It's a fantastic option for recruiting international students since he can reach most of them here; thus focusing his budget very effectively and efficiently.

In terms of organic social media, Christian uses it mainly for brand building and to help keep BHMS top of mind (he tracks engagement metrics and monitors real-time data and comments from social to continually improve social content and the overall social customer experience of his prospects).

BHMS facebook

Theirs is a global brand page i.e. one vanity URL but different local pages served up and managed in territory (this is only open to brands on application, takes a little while for Facebook to do, and tends to be open to brands with significant and regular paid advertising spend, naturally...).

Key success factors of BHMS' use of social media for student recruitment:


  • Global / local branding - the image of the bell above is the same on all Facebook pages, with the text localised to each language (Welcome / Willkommen / etc.)

Organic channel optimisation

  • Use of Facebook cover photo as marketing real estate (branding, link to site)
  • Integration with website (e.g. live chat app tab)

Acquisition marketing

  • Paid advertising (both to existing global FB community and new prospects i.e. non-likes)
  • Efficient and effective use of Facebook advertising platform to drive target traffic to website at low CPA

Conclusions: Student recruitment in the digital age

international student recruitment
CC image courtesy of Saint Louis University on Flickr

All in all, Christian's talk provided an excellent case study for how to effectively market to digital international students. BHMS' approach to online student recruitment is one that I would fully endorse, and recommend to other Universities keen to reduce their student acquisition cost through the use of digital channels.

This really isn't just about acquisition either, but also about brand-building and engagement. BHMS' focus on customer needs at each stage of the purchase funnel, to make the experience of applying and enrolling as easy and enjoyable as possible.

In conclusion, BHMS have truly taken a modern marketing approach - one that is customer-first and guided by their prospective students' needs at each stage of the decision-making process.

DIT_logocol2013_webThis week I had the pleasure to be an external examiner on  DIT's (the Dublin Institute of Technology) Postgrad Dip in Advertising & Digital Communications. A strong digitally focused part-time course now in its 5th year,  its USP is the close relationship it has with industry - the course was developed by DIT and IAPI (the Industry of Advertising Practitioners in Ireland), and 75% of its lecturers are currently working in advertising in one form or another.

Needless to say this is right up my street - after all, our own MSc Digital Marketing was similarly developed with industry to teach the digital marketing skills employers need, and we too have strong links with practitioners (including guest lecturers, a mentorship programme with DigitasLBi, live client projects, and more).

DIT invited me to be an external examiner late last year, after finding me using Google then checking me out on LinkedIn - Personal Branding (and on-page SEO) FTW!

How to teach digital courses - DIT and RGU

My conviction (and I'm quite obsessed with this) is that you can't teach digital courses from books. I do not use any books in my teaching and instead constantly research and read reputable industry blogs from which I upgrade and refresh my knowledge in real-time, directly putting it into professional practice (both in my teaching as well as when doing digital marketing for this site or side projects / clients).

CC image courtesy of ChowKaiDeng on Flickr

Professional practice is also central to DIT's course (most of the lecturers are practitioners). I was very impressed by their pioneering approach, and it's clearly been a success both for them and industry (employers recruit directly from the course).  And DIT have been doing it for 5 years! Wow!

I observed a fulsome and well-rounded, practice-focused teaching and learning experience when examining the course outputs.

The student course work and types of assessments were wide-ranging - from beautiful creative playbooks to media diaries where students note down all advertising they saw in a week, analysing its perceived effectiveness.

In another assignment (a group work), students worked as an 'agency' creating a real live advertising campaign proposal and pitch focusing on current (and highly relevant) communications issues (NSA / online surveillance and privacy; childhood obesity; PMMA (a highly toxic MDMA-like drug)).

How different is the DIT course from RGU's MSc Digital Marketing?

It's rare that I would recommend a postgraduate digital marketing or communications course other than ours - however the DIT's course is probably one of the best - if not THE best, for anyone looking for professional development in digital advertising on a part-time basis (it is taught evenings with the very occasional weekend).

digital advertising
CC image courtesy of Will Lion on Flickr

The course is also distinct and different enough from RGU's MSc Digital Marketing - we're not really going after the same target audience. The DIT course largely focuses on Advertising, and is aimed at professionals wishing to upskill in this area in a digital context. There is a creative and an executive stream - the exec stream deals with client liaison, media planning / buying and so on, and generally the course content covers the knowledge and skills you need to work agency-side.

In contrast, we only look at advertising (paid media) in a few sessions - our approach is all-encompassing and we teach strategy, organic digital marketing, digital content creation, measurement and evaluation, digital PR / content marketing, etc.  And our aim isn't specifically to produce graduates to work agency-side or indeed in Advertising (though this is an option for them - we do have a lot of 'soft skill' training and they work on live client projects and have agency guest speakers and workshops).

Finally, unlike DIT's course, our MSc Digital Marketing so far has largely attracted business / social science / creative graduates who want to know (and learn!) how to get into digital marketing. Our students are at the start of their careers and we haven't really had any  professionals wishing to transition into digital yet  (though we do offer a part-time study option).

Final words

In conclusion, then, my visit this week has only served to confirm that what we at RGU are doing is absolutely the right approach to teaching digital courses at University.

digital transformation
CC image courtesy of Bryan Mathers on Flickr

Industry engagement and a focus on practice are extremely important to ensure our graduates are equipped  to work in the real world when they leave.

However the academic environment is crucial - our role is to provide quality control, and to teach strong strategic and critical thinking (alongside the more practical 'tools of the trade' and real-life scenarios). After all, data analysis, measurement and evaluation are academia's bread and butter!

An approach to teaching digital that combines strategic critical thinking with the 'tools of the trade' and stuff that matters in the real world (client liaison! soft skills! self-education! How To Google It! GTD!) will ensure that University courses in digital marketing, advertising and communications remain highly relevant to the needs of employers and the marketplace.

Twitter logo
CC image courtesy of info_grrl on Flickr

How should academics use social media? What does a digital academic look like? Do you need to be on social media, if you're a University lecturer?

I have my own view on social media of course (my Twitter tagline is 'own mind, own views' for a reason) and it goes roughly like this:

Social media are communication channels. It pretty much makes sense to be approximately the same person on social that you are in real life. Social isn't you, it's just a channel that you can use to communicate with others (people, brands, people-brands, organisations, etc.) online.

You can use social media for both personal and professional communications, and it's also a useful tool to keep up-to-date with what goes on in your area of expertise (teaching and / or research). For instance, I use it Twitter to keep up with news and research about my subject (digital marketing).

Academics and Social Media

linkedin logo chocolates
CC image courtesy of Nan Palmero on Flickr

As an academic in 2015, you need to be visible online and have a public profile. Not on Linkedin? You don't exist in the eyes of your students (they will google you). Fine (perhaps) if you teach Greek or Maths, but not if you teach media, communications, or PR.

In addition, having a profile means you can be found online and get opportunities coming to you. For instance, I'm an external examiner for the Dublin Institute of Technology and about to produce my first Henry Stewart Talk all on account of this site here ranking for certain search queries in Google.

If you too want to learn how to use social media professionally, the upcoming Google+ hangout by, How to be a Successful Digital Academic to Boost Your Career, looks like a great step to get you started:

You may already be on Twitter and LinkedIn but how can you use these and other tools to enhance your research and widen public engagement? How much time should you be spending on your digital academic profile and what are the risks to your professional image and organisation?

The hangout takes place on Tuesday 27th January 2015, 12 PM GMT and will last one hour.

The event's landing page has more info (including who's on the panel), and the session is bound to give you a few tactics and practical tips that you can implement for yourself in 2015!


DigitasLBi-LogoThis week, our MSc Digital Marketing students were treated to a glimpse into the Future of Marketing at DigitasLBi's Edinburgh office.

DigitasLBi, one of the key partners in the first year of our Masters, have been supportive right from the start. The agency is actively engaged in enhancing and promoting the role of digital in Scotland (I attended their excellent hosted BIMA Edinburgh Breakfast Briefing back in September), and shares our commitment to the digital skills agenda. We want to create a talent pool of digital marketing experts with the right practical and soft skills to hit the ground running!

Our collaboration on the MSc Digital Marketing involves a Mentorship programme, which pairs up students with mentors working at DigitasLBi Edinburgh. Mentors have been providing support and guidance to the students via remote sessions using Skype for the last 3 months -  and this week they finally got to meet them for real!

When we arrived, we were welcomed by a coffee and a quick 'mingle with the mentors', following by a tour of DigitasLBi's cool Edinburgh offices. We then sat down and listened to their Media Innovations Director, Andrew Girdwood's guest lecture on The Future of Marketing.

Andrew's opener challenged the concept of 'The Future'. In marketing,  he argues, 'The future is next week'. So, when we think the future of marketing we need to think very soon - next week, or even tomorrow. 'Agile' is the key term here, and agile thinking needs to be part of our DNA.

Three points in his subsequent talk stood out for me, and resonated with the audience.

1. Owned paid earned media

Andrew made us question the distinction of owned vs. earned vs. paid media. He argued that brands didn't actually own their Facebook pages - their customers did, and Facebook own the customers (their data). In fact, brands may not even own themselves any more.
Who owns your brandIn the age of the customer, you are who your customers say your are (not who you say you are).

Andrew also took the mantra 'Brands are Publishers' to its logical conclusion - 'Customers are Publishers' (ever tweeted? You're a publisher!).  I agree there is a significant merging of all functions and roles (random fact: I researched the 'prosumer' - the digital consumer who is also a producer - for my PhD thesis 7 years ago - the term 'social media' didn't exist back then).

Nowadays, consumers are publishers are advertisers are producers...  for example, some Instagram users are consumer-publishers, getting paid a dollar each like, YouTube stars sell 'native' advertising without disclosing it, and the average Joe or Jane can no longer tell the difference between organic media / news and its paid equivalent (i.e. advertising masking as fact).

I think it's still important to keep owned, paid and earned media as separate concepts, if only for practical reasons such as allocating marketing budgets. In addition, what hasn't changed is that fundamentally modern marketing is about attracting customers to your website or store, and buy from you (or whatever 'buy' means for your business). Repeatedly.

2. Privacy

We had a lively discussion with some questions around privacy. Everyone agreed that privacy would be an important issue for digital marketing in 2015, and when Andrew asked who of us had concerns about their online privacy, probably two thirds raised their hands.

I also shared my story of zooming out of Streetview recently and discovering that Germany is one of the last beacons of non-surveillance in Europe.

Google streetview germany


What I'm not so sure about is how important privacy issues are for 'digital natives' (born 2000 onwards). The generation arguably never had any privacy to begin with, so this may not be something they value or care about.

I'll ask my future students of the MSc Digital Marketing (2020 applicants and beyond) i.e. the digital natives, themselves. I'll report my findings then..

3. Retargeting ads destroy Christmas

christmas cat meme Andrew related a funny observation that stuck with me - this Christmas, many kids will already know their presents because they are being retargeted by display ads for products that their parents have already purchased for them 😀  - retargeting setup #FAIL (But are kids smart enough to understand this? I bet they are).

My guess is that this isn't just the case for parents and kids though - I'd be interested in finding out how many  Christmas present surprises retargeting is ruining this year - and it's the same for search too 😛 .

Top tip: Don't share a browser with your loved one in the run up to Christmas (or at any time, really!) as otherwise you'll probably know half of the presents you're getting each other.

Final Words

All in all, The Future of Marketing @DigitasLBi was a great success. Andrew's guest lecture taught each of us something new, and the subsequent dinner with the mentors rounded off a productive and valuable day out for everyone involved.

And here are some student comments:

DigitasLBi session tweets

Importantly, the agency visit has also deepened the desire of some of the students to work agency-side when they graduate next year (yay!).

It's the end of our first week of teaching digital marketing at Robert Gordon University (RGU) Aberdeen, and I've decided to share a few observations here, in the spirit of transparency.

Naturally, what I'll choose to share will be highly selective - I won't talk about how we're teaching the course (as it's unique and different - you'll have to experience it for yourself 😛 ), but suffice to say that it's practice-led, has plenty of industry input, and is geared towards actually getting a digital marketing job.

Oh, and there are live clients to work on!

In week 1, there are three things that I wanted students to understand - and by that I mean UNDERSTAND, as in, a little light switching on in the brain (if not already lit 🙂 ). Below is what they are and why they're important.

TL; DR: Lesson 1: Know the Why; Lesson 2: Be autonomous, acquire mastery, find purpose; Lesson 3: Don't know it? Google it. And share what you know.

Teaching Digital Marketing - Three essential lessons

1) It's about the WHY, not the WHAT

teaching digital marketing - measurement memeWhen it comes to Digital Marketing, one of the biggest issues I (still) see, is that there is a focus on the WHAT, i.e. the operational. For example, having a presence on Facebook is seen as a social media strategy or social media marketing. It isn't. Having a Facebook page is simply that: having a Facebook page (= operational).

That's not the same as strategically using the channel of Facebook towards a measurable business objective. Strategic thinking helps you answer the question why you're doing something. If you don't know why you're doing it, and / or you don't know whether it's effective, then you're just answering the what. And related to that, if you can't measure it, you can't improve it.

Unfortunately, there are still too many WHAT people and WHAT organisations. Often, in my experience, a WHAT attitude is correlated with stagnation - the opposite of innovation.

Lesson 1: Know the Why.

2) It's about YOU, not anyone else

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

Teaching digital marketing won't work if the subject is approached as if it exists as a finite body of knowledge - because it doesn't. This also means it can't be taught by 'broadcasting' knowledge to students. Students can't be seen as passive recipients of knowledge.

I believe instead that everyone has something to bring to the table, and that knowledge is co-created, fluid - more like an action between people, and always 'in progress', never final or complete. While I have a lot more digital marketing knowledge than the students, they are experts in their own areas (we have digital content creators, for instance, and people with fashion degrees! Neither of which I know much about).

Agile learning
CC image courtesy of VFS Digital Design on Flickr

This means that students have to take responsibility for (and ownership of) their learning. The underlying philosophy is one of agile learning , based on the concept of Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose. I won't go into detail here, but it essentially means taking charge of your development and become really good at what you really love doing, and (importantly) being given the freedom to do so.

In terms of learning and teaching, it's actually a win-win, since it should reduce the need for micromanagement. It should make students want to be there, and want to learn, rather than being bored at the next text wall coming their way.

Naturally, an agile approach to learning is essential to becoming a successful digital marketer. Once you start the journey, knowledge and skill acquisition is constant, and a necessity. Things in digital change all the time and it's your job to keep up-to-date (good agencies build in 'reading time' into their staff's schedules).

Lesson 2: Be autonomous, acquire mastery, find purpose.

3) It's OK Not knowing everything

It's actually almost impossible to know everything in digital marketing. That would be like saying someone studying medicine must know and be an expert in all specialisms, e.g. able to work as a Gynaecologist one day and a Psychiatrist the next, as well as e.g.  able to perform heart surgery, organ transplants, and cosmetic surgery.

Google it
CC image courtesy of Mez Love on Flickr

What it's about is specialising in two or so complementary fields, while having good broad knowledge across the disciplines. If you don't have the general knowledge you won't be able to ask the right questions, and if you don't have your expert areas, you won't be able to bring much value to the table (nothing worse than a jack of all trades / master of none! You'll risk being replaceable, and you don't want that).

Because you can't know everything, it's important to be supportive of others, build relationships, and to share and exchange skills and knowledge. I hate the term 'team work' (I prefer working alone) but the team ethos here just means looking out for each other, and informally mentoring and supporting your peers where they struggle.

The same ethos is actually how it works in the real world - that's why we have a mentoring scheme with DigitasLBi - a global marketing and tech agency, who through their Edinburgh office are a stellar example of how the industry can (and should) support skill and knowledge generation in the next generation of digital marketers. DigitasLBi really understand and support the way we're teaching digital marketing, and I hope that we and our students can give something back to them too!

game level
CC image courtesy of Ricky Romero on Flickr

The final aspect to the Not Knowing Everything dilemma challenge is the ethos of problem solving. Finding solutions. You'll need to develop first class skills at problem solving and 'thinking outside the box' when it comes to digital marketing.

This is not just true of a career in modern marketing - it's a principle that'll serve you well in how to live your life on the whole. The way I approach it is that life is basically a video game with various levels and missions and, just like in a game, you'll need to figure it out for yourself (GameFAQs allowed!).

Be comfortable with the fact that you can't at any point have full knowledge of the game - quite the opposite - it's vague and confusing, and not knowing the answer can be scary (it's part of the game). This means you have to have a sense of curiousity and almost a need / obsession to try and solve it and progress, and figure out how things work when you get stuck.

The good news is that the answer is out there, it really is! And nothing beats the pleasure and happiness of figuring it out, and becoming better as a result. Amazing.

Lesson 3: Don't know it? Google it. And share what you know.



I wasn't sure whether to call this post teaching Generation Y - these buzzwords aren't always useful, and I consider all students nowadays pretty much digital natives.

This blog post is an attempt to provide a quick overview followed by 5 tips on how to teach students who are digitally native (in this case, in a Higher Education environment). Since the term Gen Y is not just used by the media but also by social scientists, I'll adopt it in this post. Let's start by looking at a common definition of Generation Y.

What is Generation Y?

Econsultancy, in a recent blog post on web design for different generations, split different (digital) audiences into the following categories:

  • The Silent Generation (born in 1929-1945) lived just after World War II
  • Baby Boomers (1946-1964) during the economic recovery
  • The sceptical Generation X (1965-1979)
  • The more technologically savvy Generation Y (1980-1999)
  • Finally, the immersed Digital Natives (from 2000)

Here is some more information on Gen X vs. Gen Y - the most relevant segments for my argument - I'm assuming that many, if not most teachers and lecturers will be Gen X.

Generation X (1965-1979)

Generation X, which I'm part of, largely enjoyed a childhood without modern digital technology (internet, smartphones) and grew up with far less media consumption overall. Digital came gradually but steadily, but wasn't yet all-pervasive (I've previously written about some 90s technologies that I used back in the days).

Generation Y (1980-1999)

teaching generation y
CC image courtesy of Erik Tjallinks on Flickr

Generation Y had more technology and earlier on - for instance, this generation has the first children with mobile phones, and they likely encountered the internet or rather, the WWW - in their teens.

The World Wide Web was invented in 1994, and Gen Y grew into adults with social media growing around them (e.g. MySpace 2003, YouTube 2006).

As for their relationship with technology, Generation Y are  more technologically savvy, and more impatient. They have a more proactive approach and, according to econsultancy, focus on

...what they can do with technology, instead of what it does for them. As serial multi-taskers, they expect the technological environment to be interactive, quick, and accessible across devices.

Sounds familiar?

I'm technically a Gen X, but find I have much in common with Generation Y. I'm certainly a serial multi-tasker, and need my information quick and easy to understand. In digital across devices, I expect stuff to work, and efficiently so, in as short a user journey as possible. For instance, I'll leave a website where I can't find what I'm looking for within a few seconds or where I have an overall poor user experience (clutter, navigation, etc.). Apps that are clunky get uninstalled straight away. And don't get me started on text walls!

Teaching Generation Y - 5 Tips

University education traditionally relies heavily on lengthy written texts. The format frequently consists of lectures that broadcast knowledge to students, and tutorials where this knowledge is embedded through exercises and case studies. Students typically have to write a few lengthy pieces of texts (e.g. reports, essays, dissertations). Knowledge exists primarily 'out there' in books - and students are expected to acquire it through reading.

This approach may have worked in the past (it did for me), but what about in 2014? Is this method really appropriate to teaching Generation Y? Are there more effective ways of generating knowledge in digital natives, and engaging modern students?

To answer these questions, I've experimented with various approaches over the last year. I've been at the receiving end of heavy text-based, 80-slides PowerPoints both at Uni and throughout my career (think  endless, pointless meetings). These things simply don't engage and no one takes in any information. There's a reason why T&Cs are text walls - so that you don't read them.

Here are my top tips then on how to teach Gen Y -  a mix based on insight, others' research, and my own experience (of what works).

1. Content should be useful, or entertaining

This is probably THE most important point, and will be familiar to anyone working in social media / content marketing.  Content (in this case, teaching material) has to be either useful or entertaining, otherwise it won't get attention. No walls of text please - TL; DR. Instead, add images and multimedia. 80-slides lectures are out.

Why? Generation Y are much more likely to respond to well-structured, easy-to-scan content.  Break it down into smaller pieces.

2. Microlearning

Use microlearning instead of a few lengthy assignments and tasks.

Why? A quick, impatient Gen Y mind responds much better to many small tasks rather than a few big ones. Big ones can look insurmountable and don't naturally sit with an impatient, multi-tasking digital native mind. Some students don't tackle large assignments until it's too late and then panick. With many small ones, you are more likely to keep them on their toes and engaged throughout.

3. Active learning

This is related to point 2. above. The goal is self-direction, or a self-service approach to learning - one that is proactive and agile. You want them to become pretty autonomous early on and take responsibility for their own knowledge and skills development.

Why? Generation Y are more proactive and have higher expectations - use that to your advantage. These guys are already good at developing new digital and media skills. They know how to multi-task, and are likely very familiar with trouble-shooting (in a digital / tech context). Tap into that mindset and attitude: Give Gen Y problems that they need to solve, and tools to solve them with. Then let them figure it out - don't give them all the answers. Don't give them a fish - teach them how to fish (so they can do their own fishing, when they leave).

4. Use digital tools and devices

This one doesn't need much explanation. I've previously written about digital tools for education and won't replicate the content here. Use the medium most native to them.

Why? Digital is Generation Y's most natural, most comfortable environment. It's where they thrive, and where they are happiest to engage.

 5. Be a coach - don't 'lecture'

The paradigm shift from knowledge as pre-existing (20th century) to knowledge-as-action (21st century) means that teaching Generation Y can't be done from some high pedestal or ivory tower. Yes, you must be a credible subject expert and have knowledge - if you're research-focused, you'll have huge amounts of conceptual knowledge, and as a practitioner you'll be well-versed in the latest industry trends and techniques. But don't just recite that knowledge - or you'll be just giving them fish (see point 3.).  Instead, encourage them to question everything (including yourself) and reward self-management.

Why? Gen Y live and breathe two-way conversations. They are less trusting of authority and used to being spoken with (engaged), rather than being spoken to / at.


The digital age has upgraded teaching and learning and made it more exciting (albeit more challenging), and it has also changed student expectations. I hope that this guide and my 5 tips for teaching Generation Y contain useful advice to adopt for your own teaching practice.

As for me, I'll keep testing and refining my approach, and  I'm looking forward to implementing some of the above tactics in a few weeks' time for our new MSc Digital Marketing.









It's an open secret that I'm passionate about digital marketing education (it's one of the reasons I moved from industry to becoming a lecturer) and there is much work still to do. The digital skills and talent gap - we talk about it in more detail in this Drum post - impedes the growth of the digital economy in a number of ways:

Digital Marketing Education
CC image courtesy of Scott McLeod on Flickr

(1)  It leaves many SMEs /third sector and other organisations vulnerable to spending money unnecessarily, and sees them invest time and resource in the wrong digital channels, following advice from gurus that hinders rather than helps their business.

Real example: One of my industry contacts had to scrap and restart a social / digital strategy for a client, after they had followed wrong advice from a 'consultant' who led them down the wrong (ineffective, not aligned with business objectives, overall wasteful and pointless) path.

(2) The other side of the coin is that recruiters really struggle to find digital talent:  where can they find graduates with a practice-based digital marketing education - e.g. a degree that incorporates digital skills training alongside conceptual theories of Marketing? Nowhere.

Real example: Only this week I was asked if I knew a graduate for a digital marketing executive role. Generally, the challenge of recruitment comes up often when talking with industry contacts.

What's wrong with Digital Marketing Education?

The main issue as I see it is that Universities overall are fairly ill-equipped to provide a modern digital marketing education. Partly, it's the nature of the beast: The industry changes so fast so that Unis would always be playing catch-up.

Example: I spend at least a day per week just keeping up-to-date with what's happening, and run my own site as well as do some work for others to keep my skill set fresh. Much of that I do in my own time / weekends and I take it very seriously indeed.

Digital Education
CC image courtesy of Scott McLeod on Flickr

Regular Marketing lecturers don't do that - they are rarely involved in actual marketing practice, let alone digital marketing. The existing marketing curriculum is largely theoretical and conceptual, and frankly isn't of much use in the real world of digital marketing.

This does pose some interesting questions regarding how to teach Marketing in Higher Education. Questions surrounding academia's relevance to the real world aren't being asked about this subject alone - there were rumbles last year about whether current teaching of Economics is fit for purpose.

In terms of  Marketing, in the US and Canada at least, academics have discussed the need for reforming the curriculum in the light of the digital economy and changing practice:

The rapidly emerging digital economy is challenging the relevance of existing marketing practices, and a radical redesign of the marketing curriculum consistent with the emerging student and business needs of the 21st century is required. To remain relevant to our students and to the ultimate consumers of our output, businesses, the marketing curriculum must evolve with both the changing technological environment and the way marketing is perceived by its own academic architects.

Digital Marketing: The Time for a New “Academic Major” Has Arrived (2011)

RGU_logoI haven't seen much of this happening in the UK yet, unfortunately. In Scotland, for example, only my University (RGU Aberdeen) currently offer a skills-based Masters in Digital Marketing that was devised in close consultation with industry. No other University is currently doing this in Scotland - where there is a digital element, it's actually a bolt on of a few (largely conceptual / theoretical) modules to a traditional MSc Marketing, and I really don't believe that's the right approach. Digital Marketing education isn't about reading books!

And the feedback and data (both qualitative and quantitative) we have so far for our own practice-based MSc Digital Marketing proves we're on the right track. Not only have we received significant interest in our course from students and plenty of applications. Almost equally as important, we have consistently received positive feedback, enthusiasm and nothing but strong support and engagement from the digital industry across Scotland.

Further reading

If you're an academic interested in the discussion surrounding the Marketing curriculum, the two links below are a good starting point:

The Future of Marketing Education: A Practitioner's Perspective (2012)

Innovating the Marketing Curriculum: Establishing an Academic Major in Internet Marketing (2014)



Aberdeen Business School
Aberdeen Business School – CC courtesy of RGU Photos on Flickr

We're currently recruiting for a Lecturer in Marketing at the Aberdeen Business School, part of Robert Gordon University. Your main job will be to deliver marketing-related modules to undergraduate, postgraduate and MBA students.

What's more, and excitingly so, is that you'll also be contributing to the new Digital Marketing Project that I'm involved with (as is obvious from my blog). The MSc Digital Marketing is only the first of our products - there's plenty more to come!

It's perhaps not the easiest to find someone who has both industry knowledge, actually does (digital) marketing on a day to day basis, and also with academic / teaching experience (or at least the ability and brains to pick this up quickly).

I really hope we get someone good - by that I mean not someone removed from real life (and real marketing) but someone who's got their feet firmly in both camps (theory / strategy as well as practice). I'd love someone who IS a Marketer, rather than HAS READ ABOUT / researched Marketing. Or at least someone who is agile enough to pick up the skills needed, and quickly, to be an effective lecturer in modern Marketing.

Tall order? Or easy peasy? I'm intrigued to find out!

Deadline for the job is 5th August, and you can apply on RGU's jobs site.

Good luck!


Digital Tools for Education - LEARN
CC image courtesy of on Flickr

As we're getting closer to launching our new MSc in Digital Marketing (can't wait!), I've been investigating various digital tools for education and teaching to help ensure that our first group of students get the best learning experience possible.

Our motto is to 'practise what we preach', and as such we not only have some excellent industry people involved with the course delivery, but we will also be using the tools of the trade and get our students to do digital marketing from day one.

Doing this research into existing software used in education, alongside evaluating the tools I'm already using as a Digital Marketer, has inspired me to  come up with a few tips that I hope will serve as a guideline and help others working in this space who are trying to find solutions.

Digital Tools for Education - 5 Key Considerations

The underlying motto, and my personal passion, is to practise what you preach. I can't fathom why someone would e.g. teach Marketing, but completely disregard Marketing basics such as ensure consistent branding in their materials, or take into account the customers' (i.e. students') needs when it comes to delivery.  I'm sure plenty of people (including me) have experienced lecturers reading huge amounts of text from an 80-slides long PowerPoint, resulting in the audience not taking in anything, or very little. This is inexcusable really, but even more so in a subject such as Marketing that is supposed to put the customer first.

My general view is that you want to teach your subject in a way that demonstrates your subject knowledge through your actions, and not just in a way that broadcasts facts and theories. Show, not tell! And tools can really help with that. What follows are five key considerations to start thinking about what digital tools and software to use, in an educational environment.

(1) Digital tools should be used by industry

Digital Marketing ToolsThis one is pretty self-explanatory and quite basic. Choose digital tools and software that is actually being used by the industry.  What's the point in spending a lot of time on training students in software and tools that they won't need once they leave University?

I can't speak authoritatively for subjects other than (Digital) Marketing, but I'm sure there will be standard or preferred applications in other creative industries too. For example, if you want to get into the video game industry, then your Game Design degree will hopefully teach you 3ds Max rather than Maya.

(2) Software should not be a walled garden (inward-looking)

Google Drive IconThis one might be controversial and there isn't necessarily a right or wrong answer. I personally really don't much see the point in VLEs (virtual learning environments) that are  'walled garden' and not used by anyone else other than the actual institution. Many education providers use Moodle, an open-source learning platform, but I have to be honest I'm not a big fan  - primarily because I think it's more important for students to use tools and software that are used in industry / in the real world (see also point (1)).

That's why I'm excited about recent developments such as the JISC framework agreement with Google Apps for Education. What it means is that it's now much easier for UK Universities and Colleges to sign up to and use Google Apps as a tool for education. The JISC contract takes care of  important issues like security, legal and data compliance etc. which means institutions can use the cloud-based software with peace of mind.

Importantly, Google Apps are used quite extensively in business, so you'll be killing two birds with one stone: (1) an effective, modern e-learning environment while students are at University, and (2) very transferable skills with smooth transition to the real world.

(3) Digital tools should be free or freemium

MailChimp logoMy third consideration when choosing digital tools for education is that they should ideally be free. This doesn't need much explanation. Universities are not-for-profit / charities, and as such can't much afford to be paying for tools left, right and centre. It's also often the case that requirements for teaching are served by a tool's Basic version, in terms of no. of users / accounts needed, storage space, functionality, and so on (as opposed to, say, Business or Enterprise). Finally, when assessing which software to use, it's good to be able to try out quite a number of different tools and test them first, before they are let loose on students. Overall, it makes sense to give priority to software that is either free or freemium.

I'm a huge fan of MailChimp (who isn't!) for precisely that reason, as well as Trello - these are excellent digital marketing tools whose  basic (freemium) version is ideal for education, charities, SMEs, etc.

The smart thing and indeed benefit for these tool providers is that early (basic) adoption breeds familiarity which in turn breeds loyalty amongst its user base. If I ever have a say again on what software gets bought at Enterprise level, I sure know where I'll turn: to the digital tools that I know best and have come to love through their freemium version.  It's quite a smart marketing strategy since, while the freemium version costs nothing, the companies benefit from many happy users who evangelise and promote the tools on their behalf (like I'm doing here, just now). And this in turn generates brand awareness and leads,  which in turn increases the likelihood of sales and uptake of both the freemium and the paid versions. Win win! Or to use Marketing jargon: this is a good example of value exchange. 

(4) Tools and platforms should be used and usable by students

This is another fairly easy one and one I can cover quickly using just one example. Should I use a Google Plus Community, or a Facebook Group as the learning community for our students? Yes, I'm a bit of a Google fan girl but on this occasion Facebook wins hands down because no one uses G+.

Remember the first rule of Marketing: it's about your customers, and about responding to their needs. A customer-centric approach means that you optimise the learning environment for your students, and make their user experience as easy and convenient as possible. Hence Facebook - don't just dictate what you (or Google) think is best.

(5) Digital tools should be mobile first

This is probably THE most important criterion. A no-brainer as far as I'm concerned, but unfortunately this aspect is somewhat neglected in discussions about digital tools for education.

Samsung S5 vs iPhone 5S
CC image courtesy of Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr

Here are the facts: Most forecasts predict that smartphone penetration in the UK will reach 75% by the end of 2014 (see e.g. the Internet Advertising Bureau UK's prediction from January 2014, or the Guardian's theoretical but data-based forecasts from April 2014).

Thinking about students', and indeed my own digital consumption behaviour, the smartphone is often the first 'go to' digital device. For agile, effective learning, then, tools and software need to be mobile first (e.g. have a mobile / responsive website or an app). It's really important to enable students to complete tasks and study no matter what device they're on! 

While this doesn't apply to all tasks and certainly not to written assignments, I feel that general stuff such as reading required articles / blogs, communicating and collaborating with your peers, asking your lecturer questions etc. ought to all be doable from a mobile device.

This to me seems an obvious conclusion given digital culture, and where your audience is these days. I'm not sure this consideration can be found on anyone's agenda yet (please do point out any worthy initiatives in this area).

A mobile-first or mobile-optimised approach to teaching and learning, in my view, is essential in this day and age. Customer-centricity, the pillar of modern marketing, means to allow students to study wherever they are and whatever device they're on. See also point (4).

Overall conclusions

Child with iPad
CC image courtesy of Devon Christopher Adams on Flickr

It's probably never been more difficult to get and keep your students' attention, and engage them in a productive, active and fun learning environment. I strongly believe that we as educators have a responsibility to teach in a fresh, modern way, that takes as its starting point real student needs and digital consumption behaviours, rather than knocking out the same old, same old, using 20th century techniques.

While my colleagues and I will be deploying these methods for our new MSc in Digital Marketing, an innovative approach of using digital tools for education is not just for creative subjects. The requirements of digitally native students is something that needs greater attention across the board, given the UK and Scottish Government's digital first approach, and I feel that we as educators ought to do our best. We're at the frontline of teaching the next generation after all!

Most importantly, using the right digital tools make teaching and learning much more fun.