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Marketing university construction courses: Is it all in the name?

Peter R Davis
Faculty of the Built Environment Art and Design
Curtin University of Technology

There are several strategies that construction courses must consider if they intend to remain viable. Marketing is one of them. Many 'new-age' industries command high levels of enrolment interest together with associated quota allowance, but offer little at graduation in terms of employment continuity from a professional perspective. Construction quota appears hard to fill but graduands are in demand by diverse associated industries well prior to course completion. Marketing construction through high school career evenings, liaising with professional and TAFE institutions has little influence on school leavers. Lobbying employer organisations produces little impact. So what is the answer? Change the name of construction courses to one more interesting and inviting. Portray a broader scope and content that describes 'new' diverse career opportunities that are currently available. In marketing terms one should consider the 4Ps from a service marketing perspective add service value and particularly re-evaluate the channels of communication currently used to market construction courses. The paper reviews some pertinent marketing literature and evaluates strategies undertaken to market construction courses. Some useful marketing tools are provided that may well assist diverse and associated courses.


Introduction

It is seemingly a dilemma for construction course controllers that many 'new-age' industries command high levels of enrolment interest from students. This is aside from the fact that construction continues to offer focussed employment tenure with a professional perspective. Graduands are in demand by diverse industries well prior to course completion. Despite these opportunities construction quota seems increasingly hard to fill and match its competition. Marketing may be the answer.

There is much written on marketing. Significant research undertaken in services marketing records 1127 articles within journals, books and dissertations (Fisk, Brown and Bitner 1995). Despite this marketing-specific literature services marketing research applied to educational institutions is scarce. The majority of accessible literature concentrates on marketing professional services. A concentrated effort has enabled the writer to put 'services marketing' strategies and techniques into the context of construction courses. This point should be borne in mind whilst reading this paper.

Marketing construction courses

Using brand imaging an initial reaction is change the name of construction courses to one more interesting and inviting. Portray a broader scope and content that describes the 'new-age' diverse career opportunities that are currently available. However, fundamentally one needs to consider the 4Ps from a service marketing perspective re-evaluate the channels of communication currently used in marketing and in particular add service value.

What is the difference between marketing a service and marketing a product

There are various characteristics which separate marketing a service from marketing a product. They may be reduced to four according to many writers (Boström 1995, McColl-Kennedy et al. 1994, Srivastava and Smith 1994, Kotler and Armstrong 1993, Dawes, Dowling and Patterson 1991, Mcdonald 1988, Fisher 1986, Berry 1984, Lovelock 1984, Kotler and Bloom 1984):
  1. Intangibility. When products are purchased something tangible is received, purchasing a shirt for example. Whereas when a service like education is purchased there is nothing tangible to show for it, comparison is difficult.

  2. Perishability. Services require that a high level of trust be developed. The student becomes part of the service and becomes involved in the production process to a significant extent as they learn from year to year. To provide differentiation students should be afforded time for an interview for example, before any commitments are made. Such a 'trial' encounter has the advantage of allowing both parties to decide whether a good match exists in the relationship that will follow (Lovelock 1984). Perishability is closely linked to service value that is discussed later in this paper.

  3. Inseparability. Services are immediate transactions as they are generally produced and consumed at the same time. They cannot be made in advance and stacked away for use later as products. Matching supply and demand in construction courses is a problem. Demand may be met with the use of student tutors or sessional staff sourced from industry. Inseparability may be reduced with the use of mapping or templates, but it still represents a key difference between services and products.

  4. Variability. There are greater difficulties in maintaining quality control standards with services than with products. Students can only be sure of quality and performance of services after it has been completed. The product element of the service needs to be distinguished from the service element itself. Students are aware of this high variability and will frequently talk to peers for advice before selecting a course. Accordingly communicating the course is important.
As well as recognising the difference between goods and services described above we need to consider a mix of marketing tools to promote construction courses. The 4Ps are a commonly used acronym for: Product, Place, Promotion, and Price.

Services marketing mix

It is widely recognised that the 4Ps in services are represented by the terms set out in Figure 1 (their association with product marketing is shown in italics) (Fisher 1986, Gummesson 1984):

Services
  • Services offered.
Product
  • Where the service can be offered, its channels of delivery.
Place
  • Ways and method of communication.
Promotion
  • Professional (course) fees.
Price

Figure 1: The 4Ps in a services environment (Fisher 1986, Gummesson 1984).

An insight into major concepts highlighted above provides course controllers with a marketing framework to build on and develop course awareness.

Service offered

To enhance the nature of the service and organisational benefits course controllers will have to identify differential benefits that cannot be matched by competitors and provide a competitive edge (Kotler and Armstrong 1993). These may be innovative features, setting one course apart from another.

In an effort to provide differentiation to student's universities often attempt to install brand images that take the guise of professionally prepared publications and Web sites. They outline their organisation, detail how they operate and endeavour to indicate to students their wealth of expertise and knowledge. In the documentation they are careful to reinforce their name and the service that they offer (Fisher 1986). If marketing professional services is considered to be an analogous situation of construction course circumstances, then research cited by Denis (1995) may assist. It is suggested that consumer mood states are influencing factors in selection; a positive mood state induced by say, a portrayal of a student enjoying the course, leads to a spontaneous trial of the course, whilst objective feature searching is likely to lead to negative behaviours (Denis 1995). This point highlights the fact that developing publications and web sites needs careful consideration.

It is clear that most service innovations are easily copied. However, a succession of temporary advantages may earn an innovative reputation that keeps and attracts students (Kotler and Armstrong 1993). Various authors offer solutions from diverse industries that provide little direction to construction course marketing, however establishing, and reappraisal of long-term relationships between construction courses, and students enhances differentiation. Offering a place of referral that deals with employment opportunities, for example, provides value adding and consequently results in positive differentiation.

Channels of delivery

Channels of delivery move services from construction courses to students (Kotler and Armstrong 1993). Unlike product channels, services rarely have "middlemen" that perform some work in bringing the service closer to the client (Kotler 1994). It should be noted, however, that many Universities endeavour to market courses from central administration. This may detract from the concept of 'part-time' marketers supported by (Gummesson 1984). Innovative delivery that provides differentiation may be provided by a construction courses management in several ways (Kotler 1994):
  1. People. The construction course may have more capable and reliable client-contact people. Marketers refer to decision-making units (DMU) that include 'gate keepers' and care should be taken to monitor these aspects from a reverse marketing perspective.

  2. Physical environment. The construction course may develop a superior environment where the service is delivered. These factors may include; equipment, library access, laboratories, and scholarly electronic databases.

  3. Process. The construction course may develop a novel delivery process for its service and consider; on-line learning, distance education, flexibility in contact hours, duplication of classes, alternative non-core units and/ or mixed mode delivery of any of the foregoing.

Communicating courses

To market services, communication must take place, as any service is useless if unknown (Preece, Moodley and Cox 2001, Bloom 1984). Specific areas should be considered, including; advertising, personal selling, sales promotion and publicity, these in combination make up the communication mix (Kotler and Armstrong 1993, Fisher 1986, Gummesson 1984).

In particular course controllers should concentrate on student's ease of understanding what the course is about (Fisher 1986). Concentrating on engendering a positive mood in students whilst they are making their selections (Denis 1995).

Primarily communication is personal contact between the student and the course controller, as it is likely that person will eventually teach them (Gummesson 1984). Working and social relationships between the course staff and students are important as the interaction provides and engenders mutual understanding and trust throughout the course. Regular and open communication is essential to the establishment and building of these relationships (Day and Barksdale 1992, Connor and Davidson 1990, Gummesson 1984).

To enhance communication advertising in daily newspapers, journals, 'phone directories, yearbooks, brochures, or direct mail (newsletters) can be used with various degrees of success (Christopher, Payne and Ballantyne 1991, Fisher 1986). Professional associations determined to create awareness, or provide an image may also assist. As services are inherently hazy the advertising must create tangible cues using symbols themes and images to depict the course outcomes, at the same time create positive as opposed to negative search behaviours (Srivastava and Smith 1994). These attributes make personal selling a key associate of advertising. Public relations and promotional activities associated with conferences, symposiums, seminars, courses, and membership of associations, dinners, lunches, personal invitations, exhibitions, and professional contests also provide avenues for promoting the course.

Students are likely to use multiple sources of information when evaluating and choosing a course (Dawes, Dowling and Patterson 1991). Accordingly construction courses management should be careful not to restrict the scope of their promotional activities. They should use a mixture of both personal (meetings) and impersonal (newsletters) communication tools in their marketing program (Srivastava and Smith 1994, Dawes, Dowling and Patterson 1991). In the wake of health care and professional service advertising on TV (for example, HBF and Institute of Engineers) it seems reasonable that there is a place for construction courses to advertise (Srivastava and Smith 1994). This comment leads us to the ever-pervasive World Wide Web where significant communication benefit may be accrued.

Communicating via the Web

Web sites as a communication tool enable student access to course information and marketing material. They provide service information such as availability and prices. Web delivery can be used to develop and enhance construction courses and even allow sampling of the course material via a virtual course abstract. This reduces perishability, enhances reliability and trust. In establishing a method to assess the effectiveness of construction web sites Preece (2001) highlights its application for marketing construction courses.

It enhances service information for example, by detailing construction courses through web publication of a handbook that lists units offered. The handbook indicates unit relationship with alternatives, provides cost information and required hours of attendance together with other generic student information that may relate to the School that offers the course.

Course development online (the process of learning) goes some way to meeting market demands in terms of flexibility of delivery. However, how construction courses actually become enhanced via the web lies in relationship building, proving reliability and responsiveness to student needs.

Sampling of courses by prospective students becomes possible in a similar way to contemporary web sampling of music and video (Preece, Moodley and Cox 2001). Following this there is an increased potential using virtual courses mentioned earlier for viewing coursework. These attributes reduce intangibility and prospective students may even sample the full scope of courses. Students can benchmark and determine reliability using these as measures.

Links to related industries and publication are important to both new and existing students. Students in final year will be looking for part and full time jobs, contacts in related professional association; industry links will assist in this area. Publication links are valuable for ongoing course research and life-long learning.

Service value

Marshall (2001) identifies several writers who have researched and determined four dimensions of service quality, these are discussed below in descending order. These represent core values and are key performance indicators to where differentiation may be successful.

Reliability

'The ability to perform the promised service dependably and accurately'
In the context of marketing a construction course it has to be shown to graduates that they will have a working knowledge of contemporary construction and management issues and they will be able to meet employment requirements and association competencies. A message to be conveyed is that they will be in a position to continue to learn upon graduation and move quickly through to a position of management in an organisation, integrating the knowledge that they have with existing people, processes, tools, and techniques.

Typically construction courses rely on Subject committees, Department meetings, Advisory Committees, Boards of Study, representation on Professional Association committees and Accreditation reviews to determine course quality. These mean nothing to students and often the process of review receives sceptical support from industry. Regular contact with industry personnel, preferably recent graduates enables potential students to gauge reliability of construction courses. Course coordinators should take every opportunity to introduce students to experienced project professionals at the earliest opportunity. Videoing engagements and developing promotional CD's displaying these outcomes may be handed out at School/ Industry promotion venues. Referral provides a valuable source of new students to any course and informal gatherings of students with their friends will assist in tapping the source.

An informal monthly newsletter that the writer publishes for students addresses the above. Regular contribution from graduates identifying their life after Curtin experience provides reliability. It aims to show a picture of how students are dealt with by the course management, academic expertise and how the department members think (Srivastava and Smith 1994, Graham 1994).

Responsiveness

'Willingness to help students and provide prompt service'
Services are subject to continuous assessment. Students are continually measuring responsiveness and timeliness on many counts; it is not just at the end of a unit of study that the task of completing a student assessment of teaching form causes a student to reflect. This turns our thoughts back to the aspect of variability noted earlier where students will look for clues identifying quality. The clues must be tangible and include elements of good teaching practice (Centre for Educational Advancement (CEA) 2002):

Assurance

'Knowledge and courtesy of service provider and their ability to convey trust and confidence'
Recent research indicates positive correlations between trust and concern (Wong, Then and Skitmore 2000). In other words aspects of concern build trust. In marketing construction courses interpretation of Shaw's (1997) work indicates that informality, respect of individual achievement and familiarity via such things as open door policies, team and social gatherings and closeness in proximity, together with clear recognition of individual achievements via newsletters mentioned earlier will build trust between students and staff.

Empathy

'Caring, individualised attention the service provider is able to give to its customers'
Remembering Gummessons' (1984) term 'part-time marketers' and the concept of 'gate-keepers' in the DMU it is important that all critical 'moments of truth' are managed in a caring and empathetic way. Moments of truth occur prior to enrolment, at the time of initial course selection (careers night at school or professional association venue), at enrolment, on day one of the course, at the time of student assessment (formal/ informal/ tutorial or individual/ group exercise in class) and at many other stages throughout the life of the course. They are conceivably extended to day one at work and well beyond.

Conclusion

It is clear from the above that marketing plays an important part in the viability of university courses; traditional courses appear to require a more concerted effort in order that they may compete successfully with 'new-age' courses. Due to the fact that universities provide services, course controllers must consider the differences and parallels between marketing goods and services and concentrate particularly on aspects associated with intangibility, perishability, inseparability and variability. Concentrating on channels of delivery and communication is most important and several ways to improve differentiation have been suggested. Service value and the dimensions of service quality enhance reliability in the eyes of students and potential 'moments of truth' should be identified and carefully managed. Finally as the value of education becomes more important in a students' career care should be taken to endeavour to integrate the two to ensure that referrals are forthcoming to a course of study.

References

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Bloom, P. M. (1984). Effective marketing for professional services. In Morgan, N. A. (Ed.), An appraisal of the marketing development in engineering consultancy firms. Construction Management and Economics, 9, 355-68.

Boström, G-O. (1995). Successful cooperation in professional services. Industrial Marketing Management, 24, 151-65.

Centre for Educational Advancement (CEA) (2002). SEEQ at Curtin: Enhancing Teaching. Learning Support Network, Curtin University of Technology. [verified 11 Aug 2004]. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/seeq/

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Day, E. and Barksdale, H. C. (1992). How firms select professional services. Industrial Marketing Management, 21, 85-91.

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Fisher, N. (1986). Marketing for the Construction Industry. New York, NY: Longman.

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Graham, J. R. (1994). How to market legal services successfully. Law Practice Management, Nov/ Dec, 54-7.

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Marshall, G. and Murdoch, I. (2001). Service quality in the marketing of consulting engineers. In Preece, C. N. (Ed.), 2nd International Construction Marketing Conference. CIB W65 Task Group 1 International Construction Marketing, September 2001, Building Research Establishment. School of Civil Engineering, University of Leeds, 41-9.

McColl-Kennedy, J. R., Kiel, G. F., Lusch, R. F. and Lusch, V. N. (1994). Marketing: Concepts and Strategies. Australia: Thomas Nelson.

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Preece, C., Moodley, K. and Cox, I. (2001). Assessing construction website marketing effectiveness. In Preece, C. N. (Ed.), 2nd International Construction Marketing Conference. CIB W65 Task Group 1 International Construction Marketing, September 2001, Building Research Establishment. School of Civil Engineering, University of Leeds, 50-9.

Shaw, R. B. (1997). Trust in the balance: Building successful organizations on results, integrity, and concern. 1st. ed. Jossey-Bass Business & Management Series, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Wong, E. S., Then, D. and Skitmore, M. (2000). Antecedents of trust in intra organizational relationships within three Singapore public sector construction project management agencies. Construction Management and Economics, 18(7), 797.

Author: Peter has been teaching at Curtin University for 10 years and has actively pursued his interest in teaching research over the period, presenting papers at many Teaching and Learning Conferences. Peter is currently Chair of AUBEA (Australasian Universities Building Education Association) and convened the 25th AUBEA conference on Teaching and Learning, Perth 2000. In 2002 Peter was appointed as the Divisional Teaching and Learning Associate for Humanities and represents his Faculty on Divisional Teaching and Learning Committees.

Peter R. Davis, Senior Lecturer
Faculty of the Built Environment Art and Design
Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia 6854
Tel: +61(0) 8 9266 7350 Fax: +61(0) 8 9266 2711 Email: p.davis@curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Davis, P. R. (2004). Marketing university construction courses: Is it all in the name? In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/davis.html


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