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How can schools and agents collaborate to provide a seamless digital experience?

Marketing strategy: We dispel the myth that in channel marketing, digital marketing sits in opposition to the agent channel. If your students are digital first, then agents and schools need to collaborate in the digital space to meet client needs.

The elephant in the room

Before we can answer the question of how schools and agents can collaborate to provide a seamless digital experience, we need to address the elephant in the room. Agents represent a vital distribution channel for all forms of leisure, tourism and experiential learning opportunities.

When it comes to the international marketing of your offering, the role of an agent may well be business critical. That’s not the elephant.

The issue is that agent bargaining power - and therefore commissions - have increased significantly over the last decade, and for some schools, part of their survive/thrive strategy involves seeking out those clients who will happily book directly, i.e. circumnavigate the agent. Here comes the elephant.

This can lead to a potential for duplicity where education marketing departments say all the right things to their powerful agents to sustain that channel, whilst also going all out to drive direct bookings via digital marketing.

In reality, there are plenty of people still in all parts of the Venn diagram: those who will only book via an agent, those who will always try and book directly with the ultimate service provider, and those who are fairly ambivalent, or unaware of who they’re booking through.

So what’s the big issue? Well, that digital marketing and online positioning is sometimes seen as a short-hand for “getting direct students”, whereas in fact, digital marketing is also the holistic practice of identifying, attracting, engaging with potential clients and getting the sale. As ever then, with all marketing, you can use the tools to achieve anything you set out to achieve.

You can use digital marketing to improve your sales via any channel you like. Elephant liberated, let’s look at how agents and schools can collaborate to provide a seamless digital experience.

Switching to digital first

The phrase ‘digital first’ usually applies to delivery - the notion that a provider delivers a product or service online (or in app) first, with other versions of the service to follow, ‘in real life’.

But it’s more important to remember that the consumer is also digital first. A student wishing to take a language learning course, whether in person or digitally, will almost certainly come across your services online first. So you need to get your act in gear. The problem with that from the schools’ point of view is a simple one - who’s version of the service is that student seeing? Theirs? Or the agents?

The fact is, of course, it shouldn’t matter. The digital experience should be seamless, no matter where the student accesses it from. You have to view the process holistically and from the user’s point of view. They don’t care whether the agent gets paid for referrals or just for bookings. They don’t want to see the join as they leap from referrer to supplier. It’s unlikely that you’ll have a coherent design from one site, app or social media referral but the information at least shouldn’t jar. A potential consumer shouldn’t be flicking from one place to another to try and work out whether one price or service is right compared to another.

Between you, you and the agent are trying to drive the same, traditional, sales funnel process:

  • Awareness
  • Interest
  • Desire
  • Action

Either of you can be driving any part of this. The real secret here is that you worry less about the cost of acquisition of customers and who gets what slice of a referral or a booking, and worry more about the fact of an acquisition. If you have 100% of no bookings, it’s not too helpful.

What you need to do is consider the user journey (that AIDA process) from the student’s point of view, and understand that if there are (at least) two possible user journeys for those looking to use those services, you need to make sure that these dovetail, rather than confuse. So consider some of the following:


The first thing is to make sure that there’s coherence to the messages. That the web copy on your site gives the same services, with the same prices, as the information they are giving out. If the copy is identical, there is a risk that search engines will view it as duplicate, so some tinkering with the copy will make sure that you’re not competing against each other. In practical terms, a school needs to sign off the copy and content delivered by the agents. So make sure it’s right. And if you’re worried about the SEO implications, and what metadata might be shared between the two of you, you know where we are.

In the ideal world, what you’re looking for is a content organisational model - where you are sharing content and messages, but with a variety of different presentations - there might be messages for an app, for the application process, for support material for parents and so on.

You’re looking to make sure they all say the same things, if in different terminologies, with different tones and probably different languages. It’s often a complex model, but once established it means that you’re in control. And we can help you dabble in content design processes too.

Digital assets

The same goes for all the other digital assets. If you produce video, photographs, sample course content, audio, testimonials, and so on, then make sure you distribute them to the agents. You might want to make slightly different versions - a selection of student testimonials for you and others for the agents, to avoid repetition and duplicate copy again, and you might (resources allowing) make different edits of video and audio to give variety and a sense of freshness.

That also allows you to see what works best - maybe the Scorcese edit of your corporate video is a bit excessive and something snappier would work better. But, if it’s your product, you are the one who should own and control all the ways in which the marketing messages are delivered. If that means you have to go to the time and expense of creating it, then tough. That’s by far the lesser evil compared to confused students who don’t know what to expect.

We’ll often see that a school’s best promotional video has been produced (and branded up - see below) by an agent overseas. Whilst absolute kudos goes to the agent, you can’t help thinking it’s going to perplex a student of English from UAE watches the tour of a school in Dublin in a video that links to an agency in Italy.


Share your branding assets too. Everything that explains what you offer should have your brand on it. This isn’t an issue of control or ownership, it’s one of visual consistency.

It enables your students to see, in what might be quite a confusing exploratory process looking at a variety of schools, what is yours and allows them to file in their heads the variety of offerings that you have. By connecting your brand to your product, you make sure that the alliance of the two works.

Social media

The same principles apply to social media output. The chances are that you’ll be active on the same platforms, but is that coincidence or strategy?

Both schools and agents should understand where the decision makers are on these platforms (those who pay for and those who use services are often not the same people and not on the social media) and should share an idea of what messages go best and where.

Some of the assets may be the same, but you will want to create more, purely for social. The more you give to your agents, the more space you’ll get on their social feeds. And, if you believe social media to be an effective platform, the more you’ll sell.

If you’re considering paid-for social media, or search-based advertising, the notion of who pays for it relies purely on where the link goes. If you do PPC (pay per click) campaigns which drive users to your site, then you pay. If agents want to do it, then they will drive the call to action to themselves - and they pay. It should be that simple, but if resources are tight, then it’s worth a conversation.


It is probably the case that both you and the agents engage with students - via the phone, email or online chat. By now, it should be obvious that you need consistency above all else and while you’ve shared copy, you should also share a script. Both you and the agents should know what questions students will ask, so make sure you have a shared response on that. Duplicate copy isn’t an issue in this case, but you may well have different experiences in the likelihood of different conversations with students, or their parents.

One practice that has to end is where schools will publish their procedural rules around bookings, only for favourite (influential) agents to have to email for a waiver or modification to accommodate a client’s needs. Try and get all of that stuff out in the open. Your public rejection of e.g. absolute beginners or one-week stays, might mean you’re not being approached with potential bookings from agents who know you less well or have less brand loyalty.

Share information - you’ll both be better for more insight into your user needs and what you’re willing and able to offer.

It’s that understanding of user needs that should underpin everything, while also making this a joint venture between school and agent. Sharing understanding, market knowledge and content and assets will mean that the most fundamental concept in any digital experience is delivered - that of consistency.