Three to watch in the student space

This is a guest post by Luke Mitchell, managing consultant with Reach Students, a digital marketing agency aimed at the student market

Once upon a time, students had a social network all to themselves. It required a university email address to access. Inside was an engaging mix of quirky profiles, subversive groups, weighty debates and fantastical conversations about obscene acts apparently committed by daytime television presenters. It was known as ‘The Facebook’. Then, sadly, it lost the The.

Today students share Facebook with everyone else, but if they don’t like it they have options. But do students want or need their own social network? Some may say that question was answered with the failure of Univillage, which came loudly into the market in 2006 with the backing of Brent Hoberman (now of MyDeco), only to bail out a year later.

That move may have had something to do with the launch of yougo, launched last year by the university admissions service UCAS. This connects UCAS applicants and students already at uni.

yougo has over 200,000 registered users, a figure that has grown in waves that correlate with key UCAS contact times: the organisation is in a unique position, easily able to reach hundreds of thousands of new university applicants each year. It is currently claiming to convert a quarter of them to yougo users.

Quickly, yougo has found that students do not want another Facebook all to themselves. But they have shown an interest in something else. In the years before they go to uni, up until the time they eventually arrive on campus, young people are very interested in a secure space online where they can chat and meet with other students who are following a similar path to them.

They are not looking to post Funwall messages and poke each other. They actually have a lot of serious stuff they want to find out.

yougo has responded to this and has started repositioning itself closer to the UCAS brand that students associate with a useful service rather than a fun hangout. They are now looking to pull in the 140,000 younger students they already have on their UCAS Card database and are considering how they can retain users through university to their first career move, by facilitating practical networking and discussion.

UCAS says yougo has met all its targets during the course of its short history. How can it have not? Via UCAS yougo has ‘free’ unrivalled access to thousands of youngsters from middle and high-income families. Clearly, UCAS’s entry into the socnet market has wide ramifications for any private sector startups trying to beak into the student space.

However, the survival and steady growth of yougo indicates that there might be further mileage in private student social networks. Though like yougo, survivors may need to find a ‘niche within the niche’.

At the other end the marketing resources spectrum, with no whopping database to plunder, is GroupSpaces.

The start-up, born out of Oxford University, is probably the sector’s most web-business savvy, having recently pitched to Silicon Valley and received good financial backing from tech-focussed angel investors in the UK.

They have a neat idea.

There are in excess of 25,000 clubs and societies in universities across the UK. Each one of them is organised autonomously by individual students – with a huge churn of personnel. Key members change on a yearly basis, sometimes more often. Each group organiser naturally brings their own systems and ideas, which means new websites and communication methods.

If you looked at the communication picture between students across the UK, you would get a nasty headache. It’s a jamboree that involves everything from Yahoo and Google groups, to Facebook pages, message boards and even wikis.

GroupSpaces has the opportunity to standardise and simplify communications for the entire clubs and societies community. It provides everything a group organiser needs to administer their membership, while keeping things simple, clean and functional. If every student group used the system, GroupSpaces would have perhaps a million students registered.

The idea makes a lot of sense, and has been taken up en-masse by Oxford’s 300-plus groups. The challenge for GroupSpaces will be penetrating the other hundred universities across the UK, each with their own politics and culture, and demonstrating to individualistic clubs and societies that GroupSpaces can make their lives easier.

Finally, the progress of Freewire TV is worth mentioning. This is a well branded IPTV service that streams into university halls of residence across the UK. It’s currently the country’s most subscribed IPTV provider, with over 40,000 customers receiving Freeview and premium channels through the JANET network.

Freewire’s owners, Inuk Networks, won a £9.5 million investment from TV broadcaster S4C and venture capital firm Wesley Clover. They have partnered with Cable & Wireless, meaning they can compete against Virgin to reach residential student customers in cabled towns.

There are a limited number of credible, student-only digital channels available to the marketer. IPTV, with its potential for audience targeting and interactivity, would be an irresistible advertising proposition in the bedrooms and lounges of 2 million students.