Business essentials: Audio school seeks to turn up the volume

Kate Hilpern looks at a college for sound engineers that needs to raise its profile with students on a small marketing budget
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Pete Waterman, Brian Eno and Sir George Martin are just some of the big names in music production whose success is owed, at least in part, to sound engineers. "The recording industry is driven by the talent, creativity and dedication of professional sound engineers," explains Mike Sinnott, sales and marketing manager at the Alchemea College of Audio Engineering in Islington, north London.

In an industry that's very competitive, he says, Alchemea enjoys a good reputation because around 85 per cent of its diploma graduates have found jobs within six months of graduating. The private college's shorter courses - some broad and others specialist - also enjoy an impressive track record for employability.

"The problem is getting the message across to prospective students, who are essentially our customers," says Sinnott.

The big challenge for Alch-emea, established in 1993, is that it is a small enterprise with a turnover of around £500,000, while its main competitor, the School of Audio Engineering (SAE), is a very large international organisation with colleges in more than 20 countries. "The result is that many people don't approach Alchemea simply because they haven't heard of us," says Sinnott.

Meanwhile, Alchemea is also in competition with other small and medium-sized establishments, particularly those that have started shorter training courses directed at the bedroom DJ and the home producer.

The public sector poses less of a threat. "Unlike many universities, private colleges can afford to keep on top of the latest technology, which is essential if a valid curriculum is to be maintained, and many potential students are aware of this," says Sinnott. "They are also aware that three years of study may leave them not only financially crippled but also playing catch-up in the job market."

However, the financial demands of updating technology and maintaining facilities mean that Alchemea's marketing and advertising budget is tight. "It currently stands at around £23,000 per year," says Sinnott, though he adds: "It is variable, and depends largely on the college's performance during the previous financial year."

Alchemea is keen to expand both in the UK and abroad. At home, most of its business currently comes from advertising in the two main music technology magazines and on its website. "In addition, we place occasional adverts in other music technology magazines, industry publications and careers publications like Careers Advisor," says Sinnott. "For the last two years, we have also had a stand at the main Pro Audio Industry Expo, which has proved to be a great success."

Alchemea's international students, on the other hand, tend to hear about the college almost exclusively via its website.

"Given that around 30 per cent of our student intake is from overseas, there is clearly a huge potential there," says Sinnott. "In fact, we have recently started looking into international education fairs and the use of international education agents."

The recording industry, he says, receives more attention, inspires more emotion and gives more pleasure than any other sector. "Our job has long been to enable people to enter it; our next job is to get that message across to the people who could be shaping its future."

What the experts say

Peter Fisk, chief executive, Chartered Institute of Marketing

"Alchemea's problem seems to be awareness. It does well to advertise in music technology magazines, but its appeal may also stretch to more mainstream music titles. Effective targeting of potential students through key publications will ensure the Alchemea brand starts to hit the streets.

"An effective way of reaching both UK and international students is to have an internet presence. Alchemea's website hits the right buttons in terms of design but it should bring to the fore its key selling points, such as 85 per cent of its graduates working in the industry within six months of graduation.

"International education fairs are a good way to get noticed overseas, but given its small budget, Alchemea will need to choose where it exhibits carefully. Sinnott may wish to visit it hosts a range of international fairs and may be able to give advice on which countries to target first."

Terry Bishop, acting director of external relations, Birkbeck, University of London

"It's vital that this niche market is precisely targeted. A business plan must be in place, including target student numbers. This plan should determine the marketing budget.

"Alchemea knows the publications likely to be read by potential UK students, but what about overseas journals? Could house magazines of equipment makers carry advertorial? Alchemea could offer editors specialist knowledge in the form of equipment reviews or industry comment.

"The pattern of overseas interest should be analysed. If, for example, interest comes from East Asia, then a marketing visit should be tested. A trip to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, with advertising and room hire, costs up to £10,000.

"In this niche market, individual visits should be more effective than stands at conventional education fairs. Former students could be consulted and used as recruiters."

David Roberts, chief executive, Heist (education marketing agency)

"Alchemea needs to differentiate itself from its main rivals, rather than worrying about matching them. It is a niche player, so mass-marketing techniques are not appropriate.

"The web is critical. Alchemea must ensure the site is interactive and that it drives traffic to it through search engines and by reciprocal links with relevant non-competitive sites (equipment suppliers, media sites, etc).

"Word of mouth is also important. Former students living and working in target markets might be able to help here.

"Alchemea should offer interviews in overseas locations: this will present it as a serious college. Link this to attendance at fairs to reduce costs. And make a big play of London as the base - the creative capital of the world."