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Surfing the Wave with NUS Digital

In 2009, NUS published Surfing the Wave, a strategic response to the changes happening within the student movement. It detailed ambitious plans to reach out to all students at the touch of a button, which kick-started the NUS Digital initiative. As development gets into full swing, Spotlight talks to Doug Tomlinson, NUS’ Group IT and New Media Director, about the project, as well as the challenges and the opportunities for the future of the movement.

NUS Digital has been in discussion around the movement for quite a while. Can you clarify what the initiative is all about?

NUS Digital has to appeal to many different stakeholders. NUS is a campaigning organisation, and it’s crucial that we can deliver on the aspiration of reaching out to the entire student population quite literally at the touch of a button. We are also committed to maximising revenue potential from digital for the benefit of every students’ union. NUS Digital is a way to help facilitate that.

With a potential audience of seven million, that’s a huge undertaking, and tackling something on this scale has meant a radical step-change in our thinking about what NUS Digital will need to deliver.

I’ve been developing digital businesses on this scale since the original dot com boom in 2000 and I have brought new expertise into NUS which has helped to raise the bar on our aspirations. To succeed in this, it’s absolutely clear that we need to create a proposition that’s compelling to every student and every students’ union.

What will the actual proposition be and how would it compare against other digital offerings on the market?

I’m not interested in just building something to compete with other products on the market. If we just created a digital business by replicating or making tweaks to what is already there, we’d be missing the point.

Technology for technology’s sake doesn’t interest me; the potential to re-engineer the way students’ unions carry out their operations, especially to help give them better marketing insight to best represent students, does. There’s huge value and interest in data; in helping local unions and NUS to better understand student behaviour.

One of the most important things I keep stressing is that NUS Digital isn’t about a website or a single project. Coupled with mobile interactivity it will ripple through everything we do and we’re creating a whole suite of tools to help manage every student interaction with his or her students’ union.

Is this based on what NUS thinks ‘best practice’ should be, or are you working with real unions?

We have a shared commitment with a cross-section of unions large and small to agree best practice from scratch, then to architect a suite of digital solutions around those requirements.

At key stages we’ll also be working through a wider focus group to ensure we keep everyone with us. Getting wide representation is really important on this.

So you’re not just doing this for the big unions?

Absolutely not. It’s important that we find a path that could work equally well for all types of unions, from Russell Group institutions to further education colleges. For students’ unions within further education, we’ll be offering a more basic service to specifically suit their own needs and we’re forming a different work group specifically for this.

There’s such a diverse range of competency in students’ unions in terms of digital. How are you going to help tackle that?

A key focus is to help unions get the most out of the digital capabilities they already have.

If a union has the marketing resources to design and manage content, then the platform will give them more control over their own design without having to constantly wait in a queue for enhancements. If a union doesn’t have the resources then we’ll provide a fully outsourced solution, design, implementation, ongoing content management and media sales.

Keeping things fully flexible and open is a key objective, as is ensuring that every union protects its own individual brand identity.

You mentioned that all your experience has been in the commercial sector. Do you think your challenges in your role at NUS are more or less complex?

That’s a tough question. In some ways I think they are more complex, mainly around the governance. Getting wide representation takes time but you’re also dealing with energetic, young officers who have a limited time to push through and deliver on their commitments made at election. There’s a huge tension between effective governance and fast delivery. It’s all about setting realistic expectations, but then over-delivering on them. The thing I find refreshing in this role is that everyone within the movement really wants this to succeed. It’s totally different to when I was developing and selling digital products previously, where I was spending 70 per cent of my time banging on closed doors.

Do you think there are concerns about NUS’ ability to deliver a project of this size?

That’s an understatement! I’ve found that people in unions have memories like elephants. People like the ideas, but I get concerns about NUS’ inability to manage big projects. People mention EPoS, ITM… you name it.

My response is that I wasn’t around then, and neither were many of my colleagues that are part of the new world that came out of Surfing the Wave. What I’ve seen since joining has been hugely impressive; as good as, if not better than,the commercial sector.

During your session at Students’ Unions 2011, concerns were raised about data ownership. Can you clarify NUS’ position on this?

The aspiration to communicate with all students at the touch of a button was something that stuck with me from my very first dealings with NUS, even at interview.

The technology to facilitate that is one thing; the commercial ownership of that data another. I have to admit that when I joined, whether we would be even allowed to do it was something I’d not considered would be an issue. Through numerous union visits I fully understand the worries.

Some unions have problems in getting the data in the first place from their institution. On this we’ve sought expert legal opinion which is available to all members. It’s clear that each union has a legal right to its own membership data. We respect that and we’ve developed a solution that will work for all stakeholders, still protecting the right of each union to control the way student data is used.

At the end of the day, we all want the same thing; to maximise registrations at every union. We already hold a huge database of student registrations for NUS extra and it makes sense to leverage all we have to best effect.

What do you think are the other concerns?

Well clearly revenue is a major factor. Our intention is to twin NUS Digital with an NUS Media Sales facility that works on a Not For Profit model. There will be a version of the platform provided as part of the affiliation fee, with a commission on advertising activity. What students’ unions would usually give up in agency commission would be invested back into the union after operating costs. We are developing a model where this could be applied fairly. Enhanced premium services would work on a selective license fee model, so the more services a students’ union needs, the greater the license fee. But we’ll ensure this fee is competitive and provides best value – again, this is standard in the market.

You mentioned at Students’ Unions 2011 that you hadn’t taken a traditional path through university. Do you feel that this makes it more difficult for you to create a digital platform that appeals to most students?

Well, what constitutes a normal student or a normal student experience? I was probably ahead of my time in doing all my studying while managing a busy job and family. I left school at 16 and started work, then spent years studying in my spare time to eventually get an MBA. I missed out on the social aspects, but I also felt the real isolation and lack of support that typifies the experience of most work-based learners. I felt real distance from a union. That’s exactly the sort of bridge that a digital ‘virtual’ union-type experience could rectify and where the original idea came from.

So tell me more about this ‘virtual union’ idea – I’ve heard it’s quite radical?

Well, visions are there to be visionary. I remember when I first mentioned the concept to NUS board. There were a few confused looks about where it was going. It takes a while to sink in, but once you get it, it starts to make you think of the possibilities.  I used to work with virtual events, which are designed to appeal to audiences that can’t physically get to traditional events by giving them an event experience online. This approach can be used by students’ unions to engage with their members.

The virtual union idea is something for the future. I’m really keen to push it forward, but there’s so much other work to get done first. Watch this space.

How does your ‘marketplace’ idea work?

Since joining NUS, I’ve had so many students’ unions get in touch with ideas that they want NUS to endorse or third parties that they work with that they want us to publicise. Much of the time these ideas overlap. It comes back to trying to please everyone. Also, for all the unions that have developed something themselves, there are others that just want NUS to deliver a central, secure platform that they can rely on to run critical areas of their business. Whilst we want to encourage unions to offer their services, there’s also the issue of commercial Due Dilligence. I developed the marketplace idea to solve the problem. It lets the market decide. Students’ Unions will be able to re-engineer or develop applications specifically for the new NUS Digital platform and once we’ve audited it centrally, it can be promoted to all unions. It does what any marketplace does, by putting people with good ideas in touch with people that have a genuine need.

So will it work a bit like the Apple App Store?

It’s a good analogy. The problem there is that it costs Apple millions to build and host the marketplace facility. We don’t have those resources, nor will there be a huge number of students’ unions involved in building applications. However, the concept is exactly the same. Some unions have great entrepreneurial ideas and want to expand on them. Other unions have a lack of resources to deliver solutions internally. Rather than having them go out to an external supplier, surely we should be acting as a trusted facilitator? This also fits really well with the aims of NUS Charitable Services.

Is there anything you can say about timescales, and what unions should do that have existing supplier contracts?

Now we’re really starting to ramp things up on the development front, we’re finally starting to see really solid progress and I’m hopeful of communicating more accurate plans in the next few months. I’m confident that we’ll be making announcements in advance of the 2012/13 academic year.

It’s a big project and I’m hoping that people will stay with us.

For more information on NUS Digital, either email Doug on doug.tomlinson@nus.org.uk or join the LinkedIn closed-invite group NUS Digital.

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