Some reflections from Matthew Guest, Senior Policy Advisor (Research & Innovation), GuildHE inspired by the  Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) Charity Special Interest Group event on Relationship Marketing.


It’s a cliché to say that in business personal relationships matter. There is evidence (see Dori Clark’s article in Forbes for example) to suggest that working on the relationships is key to developing effective projects together and that it’s only by working on the relationship will you both get the most out of it. As I explore later viewing this with a relationship marketing perspective can bring huge benefits in forming the links with external organisations, businesses and charities that an institution may want.

This is not without it’s challenges for institutions. You must invest time and effort in the relationships to be successful at this. Many of those that will be involved in some of the relationships will be busy people or only be engaged in knowledge exchange activities for relatively short periods of time. This is where enterprise staff as well as academics can have a key role in keeping the relationship warm…

What is Relationship Marketing?

The theory is relatively simple to explain – the more you develop a relationship with someone, the greater the likelihood that over time you will work together towards shared goals (it is not all about selling). Therefore you should direct your activities towards relationship development rather than just acquiring new customers because it will prove to be more profitable in the long term.

Of course, you will not be able to develop a strong relationship with every client you work with and not everyone will want to go on the journey with you. The key to success is identifying the people/ organisations that you want to work with and those who want to work with you and using techniques to nurture and develop that relationship. At the CIM event, Prof Stephen Lee took it further, saying that co-creation of your product/project is a crucial component.

For universities engaged in knowledge exchange activities, this should be of particular interest as it’s the key way to achieve shared goals. Relationships are central to any knowledge exchange activity and curating them must be of interest to knowledge exchange professionals.

That’s a nice theory. So what?

Of course, the theory is tricky to put into practice. Relationship marketing’s ultimate success is based upon how well you know your customers. Success will all come down to the quality of your data.

At the CIM event, we highlighted some other challenges. These include:

  • Creating high expectations without delivering on them
  • Not knowing your customers well enough and the need to approach different customers based in different ways based upon your history with them
  • Thinking relationship marketing is always applicable. There will be some projects where a simple transaction is all that is required and wanted

That said, there are ways to mitigate the challenges:

  • Understanding proper database management no matter the size of your operation – the relationship needs to be held by the organisation rather than individuals within it
  • Carrying out true coproduction. This is one reason why the term “knowledge generation” may be more appropriate as it implies a more active partnership approach to projects
  • Taking a long-term rather than a short-term view. This is important as relationship marketing techniques are focused on the longer term objectives and “lifetime value” of any relationship

There are techniques you can use to develop relationships in practice. I led a session at Southampton Solent’s recent Research and Innovation conference looking at one in particular: the “one-to-one” conversation.

Adapting the “one-to-one” conversation used by community organisers (such as Citizens UK) could work well when you are at the start of developing your partnership. It allows you to find the common ground between you and your partner based upon developing a deep understanding of and appreciation for each other’s values. Indeed, through such one-to-one interactions, Citizens UK successfully developed the partnerships that got the Living Wage first onto the political agenda. (You can drop me a note to find out more.) 

Final thought

Such approaches, I think, are pretty powerful and worth considering especially as HEIs are being encouraged to look closely at how they interact with their local communities and regions. Both the Industrial Strategy and Conservative election manifesto in particular point to the need for strong research and innovation and how that will deliver benefits to local regions.

It’s therefore of fundamental importance that HEIs get their relationships right in order to maximise their opportunities for positive contributions to local, regional and national economies and societies. Utilising relationship marketing in knowledge exchange could be just the way to do this.