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The Growing Role of Strategic Marketing in Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | The Growing Role of Strategic Marketing in Higher Education
By drawing on industry expertise from marketers across all sectors, university marketers can bring the best of their profession to bear on higher education.

Though many universities view themselves purely as centres of knowledge, increasing competition for enrollment dollars means they must start behaving like multi-million dollar businesses. In this interview, Kim Lawrence reflects on the evolving role of marketing in higher education and shares some insights into the importance of competitive positioning for postsecondary institutions.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has the role of university marketing evolved over the past five years?

Kim Lawrence (KL): Personally, I have seen a growing level of acceptance and appreciation for what marketing can really do for the businessof running a university. Perhaps that is a result of universities—even public ones—coming to terms with the fact that they areactually competitive businesses deep down inside.

I remember when I first transitioned from the corporate sector to a public-sector university and had a conversation with someone about competitive positioning. They were shocked at my suggestion that we would proactively compete with other schools. From their perspective, whether a prospective student chose to attend our university or any other university, that was a win—it was more of a “higher calling” approach and less about our own organization’s specific success. I really had to recalculate the value I could add as a marketer in that environment.

These days, I find there is broader recognition of the business imperatives involved in running multi-million dollar postsecondary organizations. There is greater rigour in target development, performance measurement and capture of operational efficiencies. In this environment, not only does marketing help package and deliver strong reputational positioning, but it also contributes directly (and measurably) to targets set for enrollment, friend-raising and fundraising, employee recruitment, industry and community engagement, and government relations.

This is now coupled with a greater understanding of the important role that regular market research plays in guiding a truly strategic approach, the acknowledgement that universities really must stay apace of mainstream technology evolution, and the shift to a more user-driven approach to engagement of target audiences (because our constituents demand it).

It has been a pretty amazing evolution from my perspective—and a good one for marketers across the system!

Evo: What can university marketers do to ensure they’re using the right channels to communicate to the right audiences, but in a way that’s scalable?

KL: First­—and I feel pretty strongly about this—university marketers need to take a stand for their profession and educate their colleagues (generously and with tact) on what the different channels are and the strategies required to leverage them well. Too often, I see university marketers default to using specific channels simply because someone else asks them to do so or because it’s the path of least resistance. This is an opportunity to elevate our craft. Explain why email marketing might work best in one scenario but sponsored social posts may excel in another. Show why printed collateral has its place but certainly not as a solution for everything. Demonstrate the impact of well-developed content marketing and an investment in strong search engine optimization rather than simply spawning another website that quiets internal demands.

Second, university marketers really need to truly understand their audiences and the channels they actually use. This seems obvious but it involves speaking with people, developing personas, mapping journeys that span both the digital and traditional spectrum, understanding emotional touchpoints and discovering where (and how) people go to consume and act on information. This is not about intuition or personal perspective—it is about reaching out and gathering data about how people engage.

Third, they need to look at each channel as a distinct opportunity for tailored content and specific calls to action. One size definitely does not fit all. In my opinion, more damage can be done to a brand through misuse of a channel than by not using it at all.

Fourth, marketers need to develop a full funnel approach to each channel. How will people get there? Why would they bother to do so? What’s in it for them to engage? How can they be gradually drawn closer with every action? Just because you put great content on a web site does not mean anyone will find it. If you have a great campaign to drive people through a particular channel but it’s not clear what they should do next once they get there, it’s a waste of time andmoney. Marketers can’t assume the job is done by lobbing out a singular tactical tool.

Finally, leverage the power of the campus network. In large, complex organizations like universities, marketers often end up inadvertently working against one another, cluttering the market with multiple messages and using disparate voices that can confuse or deter our audiences. By embracing all of the people across campus who can contribute to a cohesive voice and collaborate on sharing strong, purposeful messaging, campus marketers can activate an integrated, scalable approach with the limited resources we all seem to have. Engaging marketing faculty in this approach can be a great idea as well—they understand the challenge and can be excellent allies to advance strategic outcomes within the academy.

A postscript: simple, creative, low-cost initiatives can be extremely effective in our environment. We are not selling widgets; we are inspiring people to make the world a better place. Compelling human interest stories delivered smartly through the right channels can go a long way in driving conversion. Piggybacking on other initiatives across campus to meet marketing goals can also be very cost effective—as long as marketers are plugged in broadly enough to know that they are happening.  

Evo: How can access to data and metrics help marketers ensure they’re making the most of limited resources?

KL: Data and metrics help to underscore strong business cases for marketing efforts. If university marketers cannot prove the tangible impact of their work on the success of the organization, it tends to be seen as low-value ‘t-shirts and buttons’ type activity that anyone could do off the side of their desk.

Start with capturing a solid baseline against which progress can be measured—ask the pointed questions that may yield tough-to-digest yet irrefutable, objective results. This can yield purposeful and focused direction for future marketing efforts, while circumventing the subjective opinions that can misguide us, despite the best intentions of our many stakeholder groups. Measure against this baseline on an ongoing basis to demonstrate impact—even if it’s a random pulse check or participation in a larger omnibus survey.

Externally available reports (often free) can help clarify trends and drivers across different target audiences, but specific data can often come from within, especially if a university has an institutional analysis unit—this a great opportunity for partnership. Combine these with an investment of time in user-testing, tailored focus/insights groups, and ongoing channel analytics for a great way to develop solid approaches that work. Don’t overlook the fact that samplings of almost all university target audiences are within walking distance—get away from email, take a walk and test the thinking on people around campus.

Experimentation is also a great way to learn what works best. Most digital channels offer the opportunity to do A/B testing of marketing campaigns. Refine on the fly and reallocate limited resources to where they will have the greatest impact.

Finally, consider spearheading a partnership with other institutions to share a research investment. It’s possible to do this in a way that does not involve directly competing institutions.

Evo: How does marketing in the university context differ to marketing in the corporate world?

KL: In my experience, marketers in the university context tend to be driven by a common purpose—one that transcends traditional corporate goals of revenue-generation and growth of market share. They love the idea of education and research, and how universities can change lives. As a result, they tend to collaborate and share to a greater extent, driven by a dedication to the greater good—for their institutions, their target audiences and society as a whole.

Having said that, because universities are environments where academic freedom is a core value and independent thought is paramount, marketers must be strong influencers and educators themselves. Unlike in many corporate environments, marketers cannot simply declare a common path forward, mandate compliance with core messaging or enterprise technology platforms—or even require that requests for comment be redirected to a central unit for handling. Rather, they must develop deep, trusting relationships with hundreds of colleagues in order to build credibility, persuade others to embrace a certain path, and inspire advocacy for their strategies. It forces marketers to develop bullet-proof, well thought-out approaches because they will be held to task by a collection of people who make their living by applying and teaching critical thinking and analysis.

Marketing in a university environment is also incredibly diverse and challenging in ways unlike I have experienced in the corporate world. In a single day, topics can be as diverse as launching a new program in astrophysics, positioning a community partnership between a dance program and a seniors’ facility, attracting new international student cohorts, developing licensing policy for university trademarks, promoting campus-wide events to raise funds for communities in need, sharing a case study in a classroom and driving a national brand and reputation campaign.

People often think that universities are dusty, lumbering organizations that are not nimble enough to move with the times. I’ve been fortunate to work at institutions that are entrepreneurial in nature, moving massive initiatives—from major construction projects to new program development to massive fundraising campaigns—faster than any corporation I have ever seen. Is there bureaucracy? Yes, but there is at all large organizations and it’s important to maintaining high standards and operational stringency. The bonus is that the people who work at universities are driven by a passion to change lives—that fuels a commitment to progress unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere. 

Evo: What lessons can university marketers learn from their corporate counterparts?

KL: I think that university marketers often only look to other university marketers for inspiration and ideas. As a group, we need to draw on the expertise and experience from marketers across all sectors. Fundamentally, we are all in the business of identifying market needs and meeting them effectively. There are lessons from across many industries that can apply to our world.

When you consider, for example, that universities have relationships with individuals that quite literally can span from cradle to grave, capturing and stewarding information effectively and respectfully over a lifetime of diverse points of engagement is critical to our success. As such, university marketers should pay close attention to developments across sectors in Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, content personalization and the role of AI, adaptive user experience and the wise application of big data.

I would also suggest that university marketers consider their own reporting models, moving to metrics-driven dashboards delivered on a predictable cadence with strong supporting storytelling—much like the norm in the corporate world. Too often, I see marketers toting around swag bags or piles of printed collateral as evidence of their work—that is evidence of output rather than impact.

Finally, I think that university marketers should be more fearless of experimentation. Just because something has not yet been done in the postsecondary environment does not mean it cannot or should not be attempted. We are often asked for examples of what other universities do as a way of validating our recommended approaches. Sometimes, the answer should be: “We will be the first to try this.” And be prepared to fail. After all, that’s how people learn—by trying—and we are ourselves purveyors of that fundamental principle. We should embrace it wholeheartedly!

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