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[From the Archives] Understanding the Shift in Higher Ed Marketing to Drive Success

Marketing is used to be a siloed department on campus, but selling prospective students on a university requires telling the full story and therefore campus-wide collaboration that depicts the full picture of student experience.

What Do Marketing Leaders Do?

Ask any marketing leader what they do, and chances are you’ll get one of two responses. First, you may get a long list of varied tasks. Second, you may get a more ethereal explanation of trying to tell the university story. Both answers are right, and the reality is the role of the marketing office is changing.

As part of my dissertation on how marketing might help mitigate the enrollment cliff, I asked 15 CMOs in the Southeast United States about the marketing office’s role. While their answers varied quite a bit, a common theme is that marketing offices are more involved in daily marketing work and are now recognized as a legitimate partner on campus.

One participant shared more about her team is more visible, which creates additional opportunities for her team: “Marketing is much more visible. People know that it exists and gets results. That means many more people on university campuses want to take advantage of marketing and the opportunities it offers.” 

Much of the marketing office used to operate in isolation. Marketing teams were siloed and tasked with creating flashy campaigns, repeatable taglines and showy commercials. However, these team members didn’t heavily engage with campus more than finding students to be in commercials.

This has changed.

Marketing teams are much more integrated across the university and regularly support its enrollment and advancement functions.

As one participant explained, “The marketing office’s primary responsibility is no longer just developing commercials and preparing billboards. It now goes much deeper into shaping the recruitment messages, formulating the communication flow for admitted students, developing yield campaigns, as well as alumni engagement campaigns. And making sure we’re all working to create a single and consistent narrative arc from the time that a student enters our funnel their freshman or sophomore year of high school, through their current student experience and post-graduation into their life as an alumnus.”

This is good for marketing teams because it means they are at the table and part of bigger university conversations. However, it is not without challenges. For many teams, the increase in workload in the last decade has not come with additional human or budget capital. That means marketing teams are regularly under-resourced. Recent data from Simpson Scarborough showed that marketing teams regularly have more on their plate than they feel they can achieve. Because of tight resources, marketing leaders are also likely to serve as gatekeepers to protect their team from the deluge of campus partners who want to collaborate, often for good and worthwhile reasons.

One participant noted they had to serve as an “air traffic controller” to manage all the interest in collaboration. He shared that sometimes meant turning down strategic collaborations simply because there wasn’t enough bandwidth from the team.

As a marketing leader for the past few years, I have experienced this as well. At a prior institution, the university severed its relationship with an agency who provided outside support and brought all brand awareness and recruitment efforts in house. For the team I was leading, this was an exciting challenge. However, it was also a time of significant struggle. Suddenly, we had capacity problems. We had 2328 more project hours than we had personnel to work them. That meant we had to offload projects that we’d historically worked on to focus on items like the viewbook or commercial. Those were some of my first conversations as a leader, and those on the receiving end were frustrated and felt like they had nowhere to turn for help.

I imagine that as more is asked of university marketing teams nationwide, my experience isn’t that different from other leaders who must regularly make hard choices about what projects are most worthwhile, among multiple strong options.

Opportunities for Marketing Teams

While much is asked of these teams, it is an exciting time to be in this field. People across our campuses want to work with marketing and recognize the work we do to support the university. That hasn’t always been the case. As such, here are a few opportunities where marketing can really help our institutions in the coming years.

Change agents for campus—Marketing teams tend to work across the entire campus, which gives them an opportunity to see things beyond silos. As such, marketing teams have a unique opportunity to bring siloed campus entities together to solve existing challenges. It could be a problematic process, or it could be an issue with a program, but marketing teams can help. As higher education entities may need to change ahead of the enrollment cliff, marketing teams can serve as a critical change agent to help that happen. 

Build an authentic brand—Brand-building is some of the most important work marketing teams do because brand work creates long-term emotional connections with students, alumni, donors and community builders. Because brand work is sometimes difficult to track, it is easy to push it aside in favor of messages that are more quantifiable. However, this work creates the emotion that cause people to act (attend, give, serve), so it simply can’t be forgotten. Marketing teams can educate and advocate for this work be part of campus-wide marketing efforts.

Differentiate—Universities sometimes want to be all things to all people, but this is not possible. Because marketing teams can see across campus silos, they are better positioned to see what the university does well and garner support to tell that story. That means building relationships with the campus community to make sure people aware of these unique opportunities tell a story other institutions can’t. Differentiation is an opportunity for marketing teams to focus on messages that highlight what sets their university apart from everyone else.

Make it easy—Most people want to do the right thing—until it’s hard. This is best illustrated through recycling. Most people want to recycle—until it’s hard. Sorting the paper from the glass from the cardboard is time-consuming and difficult. At some point, people just put it in the trash. The same goes for marketing. People want to be part of it until it’s hard. Our role is to make it easy by provide a flyer template in a format that doesn’t require a special software, providing an email template with words for a recruitment email, providing training to help with messaging. We have campuses full of people who want to help, but the brand book is sometimes complicated to follow. People are not going to read and understand our 70+ page books. Our job is to create excitement about the brand and make it easy for others to be part of it. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

While it is easy to feel dejected because budges are insufficient, staff members are over committed, and the workload continues to grow, I find myself looking for the positive. People want marketing teams to be part of the solution and are trusting us to help. I can’t wait to see how we, in this profession, continue to rise to the challenge.

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