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Education Marketers Should Strive For Influence, Not Authority

Education Marketers Should Strive For Influence, Not Authority
A successful higher education marketing department will forge partnerships with their colleagues, allowing marketers to bear influence without authority. Photo by DiAnn.

As professional marketers, we’re paid to be bullet proof. The solutions we present to clients are supported by consumer research studies. Dozens of whitepapers. Decades of design theory. The latest Demand Engine webinar. We have the expertise. But at the end of the day, we often lack authority to force our ideas into play.

And I’m okay with that.

At its best, marketing is a collaborative exercise. I don’t want a mandate, I want a partnership. And the best way I’ve found to achieve that is to channel my department’s expertise into influence, not authority.

So how do you achieve “influence without authority”?

Care About the Client

The best continuing educators are entrepreneurs. But, first and foremost, they’re academics. They genuinely care about their work, and you need to as well. If you believe in your clients and are invested in what they do, they’ll begin to see you as a trusted partner rather than a necessary inconvenience.

So go to their staff meetings. Attend their free info sessions (even if it means sacrificing an hour some evening). Send them relevant articles. All of these actions show that you care. And you can’t establish trust without caring.


Be accessible, responsive and honest. Ask questions. Raise issues. Confirm details. And ask for feedback. Communication, like the kind of partnership you’re trying to achieve, goes both ways.

I know how utterly basic this sounds, but in the increasingly hectic lives we all lead, clear, open communication has an odd tendency to get lost in the ether.

And don’t rely on email. Making the time to climb out from behind your desk and visit a client will have more impact than even the most carefully worded email.

You Can’t Say “No” All the Time

It’s really, really easy for Marketing to get typecast as the “No” department. It isn’t intentional, but as guardians of the brand, the email lists, and logical website design, you end up shooting down a lot of semi-baked ideas. Unfortunately, this responsibility doesn’t do much for your relationship building efforts.

So choose your battles. Give in on the little things so your opinion is meaningful when it really matters. I approach this like I approach my marriage—I only get to put my foot down a few times a year, so I make sure to save it for when it counts. And the other times? Compromise.

One of the best ways to say “no” without saying “no” is to provide alternatives. If you think there’s a better solution than the one the client asked for, show it both ways. This takes a little more time, but it gives you an opportunity to sell your ideas. It’s not wasted effort – it’s an investment in the relationship.

And, finally, be open-minded. Not all the great ideas have to come from Marketing. Many of the initiatives we put into action come from (or are sparked by) conversations we have with our academic clients.

Explain Your Rationale

An advantage of working with academics is their respect for a logical, methodical thought process. So when you’re presenting an idea or creative solution to clients, don’t just throw it out on the table. Sell it. Reiterate the goals, explain your approach to the problem and how that led to the solution you’re recommending.

The client may not always agree (sometimes people just don’t like that particular shade of blue), but at least they’ll understand that you’ve put thought into their problem and have a logical explanation for the work. Even if they reject the solution, you earn points for the process, which will make your next sales effort easier.

Promote Yourself

Ironically, one of the worst things marketing departments promote is themselves. I’m not advocating empty chest beating, but there’s a ton of value in letting clients know about the interesting, innovative ways Marketing is helping fill their classes.

When you’re running a new marketing campaign, announce it to the organization. Present regular metrics to clients that show the results of their marketing investment. Set up Google Alerts to monitor and mail out PR hits for your programs.

Finding ways to consistently let your organization know what Marketing is working on builds credibility. You know your team is talented and working hard to promote programs. Make sure your clients know it as well.

Like any relationship, establishing a sense of partnership with clients isn’t easy. It’s something you have to work towards. Constantly. But it’s worthwhile, and an effort we owe to our staffs and our organizations.

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