Leveraging Partnerships: Succeeding in the Modern Postsecondary Marketplace
The following interview is with Ruth Ann Murray, assistant dean of business development and director of the Center for Professional Education at Boston University. Murray spoke at the 2014 UPCEA New England Regional Conference on how universities can effectively leverage their marketing partnerships. In this interview, Murray expands on that topic, reflects on her own higher education marketing experiences and discusses the most significant pros and cons to taking the partnership approach to higher education marketing.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it advantageous for universities to partner with service providers on marketing?
Ruth Ann Murray (RAM): When you’re competing in a national market, if not an international market for students—and particularly for online students—you need to be able to provide a number of services that are traditionally outside of the realm of a university’s expertise.
For example, we want to make sure that people everywhere are aware of our professional programs. That requires skills: good advertising skills, good marketing, including social media. Marketing services can provide universities with skills and expertise that universities don’t traditionally have.
Evo: There’s been an expansion of potential markets for a university to capture as online learning has become bigger and bigger. With that, there’s a capacity for universities to serve a much larger audience. Why is it important for a university to market to folks that are out of their local areas?
RAM: Most universities would respond to that saying that they feel as if they have a pretty good hold on their own local market. They’ve found that with online education, you’re giving people an opportunity to choose from a variety of colleges and universities and giving consumers really good choices. When that happens, the best programs will win. People will become very selective and it ensures that there are solid programs out there.
When you are competing on a national scale, your scope has to be much bigger and that’s when the expertise from someone in marketing, online marketing and developing ecommerce business centers comes in.
Evo: Was there a specific moment where you realized that what was happening in-house wouldn’t cut it to serve this sort of larger marketplace?
RAM: It’s not so much a question of “wouldn’t cut it” as much as you realize you’re in a whole different area at this particular point, and that the traditional ways you have of doing things don’t apply to this national area.
For example, one time I created a classroom-based non-credit program and we did really wonderful things to drive awareness of the program. We decided to go with that program online and I thought what worked in Boston will certainly work someplace else. So I used the same letter campaign and mailed to different metropolitan areas. It didn’t work. It required an entirely different approach than it did for the local one.
Evo: We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the good. Let’s change our focus a little bit. What are a few of the downsides of partnering on marketing and communications for a university?
RAM: The downside, or the risk, is similar to those with any type of partnership. If you have a university like Boston University—or any university that has been in the United States for a long time—they have a reputation that was years if not centuries in the making. They have a set of ethics as a way they want to conduct business, and when you partner with someone and allow them to be associated with the university there’s always a risk that you may not see eye-to-eye on some of the techniques or things that are done.
When you’re partnering with someone, it’s critical to find someone who really shares the same values and the same goals as you do.
Evo: What can a university leader do to ensure that the university and the vendor really share those goals to ensure that mutually beneficial partnership?
RAM: If you’re looking at a vendor who has worked with other universities in the past, you really want to do your homework. You really want to be talking to the universities and asking particular questions of how that service provider worked. The answer should be more than how many students they enrolled in the program. You need to talk about how easy they were to work with, what types of advertising they put out there, your ability to review their content, whether there was anything put out in the advertising that you thought reflected badly on the university or didn’t reflect the mission and the goals and the values of the university.
In addition for long-standing vendors, what is their business standing? Are they a company that’s in good financial standing? What is their reputation with other folks? These questions are critical.
If it’s a new vendor, it’s a little bit easier sometimes. You get to talk with them and meet with them a lot more. You really see the kind of people they are and how they conduct themselves and you start with the small programs without too much exposure and see how they do.
Evo: Marketing is so central to competitiveness in the modern higher ed marketplace. When it comes to outsourcing marketing practices, how much concern is there that a “special sauce” that you may have developed with a vendor for your programming can then be used to support a competitor in actually improving their marketing and thus competing with you directly?
RAM: That’s always an issue, but when it comes down to special sauces and particular techniques, the vendors who provide those types of services own them.
However it’s important to set up some firewalls. For example, I’m mostly in the non-credit space so many of my vendors do not have programs that directly compete with mine. That’s part of the understanding. In our for-credit programs you sometimes will have a vendor who might have a degree program for us and a similar or competitive degree program for another university. In that case, firewalls are set up so that the team who is taking registration or promoting University A is not the same team promoting University B.
The second point is, they should not be allowed to then turn over leads. If someone says, “I’m interested in Boston University’s program,” they can’t say, “Okay well you didn’t get into that particular program so why don’t we put you into this other one.” There should be no exchange of leads.
Evo: When you look at the landscape of vendors, and you’re at the point where you’re ready to enter into partnership on marketing, what are some of the biggest roadblocks to actually establishing that partnership and go from choosing a particular vendor to signing the contract?
RAM: I’m not sure if “roadblocks” is the correct term. It’s more just understanding what the downsides are and making sure you’re doing your homework around that particular vendor. For example, when you talk about competing values, as a university your goal is to provide quality education to the most number of qualified students and to make it financially feasible to support that program and the resources that go into the program. As a university, we’re a non-profit as most of the schools are.
In marketing, when you’re working with a vendor, they are usually a for-profit organization. You have those two things and sometimes they work together but sometimes they compete. You might have a vendor say, “We want to use this particular advertising” because it really might bring in quite a few students, but that’s when you have to push back and say, “I know it will but they may not be qualified students and we may feel that the message or the medium doesn’t reflect well on the University.”
The most important thing you have to do is examine the material, the collateral that bears your brand and your name.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of entering into partnerships with marketing service providers and some of the things that university leaders need to keep in mind as they go down the pathway towards one of these partnerships?
We know that we’re good at developing curriculum. We don’t outsource that to anyone else, what we do is outsource things that others do best.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator