The following is a post that I wrote earlier this semester for Inside Higher Ed’s Call to Action marketing and communications blog.
Today, higher education marketing tends to be an end-of-the-pipeline activity, based on raising awareness of and generating interest in programs or services that have already been developed. While this work is essential and shows progress overall, an institution’s CMO has much more to offer in helping shape strategic offerings and bring new programs to market.
A 2016 study by SimpsonScarborough, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and CASE revealed a wide range of marketing duties in academia. Chief marketing officers selected “institution-wide brand” more than any other responsibility. These findings represent some progress from a similar study conducted in 2014, when “advertising (print, radio, TV, outdoor, etc.)” topped the list. The rise of digital marketing responsibilities is also evident when comparing the surveys’ results.
The 2014 study also noted tasks where marketing “plays a role” rather than having primary responsibility. Here CMOs most often cited event-related work, such as commencement and other major campus events.
The current reach of marketing is significant, as these studies demonstrate, but its strategic role is still relatively new and not fully developed in higher education. What are the responsibilities in which marketing should play more of a role?
My wish: product and service design. This role involves marketing departments bringing data, insight, and an intimate understanding of the consumer to enable our colleges and universities to understand what they should do in the future.
Increasingly, the work of marketing is aligned with key institutional priorities, for instance, recruiting high-achieving and diverse students or raising the profile of an institution’s research to help citizens see how the university is developing life-enhancing solutions to problems that affect them.
Instead of merely supporting institutional priorities, CMOs and their teams – as the voice of the target audience and its eyes and ears – should be shaping those priorities and strategies for the future.
At my university, for example, the alumni association’s marketing team is leading a process using design thinking to re-envision the membership experience. Or at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, marketing is at the table for curriculum development, adding value with deep knowledge of the target audience and marketplace trends rather than just “getting the word out” about a new program.
The progression of marketing’s role is already happening there and at other institutions. At American University, marketing leadership is part of an ambitious initiative to reinvent the student experience and reimagine the university’s service culture. Marketing leadership at Chatham University was at the forefront of institutional change with a data-driven recommendation to make its undergraduate college coeducational.
According to mStoner, most institutions have undertaken the critically important work of brand strategy. (Brand strategy is an ongoing process – once the brand is launched, marketing teams must still work diligently to help their institutions live the brand and assess its effectiveness.) But Darden, American, and Chatham are examples of marketing’s strategic impact on the institution that goes beyond developing the brand. With growing pressures on our colleges and universities from market forces and the accelerating pace of change, we can and must broaden our influence. Those marketing departments that are data savvy and obsess over understanding evolving consumer needs and preferences are well positioned to provide this leadership.