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One of the things I find most shocking and disturbing about higher ed marketing is the lack of effective budget planning. Leadership demands for marketing outcomes are high, but campus marketers are often left to develop high-stakes plans without a clear understanding of how much funding they have to work with. Let me ask you: If the IT department had to function without a budget, how would decisions regarding equipment purchases or service contracts be made? If the Advancement office had no budget, how could they plan events for alumni and donors? The marketing function is continually undermined by the absence of strategic investment.
Many of the chief marketers I work with have muddy budgets, at best. It’s not clear from year to year how much money they will have to spend. Marketing initiatives are often paid for out of a special fund approved by the Board or President. Marketing activities that should be regular and ongoing are thought of as one-time investments and committed for a year but no longer. Marketing the institution and shaping its brand is a long-term proposition. Short-term and/or unpredictable funding cripples the marketing department’s ability to fulfill its purpose.
Most higher education marketers have responsibility for only a small fraction of institutional marketing. If there are 20 members of the professional staff in the central marketing department, there are 50 other “marketers” in various divisions around campus, often including student affairs, alumni relations, athletics, admissions, academic departments, colleges, and schools, and even IT and HR. Marketing investments are made across the institution independent of the professional staff and marketing leadership that is supposed to have the authority and responsibility for marketing. How does one operate effectively with only partial control of the function for which they are supposedly responsible?
It is very common for the expectations of the marketing function to be completely out of whack in relation to the investment of staff and funds. The vast majority of marketing budgets are allocated to staff salaries, leaving very little money to actually implement a marketing program. There is still a reticence in higher ed to invest in marketing. In other industries, it’s common to spend 7% to 12% or more of the operating budget on marketing. Even non-profits spend an average of about 3% of the operating budget on marketing. But, in higher ed, we are well below 2% of the operating budget at most schools. And, at many institutions, the total investment in marketing can’t even be calculated because it’s so decentralized. Then we wonder why the class didn’t come in, why our institution isn’t as well-known as it should be, why we can’t seem to raise the kind of money we should be able to, why we don’t have more partnerships with industry, or why no one outside the institution recognizes the strengths and differentiators that seem so obvious to those on the inside.
Higher ed marketing is evolving in positive ways to be sure. The creation of the cabinet-level vice president of marketing, or CMO, is the single most significant change to the higher education administration in the last 15 years. More than half of all colleges and universities have a senior-level marketer that serves on Cabinet. VPs and CMOs at institutions such as Northwestern, American, Butler, Bentley, UVa and many others are proving that effective leadership in marketing is a critical function that can have a significant impact on an institution’s strategic goals. Consistent, dedicated, and appropriate budgets are the next step in ensuring marketing success.
No doubt like Henry Kissinger, we all wish that we could just focus on the part of the job we love—developing creative, innovative, brand building strategies as opposed to thinking about, or worse, facing an actual crisis. Crises are hard! Tensions are high, scrutiny is intense, the underlying facts are bad, the decisions that need to be made are incredibly challenging, and oftentimes the search for a scapegoat precedes the pursuit of remedies.
With high profile executive departures at Berkeley, Missouri, Baylor, Davis, Temple, Louisville, and DePaul, churn at the top seems to have reached epidemic levels. What hasn’t grabbed the headlines is that the turnover of AVCs of Communications after a crisis is probably even higher. How can you protect yourself and your strategic priorities when danger seems to be perpetually lurking on the horizon?
A Press Release Can’t Save An Institution— Only Action Can
It is important to recognize that the MarComm team serves a dual role– to both build and to protect the reputation of the institution. In most cases, the “build” side of the equation gets the focus, the resources, and is, no doubt, what interested you in the first place. While natural and understandable, it is equally important that you prioritize the “protect” side, viewing it proactively and strategically.
Poor crisis response, for example, is almost guaranteed when Communications is not at the table as decisions are being made. If you don’t have an opportunity to weigh in, you and your team risk being left in the unenviable position of having to “explain” potentially poor decisions that will not withstand stakeholder scrutiny.
One action you can take now to demonstrate your strategic chops relative to crisis management is to spearhead a plan for identifying and mitigating potentially damaging issues. In fact, how soon you learn of an issue is probably the single biggest determinant of a successful response.
You can start by doing the following:
- Develop a clear, fault-free process for reporting bad news. Defining the what, how, when and to whom issues and events that have the potential to create significant reputational risk are identified and reported.
- Identify the right staff and process to “connects the dots”—crises never occur in isolation, and it’s critical to analyze and assess the information in a broader context.
- Establish an open door policy and reputation for taking all concerns seriously – not just from students but from all stakeholders. There is a natural inclination to minimize or disbelieve bad news. Don’t.
As we all know, years of great brand building and marketing efforts can be undone in a matter of days by a poor response to a crisis. Managed well, crisis can burnish an institution’s reputation and the quality and values of its leadership. Managed poorly, and the impacts are needlessly exacerbated.
Blue Moon Consulting Group works in collaboration with colleges and universities of all sizes, helping them prepare and respond to issue and crisis events. We’ve recently released two whitepapers on ways to effectively manage crisis in higher ed:
- Higher Education Crisis Management: A Proactive and Strategic Approach to Managing Reputational Risk
- Higher Education Leadership in Crisis: A Guide to Preparing for and Preventing a Crisis on Your Watch
- (Coming Soon) Higher Education Issues Management: Beyond Spin—Bridging the Gap Between Stakeholder Expectations and Decision Making
Available for download at: www.bluemoonconsultinggroup.com/highered.
As is frequently noted, the Chinese character for “crisis” is composed of two parts, one meaning “danger” and the other “opportunity.” Seize this opportunity and give both yourself and your school a fighting chance by getting out in front of a potential crisis.
Metaphorically speaking a blue moon is a very rare event. In reality, blue moons are highly predictable and occur more often than most people realize. Likewise, threats to an organization’s reputation are predictable, frequent and require a proactive management approach. Blue Moon Consulting Group provides its clients insight, counsel, and experience to help them effectively manage real-time response to significant issues and crisis events.
We also help organizations mitigate issues and avoid crises altogether through the development of proactive issues management programs, the enhancement of crisis management and communications plans, and by conducting training, exercises and leadership sessions. Our goal is to build an organizational culture in which reputation is viewed as a key asset and fundamental strategic input into decision-making.
CASE is currently accepting nominations for the 2017 SimpsonScarborough Scholars program. Established in 2008, the program honors our founding partner, Christopher Simpson, who passed away earlier that year. Well-known in higher education for media relations and crisis communications work, Christopher was strongly committed to serving as a mentor to young professionals. The SimpsonScarborough Scholars program continues Christopher’s legacy by supporting the professional development of promising candidates in higher education marcom. Visit the CASE website for complete details, including scholarship benefits, eligibility requirements and application instructions. The application deadline is Friday, November 18.
The digital revolution has redefined the relationship that exists between customers and brands. No longer a one-way flow of communication, brands must now engage and encourage interaction and honest dialogue, with digital, interactive experiences replacing many traditional in-person moments.
For higher ed marketers, this is particularly important because of the influx of Gen Z students who began enrolling in college in the 2015 academic year. In many ways, Gen Z, as digital natives, are leading the way to upend the traditional interactions and relationships that take place between brand and customer. Gen Z expects uber-like responses, seamless experiences, and error-free processes.
And while higher ed marketers have been quick to embrace emerging technology and meet students where they are, these changing dynamics and expectations have created a need and opportunity for higher ed brands to differentiate themselves by putting customer experience at the forefront.
Mobile first strategies and social media profiles are the norm at this point, but seamless, consistent online and digital experiences across an institution are increasingly becoming an expectation. From prospects to alumni, there are key moments – for example, online inquiries, applications, class registration, transcript requests – that are opportunities for dialogue and individual representations of your brand. Each provides an opportunity to reinforce brand value by delivering great customer and user experience.
It may be daunting to think about the infinite number of moments for engaging customers across their journeys and in various channels, but higher ed can begin to prioritize by identifying key audiences and understanding their preferred communication methods. Here’s a few from Gen Z that are well documented:
- On Demand: Chegg’s 2016 Social Admissions Report found that 53% of students expect a response within a day of contacting a college representative. I suspect a similar response time is also expected for inquiries such as campus visit requests and questions or complaints via social media. How can tools such as CRM and social listening software be used to rethink processes to ensure a timely, seamless experience and prompt response mechanisms?
- Personalized Content: Chegg found 93% of students agreed with the statement, “I would like to receive communication from college admissions tailored specifically to me.” Similarly, a report from eMarketer found that college students are “most likely to click on a social ad if it’s for something they care about or need—meaning, if it’s well targeted to their interests and relevant to their lives.” This applies not only to digital and print communication, but also to in-person experiences. Imagine how personalized and digital integrations can enhance the visitor center, the application process, or student services.
- Mobile First: 12% of respondents to Chegg’s study indicated they submitted a college application via their mobile device. Although it is widely understood that Gen Z’s digital experience is primarily mobile, 12% seems low, especially when you consider the number of students who may not have access to a regular computer or laptop. Mobile friendly websites are certainly an asset, but ensuring other important interactions such as virtual tours, application submission or the ability to chat with a college representative are optimized for mobile are important considerations.