Filling the Gap: Keeping the Marketing Office on Track During a Leadership Transition

Movement at the director and VP levels of college and university marketing and communications offices is a fact of life, whether precipitated by an institutional leadership change or the opportunity for professional growth. How an institution chooses to approach the transition period is a true test of its leadership. It can leave the marcom leader’s position open during the time spent searching for a replacement, or it can appoint an interim director—either from within or outside of the institution—to provide direction and stability.

Leaving the position vacant is the easy choice that institutions think will minimize disruption, but it can more often result in a marcom operation in limbo, struggling to stay on task and on message. The decision to hire an interim is sometimes met with resistance and wariness at first, but in my experience the opportunity it presents outweighs the risks of a temporary change.

This was the case at Ball State University, where I recently completed a three-month consulting engagement with the university’s interim president, cabinet and marcom team while the institution conducted its marcom VP search. As I take stock of those productive three months, I’ve identified seven ways an interim marcom leader can make a real difference at an institution in a short amount of time.

  1. Provide the president with hands-on management support and counsel.

Few presidents have the bandwidth or background to personally manage the marcom unit, but they highly value assurance that the varied functions of marcom are being executed in a timely way. Furthermore, presidents rely on counsel on issues related to communication and preparation for media interviews.

  1. Move initiatives forward that shouldn’t be put on hold.

At the outset of the engagement, the interim can help identify for the president which initiatives must continue to move forward and which can wait. Initiatives such as website re-designs, market research surveys, ad campaigns, and production of signature creative projects are initiatives that are too important to be paused. At Ball State, we took on and completed eight such initiatives.

  1. Ensure that key campus clients are receiving full marcom support and are happy.

The arrival of an interim marcom officer is an opportunity to check in with key clients such as admissions and development offices. Are they happy with the quality and timeliness of marcom products and services? Do they rely on marcom as a strategic partner in developing marketing plans? How can communications with these important units be improved? Because the interim—especially one from outside the institution—has no long-term skin in the game, he or she will be received more openly as an objective party focused only on moving the institution forward.

  1. Provide the marcom team with representation “at the table.”

To do their jobs well, the marcom team relies on timely updates from campus leadership on the status of campus initiatives, especially those that may present public relations opportunities or challenges. They need a representative at cabinet or other senior-level meetings to stay in the know. In addition, knowing their voice is heard on key issues and their major project “wins” are shared at the highest level strengthens the morale of the marcom team.

  1. Steward relationships with cabinet officers and deans.

Cabinet members appreciate regular personal briefings on how the work of marcom is benefiting their units. They also value the opportunity to provide collegial feedback, both positive and negative, on university-wide marcom products such as ad campaigns.

  1. Mentor and encourage staff critical to the future of the institution.

The risk of losing top-performing staff during a leadership transition can be reduced with the presence of an experienced mentor offering professional guidance and support. It’s also a time to provide these emerging leaders with supported professional development opportunities such as piloting a key initiative, serving on a university-wide committee, or making presentations to the cabinet or deans’ council.

  1. Enable the incoming vice president to “hit the ground running.”

An in-depth, up to date assessment of the marcom situation from the interim can help a new leader save time in setting priorities. At Ball State, the incoming vice president requested a two-week overlap that included numerous one-on-one discussions and several joint meetings with the marcom management team. The staff appreciated the advocacy and not having to start from scratch with the new VP.

With vice presidential searches often taking six months or more, universities need strong interim leadership to sustain the constant, vital work of raising their visibility and strengthening their reputations. A qualified full-time interim director, whether from inside or outside of the institution, provides this essential leadership function and offers the institution the ability to do some reflection and assessment that will optimize its prospects for success moving forward.


David Macmillan is a higher education veteran. He served at the University of San Francisco, first as Vice President for Advancement for two decades and then as Vice President for Marketing Communications.  At USF, he directed two highly successful comprehensive fund-raising campaigns and co-founded its Office of Marketing Communications. He is now an independent consultant working with colleges and universities nationwide.

Congratulations to the 2017 SimpsonScarborough Scholars

SimpsonScarborough is pleased to announce the selection of the CASE SimpsonScarborough Scholars for 2017. Launched in honor of our late founding partner Christopher Simpson, the program supports the professional development of four promising higher ed marcom practitioners every year. Each scholar receives CASE Premier-level member benefits, access to customized research through CASE’s InfoCenter, attendance at the Summer Institute for Communications and Marketing, and more. This year’s CASE SimpsonScarborough Scholars are:


Daniel Baney
Communications Specialist, Northwest College, Wyoming

Nominated by: Mark Kitchen, Vice President for College Relations; and Writer, Editor, & Web Content Analyst Nickie Proffitt, who say that while Daniel is new to the field of advancement, his skills, worth ethic, and willingness to go beyond expectations demonstrate his potential to excel in the field. “Dan is one I want to nurture for the long-term at Northwest College,” wrote Kitchen, “so that his contributions advance the institution well after I retire.”

Roles and responsibilities: Writes and edits college-wide news, print, and electronic communications. Coordinates photographic services. Produces original content and maintains various website and social media components. Serves as member of crisis communications team and College Relations Office creative team.


Kasey Corrado
Social Media Director, Lawrence University, Wisconsin

Nominated by: Calvin Husmann, Vice President for Alumni and Development, and Craig Gagnon, Associate Vice President of Communications, for her initiative and success in developing and implementing a strategic social media program for Lawrence University, resulting in her promotion to Social Media Director in 2016. “Kasey is already a valuable part of the Lawrence staff,” said Gagnon, “and has the potential to become an industry leader as well as a campus leader.”

Roles and responsibilities: Builds and executes social media strategy. Generates, edits, publishes, and shares daily social media. Sets up and optimizes Lawrence University social media pages to increase visibility of the university’s social content. Collaborates with other departments to manage reputation, identify key players, and coordinate actions.


Myrna Flynn
Communications Manager, School for Social Work, Smith College, Massachusetts

Nominated by: Marianne Yoshioka, Dean of Smith’s School for Social Work, and Megan Morey, Chief Advancement Officer at Amherst College, who both cited Myrna’s creativity, hard work, efficiency, and professionalism. Yoshioka also described her as a “positive and powerful force” for her role in handling crisis communications in response to a student protest shortly after she began in her role at Smith.

Roles and responsibilities: Develops and implements strategic and integrated communications plans to increase visibility and strengthen the SSW brand. Leads publications and media team, overseeing content and information architecture of SSW website and managing production of 42-page biannual magazine. Directs media relations efforts and acts as SSW spokesperson.


Paul Kingsmith
Communications Specialist, Lethbridge College, Alberta

Nominated by: Lethbridge’s Communications Manager, Gwen Wirth, and Senior Writer and Editor Lisa Kozleski, who credit Paul’s previous experience as a reporter and news anchor, his strategic thinking skills, and his willingness to learn with making him an indispensable part of the advancement team. Calling him a “passionate advocate for the students, alumni, staff, and programs of the college,” Kozleski said Paul shows great potential for leadership.

Roles and responsibilities: Writes news releases, internal communications, speeches, and stories for multiple platforms. Develops key messaging around major news items, announcements and events. Compiles college-wide twice-weekly internal newsletter. Contributes content for Lethbridge College and Kodiaks Athletics accounts.

Designing the Organization for Digital: Five Skillsets Every Higher Ed Marcom Team Needs In-House

In the fast-moving world of digital, finding the necessary talent and tools required to support the needs of today’s customer is a challenge many organizations face. Unfortunately, there is a growing trend of companies approaching it in a siloed manner, often treating it as “doing digital” and hiring digital-only roles such as the Chief Digital Officer to lead all digital efforts across the organization. I truly believe this is not a long-term strategy and hinders the capability of the company and its brand. We all know that digital is here to stay and is impacting all aspects of an organization, but what does that mean for higher ed?

Many higher ed marcom departments now are responsible for managing the institutional brand and are spending time considering how all digital and physical experiences – from the student journey to campus facilities to the onboarding of new employees – should reflect the university brand experience. As marketers, they are implementing digital within their unit by running the institutional website, shifting investments from traditional media to digital, managing the institution’s voice in various content formats and mediums, and implementing meaningful KPIs and benchmarking metrics to inform strategy and track progress. However, they often still suffer from a siloed approach to staffing, with one or two people (or if you are lucky, a team such as “web services”) responsible for “digital.”

Digital has grown to encompass so much more than a website. Today’s complex, fragmented customer journey requires rethinking each and every interaction with the university. So how does the higher ed marketing and communications division begin to integrate digital into every team and role? There are five key players (people or skillsets) needed to become a digital-first organization.

  1. Digital Marketing Manager – If you were only able to hire one person, it should be a digital marketing manager or a brand manager. A generalist, the digital marketing manager is responsible for developing and managing integrated marketing efforts. Ideally, they work hand-in-hand with the marcom lead and serve as a key connector between campus constituents and also help lead cross-disciplinary teams (think design, writing, and user experience) from within the marcom organization.
  2. Multimedia Producer – The multimedia producer leads creative concept development for university-wide visual content across all properties including web, mobile and social media. They are a key member of the creative team and ideate and develop brand content (photo, video, experiential).
  3. User Experience Designer – In the digital era, brand has become synonymous with experience. That is because digital experience—whether on mobile, desktop or new technology mediums such as virtual reality (VR)—is often the first and most typical way that people interact with a brand. As such, having a user experience (UX) designer is no longer optional. The UX designer needs to lead efforts to determine best solutions based on customer feedback and brand and institutional goals.
  4. Social Media Manager – Many of our clients may have a similar role or have social media support from student interns. However, strategic marcom efforts require a social media manager who is responsible for not only overseeing the university’s day-to-day social media presence, but also developing and leading the longer-term strategy to shape how the university’s story is told across social channels. Think customer service and social listening efforts.
  5. Director of Content – Technology continues to transform the way we consume media, and consumer media is more fragmented than ever. The director of content is responsible for developing an integrated cross-channel content strategy that includes a full range of print and digital tools I see this role as an evolution of what in the past was called the editorial director; today’s content director leads the university’s overarching media efforts.

Digital needs to be integrated into every team and role. Each of these individuals need to work hand-in-hand to develop content and manage the brand in a digital world. In the end, it is really about building a culture that thinks and behaves differently – moving quickly, adapting, integrating, working together – to put digital first.

The Importance of Incentives

Following up on our November 2016 blog posts, we are back to talk about incentives. Here at SimpsonScarborough, we spend a lot of our time writing and fielding surveys with various audiences, and regardless of the audience we almost always recommend incentivizing survey respondents. So why do we do this?

One of the most obvious reasons for incentivizing external audiences who have no direct affiliation to the school (prospects, higher ed peers, guidance counselors, etc.) is to boost response rates. If we offer an incentive for a respondent’s time, we get a higher response rate. But what about when you are talking to your own students, faculty, staff, and alumni? We have clients who ask us, “Why should we spend money on an incentive for our internal audiences?”

It is a reasonable question and a topic that many researchers have strong feelings about—both for and against. There are three top reasons we push for the use of incentives, even when we expect that we could get a decent response rate without one.

  • You want responses from more than just your biggest fans. The first people who respond to your survey will generally fall into two categories: your cheerleaders who love you and the people who have a bone to pick. But we don’t want to hear only the loud voices. We want to hear from a broader range of respondents. We want to hear from the people who might not have taken the survey had an incentive not been offered. That helps to even things out so your data isn’t skewed towards the people who absolutely love you or those who are mad at you for some reason. If a respondent takes your survey because an incentive is offered, that doesn’t mean the resulting data is bad. It’s actually quite the opposite – and there is data to back that up.
  • Incentives ensure quality responses. The norm of reciprocity tells us that people generally feel an obligation to do a good job when they are receiving an incentive. Overall, incentivized respondents place more value on the task at hand. They put more thought into answers and provide more detailed open-ended responses. Additionally, when an incentive is offered, respondents tend to feel more valued and have a more positive survey-taking experience, mitigating the effects of survey length and respondent burden.
  • People like to feel appreciated. Even when talking to your internal audiences, it is always important to deliver the message that you value respondents’ time and input. It makes them feel better about spending their valuable time on your survey. We believe if respondents feel good about that exchange, they will likely have more positive feelings about their relationship and interactions with your institution. With alumni and current students, in particular, you need to think about their connection to your institution. You need to have as many positive touch points as possible to ensure that you maintain a positive life-long connection.

The act of offering an incentive, even a small one, can only make your survey data stronger. Have questions about what kind of incentive to use or what incentive amounts are most effective? Let us know! We are always here to share our experience and expertise.

Take the Guesswork Out of Your Program Development Strategy

To be successful, an institution must continually develop, refine, and evolve its portfolio of academic programs to reflect the changing needs of learners and society. Historically, campuses have created new programs based on anecdote or a few (influential) professors’ interests. However, given the high costs of program maintenance and development, this “build it and they will come” approach to curriculum design is neither strategic nor sustainable. Instead, a growing number of institutions are conducting program demand research to determine the market potential and growth opportunities of current and potential programs. A variety of primary and secondary research techniques can be combined to provide a compelling argument for whether to invest in a new program offering.

  • Degree Trends – Data gathered through the Integrated Postsecondary Education System (IPEDS) includes enrollment, program completions, graduation rates, finances, institutional prices, and financial aid. This information provides a size and growth analysis that informs market potential, determines program outlook based on recent and established growth, and gives insight into potential market penetration of target programs.
  • Occupational Trends – Analysis of third-party data—including employment projections, fastest-growing and most common occupations, state occupational projections, educational attainment statistics, and employment growth—provides an understanding of employer needs and demands.
  • Google Analytics – Google data shows what students are searching for online, measures the amount of traffic for various program search terms, and gives additional insight into SEO and digital advertising.
  • Survey Research – Qualitative and quantitative methods gather feedback from prospective students, employers, and other target audiences regarding their needs, interests, motivations, perceptions, and other key areas of exploration.

An institution’s academic offerings should continually change and adapt to reflect advances in knowledge and emerging student and employer needs. Program demand research provides a college or university with the market intelligence necessary to make actionable and strategic decisions regarding its program development strategy.