The Marketing Organization of the Future

I’m fascinated by the continued evolution of the marketing department within higher ed. While the current reach of marketing is significant at many universities and great strides have been made, there are often still big limitations and challenges that inhibit the CMO and her department from playing a truly strategic role on campus. That said, I’ve noticed some key shifts that are taking place across the best-in-class marketing departments. Here are four trends of 2018 coupled with four predictions that provide a glimpse at what the marketing organization of the future may look like.

Trend #1: Centralization of the marketing communications function. This is a growing trend for small to mid-size universities. It’s most successful for those who have already established a central unit that is positioned as a strategic partner on campus. Today, the most common reporting structure I see on campuses is a federated model – a central hub with distributed communicators across campus. Within that model, there is quite a range of reporting types between the hub and distributed communicators, from direct to dotted to none. In terms of reporting, there is not a one-fits-all model, and the right approach usually comes down to some form of politics and personality. Anecdotally, I have heard that the college-based communicators tend to have higher turnover. I don’t have any hard data on this, but can speculate that it’s because they are often teams of one, have undefined jobs roles or conflicting priorities, and have no peer professionals to collaborate with.

Prediction: It’s not a big leap to say that this trend will continue to accelerate, and that marketing communications will be completely centralized at most campuses.

Trend #2: Development of annual plans. Annual plans have been around for a while, and some more sophisticated campuses are shifting to more agile-based quarterly plans. However, a positive trend with the annual planning approach is the formalization that is taking place. These plans are typically developed by a central marcom unit to support university-wide goals and objectives. The plans now often serve as a framework for other units on campus, and some distributed units even submit a version of their specific plans to marcom for approval. One university I spoke to this year also now identifies central funds that are designed for “brand alignment” projects across campus. The funding is used then to sponsor brand projects going on around campus. How cool, right? Those who say they have used central plans successfully mention that it has been an evolving project that takes time. And patience. Start by developing a plan and circulating to begin to foster collaboration. And then in the next few years you can shift to co-planning with others.

Prediction: I often see that marketing and brand strategy efforts are developed through a completely separate process than university strategic plans. I don’t think strategic plans and annual marketing plans will ever be one and the same, but my hope is that they’ll be developed in tandem and in support of each other. These collaborative plans point in that direction.

Trend #3: Formal collaboration across campus. Standing monthly or quarterly forums with all communicators, as well as a meeting with campus leadership, are becoming the norm. So are separate weekly crisis/issues mange meetings. At risk of blowing up your calendars with way too many meeting invites, what’s most meaningful is the formal collaboration these meetings encourage. I think it’s not only aiding in alignment, but also one factor leading to the centralization we’re seeing. The goal of these meetings is primarily to share updates and best practices. Some marcom units have a regular cadence of featured experts and speakers, which is a huge plus for distributed communicators. What’s refreshing is that participation in these meetings is typically encouraged rather than mandatory. Have a goal to put together a fun yet substantive agenda, and I bet others around campus won’t want to miss or risk being out of the loop.

Prediction: If this collaboration keeps up, the next natural step is to eventually think beyond meetings to formally combining efforts, budgets, and teams. And I say this in a safe space with a bunch of higher ed marketers…could it be that enrollment and development will eventually report to the CMO?

Trend #4: Analytics capabilities are growing. I heard from marketers that this is where the most development is still needed. Analytics responsibilities still tend to be distributed across various individuals and units, if they are happening at all. Yet some colleges are developing weekly or monthly analytics reports that are shared across campus. What’s noteworthy is that in the past few months, I have seen multiple job postings for marketing data analytics manager, marketing intelligence director, and other similar roles. This trend is the one that I anticipate will continue to quickly progress in the next few years.

Prediction: I’m hopeful that brand and marketing metrics will someday be equals with enrollment and fundraising figures. As marketers, it’s a great opportunity to help our campuses become familiar with these metrics.

In the age of digital transformation, I believe that CMOs and marketing leaders are in a position to help pave the way for their institution and propel internal changes. However, the marcom team structure and alignment across campus must first be in place to successfully champion change. The exciting news is that many of these trends point in that direction. What trends are you seeing on your campus? What did I miss? Have you successfully used a pilot project to help align marketing, enrollment, and others to move the needle on institutional-level goals? I’d love to hear about it!

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