The X’s and O’s of Marketing Strategy

Football season is around the corner, and while I could talk for hours about the ethical dilemmas surrounding football itself or oversized budgets of big time college athletics, I’ll instead share what higher ed marketers might learn from the gridiron.

Football is—at its core—the least expressive of any team sport. It’s quite simply about 11 players doing their individual jobs, following a detailed plan, and staying committed in the face of challenges or bumps in the road. The blocker must make his block. The receiver runs the route precisely as it’s designed. A runner hits the hole specified in the play. And the quarterback needs to read the defense (which is performing the same disciplined, individualized tasks) and make the play.

If you have talent and everyone does their job, you could wind up like, well, the University of Alabama (which has won three of the last five national titles).

While we like to think about higher education marketing as a creative and expressive endeavor (that is more fun, after all), the reality is that differentiation is a challenge in a sector where product offerings are so similar. Fundamentally, successful higher ed marketers realize the real keys to success are starting with a strong strategy and creating deep integration.

Or in football terms…the marketer (coach) needs to develop the strategy (game plan) that clearly has each tactic or marketing goal (player) focused on its job and successfully integrate (touchdown) despite barriers and challengers. The reasons integration and focus don’t occur more regularly aren’t necessarily new—budget, staffing, organizational, continuous change, new marketing tactics, overload of stakeholders to appease—but they aren’t impossible to overcome (or that unique to higher ed, as much as we’d like to think they are).

Being attentive to two key factors makes a big difference:

  1. Marketing your institution’s brand should not be done at the expense of marketing the products you deliver. Branding has taken such root in higher ed that there is more attention paid to the nascent experience or image than the product itself. We deliver advertising, branded content and storytelling, social posts, and more that delivers on a brand strategy or has some engagement value but operates at such a high, thematic level that our product marketing suffers or is under-supported. Don’t believe me? Take a look at your program or major/minor pages on your website. When it comes down to choices for prospective students or potential funders, they want to know what’s happening in a specific academic area, what the actual experience is like, if faculty are experts in their fields, and more. A peek at your web analytics will reveal your program pages are among the top-visited parts of your website. The flip of that is that program marketing needs to be integrated more fully to tie back to branding efforts. Why market a new major or academic program in a manner disconnected from institutional branding or broader strategies? And, done right, truly investing in building program and curricular awareness can ladder up to strengthening your brand overall. To return to the football analogy…the blocking and tackling done by your academic programs, and any marketing they are doing, is key to your team’s success.
  2. Marketing tactics should serve both brand and response marketing goals. In corporate settings, marketing usually includes (at minimum) brand, product, channel and partner marketing activity. Channels and tactics can be very distinct and different for each. As our marketing worlds have gotten more and more digitally-focused (and marketing budgets have followed), higher ed has had an interesting reaction. It appears that brand activity has remained primarily in traditional channels (cable television, industry trades and outdoor). And direct response—traditional student recruitment and enrollment in continuing, graduate, and professional programs—has moved to in-bound and digital channels. According to a recent study by Forrester, just 13% of marketers say they use programmatic digital ad buying for branding efforts. Conversely, 39% use it for direct response. But, as the report states, “programmatic buying is changing and becoming less about cheap impressions.” If higher ed marketers can operate in an integrated manner (which doesn’t have to necessarily equate to a mandated centralized organization), digital advertising and inbound strategies could serve both brand and program goals. And perhaps a more effective awareness strategy would be to invest even further in marketing your programs and degrees with direct, digital marketing that ladders up.

There just isn’t a tagline that can deliver the necessary detail required to drive choice. Successful integration is key.

Look to Samsung, the 2016 Cannes Lions International Marketer of the Year for inspiration. A company with as many products and services as Samsung (or GE or IBM or a college or university) can’t rest on a tagline. It’s integrated, strategic marketing across brand, product and channel that makes the difference.

Samsung has a strong, research-based brand strategy that centers on “helping people push the limits of life.” Then, whether creating an app to help children with autism maintain eye contact as a part of their “Launching People” campaign or driving sales through highlighting the detailed product (and personal) benefits of having a water-resistant phone (my favorite ad of the year) they stay true to the brand message.

So, back to the football analogy. There’s a reason offensive and defensive linemen dominate the first few rounds of the NFL draft every year. You win in the trenches with a lot of sweat and muscle.

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