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A Higher Ed CMO’s Dilemma: In-sourcing vs. Outsourcing

While today’s marketing communications landscape is challenging for higher ed, there are new opportunities to build an inside/outside team to meet the challenges.

August 29, 2019
 
 

The fracturing of the media landscape and the proliferation of new channels in the last five years created new pressures on companies. New marketing channels require specialized expertise that is largely absent from the skill set in traditional advertising agencies, many of which even lack deep expertise in web design and production.

So what’s a company to do? One answer: in-sourcing.

Marketing industry analysts confirm that in-sourcing is becoming increasingly common. Industrywide, this year “marketers continue their in-housing shift, with 78 percent of marketers reporting some form of an in-house team today, up from 58 percent five years ago.” The roles that most companies are bringing in-house include "content, creative strategy, analytics, media strategy, programmatic and social media."

What About Higher Ed?

No one tracks data for job openings in higher ed marketing and communications, so it’s hard to say definitively whether there’s been a widespread shift to in-sourcing in our industry. Anecdotally, however, there is support for belief that it’s a trend for us, too. This doesn’t mean that outsourcing is going away. Just that today, internal teams need different kinds of external partners and need different things from the external partners they engage.

For example, many institutions seem to be developing more robust in-house creative capabilities and charging these teams with the responsibility for brand strategy and creative execution. The in-house creative team may direct the activities of internal colleagues day to day and augment their capabilities by working with external specialists, especially for large projects. For example, a website redesign may well involve an external agency that specializes in web design. And a brand refresh may involve a branding agency who will create positioning and brand creative and provide examples of how they will translate into different channels when implemented internally.

Similarly, while internal marketing teams may conduct a limited amount of research in the form of focus groups or small-scale surveys, they’re likely to work with an external market research firm for larger studies and analysis.

Some Implications

That doesn’t sound too different from the old days -- 10 years ago! But there’s a change in roles, with stronger and more skilled on-campus staff taking the lead. In fact, there are a number of implications to this shift. Here are five that are particularly significant.

  1. Specialization: When building an in-house team, a CMO needs to think carefully about what capabilities the institution needs in-house and what it can outsource. For example, with training and some help from specialty firms and freelancers, institutions can often cover their SEO needs. In contrast, while automated systems of various kinds can generate all kinds of data, someone has to turn it into analysis that can make a difference for the institution, a service usually best provided in-house. In some cases, it may just be too costly to hire someone for a role inside: some universities have moved toward using cloud-based systems for advancement and customer relationship management because they can’t compete with local private industry for the technical staff needed to develop and support their own, home-grown solutions, which were the gold standard in higher ed in the past.
  2. Gaining trust: One of the most common frustrations we hear among higher ed marketing and communications staff is that leadership doesn’t always value staff expertise. In shifting to an in-house model, CMOs must be aware of this challenge and develop a plan to gain and maintain trust with senior leaders. Here, an external partner can provide validation by supporting the viewpoints and recommendations of in-house staff. Over time, senior leaders must learn to trust their staff as much as they do an external partner.
  3. Training: In-house teams need training to do their work more effectively. For example, as they realize how important it is to create high-quality, engaging content across the web and digital media, storytelling has assumed much greater importance. So CMOs should anticipate larger budgets for training and staff development. The good news is that there are many great training resources available online. And rather than sending a dozen people to various conferences, many institutions are now bringing experts to campus to provide in-person training. And saving money in the process.
  4. Collaboration: Collaboration becomes even more essential when in-house teams turn to external partners to help with projects that require a heavy lift. It’s always been the case that the best results are achieved when internal staff and members of the external team view each other as partners, not as a client and vendor. That’s even more the case today when creative strategy may be led by an on-campus team member who doesn’t have expertise in user experience or content strategy for the web. For a successful web redesign, it’s crucial that they work well with an external team, welcoming the special expertise they bring to the project. At the same time, that team must respect the knowledge that the internal staff has of their institution and its brand.
  5. Long-term relationships. The new model for higher ed marketing teams may look something like the “inexternal agency” posited by Gordon Macmillian in a recent Marketing Insider blog post. He notes that the inexternal agency becomes a “seamless extension of their clients’ growing internal teams.” The best way for trusted outside partners to add greater value to the work of an in-house team is to be engaged in a long-term relationship where both organizations can set goals and work together to meet them. This was one of the major benefits of the traditional AOR (agency of record, in which a large ad agency handled brand development and produced ads) relationship; the new model, though, is much more economical for institutions but it also benefits partners.

It doesn’t take long to realize that while there are plenty of challenges in the ever-changing media landscape, there are also many ways in which institutions can extend their capabilities, both internally and externally.

Michael Stoner is codirector and co-founder of mStoner Inc., a digital-first marketing agency.

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