5 More Marketing Questions

Elizabeth Scarborough suggests five topics for presidents to raise with candidates for chief marketing officer positions.

October 15, 2010

The “chief marketing officer” is a relatively new addition to the president’s cabinet on most campuses. How do you find one who can effectively pull together the myriad marketing activities occurring in every nook and cranny of your institution? What type of experience is needed to do the job well? In July, I wrote about the questions a CMO candidate should ask a president. Here’s the reverse — the questions a president should ask of a professional being considered for a CMO position. These questions are intended to help presidents and other c-level executives in higher education zero in on candidates who are likely to be successful leading your marketing effort.

What are your particular areas of expertise within the field of marketing?

What you don’t want to hear is too much emphasis on one particular aspect of marketing. Otherwise, you might have a one-trick pony on your hands. Marketing is a complex function and requires a chief officer with a wide range of skills and experiences. Think, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” The CMO needs to know enough about all aspects of marketing as opposed to a lot about one. As Marie Power-Barnes, associate vice president of marketing at Thomas Edison State College, says, “A great CMO doesn’t rise up through one channel. You don’t want a whiz at advertising or the Web or social media or media relations. What you want is someone with at least 20 successful years in the marketing business, preferably with varied industries, and a diversity of experiences under his/her belt.”

How do you define the role of marketing on a college/university campus?

If your candidate focuses on tactical applications of marketing such as “developing publications” or “managing the website,” you might want to keep looking. The role of marketing is strategic in nature. It identifies the demands of the marketplace, trends and challenges that are looming, and how well the institution is positioned to compete for students, resources and reputation. Marketing helps the institution prioritize its audiences and develop tactics that are appropriate for reaching them. It helps sharpen and focus communications so that the enrollment division can recruit and retain students; the development division can find donors; corporate relations can enhance partnerships with businesses; and deans can successfully grow existing programs and launch new ones. Sharon Higgins, assistant vice president of marketing and communications at Loyola University Maryland, answers this question by saying, “Marketing plays a central role in driving our university’s growth, providing the messages, materials, and tools to help all members of the university community understand, embrace, and champion the brand. As the principal brand ambassador, it is my responsibility to provide strategic vision, innovation, and action to ensure the brand’s success.”

What’s the ideal organizational structure for our marketing and communications division?

In some ways, the marketing department functions similarly to the IT department. It is a “service provider” that supports others around campus as they work toward meeting their unit-level goals, in addition to the institutional goals. The marketing department should be equipped with the tools and talents needed to meet the needs of their “clients.” This typically includes writers, designers, content developers, traffic managers, and media relations personnel. On many campuses, the team also includes photographers, social media specialists, events managers, and “web guys.” Often lacking are strategists who serve as strategic liaisons to the various units around campus. These strategists should be responsible for market research, strategy development, and proactive management of the development of marketing tools. More and more, these staff members report up through a vice president of marketing who sits on cabinet and reports to the president. According to Teri Thompson, Purdue University’s chief marketing officer, “If you don’t have a strategic marketing function, you’re reducing the science of marketing to output ... to stuff. The essence of marketing is customer insight, and effective marketing structures will organize themselves to gather, disseminate, and apply that insight.”

How will you manage the relationship between your department and the deans, admissions, development, my office, and other units around campus?

Building on the idea of “service provider,” good higher ed marketers know they have to proactively manage their relationships around campus. All “clients” of the marketing department should feel confident their liaison understands their goals and unique challenges. The department should schedule periodic strategy sessions to discuss future needs, as opposed to sitting back and waiting for requests to come from the unit at the last minute. Even in terms of gathering good news, the marketing department should reach out to the other units around campus to find out what is going on and what can be promoted rather than expecting those units to share information with them. In general, the marketing department should recognize that other units around campus aren’t sitting around thinking about marketing all day; they have their own jobs to do. According to Eric Maguire, vice president for enrollment and communication at Ithaca College, “we work to continually improve partnerships across campus that are built upon listening to the goals of the individual units, offering communication solutions, and collaborating to craft communication plans that synchronize with the broader institutional brand strategy.”

How will you get our entire campus to adhere to a common visual identity and brand strategy?

What you want to hear is that your CMO will use a collaborative approach as opposed to simply putting identity and brand standards in place and enforcing them with an iron fist. The latter clearly shows that your candidate has no clue how a college campus works. While marketing in the corporate world may operate like a dictatorship, such an approach would cause a revolution on a college campus. A savvy higher education marketer knows that engagement is the key, that research and data can do the talking for them, and that without faculty support, your plans for marketing the institution will most certainly fail. As Terry Flannery, executive director of marketing and communications at American University, recently noted, “I gained 10 pounds hosting faculty and staff luncheons and teas to share the rationale for our brand strategy and to generate buy-in before the external launch of our new WONK campaign ... and it was worth every pound.”


Elizabeth Scarborough is CEO of SimpsonScarborough.


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