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On Monday, mStoner and the Council on Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) released a white paper reporting on a survey we conducted together focusing on various aspects of digital advancement and fundraising. As part of that research, I also did research into how commercial businesses are incorporating digital tools and practices into their day-to-day operations and conducted a series of interviews with practitioners and consultants to learn what they considered to be leading edge practices in digital advancement for higher education.

While the focus of the survey was on what institutions are doing around a variety of online and digital tools and practices for engagement and communication; online giving; and other advancement activities,* one of my overall goals for the research was to explore how institutions could benchmark their digital advancement activities. Based on characteristics of digital business enumerated in an article in MIT Sloan Management Review, we identified a number of characteristics of a digital advancement operation:

  • attempts to reach people where they are
  • innovates in programming by using new approaches involving digital tools
  • attempts to understand and track the loyalty of stakeholders
  • relies on digital analytics in decision making
  • emphasizes digital communications internally and with stakeholders
  • operates from the perspective of a single institution rather than a siloed department
  • empowers staff to experiment, innovate, communicate
  • focuses on mobile experience for staff and stakeholders.

Businesses are adopting digital tools and approaches across the enterprise and some are digitally enabling their employees in various ways. Not surprisingly, this is happening in fits and starts in companies large and small around the world: It’s not so much that companies aren’t aware that it’s important, but that their adoption falls along a continuum and some teams lead while others lag in embracing new tools and a new way of operating.

Not surprisingly, that’s true of higher ed, too. In higher ed, much of the focus has been on digitally enabling learning and teaching. That’s appropriate, since this is our core business and technology offers the promise of reach and scale that in-person instruction doesn’t. (Though, of course, we don’t want to lose sight of the advantages of in-person interaction.)

The overall characteristics and behaviors we identified in our white paper can serve as benchmarks for marketing and communication offices, too, since we must continually ask ourselves how to best serve the needs of institutional stakeholders and engage them even more effectively.

For example: around ten years ago, recognizing the important that social media had in shaping conversation about an institution, many colleges and universities began to incorporate feeds from social networks like Twitter and Facebook into their websites so visitors to the institutional site could connect to larger conversations about the institution. Similarly, the widespread adoption of smartphones by alumni, parents, donors, and prospective students — among others — forced institutions to adopt a mobile-first approach to their websites.

The need for institutions to adapt to the changing behaviors and preferred communications channels of stakeholders is still going on, and in many colleges and universities, marketers are on the front lines of this conversation, helping colleagues across campus to understand the impact of these changes.

In 2019, becoming smarter and more effective at marketing and communications for higher ed involves deeper understanding of how stakeholders use our key communications channels, many of them digital — websites, social media, emails. We need to be more keenly aware of how these channels work for us — and when it’s much more effective to send a postcard or make a call.

But perhaps one of the most important contributions that marketing and communications professionals can make to the conversations on their campuses is reminding their colleagues that everyone works for one institution — not just the athletic department, the English department, or the College of Business.

It’s not to downplay the importance of individual units or departments, because stakeholders often forge deep affiliations with them. But to hold a broader perspective: in this age, when much of the entire institution is accessible online, many people are eager to engage with many of the individual parts of a college and with the institution as a whole. We need to remember this fact, as we prepare for a time when we can personalize communications to our stakeholders and recognize someone as a passionate basketball fan, a supporter of the art museum, a follower of the Twitter feeds of politics and economics faculty members, and a member of the Class of 2004.

*In my last post on Call to Action, I used some findings from this survey and suggested some ways in which marketers could be even more effective partners for their advancement colleagues.

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

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