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Digital Transformation in University Communications and Marketing

Now is the time for university communicators to fully leap ahead into digital-first practices, because too much is at risk.

February 2, 2021

Events of 2020 leapfrogged consumer behaviors ahead 10 years. Digital laggards -- people who were slow to embrace digital communication and engagement -- became relatively experienced practitioners. They learned quickly to go digital when the virtual world became the only way to stay connected and informed during the COVID-19 pandemic -- and to do business, shop, donate, attend worship services and experience museums and films.

Now it’s time for university communicators to fully leap ahead into digital-first practices, because too much is at risk. Institutional leaders and communicators in central and advancement offices must re-engage stakeholders (across the spectrum from enrollment to philanthropy) to redefine the value proposition for their colleges and universities -- how they have adapted, how they will be different and how they will sustain quality education in agile, hybrid and even virtual environments. While communications and marketing offices accelerated digital communications last year, for organizations of all shapes and sizes, there is no turning back. The behavior of their customers has changed.

Connecting with Constituents -- One at a Time

Integrated digital communications is already common in business, most apparently in online shopping. As retail dramatically evolves, as workplaces change, as every industry recasts for short- and long-term operations, the digital experience will be at the core. You can’t have virtual without digital. Consumers expect personalization, and organizations need segmentation. Both are made possible by heavy reliance on data analysis of customer behaviors and preferences and customer relationship management (CRM) software. The results combine digital tools with digital communications content and messages customized to users’ interests and desired means of connecting.

However, in higher education, marketing and communications programs in many cases have been practiced by different units in different ways. Despite professed appreciation for centralized communications messages and tools, power units within many institutions, incentivized and rewarded by growth, also exert control over their own markets. Today’s colleges and universities, struggling with millions in lost revenue in 2020, would be well served to implement efficient, platform-based operations relying on data analytics and sophisticated CRM systems. Some have already started.

Here are three leading examples of reimagined digital-first approaches:

  • Rather than continue the traditional communications office, a public university foundation blended “advancement services” and development communications into a digital team of prospect and donor analytics specialists and communications staff. This allows them to engage with the right donors and alumni at the right time -- strategically focused and with data-driven tools and practices.
  • A private doctoral university converted its separate communications and marketing offices into a single unit designed to coordinate outreach to prospective students, alumni and donors. Using digital technology, it created a system to capture and manage messaging that previously had been widely decentralized among schools and departments across campus.
  • A central university communications and marketing office in a public institution created an integrated approach with alumni and development, so that the sweep of the institution’s customers -- internal and external -- can be reached through a variety of digital-first tools and practices. This both streamlines communications activities and maintains "one view of the customer."

University advancement offices intent on fundraising have been faster to incorporate new thinking and programs from outside higher education. Several formerly private sector firms are bringing leading-edge business practices to alumni and prospect engagement, including one cloud-based platform that connects institutional data with insights about constituents from other resources across the internet. Other newer entrants include firms specializing in community and employee engagement as the basis of innovation and better business.

Central communications and marketing offices in higher ed will need to be in sync with enrollment management, alumni relations and development to strengthen relationship building for the entire sweep of constituents. How each institution achieves this will require thoughtful planning, strategic thinking, data alignment, redesign, retraining, priority setting and phased investment. The glue will be activating custom, unified but agile, enterprisewide approaches to digital communications and marketing.

Viewing an Institution as a Platform

For higher ed, organizing on a platform model, which is dynamic, integrated and driven by the customer experience, makes sense, as opposed to a vertically integrated organization. Universities can map the customer journey across multiple interactions, potentially throughout the customer’s lifetime. This impacts the entire organization with respect to key functions (such as sales, marketing, communications, information technology and analytics), as well as how they align and how they are governed.

While digital engagement with customers is often the reason that organizations consider the platform model, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, nor is it as simple as creating a single unit focused on digital. Digital becomes everyone’s job, and it requires new thinking across every part of the organization. It also requires heavy use of data analytics to understand and personalize communications to stakeholders to coordinate and strengthen, not dilute, impact. A comprehensive data-informed digital strategy is necessary to support the core strategic drivers of the business -- and position the organization to respond to business opportunities and build the teams to respond with digital (and other) tools.

Agile companies have fluid structures in which day-to-day work is organized in teams that cut across business lines and market segments. As talent and tools are reallocated according to the business need, the old view of separate units and dotted lines disappears. Digital technologies facilitate a more customized tactical approach to customers as part of a larger strategy. From both IT and marketing/communications perspectives, it is vital to understand the “whole customer” (the strategy), the relevant data and the tools (the tactics) that are most effective in engaging them.

The Higher Education Solution: The Communications and Marketing E-Platform

In addressing the pandemic, it is important to take advantage of silver linings. Leveraging leading-edge digital practices will produce tangible results in the institution’s relationships with stakeholders, and lead to successful outcomes in key revenue-producing programs.

What are the critical elements of the contemporary higher ed communications and marketing function shaped by an e-platform?

  1. A core central team focused on all aspects of the customer experience -- strategy, budgeting and planning, analytics, and digital and off-line tools.
  2. A refocused brand and marketing mix for relevance to constituents and their changing preferences.
  3. Redesigned functions, roles and organizational charts for central and decentralized staff, to structure collaboration among departments (communications, marketing, advancement, enrollment, etc.) and avoid duplication.
  4. Retraining and “upskilling” -- ensuring that all communications and marketing staff can operate effectively in a digital environment, guided by different capabilities for each job.
  5. Delivery of services in an integrated, streamlined model that provides consistent quality (responsibilities, workflows and processes) supported by clear governance.
  6. Operational alignment around metrics for defining success.

The New Communications and Marketing Hub

Whatever the mistakes of the past, or the resistance that confounded progress, the platform approach lays the runway for a reimagined, strategy-driven communications and marketing hub. Stakeholders have already made the conversion to virtual engagement. At a minimum, they expect digital support of in-person engagement and a commitment to growing data-driven digital resources to reinforce ongoing relationships.

It’s in the hands of institutional communications strategists today to lead their organizations to complete this realistic, forward-looking relationship journey.


Janis Johnson, senior partner, and Bill Walker, consultant, for The Napa Group, a national firm headquartered in Columbia, S.C., and specializing in strategy, leadership and organizational design for colleges, universities and independent schools.

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