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“Our university has been around for 150-plus years, but that doesn’t mean we’re immune to these threats.”

This comment, reflecting a tenor of the times, came from a discussion with a vice president for marketing and communications. Recently, I’ve had more than 30 such conversations with senior marketing leaders across the country. The purpose was twofold: 1) to simply see how people were doing and 2) to ask some specific questions about how they’ve been responding to shifting priorities and constrained budgets during COVID-19.

Marketing budgets vary widely across higher ed, and marketing budget reductions have seen similar variance. The senior marketing leaders I spoke with cited budget cuts ranging in size from nothing to as much as 50 percent. Marketing departments whose work is directly tied to enrollment have been less likely to be affected, but those with some version of a fee-for-service model reliant on auxiliary revenue have been particularly hamstrung during this time. With hiring freezes in place, marketing departments are filling gaps with part-time positions, while some have been able to secure one-time funding to support key initiatives.

Two common characteristics emerged from institutions whose marketing departments are doing the most strategic work and best weathering the storm:

  1. They’ve had continuity in their marketing leadership.
  2. Their success has been marked by consistent, incremental gains rooted in their pre-COVID efforts to build trust on campus and deepen team expertise.

But isn’t incrementalism at odds with the common refrain we’ve been hearing to use this disruptive moment to re-envision and reinvent?

We, too, have called on colleges and universities to -- as my colleague Rick Bailey says -- “imagine voraciously.” I love this phrase. As a concept, it captures a sensibility and strikes a note of hope.

But figuring out when and how to imagine voraciously is another matter, particularly when the latest COVID update is pressing. It’s difficult to employ your imagination during times of distress, precisely when it’s needed most. Imagination requires regular practice -- and space and freedom -- to operate at full capacity; none have been readily available over the last six months. (That’s why Bailey is writing an e-workbook, aptly titled Imagine Voraciously, with a host of exercises meant to provide inspiration and encourage intentionality among college and university administrators and their teams.)

The weight of workloads has been a constant theme of my conversations. When the pandemic’s onset sent students home last spring, marketing teams took on a heightened role in areas such as student communications and virtual event planning, most notably commencement. Over the summer, their responsibilities have continued to grow and evolve. Already-lean marketing teams have developed extensive campaigns to influence public health behavior. The University of Notre Dame has provided the pre-eminent example. Its “Here” campaign stands out for putting the “what” -- mask wearing, physical distancing, hand hygiene and daily health checks -- in the context of the “why” as an expression of the university’s ethos and what it means to be part of that community.

Marketing teams have been more intensely engaged in yield communications, internal communications (with some realizing that no real plan or strategy had been in place for internal comms), and vital communications support to other areas such as housing.

In large part, the COVID crisis has not yet led to transformational change in higher ed marketing. Among the 30 colleges and universities represented across my meetings, only one had experienced a true organizational transformation. This institution accelerated a plan to completely revamp its university’s disparate marketing staff, expenditures and strategies into a fully centralized enterprise model.

Yet, despite the absence of overt transformation, CMOs are indeed leveraging this window of opportunity to seek new solutions and taking important measures that will enhance marketing effectiveness and efficiency. I’ve heard about new levels of messaging alignment, the consolidation of media buying on campus, more “upstream” work for teams and several examples of collaborative ventures.

Incrementalism is underrated. It’s not sexy, but it endures and can produce transformation in aggregate. Lead with optimism and find ways to imagine voraciously, but don’t be discouraged if your steps to a new reality come incrementally.

Rob Zinkan is vice president at RHB, a marketing consultancy serving colleges and universities worldwide, joining in 2019 after more than 20 years in higher education administration with senior positions in marketing and advancement.

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