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I spent the first 16 years of my career in corporate industry leading marketing and communications for information technology consulting and products. When I pivoted to higher education in 2009, I was somewhat surprised, even though my tech colleagues had warned me, that higher education typically was not an early adopter of automated software to make workflows easier and to generate data for useful analysis.

Large universities in particular had been collecting big data for a long time, but administrative offices had no idea how to harness them. Upon my arrival I asked questions that included lots of acronyms that were unfamiliar to my new colleagues but that rolled right off my tongue, such as, “What do you mean we don’t have a CRM?” I ended up leading my university’s first-ever search for an email marketing software solution to engage with its nearly one-quarter of a million living alumni and to manage an alumni email list that was not simply stored in a Microsoft Access database on a desktop computer in someone’s office.

Fast-forward a decade and the college communications offices of yesteryear have transformed from press release-writing news bureaus (remember when we printed press releases on paper and left them in a wire basket to be picked up?) to full-service internal marketing and communications agencies with teams of savvy cross-trained professionals, fully balanced with left-brained creators and right-brained analysts. We love digital media, not because we’re lured by the myth that it is free, but mostly because it is easier to measure. Chief marketing/communications officers are moving beyond output-based metrics of success and are benchmarking performance, determining what matters and applying it for data-informed decision making.

Across campus the academy is also sharpening its goal-setting and assessment skills. External accreditation requires the assessment of evidence-based student learning outcomes in line with institutional mission, along with an expectation of broad campus awareness and participation. Here are seven ways that marketing and communications professionals can help foster a culture of assessment in our own divisions and campuswide.

  1. Align marketing and communications strategy with the college’s strategic goals and priorities. Know your college’s student learning outcomes and be sure they are addressed in your content and messaging strategy.
  2. Benchmark and set measurable marketing and communications objectives, but also demonstrate their connection to campus partners. For example: How do social media campaigns influence the enrollment funnel and alumni engagement?
  3. Dedicate regular meetings to focusing exclusively on data review for informed decision making. Stop tacking it onto the end of the agenda at staff meetings, because we all know that time runs out and it gets punted. Set up monthly, quarterly and annual analytics meetings in marketing and communications, and invite campus partners when relevant.
  4. Share the marketing and communications analytics reports. Notice my intentional use of the word “analytics” -- handing someone data without analysis is not helpful, especially to colleagues who are not familiar with your professional field. Offer to present the reports so that you can create an opportunity for conversation.
  5. Speak in metrics. Ask data-driven and comparative questions. How does that result compare to one year ago, five years ago and 10 years ago? How does it compare to aspirational peer institutions?
  6. Offer to proofread and design campus partners’ internal assessment reports. This idea is not simply about seeking control over brand expression and font choices; rather, it is an opportunity to improve data visualization for readers, synergize vocabulary and find areas for aligning cross-campus goals and objectives.
  7. Meet regularly with your institutional research and effectiveness office and faculty assessment teams. Seek to understand standards, evaluation criteria, policies and procedures. Establish a mutual understanding of the role communications plays in creating a culture of continuous improvement and making it visible.

Don’t wait for your institution’s next reaccreditation self-study -- fostering a culture of assessment should be continuous and not left to the offices of institutional research and assessment.

For more on accreditation, download Alexandra Hegji’s Congressional Research Service Report, "An Overview of Accreditation of Higher Education in the United States," prepared for members and committees of Congress, or see the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's complete list of regional accrediting organizations in the United States.

Melissa Farmer Richards serves as vice president for communications and marketing at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

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