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Higher Ed Marketing’s Disappearing Act

Digital marketing’s lack of visibility may be undermining our roles on campus.

February 4, 2020

Here is a higher ed marketing equivalent to “If a tree falls in the forest …”

If I deliver an advertisement via Instagram to 15- to 18-year-olds, in the Atlanta metro area, who visited our website in the past year, but a board member didn’t see it, am I still doing my job?

This is obviously a rhetorical question, but it gets at something I’ve been thinking about lately. Digital marketing is largely invisible to many of our constituents, and that’s not good.

In a recent article, SimpsonScarborough COO Jason Simon was thinking the same thing. In the firm’s biennial survey of higher education leaders, they found that while most are increasing their spending in digital marketing, spending on traditional marketing is stagnant. Simon sees this as shortsighted, arguing that digital marketing does little to build brand awareness. “Spending limited budgets solely on digital advertising and marketing won't build brand awareness and market penetration that's crucial to establishing long-term brand equity.”

While the ability to target ever more niche audiences online and measure performance via clicks and impressions is satisfying, he admits, colleges and universities suffer from the lack of public visibility that mass market out-of-home or TV campaigns bring. “It’s one thing to buy tickets to an event or a new sweater based on a targeted digital ad, but a $30,000-per-year-plus purchase requires the confidence of brand recognition.”

And so do college and university marketing departments.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Digital marketing takes the majority of our work out of the public eye. Technology, customization and jargon make it difficult for the layperson to understand digital marketing, much less embrace it. The halcyon advertising pitches depicted in Mad Men have been replaced by search optimization, A/B testing and banner ads in 25 sizes, all small.

But not for nothing. Faced with flat or decreasing budgets the past 10 years, we’ve turned to tactics that feel like more bang for the buck. Digital marketing tools allow us to target the right person at the right time and provide us with the metrics to prove it. I worry that we are doing our schools a branding disservice by fixating on clicks, and we are doing ourselves and our profession a disservice by hiding our work under a (digital) bushel.

Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes, but this is not the time to be receding into the circuitry.

Telling Our Story

If we haven’t seen it already, colleges and universities are likely to increase spending on marketing across the board as a reaction to the shrinking pool of traditional-age applicants and the increasingly cutthroat competition that follows. The question is whether they will trust us with it. I don’t think it’s out of line to suggest that if they don’t see what we do and don’t understand it, they may not value our contributions.

I don’t believe that digital marketing is wholly divorced from branding. Even if our budgets don’t allow for billboards on the interstate and prime-time TV commercials, we are still the brand experts on campus. I marvel frequently at our ability to stuff brand expression into 250 pixels and 100 characters. While we’re telling our schools’ stories, though, I want to also think about how we bring our expertise back out into the light to better position ourselves to take on the work ahead.

Two strategies come to mind:

  • On-campus marketing. In the corridors of our campus buildings, on the external walls, in kiosks, stairwells and student lounges, we have the opportunity to showcase our efforts through environmental graphics and digital signage. It’s owned media that’s relatively low cost (but high impact) and will be seen not only by faculty, staff and students, but prospective students, parents, alumni and visitors.
  • Annual reporting. Publishing a departmental annual report is a great way to reproduce/repackage some of our best work of the year. I love Marquette University’s Office of Marketing and Communications’ Annual Report, which not only highlights the work they do but also educates their colleagues about the differences between earned, owned, paid and social media.

Unfortunately, what both these tactics have in common is that they require prioritization. And like the good service departments we are, we tend to put ourselves last. Let’s change that if we can.

These days, no school aspires to be their region’s best-kept secret. Brand building should be on everyone’s agenda. The public better know our names because, as far as digital marketing is concerned, we’re all about to be priced out of anything but branded search terms by OPMs and for-profit universities.

We, in marketing, are poised to lead the initiatives that come forward. Yes, these are anxious times. But if there’s a silver lining, it’s that it’s our time to shine.

Does your team produce a marketing annual report? I would love to see more. Please share in the comments.

Donna Lehmann is the assistant vice president for marketing at Fordham University, in New York City.

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