The Irony of Higher Ed Marketing

Why does marketing sometimes seem like a struggle for higher education? The answer is both ironic and fixable.

December 3, 2015

In my travels to campuses across the nation, I'm regularly reminded of a chronic, ironic reality: higher ed marketing success is usually compromised by a lack of the same three foundational educational elements that form the bedrock of what we're committed to helping our students acquire:

1. Subject matter intelligence,

2. Sound research, and

3. Disciplined persistence.

Subject Matter Intelligence
Too many campus marketing, communications, and public relations offices are staffed by practitioners with too-little formal training or routine professional development in their assignment. Most admit it freely, while others will bluff their way through. Some hold key decision-making positions not because they were best-qualified for the job when they were hired, but because they've put in their time, remain absolutely committed to their institutions, and are sufficiently self-taught to hold their programs together from year to year.

To be clear, this isn't a put-down, and I'm hardly one to lord lofty professional degrees or world-class marketing achievements over higher ed marketing colleagues. This is, quite honestly, a dose of the frustration I hear almost weekly from my marketing brothers and sisters in the field.

But in our rapidly changing profession, it’s essential to stay abreast of new developments in marketing. So make an investment in yourself and read, take courses, go to a conference: do what it takes to sharpen your skills each and every day.

Sound Research
Sit in any classroom or eavesdrop on any faculty coffee table discussion you'll hear the word "research" a healthy handful of times. It's what scholars build their careers upon. It's what textbooks unravel and explain. Research is the heart and soul of the academy. It informs the effective development and execution of successful living-learning communities. But on many campuses, research is in woefully short supply when it comes to informing sound, strategic marketing decisions.

Academic research and market research are cousins at best. But the common thread is “research:” dissecting, quantifying, and analyzing reality so we can better understand a multifaceted challenge and make more informed decisions to address it. We can’t imagine a college or university that would build an academic program around faculty who haven’t conducted at least some scholarly research. But there's every chance that market research is considered a "luxury" that your institution may be willing to relegate to the back burner in favor of funding a few more television spots or another billboard campaign.

Invest at least 10% of your marketing budget in market research every year and I guarantee you'll invest the remaining 90% more wisely.

Disciplined Persistence
You've probably heard the phrase, "Build the plan; work the plan." Crafting a marketing plan can be arduous, if not downright painful. Too frequently, it's considered a distraction that takes us away from actually doing marketing that matters. Increasingly, however, institutions realize they need to build and manage plans if they want to maximize the return on their precious marketing investments.

With embarrassing frequency, about the time a marketing plan (or creative concept or ad campaign or tagline or catchphrase or whatever) is really gaining traction in the marketplace, campus leaders grow weary of it and feel compelled to "freshen it up" if not start all over again. Internal staff boredom becomes external brand equity's greatest enemy.

While this phenomenon often spells new work for consultants like me and firms like mine, it is nonetheless disheartening to observe institutions whose marketing teams fail to work a plan until it's clearly not working anymore.

And how do you know if a plan is not working anymore? See "Sound Research" above.

Eric Sickler has helped the nation's college and universities clarify and more fully engage their brands for more than three decades. You can reach him at The Thorburn Group, a Stamats company.

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