Higher education is an increasingly competitive industry. Everyone on campus feels the pressure of keeping enrollment numbers up, maintaining institutional financial health and attracting high-quality faculty—among other mounting challenges.
It’s not uncommon for people to assume marketing is the solution to these issues. And it’s true—to some extent—that marketing is critical to success in many of these areas. However, “marketing” is a term that is often vaguely defined. It’s also a field that is rapidly evolving. Tactics used to be much more limited to things like traditional advertising and brochures, with less ability to microtarget audiences. This fact made marketing activities very visible in the past. People on campus had a sense that work was being done. It was something tangible they could see and often touch. In this way, it was a comfort.
But today, innovations in technology—the same innovations that our students are often the first to know about and master—allow for the addition of newer methods that work best the more personal and individualized the approach is. Prospective students don’t want something meant for everyone. They want to get what feels like it’s just for them. However, for all the benefits highly targeted marketing efforts offer, including the fact that they’re often much more cost-effective than print ads or TV spots, the reality that many tactics are largely hidden from public view can also lead to frustration. This is especially true in environments where stress levels are high, financial standing is shaky and people are looking for something to blame.
When efforts aren’t seen, there is a natural tendency to assume nothing is happening. And with the way marketing often works these days, it’s easy for people on campus to wonder whether the marketing staff is pulling their weight. Unfortunately, this can leave many marketing offices feeling like they’re constantly on the defensive. Instead of finding ourselves at this point, consider how things might be different if we prioritize both reaching big-picture strategic goals and helping our campus colleagues better understand that they’re not always the target audiences, and that there are new channels constantly being tested to ensure our tactics yield results.
We need to do two things better with our internal audiences. First, we need to share our marketing goals, strategies and tactics. And second, we need to help our campus community understand some core marketing fundamentals like the delineation and matching of audience, message and vehicles. And we need them to know that that might mean not all methods will be visible to them and not all messages will resonate.
An important facet of communicating with our internal audience is to remind them that our strategies are data-driven and we have metrics for how we’re measuring success. Sure, increases in enrollment and donations are among those, but things like website traffic driven by social media posts, user testing of our homepage and changes in the number of inquiries received are steps we look at along the way to ensure we’re heading in the right direction. If we’re not, we can course correct before those bigger-picture goals are negatively impacted.
Higher education resisted marketing for a long time, and it’s still a concept many are getting used to, which is an additional challenge. When we develop our strategies, we’re using both research and professional insights to target our audience, craft our message and test resonation. Marketing is a field of expertise, and the marketing and communications office employs people who bring knowledge and data to the job, just like any other department. For example, we can’t always see the day-to-day work of the investment office, but people tend to view those staff members as skilled experts. The same should be true of marketing staff.
Another element we need to help our campus communities understand is the distinction and differentiation of strategies. There is a huge media mix that didn’t exist even 25 years ago, and social media and earned media play an important role in telling the overall story of the institution. There are so many different options to choose to use as a channel for your institution, with data to back up those considerations and choices. For example, if students aren’t on a particular platform, like LinkedIn, but that’s where faculty, administration and staff may be looking for marketing, they may not realize your efforts are on Instagram to connect with your target audience of prospective students. To them, it might appear as if the college isn’t “out there,” when in reality it’s just not where they are. And it shouldn’t be, unless your faculty and staff also fall into the target demographics of your institution.
Among other efforts that often go unseen is parent outreach. At York College, national data and our own survey results confirmed that parents are more influential than ever before. To respond to this, we’ve allocated more resources toward the parent audience. Some examples include a family portal specifically designed for parent communications and engagement, an “Understanding College” event series hosted by the enrollment department, and a greater investment in advertising to prospective families with parent-specific messaging.
There are a lot of back-end decisions that go into how marketing dollars are spent, but they may not be very apparent to internal audiences. We shouldn’t expect our campus colleagues to understand the nuances or have access to our goals and data points that are factored into those decisions. Through more direct internal communication, even something as simple as pointing out that there are a lot of factors to consider and that it is different for every institution, we can begin to illuminate the complexities of our work. Part of our responsibility in our jobs and in the larger campus community is to move people back to what the bigger objectives are and how strategy has been developed to address those objectives. Though we cannot entirely stop the critiques about visibility, we can do better to address them by lifting the veil on our work behind the scenes in marketing.