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“We have a marketing problem.”

Early in my career, I heard that phrase as a call to action and a justification for my existence. I accepted the statement as truth and began working feverishly to build and execute a marketing plan. I always found solving marketing problems invigorating, and the frequency with which I heard we had “marketing problems” always made my job seem critical to the success of the entire endeavor. In many cases I was the one using the statement as a justification for more resources, a seat at the decision-making table, or something else. Unfortunately, the hard lesson I’ve learned is that “marketing” can be a code word, often used by people who don’t understand the four P’s of marketing and think of marketing only as promotion, ignoring the role of product, price and place.

Identifying the Real Problem

Root-cause analysis teaches that to get at the root cause of a problem, an individual should ask “why” five times. Start by determining the answer to the question “What is the problem the group thinks marketing will fix?” Then, ask why the group thinks better marketing will fix that particular problem five times. The question can help focus the discussion and determine if it is a promotion, product, place or price problem.

The idea of higher education as a product is a fraught concept for some in the academy to embrace. But whether or not you use the word “product,” a conversation about what it is you’re offering students—and how it matches their needs and expectations—is critical. Though often unintentional, “marketing” can become a kind of organizational code word for things that no one wants to discuss. In other words, it’s easier to shift the blame to marketing when you avoid other tough questions. I’ve sat across from many academic leaders who want to know how to better market their programs when those programs have not asked hard questions about the product in terms of relevance, employment opportunities, modality or a host of other things that are somewhat within their control. It is the job of a marketing professional to use guiding questions to help surface those problems that no amount of glossy advertising or targeted social media strategy is ever going to fix.

How Will Marketing Fix the Problem?

Asking this question, particularly when someone suspects that price or place is the problem can help a professional save a lot of time. Often, price and place are the hardest parts of the marketing problem to solve because so many parts of those problems are fixed before they ever come to the table.

An institution can go online, but it can’t easily relocate from the demographic challenges of rural Maine to the abundant fields of students in urban Southern California. State legislators and boards set tuition in many cases, or at private schools there are just fixed costs. It does not mean these discussions are not important, it just means that by being honest about what can and can’t be fixed, we can better focus our energies.

A Bit of a Warning

As a marketing professional, it feels fun and exciting to have what seems like the ultimate multitool. Enrollment down—marketing! Need folks to show up at your lecture—marketing! Unpopular decision by the executive team—marketing!

You can answer almost any organizational problem with the word “marketing,” but you and your career won’t survive. I learned the hard way. Sometimes there are underlying problems that have to be dealt with. If you accept the problem as your own without a thorough analysis, ultimately you’ll own the results. It can be hard to push these two questions up front, but the consequence of not doing so is far worse.

Chato Hazelbaker is president of Northland Pioneer College.

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