Anyone who’s been in marketing for a good while, might be tempted to lament days past when higher education brands and messages came with some implied authority. At its most basic, the goal of marketing was to get your brand and message in front of people through predictable, managed, and well-controlled channels. If it was in print, broadcast, radio, or on the institution’s website, people would see it, hear it and often believe it, and then hopefully feel compelled to take the next step with a brand.
For higher education marketers now, that reality sounds like a well-deserved vacation from the modern marketing landscape. Control has diminished beyond recognition. Authority and credibility are no longer implied for higher education institutions. What was a chasm between the authentic and not-so-authentic has become something else entirely with the rise of fake news and increasing difficulty in spotting it. Pretty much anyone with a social media account can do serious damage to an institution’s reputation, whether justified or not.
More and more students, faculty, staff, alumni, friends and others demand meaningful experiences and relationships with institutions, not just clever copy, slick design, and data-driven targeted marketing campaigns. Campus visits, social media conversations, mentors, academic offerings, advising, co-curricular opportunities, facilities, customer service, alumni events, colleagues, roommates, friends of current students and alums, staff, budget priorities, recruiting practices and the rest of a vast collection of touchpoints and business operations shape reputation and motivate action more than years of even the best promotion.
There is much that is out of modern marketing’s direct control. But there is little outside the realm of influence. And influence is infinitely more valuable than control. It’s also critical in expanding and evolving the role, impact and value of marketing in higher education—something desperately needed for the continued growth and viability of the industry.
Influence is a process. It takes time and deliberate action. But there are clear ways for marketers to influence many things, particularly those critical touchpoints not in the immediate domain of marketing.
Do Good Work and Collaborate Well
The most tried and true method of earning a seat at the table and the opportunity to influence things across the institution is to first do good work that speaks directly to shared strategic goals. Demonstrate how each project, initiative, campaign, design, editorial decision and social post (the list goes on) advances institution-wide goals and fits with the brand. But don’t do it alone. Seeking out collaborative opportunities across divisions, departments, business functions, backgrounds and perspectives will not only make you a better marketer, but also set you up for more and more opportunities for influence down the road. Good work and excellent collaboration earn genuine credibility and some degree of authority beyond any fancy title or place on the org chart.
Set the Tone Online and On Campus
Maintaining a clear focus on shared goals through good work and collaboration can also influence conversations online and on campus. The stories you tell and how you tell them set the mood for external audiences and internal audiences. Pride in the institution, celebrations of success, humor, self-awareness and continued positivity go a long way to influence the culture an institution and how its members interact with one another and with customers. Formalizing these messages and rules of engagement through guidelines, resources, good work and modeled behavior can help to establish expectations, demonstrate what’s valuable to an institution and encourage positive interactions across mediums—all without requiring immediate authority or control. Don’t underestimate the power of narratives.
Shape the Product
All the good work, collaboration and a compelling, tone-setting narratives ultimately fall flat if the product—the core of what you do—doesn’t deliver consistently and authentically. But influencing things like course offerings, majors and minors, modes of delivery, tuition and fees and an assortment of other product dimensions can feel out of reach for marketers. But they don’t have to be. Data is influence. Use it to show what types of content resonate with your target audiences and compels action. Show which majors, minors, programs and people get the most attention on your website and social channels. Show what questions students and parents ask most frequently and how your answers change their perceptions. Size up the competition regularly, and show where your institution can move the needle and work towards strategic goals. Show trends in retention, student satisfaction and employee satisfaction. Use the data to build a case and pursue strategies and tactics that move the institution as a whole.
With credibility earned through good work, trust cultivated through collaboration, narratives that set the tone on and off campus, data to show how the higher ed market is changing, what works and what doesn’t, marketers have everything they need to control what they influence.
Tim Jones in the Chief Communications and Integrated Marketing Officer at Beloit College in Wisconsin.