A Renewed Focus and a Moment of Truth for MarComm Teams

Among the key questions for marketing leaders in planning for the financial ramifications of COVID-19 -- is marketing at your institution output-oriented or outcomes-oriented?

April 14, 2020

I have marveled at the resilience of students, faculty and staff, as well as the diligent work of marketing and communications teams, in recent weeks. Countless institutions and their leaders have communicated with both clarity and empathy, extending grace to their students and colleagues. (Father Graham’s March 20 video to the Xavier University community is a wonderful example. It also invites reflection, and I’ve gone back to it on multiple occasions.)

In our household, we have remote learning at all levels, with one child each in college, high school, middle school and elementary school. I’ve heard most about the experiences -- shared experiences with their classmates -- that they are missing: the fifth-grade overnight at Bradford Woods, the eighth-grade field trip to Washington, D.C. (as a parent chaperone, I was bummed about that cancellation, too) and high school track season.

For the college freshman, the prevailing sentiment thus far has been “It’s not the same.” This is in reference to both the academic experience that has shifted online and the overall coming-of-age experience that is now absent. He’s accustomed to being my marketing research n-of-1, and I’m eagerly awaiting his responses to my latest questions:

  • Have you had an experience yet that you couldn’t have had on campus that, when you do get back to campus, you will miss?
    • If going together to the iconic spot on your campus is a “real experience” and gathering virtually to carry out that tradition is a “fake real experience,” how can marketers help their institutions think about and create “new real experiences” that carry meaning for their students?
  • Similarly, has your experience still felt uniquely “your university” in any way?
    • If the reason a student selected an institution was, for instance, the education of mind, body and spirit or the opportunities that go beyond the classroom, how are those expectations being fulfilled in this new world of learning from home? How are you adapting to ensure that you’re continuing to deliver on your institution’s brand promise?

In a recent survey of the Association of American Colleges & Universities Presidents’ Trust about dealing with COVID-19, presidents said that students have received the most communication focus of any key group. I hope this trend continues beyond the crisis and that we see a renewed focus from marcomm teams on student communications and the student experience. And if your team happens to be part of a larger advancement division, I hope that your advancement colleagues are also now involved in conversations around student retention. (An obvious but important point: a student who isn’t retained doesn’t become a graduate and thus never becomes a loyal and engaged alum and eventual donor.)

In my current discussions with CMOs, though, I have heard more about concerns than opportunities, ranging from “We’re still going day to day and not able to think a few months ahead” to “My team is exhausted” to “We’re going to have to make significant cuts.”

Cuts (sigh). In the aforementioned AAC&U survey results, all sizes of institutions expect administrative cost-cutting. Colleges and universities have frozen hiring, and some have canceled planned 2020-21 salary increases and halted new construction. Furloughs and layoffs are already starting. These financial ramifications could escalate further with state funding cuts on the horizon for public institutions and uncertainty surrounding the fall semester’s schedule and format.

For higher ed marketing’s evolution, it will be a moment of truth. Do you have an output-oriented marketing organization or an outcomes-oriented marketing organization? In the face of difficult decisions regarding necessary cost-cutting and potential staff reductions, will institutional leadership see marketing merely as a cost center and a unit that provides support and services? Or, alternatively, will marketing be viewed as critical to achieving institutional priorities, based on its ability to measurably impact reputation and revenue?

Reorganizations are likely, and they may be overdue. If you could start from scratch and build the most effective and efficient marketing organization for your institution, would your current setup be the result? Consider this possibility not as an unwanted disruption but as an opportunity to work differently and better. Some form of reorganizing should already be a regular practice for staying competitive.

As marketers wade through these and other weighty questions, I offer the following encouragement:

  • Help your institution live its brand.
  • Take stock of the ways you’ve worked nimbly and cross-departmentally in these weeks and operationalize them for your post-pandemic work.
  • If you don’t have one already, develop a marketing ROI formula that demonstrates how your work directly affects outcomes that matter to your institution.
  • Proactively plan the ideal reorganization in your mind or on paper with multiple scenarios, so that you are prepared for discussions that may lie ahead.
  • Most importantly, continue doing awesome work serving and communicating with your students.

Rob Zinkan is vice president at RHB, a marketing consultancy serving colleges and universities worldwide, joining in 2019 after more than 20 years in higher education administration with senior positions in marketing and advancement.


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