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What an unbelievable year. Marketers and communicators, you should be commended for your critical work, leadership and ingenuity in service to your institutions and their many audiences. Now as marketing leaders responsible for navigating continuing change, disruption and opportunity in the year ahead, it’s worth taking a moment to step back and assess the CMO role in higher education and where it may be headed.

In the fall, I shared reflections from one-on-one conversations with senior marketing leaders across the country to discuss how their work and priorities have shifted due to the pandemic. These individuals were the highest-ranking marketing professionals at their institutions, and their titles included director, senior director, executive director, assistant/associate vice president, vice president, chief marketing officer (CMO), chief communications officer (CCO) and CMCO. Approximately half of my now 50-plus interviewees held VP-level positions and reported directly to their institution’s president.

As the range of these titles suggests, marketing is still maturing as a strategic function in higher education. A stark reminder has come during a study we’ve undertaken of more than 100 active strategic plans covering a broad swath of four-year institutions. (Our final research report will be available in March.) The analysis of strategic plans gave a unique lens through which to view the role and work of marketing, as almost half of the plans (52 of 108) specifically mentioned marketing in some manner. Unfortunately, references to marketing were almost exclusively limited to the domain of “promotion.” (Think of domains as the traditional “4 P’s” of marketing: product, price, place and promotion.)

Higher ed marketing’s nascent sophistication is especially noteworthy in COVID times when institutions are seeking efficiencies across all academic and administrative areas. Efficiency is key to addressing pandemic-accelerated budget pressures, but we must acknowledge that many colleges and universities still aren’t exactly clear what effectiveness means for marketing. As Peter Drucker once explained, efficiency is doing things right, while effectiveness is doing the right things. Before they can appropriately identify potential efficiencies organizationally or operationally, institutions must define or clarify what marketing effectiveness looks like for them.

For some colleges and universities, administrative consolidations have been one route to organizational efficiency. Last year saw multiple examples of private institutions combining -- or reuniting -- enrollment management and marketing into a single VP portfolio. While this structure may be necessary and can be effective depending on the institution, especially when enrollment needs to be the top marketing priority, it has trade-offs. Among the benefits of having an executive-level CMO with marketing and communications untethered to admissions or advancement is the ability to inform strategy across all aspects of the institution and provide the broadest view of its many stakeholders.

The rise of the CMO in higher ed was flattening even before 2020. The percentage of senior marketing officers reporting directly to their president (roughly half) and the percentage who serve as members of the president’s senior leadership team (slightly more than half) have remained relatively unchanged since 2014, as documented in a 2019 study. While more institutions would benefit from the strategic value of an executive-level senior marketing professional, inaugural CMO positions now only surface on occasion.

What does this mean for the CMO position and the marketing function going forward? The initial rise of the CMO may be in the past, but the reach of the CMO’s influence is going to grow. Since last March when operations completely changed -- from how we delivered education to how we engaged alumni -- agile marketing teams were able to design myriad solutions outside their normal responsibilities by championing the constituent.

The bigger opportunity comes when we think of this constituent-centric, data-driven leadership across the entire life cycle. Everyone, from admissions to advancement, plays a part in managing the constituent life cycle, but no one or no single division is responsible for thinking about and optimizing the entire life cycle as an integrated journey. Now, we consider a future direction of the CMO as the chief constituent officer, providing this full-spectrum view. As more institutions wisely move to an enterprise CRM (such as Slate or Salesforce) to span the lifetime, the chief constituent officer perspective will be vital in providing relevant and personalized communications and experiences across the lifetime journey based on a deep understanding of constituents and their multidimensional relationships to an institution.

In the past (and in some cases today), one organizational model for marketing and communications has been under an integrated advancement model reporting up to a VP for advancement (the chief development officer). As a variation of this model, the CMO-as-chief constituent officer could lead multiconstituent-serving divisions such as advancement, which is already happening at institutions such as Scripps College and the University of Washington. Functions will evolve, new organizational models will emerge, and the distinction between student and alum will increasingly blur over time. The CMO-as-CCO can provide leadership and value across multiple facets of a college or university, from institutional strategy to constituent engagement -- and can even serve as a future pathway to the presidency.

Rob Zinkan is vice president for marketing leadership at RHB, a higher education consultancy in its 30th year. He joined RHB in 2019 after more than 20 years in higher education administration with senior positions in marketing and advancement.

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