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What makes a strategic plan “strategic”? This question was at the heart of a 2020-21 study that my RHB colleague Aimee Hosemann and I led -- with the research assistance of Connor LaGrange, graduate student from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy -- analyzing 108 active strategic plans covering a broad swath of four-year public and private institutions in all 50 states.

We wanted to better understand whom strategic plans are ultimately for, why the process can be so complex and how relevant plans can be amid rapid change, including the disruption from COVID-19. While our purpose was to investigate these dynamics, identify the most strategic tendencies among plans and help inform and improve future planning efforts, our analysis provided a fascinating -- if not sobering -- window into the state of higher education marketing.

According to current strategic plans, the marketing function remains predominantly in the domain of promotion.

Of the 108 plans we examined, 52 (48 percent) explicitly mentioned marketing or marketing and communications. Most striking was that references to marketing almost exclusively concerned promotion. “Boldly promote,” “vigorously promote” and “promote our image” are among the marketing-related phrases in these strategic plans, along with several versions of “tell our story better.”

Not reflected across current plans are marketing’s more strategic capabilities in areas such as market intelligence-based program development, the shaping of the constituent experience to build lifetime value and the alignment of institutional behaviors with a selected market position.

A more encompassing vision of marketing would serve institutions well and aid strategic planning. If you are starting a strategic planning process or will be soon, here are three recommendations for your institution, informed by these research findings.

1. Ensure that your marketing leader has a seat at the table from day one.

Of the 108 strategic plans, 45 (42 percent) identified the constituencies from which committee members came, and far fewer listed actual committee member names. (We would recommend more transparency with readers about which campus community members are leading the planning process.) Among these 45 plans, only 17 had a marketing and communications leader as part of the core steering committee.

This figure is not surprising for institutions that view the job of marketing as promotion to “get the word out” about all the activities within a strategic plan. If, however, we recognize marketing’s strategic capabilities to help an institution deliver relevance, then not having your marketing leaders as planning partners represents a missed opportunity. Strategic plans touch all facets of a college or university, and marketing can bring an institutionwide perspective that layers in a constituent-centric understanding of market perceptions and opportunities.

2. The expression of your mission looks outward; create a planning process that does, too.

There is a disconnect between the outward expression of institutional missions to transform lives and society and the inward-facing process of strategic planning. For example, community outreach broadly defined was among the top five most common strategic priorities or themes across plans. Yet only 11 percent of strategic planning steering committees included any community representation. (Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging was the most common strategic priority. We identified 16 plans containing the most strategic tendencies, and these plans envisioned a detailed and holistic perspective toward DEIB goals and metrics.)

As further evidence of this missing coherence, our analysis showed a general lack of student-centeredness across plans. In contrast, the 16 most strategic strategic plans gave more attention to student well-being and student success and more frequently engaged undergraduate and graduate students as members of working groups and task forces.

3. Focus more on positioning and less on branding.

While “brand” or “branding” appeared in more than 40 percent of the strategic plans that referred to marketing, plans mentioned market “position” or “positioning” only a few times over all. Despite our observation that most colleges and universities are pursuing similar dreams and taking similar actions, institutions take a posture of distinctiveness in their plans. Branding (or more branding, or better branding) then will generate, so they hope, the desired awareness and recognition. Nearly all colleges and universities want to be better known. But less certain is what they want to be known for.

While many strategic plans resembled an institutional wish list (one university had 22 strategic priorities) or contained items that an institution should already be doing (“provide an excellent education”), strategy results from making choices -- choices that marketing leaders can help inform. Furthermore, marketing leaders are fundamental agents in creating engagement with the people who matter most to an institution and its future.

Rob Zinkan is vice president for marketing leadership at RHB, a higher education consultancy founded in 1991. He joined RHB in 2019 after more than 20 years in higher education administration with senior positions in marketing and advancement. He also teaches graduate courses as an adjunct in strategic communications and higher education leadership.

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