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Higher ed marketing and communications seem harder than ever. Generational disinvestment, demographic headwinds, political dynamics and never-ending angst over cost and affordability can make for a distressing picture.

But if it’s our job to tell the story of our institutions, maybe it is incumbent on us to tell it better. Higher ed continues to be a key enabler of social mobility, job security and well-being. Our institutions still produce the research and creativity that drive civilization forward. And our colleges and universities remain quality employers that anchor their communities and drive regional economies.

It’s hard to tell that story successfully, though, if we don’t address some of the biggest issues holding us back.

  1. We define marketing too narrowly. In too many of our institutions, marketing and comms are defined more by what they do—design things, craft messages, place advertising—rather than why they do it: to support strategic goals. As a result, marketing decisions are often made without consideration of a market or strategy, and issues that should have been addressed through policy or performance management become a communications problem to solve.
  2. We measure the wrong things. When marketing and communications are disconnected from strategy, we gravitate to what’s easy to measure but not necessarily meaningful in our quest to ascribe impact. The result is that likes, shares, views, clicks, engagements and other channel metrics are mistaken as the goal, providing an illusion of impact without telling us what is working.
  3. We let our decentralization divide us. Colleges and universities are inherently decentralized but magically still find a way to transcend their convoluted structures when it comes to critical enterprise needs like public safety, facilities or IT. When marketing and communications are treated as operational functions left to each unit to solve for, though, the people doing that work end up dispersed and disconnected. The result is inefficiency for the enterprise, frustration for those teams and disjointed customer experiences that result when units that are simultaneously communicating to the same students or alumni have little or no awareness or coordination.
  4. We focus too much on branding and not enough on brand. In the age of higher ed hypercompetition, every college or university wants to be a brand, such that we have an entire industry devoted to helping institutions work through the political process of deciding on a new logo, tagline and messages to help them stand out. But if brand building is truly a long game based on knowing your competitive advantages and the differentiated promise you can best deliver on, the problem with focusing too much on branding and not your brand is that the latter requires consistency and patience—but the former is too easy to change when you don’t see quick results or a new leader wants to make their mark.
  5. We make uninformed marketing decisions. In organizations where evidence-based reasoning is held in high regard, it is ironic how unscientific we can be about marketing and communications. The consequence is too many decisions driven by HIPPOs (the Highest-Paid Person’s Opinions), FOMO (copying peers or competitors for Fear of Missing Out) and “CEO advertising” (marketing tactics deployed solely to make the boss happy).

Can we do anything about marcomm myopia in higher ed? If we want to tell a better story, we have to—and we can start by more clearly articulating what this work needs to do for our institutions.

  1. Treat marketing as strategy. It’s not enough to bring marketing professionals into strategic conversations, because the institutional mission is ultimately delivered by your faculty. We need to cultivate a more strategic mind-set in academic leaders: clarifying our audiences, what they need and what we provide; telling a true story about that and delivering on that promise. Marketing is too important to leave just to marketers—if we want the rest of the institution to take our work more seriously, let’s lead by example.
  2. Stop confusing the measures for the targets. It’s important to use channel metrics to understand which tactics are effective. But if we want to understand impact, we need to know how those ultimately support your business goals. Are your advertising impressions affecting awareness? Is your organic web traffic leading to inquiries and applications? Do your email newsletter analytics correspond to employee engagement and satisfaction? These questions take time, patience and a macro perspective to get answers that can give you and your stakeholders directional confidence.
  3. Don’t let structure become an obstacle. View the institution through the eyes of your students, alumni and constituents and you will quickly realize that the organizational complexity we deal with every day doesn’t matter to them—and it shouldn’t. Universities have many moving parts, but if we want them to see us as one brand, students and constituents shouldn’t need to make sense of all that to get what they need from us.
  4. Remember what the brand is and who owns it. Continually remind your organization that our brand is not the logo or a tagline but the sum of all that our constituents think about and count on from us. That means they own the brand and we can only hope to shape it by delivering exceptional experiences. Sleek new branding can certainly help, but to have an impact it needs to be in the service of a great brand.
  5. Show your marketing math. Take advantage of where you are, embrace the spirit of higher learning and approach this with academic rigor. Use data and evidence to make your case; develop hypotheses, experiment, observe and learn; and leverage the expertise and creativity right there on your campus. Your faculty will appreciate it and your students and audiences will benefit from it.

They say the best marketing is a great product or service. In that sense, everyone on campus can help deliver on the promises we make so that we can tell a better story—a true story—about the value of higher education. Marketing higher ed might be hard, but it’s not hopeless—let’s just do it better.

Ben Hill is the senior director of marketing and communications at the University of Iowa’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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