Another AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education is in our rearview mirror, and now it’s time for the marketing and communications attendees to reflect on their robust learning experience in Chicago. To get an idea of the content, go to the AMA Higher Ed ’23 webpage and check out the #amahighered hashtag on LinkedIn. And if you have a case of FOMO, planning committee member and TVP Communications’ Teresa Valerio Parrot provided great resources for higher ed marketers who weren’t there. Having served on the symposium’s planning committee, I can say, with confidence, that the marketing profession and collaboration with my colleagues have given me an appreciation for how rapidly the higher ed landscape is evolving. These takeaways represent a deep dive into that evolution.
- Community is everything.
At any given point during the conference, I heard stories of marketing leaders who worked tirelessly for their institutions only to be shown the door for any number of reasons that may or may not make sense. To add to the anxiety, marketing leaders are now navigating a new normal of the average college presidency lasting just under six years, according to an American Council on Education study—a disruption to institutional marketing strategies for sure. With that kind of cloud looming, support means a lot. As Emerging Marketer of the Year finalist Shane Baglini shared on social media, “Part of the beauty of a conference like AMA is being reminded that you have a … community of colleagues that you can lean on in just about any situation you encounter.” Administrators should note that marketing is not a quick fix for an institution’s enrollment or fundraising challenges but rather a sustainable strategy being crafted by real people to assist institutions for long term success.
- Things will change. Be ready.
Prior to the symposium, I reviewed a series of articles and surveyed folks on social media to get an idea of the biggest challenges that leaders face. The most frequently mentioned challenge was managing change. Higher ed is changing rapidly. Administrators, faculty and staff are dealing with a landscape that looks different than it did even in the prior year. Health and well-being coach Brad Stulberg’s keynote address about change served as a reminder that change is constant. The biggest favor that higher ed professionals can do is pay attention to the changes on the horizon, expect those changes to happen and prepare to flex with those changes.
- Marketers can play an important role in addressing students’ mental health.
Marketers are institutional leaders with important skills, knowledge and influence. With that, there was a significant call at the symposium for marketers to address students’ mental health needs. An institution’s marketing team can use data collected from students to inform institutional leaders and create campaigns, materials and events to inform their communities of resources and assistance to both empower them and make their respective campuses safer spaces.
- Be real with Gen Alpha.
Generation Alpha is coming to our campuses quickly. The first wave of the generation born between 2010 and 2025 is headed for high school soon. Nowadays, we often think of how each generation adapts to technology. AMA dedicated a conferencewide panel discussion to Gen Alpha, led by Ologie’s Dayana Kibilds, with thoughts coming from Kathryn Bezella from the University of Pennsylvania, Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson from Northwestern University and Diana Toole from Shady Side Academy. My big takeaway is that institutions should prepare for a generation that expects robust health and wellness services, authentic and values-driven institutional leadership, flexible education options, an institutional reputation that matches the marketing, and immediate, personalized service.
- Faculty have to trust their marketers, and we have to earn that trust.
Ken Carter, a professor at Oxford College of Emory University, provided a great perspective of the faculty mind-set during a fireside chat with Parrot. With a wealth of demands on faculty members’ time and intellectual resources, trust is a major commodity. Faculty members must trust that marketers are looking beyond tactics to help them control their messages, provide relevant media and public relations training, advocate for the faculty to their leadership, and generally make marketing efforts worth their time.
- Think carefully before you start that podcast.
Podcasting is among the new hotnesses in higher ed. But you just can’t start a podcast. At the very least, it takes institutional marketing strategy alignment, planning, creativity and patience to pull off a quality production, according to Robert Li of University FM. I would add that there is also the concern of succession planning for when the producer(s) and/or host(s) can no longer shoulder the responsibility. This is where the adage “begin with the end in mind” comes in handy.
- Generative AI is in our hands.
Every time I hear a conversation about generative artificial intelligence, I go back to the old computer science acronym GIGO—garbage in, garbage out. There were several sessions on AI, all of them extraordinarily informative. For underresourced marketing and communications teams, especially those at underresourced institutions, generative AI can be an enormous win. The best thing is that the higher ed marketing community seems to be moving from fear of job loss to figuring out how to best manage the technology.
- Culture rules.
University of Michigan marketing professor Marcus Collins gave a dynamic keynote speech about the role of culture in marketing. Three of Collins’s points really struck me. One is that it’s not about building community, it’s about facilitating community. With that being said, it’s important for institutions to interact with their audiences, especially those who engage consistently. Finally—something that is most relevant for today’s climate—an institution can cultivate a dedicated and active culture by standing for something.
- Employer branding may be the next big higher ed marketing strategy.
During a chat with a marketing agency rep, they told me about an institution that saw zero applications for a role that they needed to fill. I didn’t expect to hear that number, but I wasn’t surprised. As I wrote in a September “Call to Action” post, the national talent crisis includes higher education. During my fireside chat with Jackson State University’s Alonda Thomas and the University of Pittsburgh’s Marc Harding, it became evident that talent attraction and talent retention are best achieved when faculty and staff are asked about the value of their work experience, provided a valuable work experience and given substantial professional and leadership development.
- We need more diversity at the table.
During a fireside chat with the University of Redlands’ Kin Sejpal, retired Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik noted the absence of two-year institutions at AMA Higher Ed, and he called for more to be at next year’s symposium. Likewise, I saw few colleagues from historically Black colleges and universities, and I wondered about other institutions that may lack the resources to send their marketing and communications leaders. I couldn’t help but think about the amount of information, insights and valuable connections that these colleges and universities missed out on by not being in attendance. To be clear, AMA is well aware of the importance of having these institutions at the symposium, and its leadership has worked diligently to reach out to two-year colleges and underresourced institutions and ensure they know we want to hear from them and have them participate with us. With the overall value of higher ed coming under increased scrutiny, diversifying the voices in a space as important as AMA Higher Ed could lead to creative solutions for the industry.
It goes without saying that there are many more takeaways to chew on from the many marcomm professionals who attended the symposium. The sessions and conversations made it clear to me that higher education is at an inflection point. By paying close attention to how the market is rapidly changing and by investing diverse resources in marketing, institutions can manage a landscape that is rapidly changing before their eyes.