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I recently talked to a president at a small liberal arts college who knows that her institution needs an investment in brand expansion, audience-driven positioning, program-specific enrollment marketing campaigns and partnership opportunities. Currently, her small marketing team reports up through enrollment, and she wants to explore more effective ways to structure the work. However, the college’s limited budget has kept her from hiring a full-time marketing leader in a cabinet-level position. She feels that hiring a fractional chief marketing officer on a short- to medium-term basis could potentially present a win-win for the college, resulting in an infusion of deep expertise and financial savings.

This president was curious to discuss this topic with me because I have served as FCMO at Assumption University in Worcester, Mass., since mid-2023. I decided to do this work in parallel to running my own higher ed–focused marketing agency because I was inspired by Assumption’s vision for transforming itself into a leading national liberal arts college and excited to join its cabinet under the leadership of Greg Weiner—the first Jewish president of an American Catholic university. What I am sharing below is not a direct reflection of my work with Assumption, but rather thoughts on what a more standardized FCMO role could look like should it become more common in our field.

Role Definition

FCMO roles are an emerging phenomenon spilling into higher ed from the tech world and other sectors. FCMOs are different from part-time and interim VPs. Part-time VPs don’t tend to exist in higher ed; if they did, they would be even more overwhelmed than full-time VPs. Interim VPs are internal up-and-comers often intensely engaged in political races to the top. The external by nature FCMO role, by definition, involves setting a strategic scope that is well aligned with the top priorities of the institution. Instead of offering up their time to the full suite of communication needs and related stakeholders, keeping issues from spiraling into crises, and attending back-to-back meetings and obligatory campus functions, FCMOs can say no to what does not align with their focus. They help achieve bold, long-term goals through a short-term infusion of strategy and change management.

Four Critical Areas of Attention for the FCMO

  1. Strategic planning. Setting a new institutional strategy requires overcoming silos and understanding the priorities of all stakeholders, including the board, the cabinet and the faculty senate. FCMOs can bring a fresh and data-driven perspective to advocate for target audiences, align institutional goals with market needs and define a brand position that is unique and relevant. 
  2. Brand. Most institutions want to increase brand awareness and ambassadorship with new geographic, demographic and psychographic segments. FCMOs can analyze higher ed brands to understand gaps and opportunities and oversee small, data-driven pilots to address them. They can do this without long institutional histories weighing on them and without having to move slowly in an effort to appease every stakeholder. Based on the results, they can then articulate to the board and other decision-making bodies how to increase marketing ROI.
  3. Enrollment. Enrollment teams need their marketing divisions to understand what moves the needle for prospects and families at every stage in the funnel. FCMOs can use data to discover what communications are currently lacking to increase leads, visits, application starts, applications and deposits. They can also oversee the building out of more innovative and dynamic media and nurture campaigns to improve ROI. Because they are likely working with multiple institutions at a time, they know what works and what doesn’t—and they have a direct line to leading vendors who can help implement new ideas. 
  4. Resourcing and culture. The great resignation and ongoing turnover have left colleges and universities vulnerable to a start-and-stop approach, allowing bright and shiny objects to trump focus on the main priorities. FCMOs can leverage their relative political immunity in evaluating how to best structure and resource the teams charged with growing the brand and enrollment so that employees feel fulfilled and want to grow with the institution. 

How to Structure an FCMO Position

Colleges and universities interested in hiring an FCMO can structure the collaboration in various ways, including hiring a part-time employee with a defined scope and a limited contract or hiring them as an independent contractor. I recommend 12 to 24 months (unless a longer-term engagement makes sense for both parties). To set an FCMO up for success, their contracts should limit work to 20 to 32 hours per week. Anything under 20 would not allow for meaningful engagement with stakeholders and teams. Anything over 32 would too closely mirror a full-time CMO role and put the person and institution at risk of losing focus on what matters to the role.

Effective Boundary Setting for Increased Impact

Protecting their time is essential in enabling an FCMO to succeed. Unlike other full-time senior administrator roles in higher education, which usually center around crises du jour, always-on communication and upwards of 10 meetings daily, the FCMO’s time should not belong to anyone who wants it. The FCMO can afford to say no to requests for meetings, resources and attention because they are not at the institution for the long term, limiting the need for political alliances, nor are they expected to make everyone happy.

Traits to Look For in Hiring

In turn, professionals looking to take on this role should bring a strong track record in higher education strategy, brand and leadership and a solid ability to focus on the most pressing priorities. They need to feel secure enough in their career to commit to the institution for a set period. They also should want to build internal knowledge and capacity that will outlast their tenure.

Looking Ahead

Fractional CMO work in higher ed is uncommon for now. Still, like Gil Rogers wrote in the first post of this series, I predict that ballooning institutional expenses, the looming enrollment cliff and the need to try new approaches will dramatically increase this role across colleges and universities in the next three to five years.

Suzan Brinker is co-founder and CEO of Viv Higher Education and fractional CMO at Assumption University.

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