While the concepts of strategy and marketing are not complicated, doing them is rarely easy. A solid understanding of the market and the school’s strengths form the foundation for success – and are areas in which Marketing can take the lead.
Thoughtful analysis of alternatives and trade-offs enables the institution to make informed decisions and marshal resources to develop and implement plans to achieve its goals. However, there may be some difficult decisions – and discussions – ahead.
Here are some things to keep in mind that can help when marketing on any budget:
- Goals and Metrics. Review and evaluate the school’s mission and vision. Are they still relevant? How well are you doing in executing against them? Do they need modification? Think big, but be specific. Set institutional goals: Is it more applicants? Is it more (or less) of a certain type of applicant? Is it to attract a new audience? To build positive awareness? To move up in the rankings? Next, define what success will look like and how the school will know when the goal has been achieved. What metrics will be used and over what time frame? Consider who should be at the table for these discussions.
Research. Facts are friendly and can be quite helpful in making the case for change, whether large or small. Before launching any new marketing initiative, make sure you have done the research to know what students need and whether your school has the combination of capabilities and credibility to meet these needs. There is an earlier post  on starting research with what you know (in the admissions area) and can do on a very limited budget. Here are some additional ideas that can also be done with a low budget and little fanfare:
- Internal research with faculty and staff. Create a structured interview guide and ask faculty and staff about what makes your university unique, or what they are working on and why it is important. Or ask them about the school’s culture and stories that demonstrate the culture, or about what they believe the core competencies are of your university and why they are valuable.
- Student research. Ask students what other universities or programs they applied to, which they were accepted, and why they chose your school. Or ask them to tell you how they would describe their experience on campus, or what type of student would not fit well with your university. Ask them for stories.
- Alumni research. Survey alumni about their most cherished memories from their time on campus, or ask them to tell you a story of something that happened to them that could only have happened with your university, or how they would like to stay connected with the university. Or perhaps what services they would like to receive from the school at this point in their life.
- Analysis and Debate. What is working well? What needs to be tweaked? Are there messages or programs that need to be refreshed? What isn’t working at all and needs to change? Is it a small change or a big change that needs to be networked, debated and bought into? How will a change in one area impact changes in another (and positively or negatively)? Consider who should be at the table as you review the data and debate the meaning.
- Use your stories, mottos and history. Stay true to who you really are by using your own stories and the words that have meaning to your faculty, staff, students and alumni. They are yours alone and are extremely effective in getting your message out to the world. They are words that have meaning to your audiences and marketing who and what you are will attract the right people to your institution.
- Measure and Refine. Be careful not to judge too quickly. Sometimes small changes show dramatic results quickly; sometimes a change takes longer to effect results than you might think. Keep measuring and refine when and where necessary.
- Consistency is key. Perhaps the most common problem is that we get tired of our marketing and decide to change it. Don’t. The market needs consistency. Just because you’re tired of it doesn’t mean it’s time to change it. Be consistent across audiences and platforms – and over time.
To be effective in the new education marketplace may involve doing things differently and/or not offering some of the programs or services that are near and dear to some people. Many people have difficulty with change, which is why it is so important to combine research findings with discussions about the values, capabilities and aspirations of the institution.
Not all constituents will agree with the changes, but they will at least understand why the school needed to make changes, that trade-offs and alternatives were carefully considered and discussed, and that the school has chosen a course of action dedicated to ensuring its long-term success.