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Marketing the Value of IT in Higher Education

Meeting expectations is passé. Today, it's all about exceeding expectations. Most colleges and universities understand that IT is integral to their function; however, few administrators truly understand the value of IT. This lack of understanding holds many universities back from capitalizing on information technology and the expertise of IT professionals. Technology pervades and facilitates nearly every university activity, from the library to the classroom to the administration buildings. IT leaders in higher education must package and market the value the IT department has and can deliver. Knowing that IT adds value to the campus is not enough. We must be able to both define that value and communicate it effectively to the President, Board of Trustees, and other university decision-makers.

We should look to the marketing folks for lessons. Not only are they adept at promoting a school’s brand, they are masters at promoting their value to the rest of the organization. Remember, marketing is not a department; it is a part of the university. Most IT organizations have never won awards for their marketing prowess. However, if IT doesn’t market itself well to the university, who will?

The best IT approach is not necessarily “the way it has always been done”—especially not for universities looking to provide cutting-edge opportunities that attract and retain the best students and faculty. Don’t be afraid to challenge conventional practice. Dell, for instance, shook up the computing world when Michael Dell decided to sell computers directly to consumers instead of sticking with the old complicated distribution channels. Superior technical knowledge has been IT’s security blanket for many years; but it’s time to evolve. IT professionals must be leaders without solely focusing on technology.

Furthermore, capitalize on brand recognition. Many college and university students are familiar with and utilize the impact of personal branding, and IT should take a cue from them. If your university colleagues have consistently positive experiences with IT, they can become IT advocates for your president. For instance, IT leaders at Providence College in Rhode Island mobilized efforts to update the college’s website, which has been well regarded across the institution and their constituents.

Provide service and responsiveness as a differentiator. As technology professionals, our job is to understand what the organization needs and to deliver a technology solution in the most effective and efficient manner.

One of us (Phil) recently held a meeting at the consumer goods company where he was an IT executive. The meeting was to plan an upgrade to the telecommunications/presentation capabilities in the Board of Directors meeting room. Several of the executives stated that they’d seen a demo of telepresence from vendor X and wanted that system. Phil responded with the technical reasons why it was neither feasible nor practical and addressed the substantial cost of installation and ongoing communication lines. The dialogue stalled after that; Phil focused on the technical shortfalls, and the other executives focused on the prestige with both sides holding fast to their positions.

Later that day, Phil realized what the executives were saying. The company was growing their media-related business with Hollywood. The executives wanted to be viewed as “leading edge,” which translated to telepresence. So, Phil completely changed his approach at their next meeting. He spoke of the “experience” the executives wanted to ensure a common vision. This engaged the executives. Phil then described an alternative vendor’s telepresence system that would deliver the desired “experience” at a much lower cost; after a few questions, the executives were sold. They had been presented the same “facts” but the marketing approach was different. Phil succeeded by marketing to the customer’s need (the experience) not the technology (the bits and bytes of high-end video conferencing).

Ultimately, IT must convince university decision-makers they possess the desire and competency to deliver value. As illustrated above, IT often struggles to tell this story convincingly—which must change. A top priority for IT leaders is to pull together and tell their “story” in a clear, concise and compelling manner using terms their colleagues use. What is the university’s vision? How does this affect the IT department? Think about a typical day in the organization; detail what students, staff, and faculty are doing, how they are interacting, how IT is adding value, and how the university perceives IT. Make sure your listeners can easily connect the dots between the technical strength of IT projects with the value they add to the institution.

Several years ago, the president of a New England liberal arts college asked one of the technically-inclined business professors to take over IT. The professor was able to bring his business and marketing knowledge to the school’s cabinet, and leveraged that knowledge to position and promote IT to his peers successfully.

Like everything else we do in a team environment, you must have the support of your university colleagues. They must understand what you're trying to do and, more importantly, see the value to themselves and the school overall. This is probably the most critical component to the success of your endeavor. Ensure your IT staff is committed to this story and can tell it in their own terms. It is very important to have a united front within the IT department. Next, enlist one or two well-respected decision-makers to become vocal advocates of IT. Phil remembers a quote from a highly regarded VP at the conclusion of a major project: “This has been the best experience I have had with IT in my 14 years with the company.” With his permission, we used his name and that one line in almost every aspect of our ongoing marketing.

There is no such thing as “over-communicating.” Eventually, the university/IT partnership will become self-sustaining, but don’t count on that happening quickly. Once you’ve established your brand, continue to sell and evolve it. Don’t let the IT story and brand go stale. Harness the enthusiasm you garnered by enlisting frequent help from the IT department. Solicit ideas and insure that everyone recognizes the need to market their brand in everything they do. Don’t forget to monitor and measure the outcome of your marketing initiative. The story has to evolve as the university evolves.

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