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More with Less

Seven ways to survive the budget crunch
University Business, Feb 2009

IF LOVE IS IN THE AIR IN FEBRUARY, IT SURE HAS SOUR company this year. More and more campus administrators are contemplating—or already living with—budget cuts, hiring freezes, and other tough financial decisions. In the first days of December (at the time of this writing), the train of bad news about the crisis hitting higher education had already started to make its way into the columns of newspapers and trade publications: Harvard University’s endowment loss of $8 billion in just four months, an $8 million budget shortfall at Wayne State University (Mich.), and the $38 million loss of state funds for the University of Tennessee, among others—many others.

The University of Florida saved nearly $1 million by changing 160 print publications to web-based delivery.

What do these financial troubles have to do with marketing, communications, and the web?

Everything. According to a recent survey conducted by the communication consulting firm MStoner, more than half of 150 senior marketing, communications, and advancement professionals in higher education cited financial constraints or budgetary problems as the top challenges for 2009. “Nearly every respondent included financial concerns among the top three challenges,” wrote Michael Stoner in a November blog post about this survey. “Citing such obstacles as ‘unexpected budget constraints,’ ‘insufficient funding levels,’ and ‘budget cuts,’ respondents described a lack of necessary resources to reach institutional goals in fund raising, printing, web development, and more.”

The challenge to do more, or at least as well, with smaller budgets, less time, and maybe even fewer staff members might appear less daunting if you consider the following ideas.

For some print publications—especially those targeted to internal audiences such as current students, staff, and faculty members—going paperless might be a very smart move. Printing and mailing costs have dramatically increased over the past few years, so going paperless could result in a substantial savings. Some readers will welcome a digital publication for a number of reasons: convenience, accessibility, the possibility to save trees and also, as expenses are lowered, perhaps jobs down the line.

Faced with a decrease in state funds and low tuition levels fixed by the legislature, the University of Florida audited its print publications two years ago. More than 350 brochures, magazines, newsletters, and other publications were printed by different UF entities. “Many of these were directed to internal audiences only and/or other audiences that were frequent users of a computer workstation or laptop,” recalls Joe Hice, associate vice president for marketing and communications. After a careful analysis, his team determined that it was possible to convert nearly half of the printed publications to online delivery only. “By moving 160 publications away from printing and to a web-based delivery, we were able to save almost $1 million annually in printing and distribution costs,” reports Hice.

With promotion and PR budgets under attack, now is the perfect time to incorporate social media in your strategy. Why not give a try to Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Ning, or even Twitter— This move will only cost staff time and could bring home some amazing results.

That’s the road chosen by more and more marketing and communications professionals, including Mark Greenfield, director of the web services office at the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York system. Last year, he built a new website for the Undergraduate Academies program to create a sense of community and get students to connect and collaborate. Total cost of this project: $0. Total time spent by his office: half a day.

“Thanks to the Ning platform, it took me about two hours to create the site, add the features, and brand it to look like the main site for the Academies, and an extra couple of hours to teach the staff at the Academies how to use the site,” explains Greenfield. Despite its agile and low-cost implementation, the site has been very successful and attracts more traffic than the main site of UB Academies.

Believe it or not, it’s still possible to run targeted ads on a budget. By reallocating a fraction of the traditional media buy to online performance-based advertising channels such as Google AdWords, Facebook Ads, and LinkedIn DirectAds, an institution can reach its targeted audience for a few hundred dollars—or less. On Facebook, smart advertisers writing great copy can pinpoint their target group by carefully selecting demographics, location, schools, etc., and then selecting a pay-per-click agreement. It’s a good way to get a lot of exposure—especially if a compelling photo is included—for just a few dollars.

E-mail isn’t dead, but an e-mail marketing effort has to go beyond the basics and target segmented audiences to generate any interesting return on investment. After a $220 million endowment loss between July and September 2008, Dartmouth College will go through budget cuts of $40 million over the next two fiscal years to maintain financial aid. In this context, even fundraising efforts are going to rely more on web marketing to cut costs.

Cuts to conference and travel budgets don't have to mean the end of all professional development.

That’s why Meg Houston Maker, director of external information services for Dartmouth College Development, has decided to optimize the ROI of the e-mail marketing campaigns she overseas by using Advizor, a business intelligence tool connected to Dartmouth’s advancement database. This tool helps analyze donor demographics, philanthropic interests, giving histories, and many other vectors useful for crafting more targeted communications. Last November, an e-mail campaign with four segments that hit the high points of her November and December 2007 donors’ affinities was crafted using this intelligence.

Results— Strong, to say the least. “Whereas a generic fund-wide e-mail campaign may yield a 1 percent or 2 percent response rate, these e-mails yielded over 5 percent, with some segments yielding as high as 10 percent,” recalls Houston Maker.

Operating expenses aren’t the only items that can be trimmed. Even if an institution doesn’t have the budget for new web servers, there are options. Whether you choose to outsource e-mail—almost for free—to Google or Microsoft (see my feature, “E-mail Gmail, Hotmail, and Beyond,” August 2008, University Business) or you want to implement new bandwidth-intensive initiatives, cloud computing can help save big.

Mike Richwalsky, assistant director of public affairs at Allegheny College (Pa.), used Amazon Web Services’ S3 cloud computing service to serve a high quality online video targeted to students and alums and promoted via e-mail to tens of thousands of people. “The first month after we launched our video, we got our bill from Amazon for a total cost of — $4.75,” says Richwalsky.

Did you plan a website redesign, a series of usability tests, or even a big marketing research project before your budget crashed? While administrators can’t expect the exact same results from a project conducted by dozens of full-time consultants and a do-it-yourself initiative, an in-house web team can achieve a lot more than expected on a shoestring. Web usability can be improved at the cost of thousands of dollars, but conducting very limited usability tests, say, with five students on a $10 budget (free coffee), can also dramatically enhance the website user experience. A website redesign project can sometimes take up to 18 months, but great results can be had in less time. The College of Engineering at Texas A&M University had its website redesigned in-house last year in just five months.

Now more than ever, it’s crucial to keep up with the competition and stay creative. While conference and travel budgets will likely be hit hard by budget cuts, this doesn’t have to mean the end of all professional development. Great resources (trade publications, newsletters, blogs, and communities of practices) for higher ed professionals and executives are available at no cost. Professional development web seminars—such as the ones offered by University Business for free or the budget-conscious ones I designed for Higher Ed Experts—can also become a valuable alternative to keep entire teams, your most valuable asset, motivated and up-to-date.

Karine Joly is the web editor behind, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college and a consultant on web projects for other institutions.