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The Way Out of Lame University Marketing

University Business, Nov 2010

Despite the money, time and good intentions thrown their way, most college and university marketing efforts are littered with flawed assumptions, missed opportunities, process inefficiencies, me-too work and disappointing results. The ripple effects spread to recruiting, fundraising, alumni engagement, pricing pressure, and even retention and institutional reputation.

I wish my view of the status quo was rosier. At the same time, I do not believe that this underwhelming state of affairs is due to bad intentions or incompetency on the part of campus staff professionals, advertising agencies, social marketing whiz kids, consultants or others who are trying to build results. The problems are historical, cultural, structural and very sticky.

Those of us who are committed to higher education, and believe in its profound benefits, need to make sure that every available unit of smarts, energy and good practice is applied where needed. Why should great and valuable institutions stagnate due (at least in part) to mismanaged marketing, when other folks are successful selling far less consequential things such as Snuggies?

There is a path for universities to escape lame marketing. Within some campus constituencies it will have all the appeal of a heaping daily helping of liver and beets, but it does work. And one person on your campus holds the key.

Before we get to the prescription, however, let's make a decent diagnosis. I served for several years as a corporate chief marketing officer and today do mostly private-sector consulting. The truth from the front lines is that many corporate marketing efforts are a mess, too.

Marketing is a complicated task, involving some mastery of not only advertising and public relations but also finance, distribution, IT, customer service and branding. The growth of social media and digital marketing has created both opportunity and additional complexity. In companies large and small, executive teams fail to agree upon what is to be achieved through marketing, how much time and money can be reasonably spent, which results can be reliably measured and even who should be in charge (e.g. marketing or sales).

So let's stipulate that corporate America - even with its legions of MBAs and seeming oodles of resources - is far from perfect when it comes to marketing. Yet for several reasons the marketing of universities is typically even worse:

  • Too much internal focus. Perhaps it is the set of regular mandates for voluminous self-studies. Perhaps it is all that benchmarking against a limited set of peer institutions. Whatever the cause, universities tend to stay fascinated with themselves and similar others even when success depends upon an external focus.
  • Poor planning habits. University strategic documents often amount to lengthy wish lists rather than actionable plans (the kind with measurable objectives, clear tactics, resource commitments, personal accountabilities, firm timelines and evaluation metrics).
  • Too many cooks. Because all of us are to some degree recipients of marketing, some begin to quite naturally believe they are experts in marketing. When it is time to form some marketing committee or advisory group, administrators unwittingly turn this latent difficulty into a roaring problem by placing in the group people who actually don't know beans about the issue.
  • Fragmented cultures. Universities are dominated by subject-matter experts, who tned to value autonomy and personal freedom over team processes. That's not always a bad thing, mind you, but it does make for difficulties in getting big things done. Add in the fact that data and people are still generally stuck in silos, and you have huge built-in difficulties which must be circumvented.
  • Little organizational power for marketing. The marketing and communication professionals on campus tend to be both widely dispersed and low on the food chain. That makes it difficult to ultimately connect efforts across public relations, advertising, recruiting, advancement, sports marketing and alumni relations.

The results of this environment can fall somewhere between stagnation and outright retreat. Still, magnificent results are possible when universities are able to get past themselves.

A decade ago, I was able to play a small role in a dramatic marketing and operational turnaround. A marketing firm had been engaged by a Midwestern university to create a new viewbook and recruitment tools; I was serving as research director. Our team was granted the resources to conduct a comprehensive research program involving students, parents, prospective students, faculty, staff members and alumni -- before beginning any design or training work.

Faculty members and administrators across campus were engaged in our work. The administration made a commitment to scholarships. The admissions team was gung-ho. Toward the end of our engagement, some faculty members were personally making recruitment calls "for the first time in years," as one of them told me. The result was a dramatic turnaround in recruiting success - a 58% one-year rise in freshman enrollment, with slightly higher SAT and ACT scores, following a 12% decline in enrollment during the previous four years.

Were we that good? Well, no marketing team is that good. The key was that things had become very bad at this university by the time we were engaged. A large operating deficit, unhappiness with the president (who was soon forced out), the aforementioned enrollment declines and disappointing fundraising combined to create common purpose and a palpable sense of urgency. Crises tend to do that.

Can your university achieve marketing success without a timely crisis?

These days, as a consultant, I am typically hired to drive change initiatives. For those initiatives to succeed there needs to be more than a wish list or even a consensus vision of tomorrow. Organizations need an active "executive sponsor" to accelerate change and make it stick; for institutions of higher education, the president or chancellor is the only person who can effectively fill the role.

Taking the role of sponsor doesn't mean that you try to do the work yourself (and please don't). The sponsor has the power to make the work important, to enlist the right people, to make sure things happen, to create wins.

So, here is my counsel to your president. It's not your fault. (I will say this only once, as opposed to the Robin Williams character in Good Will Hunting who rattled it off ten times to the Matt Damon character.) You are burdened by tradition, inertia, industry norms and the particulars of campus culture. But even if you did not create the current mess, there is no reason to perpetuate it.

Here is the prescription:

  • Give the marketing staff more accountability, with authority to match. A few innovative institutions have created marketing leadership positions with actual discretionary resources and a direct report to the top. Even when those positions are defined wholly around marketing communications (not including other areas of the marketing mix), such an organizational change is a start.
  • Bring real research into the mix. Your institutional-research team is vitally important, but the institution probably needs to shift its focus away from itself and that peer-institutions list and more toward the outside world. Use an objective, outside expert if necessary. Tell the team you expect to hear new insights.
  • Push hard for fresh ideas and practices. Learn how an institution that isn't on your peer list (or even a private firm) is succeeding and learn from them.
  • Put together a small task force with clout and visibility. Yes, in your culture everyone wants to be heard. The task force can and should use phases of "discovery" (prior to forming specific recommendations) and "validation" (presenting early-stage ideas) with a broad range of people in order to hone their ideas and gain needed political support. That is the way to make sure enough people are heard. The actual decision-making team should be kept both small in number and comprised wholly of people who know what they are doing and have a stake in marketing success.
  • Give the team freedom to test ideas on a small scale, then evaluate and adjust. There will be a time for the big kickoff of new messages and programs. When that time comes you will be more confident, and will have a much easier time convincing skeptics about the wisdom of the new approach, if there are results to reference.
  • Keep the sense of urgency alive. You can maintain the pace of change by having informal barrier-busting meetings with the task force. Remind everyone on campus that this effort is a priority. Hold the team accountable for deadlines, but also celebrate small wins and milestones along the way.

No, the status quo of lame marketing isn't your fault. But only you can change it. How do you like them apples?

Jim Karrh, Ph.D., a former tenured marketing professor and corporate marketing executive, is a consultant, columnist and speaker. He is also Director of MarketSearch, the research and strategy division of Mangan Holcomb Partners in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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