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What will it Take?

A guide to laying the groundwork for an effective marketing strategy.
University Business, Nov 2006

Invariably, the one question I can count on during every marketing seminar I conduct is this: "What will it take for our school to develop an effective marketing strategy?"

It is how this question is answered that will likely dictate first, whether a college or university will undertake an integrated marketing effort and second, whether or not that effort will be successful.

While the needs and contexts of the individuals and institutions that pose this question often vary, from my perspective there are five "must haves" that need to be in place for a marketing strategy to be successful. Let's consider each of them.

1. The active, aggressive commitment of the senior team. From the outset, it is absolutely critical that the senior team, including the president, be committed as a body to the idea of integrated marketing. If this commitment is not there and not demonstrated, team members send, intentionally and unintentionally, conflicting and often damaging signals to their middle managers and beyond about the importance and legitimacy of marketing. (My four-part series on building the senior team can be found in the November 2005, and January, March, and September 2006 issues of University Business.)

This commitment must be visible, tangible, and ongoing. It will be evidenced, in part, by a willingness to develop synergistic goals and share resources.

Savvy visionaries know that truly inspiring visions must be compelling to internal and external audiences.

2. A compelling, well-communicated vision that differentiates. Let's address the issue of "compelling" first. Ten years ago we noticed a shift in why people didn't give to institutions. Historically, the reason that someone didn't give was because they were not asked. Now, the No. 1 reason is because the vision, or need, isn't compelling. In other words, the vision doesn't excite and engage the prospective donor.

Whether you are a donor, administrator, faculty member, or prospective student, the vision must engage. Too often, visions are largely institution-centric. In other words, it is all about the college. Savvy visionaries, however, know that visions that truly inspire must be compelling not only to internal audiences, but to external audiences as well. In other words, successful visions must be of great value to both your inside audiences (who live your vision) and your outside audiences (who sustain it).

3. A solid research foundation. If there is one "best practice" in marketing, it is the willingness to undertake periodic market research. Interestingly, while most colleges and universities teach this best practice in their business departments and schools, many do not follow it.

The reasons, I believe, are threefold. First, they don't want to spend the money or, in some cases, simply don't have the money to spend. Second, they don't want to take the time. And third, they believe in their hearts that they already "know" what the market will say. In other words, they prefer opinions to facts.

But let me outline a handful of reasons that tilt at the "we don't need research" windmill:

Market research establishes credibility not only for you, but for your integrated marketing planning efforts. A disciplined, deliberate approach to marketing requires that research be undertaken. Without solid research, it is highly likely that your findings will be challenged and confidence in your plan and activities undermined.

Market research provides direction. For one client, we used a tuition pricing study to help guide how much the school could charge out-of-state students. The result was an almost immediate 25 percent increase in out-of-state tuition revenue with no negative impact on the number of out-of-state students.

Research helps you set priorities. In today's marketing, fundraising, and recruiting environments, the problem is generally not a lack of options but determining which ones are most likely to succeed or provide the greatest return in the shortest time. Recently, a client asked us to determine which of two academic programs would attract the most students. A survey of prospective students, an analysis of competing colleges and their offerings, and an evaluation of short- and long-term regional job and employment trends provided the necessary data to help them decide.

Finally, with the stakes so high, you simply cannot afford to be wrong. The loss of time, the waste of dollars, and the undermining of confidence in your plan and strategy that will occur when you act without research may well be insurmountable.

4. Integration at all levels. A key component of integrated marketing, not surprisingly, is the idea of integration. Integration must occur at three levels:

Strategic integration. Successful marketing strategies flow from your mission, vision, and strategic plan. The marketing plan is not distinct from the strategic plan. It is an extension of it. It is absolutely critical that your strategic plan and marketing plan be in synch. In fact, it is generally better to have a strong marketing component in your strategic plan than to have separate marketing plan.

Organizational integration. Organizational integration means that the right people report to the right people, that they share goals and resources (just like the senior team), and that they are empowered to act. In cases when you cannot actually change the organizational structure, it is critical that a team of like-minded individuals work together collaboratively from a centralized marketing plan. Remember, our first inclination is silos. We need to constantly resist this temptation.

Message integration. Messages are driven by deliberate, consistent, and coordinated strategy. In most cases, integrated messages share a common look, sound, and feel across various mediums.

5. A legitimate, sustainable budget. Long before the integrated marketing planning process is launched, there must be a commitment on the part of the senior team on the size of the budget that is available. Without this commitment, there is no point in proceeding with the planning process. Let me repeat this: If the president is not willing to designate a budget upfront, you should put the planning process on hold until that commitment is made.

Fortunately, this commitment does not always mean new dollars. Significant marketing impact can be made by the reallocation and coordinating of existing dollars. Instead of dollars, at this point, your president will be spending a different kind of capital-political. Ultimately, he or she will need to make the tough decisions on how to reallocate sufficient resources to support the marketing plan and its execution. Over time, however, as the senior team melds and begins to abandon those historic silos, the reallocation and sharing of resources will become easier.

Let me offer a couple of quick thoughts about budgeting. First, nothing will cause a budget to grow faster than the word "more." If you try to fund a plan that focuses on more audiences in more target geographies, you will almost always end up spending more, but likely not enough, dollars. When it comes to budgeting, it is time to rein in your institutional ego and focus on fewer audiences and own a smaller target geography.

Second, if dollars are tight, stay away from an extensive investment in advertising (paid media). There is little evidence that advertising, especially by itself, is an effective brand-building tool. However, there is considerable evidence that a panoply of unpaid media (public relations, media relations, special events, co-branding) augmented with a much smaller component of paid media can be highly effective. Resist the temptation of the big, splashy media buy. Instead, turn to a comprehensive array, and balance, of unpaid and paid media.

Finally, never, never start something you cannot sustain. It does little good to roll out a one-time blitz. Not only does this make you look foolish, but it will cause your competitors to react and they will be rolling out their own messages when you can no longer fund your own. (Budget issues are covered extensively in a pair of columns I wrote for the September and October 2004 issues of University Business.)

Before you rush to begin writing your integrated marketing plan, take the time to line up some critical ducks. In doing so, you will greatly increase the likelihood that your integrated marketing plan, and its activities, will be successful.

Robert Sevier, a senior VP at Stamats Communications, is the author of Building a Brand That Matters: Helping Colleges and Universities Capitalize on the Four Essential Elements of a Block-Buster Brand, available from

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