Our ongoing series about the Future of Higher Ed MarComms is focused on all of the topics that we believed were important to address in a pre-covid environment, and in a world turned upside down by the pandemic, these topics have evolved from important to urgent. After all, one of the lasting impacts of the pandemic has been the acceleration of digital disruption across all industries — higher ed notwithstanding. But, this isn't just a time to react and adapt, it's a time to innovate and think strategically about what's next.
With that in mind, we posed the question to some of our senior leaders at SimpsonScarborough:
What are the higher ed marcomm jobs of the future? Where do colleges and universities have gaps in their organization that, if filled, would help them tremendously?
These aren't traditional higher ed roles, and we think that's a good thing.
Brand Experience Officer
Submission by Matt McFadden, VP of Strategy
In our latest CMO report, there is one chart that stands out more than any other in relation to this post. We asked the lead marketers at institutions which discussions they were involved in. At the top of the list were "Marketing of Individual Schools" at 91% of respondents, and "Recruitment Strategy" at 86% of respondents. And then the cliff comes. Of note in today's environment are "Student Experience" at 63% of respondents, "Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives" at 55%, "Employee Morale" at 53%, "Program/Product Development" at 51%, and "Retention" at 48%. The last five are all intertwined, and directly impact student and faculty experience, yet, around 1 in 2 schools nationwide do not have marketing and communications people in these discussions.
It would be impossible for the CMO/VP/AVP/Director at any institution to partake effectively in all of these conversations. Which brings us to the premise of this post. For most schools, marketing budgets are not going to vastly increase in the next few years. Which means aligning new hires with the priorities of the institutions and not just what has traditionally been on the org chart is of prime importance.
When looking at the stats above from our CMO Report, it all distills down to the experience of the individuals on campus. Over the last 10 years, the largest investments in experience were mostly facilities- or amenities-based. But, given a pandemic and civil rights movement — both on a global scale — safety, health, inclusion, and cost/value (especially in relation to in-person vs. online experiences) have risen to the top of what makes for a good college experience, warranting a shift in investments.
Too often this year we've seen institutions make decisions related to campus safety, diversity and inclusion, or program delivery, without anyone from marketing and communications at the table.
The Brand Experience Officer works closely with Student Affairs, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Enrollment and operates like a hybrid of customer service and marketing. With the ability to gather data daily on social channels and less frequently through vehicles like pulse surveys, they're able to raise issues across campus units before those issues become crises. Too often this year we've seen institutions make decisions related to campus safety, diversity and inclusion, or program delivery, without anyone from marketing and communications at the table. Those decisions were hard enough and some adverse reaction was expected, but they were made far worse by the absence of the perspective that communications staff could provide. Also, this role helps to ensure the brand messaging that was delivered during the recruitment phase is pulled through during the full student lifecycle, and supports other units with their internal communications. This could mean support with marketing materials or messages, but more importantly, the development of experience-related talking points for constituents across the university. A campus that is collectively committed to delivering on a brand promise and speaks the same language is a powerful thing.
Director of Customer Experience (CX)
Submission by Bob Rafferty, VP of Digital
Other industries have embraced CX as an integral part of brand management. Higher Education likely shies away from this role in the same way it shied away from the words Marketing and Branding decades ago. It feels one step closer to abandoning our organic identity and transitioning into a fully corporatized monolith. But fear not! An emphasis on CX might be just the thing you need to not just survive, but thrive during periods of uncertainty.
A director of customer experience looks broadly across the university to identify and refine the customer experience. Creating meaningful connections between what’s happening in a marketing office and what’s happening in the student union is incredibly important. It creates greater authenticity in marketing efforts and ensures the value of the brand is on an upward trajectory.
The term “customer service” gets thrown around a lot, but it is rarely tied back to marketing goals. We just don’t think of the university as a place that focuses on customer service — that’s what fast food does. In reality, the interaction and experience a current student has in a registrar’s office is as significant as the interaction a prospective student has with an admission counselor. Measurable goals need to be established across the university for improving the customer experience. Imagine a campus where each interaction is measured by how satisfied the student (or employee) is with their campus interactions. That data is crucial, and should be reported quarterly as part of the university’s brand health index. It will serve as a key indicator of retention and student satisfaction. Of course, this concept can become risky if applied to the classroom. We recommend that the interactions happening there should continue to be evaluated by the academe.
Brand Researcher & Archivist
Submission by Mike Roe, VP of Creative
I know I’ve said it: no one knows your college better than you. And I’ve heard you say it: we’re focused on the future, not our past. The thing is, though, as NPR says about its excellent podcast Throughline, “the past is never past. Go back in time to understand the present.”
It’s only then, when you truly understand the full story of your brand’s foundation, that you can focus on its future.
How well do you and your team know—really know—your institution’s history? You know a lot, probably, but not everything. It may not even be right. For instance, think about a memory from your own life. You need only share and compare your memory of a time or place with someone who was there, to discover that your memory tells, at best, an incomplete story and, at worst, an inaccurate one. An unfortunate reality.
It’s not an easy task to take in, sort through, and make sense of an institution’s history; even when you have someone dedicated to it, which most colleges and universities do. Unfortunately, the position exists outside of marketing, and the person tasked with maintaining your university’s archives can be very touchy about just anyone walking in and getting their greedy hands and greasy fingers on delicate, one-of-a-kind, centuries-old material, such as, say, handwritten letters by your institution’s founder (wouldn’t it be cool to create a custom font using their handwriting?).
Now think of a Brand Researcher & Archivist that lives within marketing and sees things—quotes, stats, factoids, stories photos, graphics, etc.—through the lens of a copywriter and a designer. They’re not only viewing the past, but also reviewing it through the eyes of a marketer who is tasked with constantly thinking about how the finds could be used to inform and inspire work. You’d no longer be limited to the institutional knowledge of the team in a room at a given time, or to the subjective nature of that knowledge. You’d have factual information at your fingertips that could then be used to better educate communicators today and tomorrow, as well as assets to inspire creatives. And in addition to cataloging your college’s history, a Researcher & Archivist would also archive everything you’re working on now, for stewards of the university that follow in your footsteps. Not to mention that the things you uncover through Marketing’s efforts could prove useful to your bookstore (think: apparel) and your alumni magazine, just to name two departments. Marketing could be more influential across campus because you’d be coming from a position of knowledge (and knowledge is power), and you’d likely be even better regarded, as you’re assisting other departments in fulfilling their responsibilities to tell your college’s story.
When I was in-house at Notre Dame, we called our through line a “Golden Thread.” What do you call yours? What will you call yours?
Of course, I could be totally wrong. As Danish humorist Robert Storm Petersen said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Submission by Sara Wallace, Director, Marketing & Media Strategy
2020 was a litmus test for how institutions can and should evolve in the dominant digital landscape. Institutions were forced to become more agile and responsive to shifting landscape conditions, and attempt to deliver a personal experience to current and prospective students through a screen. If 2020 showed us anything, it's that making an effort to build stronger, more efficient integration across multiple tools or partners, knowing how to build a brand online, and learning the right ways to connect with Gen Z through the ever-evolving digital landscape will continue to be top priorities for higher ed in 2021.
In addition to the changing audience habits and evolving media trends that became apparent in 2020, the digital landscape is shifting to cookie-less environments. One pain point that surfaced as a result of COVID is that institutions do not have a single, comprehensive source of data for targeting and outreach beyond the purchase lists from SAT, ACT, or other, similar organizations. The institutions that succeed in this new environment are the ones who look to their own data and 1) clean it up to use it in new ways 2) identify new methods of collecting data from core audiences, to develop a deeper understanding of who they are and what they need. Looking ahead to 2021, institutions will benefit from a Data Strategist as part of their MarComm or Enrollment teams.
The core objective of this role is to focus on integrating all the data available to institutions, identifying the most useful data points to support media and marketing planning, and collecting additional data from ongoing campaigns. Put more simply, they can identify opportunities for institutions to best use the data they have available to them, and turn it into efficient, actionable campaigns and strategies. Introducing this type of role internally provides institutions with control over their own data, and gives them unfettered access to a database that can provide insights into audience habits, priority geographies, and more. This data can also be leveraged in digital media for 1:1 and similar targeting, to create personalization and also capture broader audiences that may be quality prospects.
Creative Director or Art Director
Submission by Cole Londeree, Creative Director
An intermediary between CMO/Marketing Director and members of the creative team (designers, content specialists, videographers, interns, etc.), a Creative Director role bridges the gap between a CMO's overarching knowledge of marketing strategy and the team's more granular execution of creative content. They also serve as a go-to for maintaining brand standards and consistency, both within the MarComm team and with outside content creators (different departments/schools/athletics, in the case of higher ed).
In unprecedented times like we've experienced of late, this allows the CMO to focus on agile strategies and crisis response, while allowing their team to develop creative solutions to long- and short-term problems, and to keep the day-to-day communications afloat.
Digital Experience Analyst
Submission by Bob Rafferty, VP of Digital
Over the last several years, the digital communication channels universities use most frequently have matured to provide meaningful analytics. As a result, the interactions happening in social media, email marketing, and website properties can easily be understood and used to refine marketing strategies. Over time, insights are being developed about what type of content is working well on which platforms, and for which audiences. In addition to these analytics, new online tools have been developed to measure user experience within our owned digital properties – websites and mobile apps. This is where the next area of focus should be for universities. So much can be gained by understanding the correlation between content delivery in external channels, and user experience in the properties owned by the university.
A digital experience analyst will be a core part of the future marcom team. They will work alongside brand managers, digital strategists, and user interface designers to provide meaningful insights about audience segments across a host of different digital properties. Universities who put their resources behind customer experience will find this position incredibly valuable in understanding and testing new strategies. The position will create the insights required to move our digital properties from universal experiences to ones tailored to meet the needs of our most valuable audience segments.
Director of Institutional Content
Submission by Kristen Creighton, AVP of Accounts & Strategy
One of the biggest challenges colleges and universities continue to face is the marcomm operation being viewed as a siloed service provider, as opposed to a centralized strategic leader. It's often the result of the institution's organizational structure, with marketing and communications units being buried a layer or two beneath the Cabinet level, and/or replicated vertically within the advancement and enrollment offices; which often translates to power struggles and a lack of coordination and messaging consistency. Add to this the fact that content producers are scattered across all corners of the institution, in both academic and administrative units, and you end up with a disjointed marcomm mishmash, with no clear leadership and no real way of determining what's working and what's not.
One of the biggest challenges colleges and universities continue to face is the marcomm operation being viewed as a siloed service provider, as opposed to a centralized strategic leader.
In addition to continually advocating for Marketing and Communications representation at the Cabinet level across higher ed, at SimpsonScarborough we see great potential in standardizing a centralized, director-level role that coordinates and unifies content strategy and creation across the institution. While we are seeing more and more directors of brand strategy or content strategy at colleges and universities, what's new about the role we're advocating is the mindset.
The centralized Institutional Content Director is not just pushing out strategy from within the marcomm office; he or she is involved in proactive, visible outreach across the institution--a diplomat and coach who works collaboratively with all content strategists and producers to educate them in the framework and expectations of the institutional brand strategy, and empowers them to work both effectively and independently to support it. Brand policing is out; content coaching is in. Centralized Content Directors don't sit behind a desk; they're a daily presence across campus, meeting with writers, designers, marketing coordinators, professors, and deans across the university, listening to their stories and sharing data on how and where key audiences are engaging with the institution. They're offering informal brand trainings and providing resources and assistance in how to find, shape, share, and tell stories that lift the brand and connect their departments with everyone across the institution. They're establishing systems for all institutional units to share their work in ways that ladder up to institutional-level tracking and measurement systems. They're in charge of establishing a content hub for the institution, and facilitating/monitoring its continual upkeep, from appropriate keyword and topic tagging to asset management.
Submission by Matt McFadden, VP of Strategy
Our friend Terry Flannery said it best not too long ago:
The right course + right market and sun-setting programs = product strategies.
New program development and generation should be left for the faculty, instructional designers, and other pedagogical experts. Sun-setting programs represent a much harder discussion, because, while enrollment may be lower, many are still vital to the core curriculum and the mission of the institution. Being at the table allows marketing to understand the benefits, the outcomes, the corporate/community partners, and ultimately, the intrinsic value of the product being offered. Initially, a great Product Marketer would help facilitate program demand research, oftentimes in collaboration with Institutional Research. This allows the Product Marketer to understand and communicate demand, and develop data-driven messaging and marketing initiatives for those new programs.