Insights — Maximize Marketing Impact: Strategic Priorities in Higher Ed

Maximize Marketing Impact: Strategic Priorities in Higher Ed

2023-2024 CMO Study / March 15, 2024

If there's a constant to be found in higher education, it's variability. It's made the gap between institutions thriving and barely surviving feel more significant than ever. That variability is certainly present in the marketing investments and resourcing reported in this year's budgets and staffing chapter of the Higher Ed CMO Study. Amidst the fluctuation, one universal truth has emerged: CMOs at every level of tenure, campus size, and institution type are experiencing the strain of pronounced leadership expectations and resourcing that feels inadequate to meet them.   

For higher ed CMOs, the task at hand is about maximizing existing resources. The challenge comes in identifying and capitalizing on the most impactful marketing priorities for your institutions. In a landscape marked by scarcity, which strategic areas are worth investing in?

At SimpsonScarborough, we get it. CMOs are looking for strategic investments that yield big returns. We asked our area experts in Strategy, Creative, and Digital for tips on where CMOs can focus, regardless of resources. By prioritizing these areas, your institution can magnify the impact of marketing efforts, ensuring that every dollar spent isn't just a short-term win, but an investment in long-term institutional health.



Scale the Concept, Not the Content

A simple, unique concept or creative device that’s easily repeatable across teams and mediums can be far less limiting than investing heavily in a single photoshoot meant to satisfy every single use case. 

Make it Newsworthy

When developing an idea, ask yourself if it would get positive attention from the media. An effort that generates buzz generates its own content, allowing you to amplify your investment across earned and owned media. 

Be Creative with What You Say, including Where and How You Say It

When budgets get tight, it’s tempting to scale back to the ‘standard deliverables’. But that’s exactly where your competitors will be playing as well. Where might you reach your target in a less cluttered, more unique environment? Podcasts? In-game promotions? Heck, skywriting? 



Find Balance Across Marketing Spend

Brand and performance marketing play different but equally important roles in a full-funnel approach to marketing and communications. Like a balanced stock fund, ensuring adequate investment across brand and performance is critical to achieving both long-term and short-term goals. Brand marketing shapes the perceptions of target audiences, remaining top-of-mind during key moments in the prospective student journey so when a prospective student moves in-market, performance marketing converts more efficiently.   

Remain Committed to Your Core  

A consistent focus on who you are trying to reach and the markets you serve is critical to maximizing limited resources. Before expanding your audience or market ensure you've adequately invested in both. Doubling down investments with the right audiences and markets remains a key driver of reputation and perception, while also generating action from the audiences that matter most.   

Focus on Reach--First  

Less is more when considering a media mix on a limited budget. Instead of spreading your spend too thin across multiple channels, maximize your reach on a few broad-reach channels first. The ability to address multiple audiences in one buy with depth and consistency is worth the investment and will pay off in the short-and-long term.   



Optimize Enrollment and Giving Forms

Using a combination of analytics and user testing, ensure the forms you have in place are effective. Just because you have the proper forms doesn't mean users find or engage with them. In addition to testing how people find your forms, the completion rate must also be reviewed. Sometimes, forms have too many fields or require information a user might not have available. You want to make sure they don't give up before submitting.

Adjust Website Governance to Match Your Resources

Some universities have too many users with editing access to their websites. Look who has access and their permissions to determine where bottlenecks might occur. Older governance models provide broad website access, requiring more staff support. Revising governance offers an opportunity to gain back efficiencies in your day-to-day operations, elevating the quality of content and user experience. 

Eliminate Technical Debt

Many colleges and universities are burdened by legacy content management systems (CMS) that serve very narrow audiences. Consolidation allows the marketing team to channel their resources toward a better, unified experience. Often, marketing and IT need to work together to retire and consolidate legacy systems in addition to a strong communications plan. We know the pathway to get started might seem challenging, but the outcomes can sometimes save millions of dollars in overhead.   

In an environment where every decision counts, higher ed CMOs are tasked with navigating through a sea of challenges with strategic foresight. It's clear that investments in marketing—whether in creative, strategy, or digital —can significantly influence an institution's trajectory. By embracing a balanced approach to marketing spend, maintaining a steadfast commitment to core audiences and markets, innovating within budget constraints, and capitalizing on efficiencies, institutions can create a ripple effect of positive outcomes.


Thank you to our SimpsonScarborough colleagues — Sara Wallace (VP, Strategy), Chris Huebner (Director. Strategy Planning), Mick Sutter (Executive Creative Director), and Bob Rafferty (EVP, Digital) — for lending their expertise to this article.

At SimpsonScarborough, we believe in the power of data-driven, strategic choices to meet and exceed the demands of today's educational landscape. Contact us anytime to chat about your next marketing project.