Higher education marketing is at a turning point. Marketing professionals are involved in major decisions across campus, and this evolution is creating some growing pains for marketing teams trying to manage all that is currently being asked. More than ever before, teams are seeing the opportunity to do much, much more to support the university. This makes it an exciting - and scary - time to be a marketer. But before we get into all of the opportunity, let’s take a step back and look at where we started and where we are now.
The Evolution of Higher Education Marketing
Higher education marketing teams have historically been focused more on communication and, when focused on marketing, it was focused on the big brand initiatives with a reputation of creating billboards, commercials, and print ads that may not have been related to other campus messages. Essentially, marketing offices worked in isolation to promote the university. I studied marketing and the enrollment cliff at regional public universities as part of my dissertation. A CMO from a public university described the history of marketing in this way:
When I started, if you had a TV campaign, a radio campaign, a billboard campaign, and a newspaper campaign, you were good to go.
Over time, as university competition increased, marketing teams also began supporting enrollment. Most universities depend on tuition revenue from students to remain fiscally viable. As such, many marketing offices began assisting the admission and enrollment functions heavily. This is where marketing began making the transition to the daily work of marketing --communication flows, enrollment collateral, and more targeted advertising. It is where the professionalization of marketing began to take place.
The reason? It all ties back to enrollment. An Associate VP for Enrollment at a public university explained:
We don’t have students, then we don't have jobs. It’s imperative that we all work together to make sure we are ensuring that students are aware of us first of all through our marketing, and then are we presenting a desirable sort of picture of our institution that will make a student want to come.
Where Are We Now?
Now, things are changing again. The enrollment cliff is coming, and it’s coming quickly. The early signs of this cliff correspond with the 2007 recession, when people began having fewer babies and waiting longer to do so. Fast forward 18 years - here we are. This change means that universities will have about 400,000 fewer students nationwide every year for several years to serve. And it means that we as an industry need to look at other avenues for engaging students, one of which is retention.
Retention is important for several reasons. First, students are no longer tied to a particular university just because they started there. Other universities can recruit enrolled students via marketing thanks to a NACAC change in 2019. This means retention matters even more as students may be more regularly encouraged to transfer.
Fiscal retention is important as well. It is 3-5 times more cost-effective to retain a current student then to recruit a new student. And that number is likely to go up as the recruitment pool shrinks.
Where retention for marketing teams becomes challenging goes back to the 4P's - retention is heavily focused on the product itself. What obstacles exist? Are universities making processes too difficult?
The most recent CMO study from SimpsonScarborough noted an increase in marketing teams supporting recruitment efforts for the first time and making inroads in having a seat at the table for larger university decisions. This is a perfect example of where marketing can help their universities by serving as a change agent. Marketing, more than any other group, is likely to see ineffective processes, red tape, or delivery issues that are challenges to keep students enrolled. This makes it vital that higher ed marketing leaders use that seat at the table to help ensure the product that higher education is offering is continually refined and improved, which can help with retention.
Most importantly, marketing teams supporting retention is the right thing to do. As higher education professionals, we need to be doing everything we can to make sure our students are staying in class, getting the support they need, and are prepared to leave their mark on the world post-graduation. Many of our brands talk about how we care about students and put them first. We can show that through supporting students and helping retain them throughout their entire educational journey.
Branding: A Big Concern
Branding is critical, but it takes time.
SimpsonScarborough found decreases in brand focus among higher education institutions in their most recent CMO study. My results are slightly different. In my study, about half of regional public CMOs I spoke with had just finished or were about to revisit their university's brand look, messaging, and guidelines. Regardless of which finding you follow, both suggest that marketing teams have the opportunity to do more to support the university brand over the long term.
One participant explained in a simple way why branding was so critical for universities:
Branding helps you find a few keypoints and say them over and over again in a variety of different ways, making sure everything ties back.
Doing that work month-over-month and year-over-year leads to strong brand awareness in the community, familiarity with your institution, positive public perception, and trust in your outcomes - all good things. However, those things are hard to track. In a world of ROI, branding is more difficult to track but it is critical for long term success to ensure your various audiences know about you and the great work you do.
How Do We Do Better?
Marketing teams can lead the charge for universities and marketing teams to do better. We tend to work across the entire campus which gives us the perspective to see things outside of particular silos. As such, marketing teams have a unique opportunity to bring campus entities together in order to serve as change agents for campus. Here are three ways that can happen.
Make it Easy
Most people want to do the right thing until the right thing is hard. Think recycling. Most people want to recycle, until it’s hard. Sorting the paper from the glass, from the cardboard is time consuming and difficult. At some point, people just put it in the trash. The same can be said with marketing. People want to be part until it’s hard - our role is to make it easy. We can provide a flyer template in a format that doesn’t require a special software, or provide an email template with words for a recruitment email. We have campuses full of people who want to help, but sometimes the brand book is complicated to follow. Our job is to create excitement about the brand and make it easy for others to be part.
Get out and talk to people. Meet people. Build campus relationships. Because marketing hasn’t always had a seat at the table, we are sometimes tied to own our space. We need to stop that. Building collaboration can happen in a multitude of different ways. Hosting a lunch and learn about social media practices. Sending a weekly letter to deans about what the team is doing. Regularly scheduling a coffee with a department head. Providing analytics and results on partnerships. Building collaboration with our campus community gives us access to better content for storytelling, and it creates internal champions to support us and engage in the work we are doing. We need each other. And we need to take the lead in making it happen.
Remember People First
Why Does it Matter?
Higher education is changing. The enrollment cliff is coming. Competition is increasing, and because of it, retention will matter more than ever. From my view—this is an exciting time as well. Higher ed marketing teams nationwide are clamoring to help lead through these challenges in order to make a difference for the institutions that care we so much about. While the work is hard and there is much to do, the opportunity is immense. And we, as a profession, are ready.
Carrie Phillips, Ed.D. is the Chief Communications & Marketing Officer at University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She considers herself part creative and part analyst but fully curious to solve challenges in higher education. Last spring, she defended her dissertation from Texas Tech University where she studied how regional public universities are using marketing efforts to mitigate the enrollment cliff. Outside of her role at UA Little Rock, Carrie is a member of the American Marketing Association and holds the Professional Certified Marketer credential. She is also a member of the District IV Cabinet for CASE, HighEdWeb and UCDA.