As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, experts throughout the higher education industry are predicting radical reorganization and shifts to a more sustainable business model for our nation's colleges and universities. Academic departments will be consolidated. Entire institutions will merge. The traditional academic calendar is in a continual state of evolution. While all this change is enormously disruptive, we should probably admit some of this change should've happened a long time ago. Though none of us are enjoying the toll that coronavirus is taking on our industry, there may be a few silver linings.
Opportunities abound for higher ed to emerge from this crisis stronger and better positioned to thrive in the future. This is especially true for higher ed communications and marketing departments. Notoriously decentralized, the communications and marketing function is completely imbalanced on most campuses.
At UT Austin, there is a marcom team of 27 in University Communications. But, there are more than 250 marcom professionals embedded in academic and administrative units across campus.
At Michigan State, there are 38 marcom professionals in University Communications but an additional 200+ across campus that report to their respective deans or division heads.
Organizational structure is the #1 barrier to marketing in higher education.
The challenges created by this decentralized model are probably self-evident. Senior marcom professionals are responsible for institutional marketing and reputation management. They are supposed to own the university's brand. They're tangentially, if not directly, held responsible for supporting enrollment and fundraising goals. And they're held accountable for achieving these goals by the university president and board of trustees.
Now, imagine having the weight of those responsibilities, and yet 75% of your team reports to someone else in your organization. But it's not just reporting lines, it's the lack of authority — let alone influence — to lead the other marcom professionals on campus with a singular vision. The inability to participate in daily marketing decisions. To not, as is the case on most mid-size to large campuses, even have input on how the bulk of marcom fiscal resources are allocated.
Does that sound insane?
In the very best scenarios, the lack of control or even influence from the central marketing department typically leads to a host of inefficiencies, inappropriate investments, staffing oddities, and duplication of effort.
Consider these real-world examples of decentralized marcom inefficiencies:
- At a large, private, selective university, 17 magazines are produced annually by 15 different departments across campus with no sharing of content or production costs across units.
- At a small, private college, the central marketing and communications department has a budget of less than $400k. In comparison, there is a budget of more than $500k to advertise for one particular graduate program that is perpetually under-enrolled.
- At a regional public university, 8 podcasts are produced by different departments with the support of 6 different vendors.
- At a medium-sized private college, 14 different units collectively spent more than $3M with more than 80(!) different communications and marketing-related vendors and external partners in 2019.
- At a highly selective public university, the only video team on campus is embedded in development; all video production targeting prospective traditional-age students, who consume video more than any other audience, is outsourced.
- At a selective science and technology university, turnover of marcom staff embedded in the academic units is five times higher than turnover of marcom staff in the central division.
In an attempt to avoid inefficiencies such as these, central marketing leaders have to use the sheer force of their personalities to influence others around campus to integrate around an institutional marketing strategy and plan. They have to demonstrate small wins in one area to get others to buy-in and get on board with a particular tactic or program. They have to rely on the willingness of potential partners across campus to collaborate. They have to win people over, debate, cajole, and sometimes beg just so they can line up the support they need to do their job.
COVID-19 may change all that. Most higher ed marketers have been working toward and/or fighting for greater collaboration and coordination among the academic and administrative units for years. As the coronavirus pandemic forces institutions to cut costs and staff, collaboration is at an all-time high because it has to be. The real and imagined barriers that used to prevent departments from working together are crumbling.
Organizational structure is the #1 barrier to marketing in higher education.
Colleges and universities should seize on the current demand for more collaboration and reorganize to achieve increased efficiency and effectiveness in communications and marketing. It's great for marcom professionals to "live" in a particular college or school. They need to be on the ground with the dean and the faculty to ensure unit-level goals are met. But, they should direct line report to the central communications and marketing department and dotted line report to their dean or division head. That's the only way to ensure the proper training, integration of messaging, and streamlined access to resources.
Budgeting and annual planning decisions should be made jointly between the central department and the unit head. Staffing should employ what Heather Swain, Vice President for Marketing, PR and Digital Strategy at Michigan State, calls a "two to hire, one to fire" strategy. Onboarding of new staff and on-going training and professional development for existing marcom staff should be supported centrally. Depending on the culture of the institution, it may even be helpful to create an operating agreement between the central marketing department and each unit that employs marcom professionals.
In this model, the central marketing department is not a "service provider" to the various academic and administrative units around campus. Positioning the department as a service provider sets the marcom team up for failure. Just because a particular division head wants to produce a brochure to mail to peers does not mean that it's the best approach to achieving the division head's goal. It's not the job of the central marketing department to blindly produce materials requested. It's their job to recommend the most effective and efficient strategies and tactics for achieving the desired end. In short, the central team is "strategist," not "order-taker."
Imagine being responsible for all of the marketing & communications goals, yet 75% of the support staff report to someone else.
The relationship between the central marketing department and the admission and fundraising teams can be particularly muddy. Who manages and pays for lead generation mailings such as student search? Who manages the section of the web site targeting alumni? Who produces the viewbook and the case statement? Which office is responsible for managing social channels targeting prospective students and alumni? The answers to these questions vary widely from campus to campus, depending on the teams' size and talent in all three divisions.
To determine the appropriate delineation of roles and responsibilities, it's helpful to think about the difference between "marketing" and "selling." Selling generally occurs deeper in the enrollment or fundraising funnel and involves more one-on-one interaction. Marketing, on the other hand, occurs at the top of the funnel and is more likely to involve one-to-many type tactics. While not exactly the same, recruiting a student and raising a dollar are more akin to selling. Strictly speaking, admission representatives and development professionals are not salespeople. But, core to their work is interacting one-on-one with prospects and following up with leads.
Admission counselor, Sara, is responsible for helping prospective student, Nate, get all the information he needs to make an informed college choice. Development officer, Mike, works with prospective donor, Kathy, to help her achieve the goals that motivated her to make a gift. All the tactics and strategies that are implemented to get Nate to enroll and Kathy to make a gift are part of the sales process, even if that’s not what we call it in higher ed. All the tactics and strategies implemented to unearth Nate and Kathy as prospects in the first place are part of the marketing program. Both marketing and selling are essential administrative functions in any organization, including non-profits and including higher ed.
The transition will be painful, complicated, and time-consuming. That's precisely why we must start now.
The other barrier to marketing integration in higher education is by far the most frustrating. While previous examples of inefficiencies are likely to have arisen from ill-fated guidance, this final barrier is just arrogance. I can't count the number of times I've actually heard a dean say something to the effect of:
"The reputation of my school is stronger than the reputation of the university."
"My school's brand is different and better than the brand of the university."
These statements are meant to reinforce the need for a decentralized organizational structure, but they only reinforce the dire need for integrated marketing. When it comes to communications and marketing, almost every university is stronger united than it is divided. Colleges don't have enough money, time, or staff to implement a house of brands strategy. They are not Proctor & Gamble. They can't fund an effective marketing program for each school, college, or unit. Higher ed must embrace a branded house strategy in which all of our units share a common, though not identical, brand platform and marketing strategy. And, to support this, the marketing team must work from the same playbook.
Higher ed was in trouble before the COVID-19 outbreak, but now there is an even more threatening imperative to move faster and smarter than ever before. Higher ed must embrace the fundamental principles of integrated marketing and branding to survive and thrive through the catastrophic cuts to budgets and teams. Reorganize your communications and marketing function to support an integrated strategy. The transition will be painful, complicated, and time-consuming. That's precisely why we must start now.