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Collaborating, Communicating, and Leading the Five Phases of the Higher Education Marketing Cycle

December 7, 2009

Leading a higher education marketing program is a highly satisfying but challenging role in the marketing profession, requiring a heavy dose of collaboration and communication throughout the marketing cycle.

If you are a chief marketing officer, you’ll find that the benefits of working on a college campus are many. It’s a unique and wonderful professional environment. But you’ll also have to deal with historical, organizational, and cultural dynamics inherent in the academy, resulting in a typically decentralized approach to marketing; one in which you may find a share of faculty members uneasy about the values of marketing and branding in an academic setting.

Consequently, you’ll need to develop productive relationships with academic and administrative leadership across the campus. As you listen and interact, these relationships will help shape your perspective–and theirs–on marketing higher education, and the good ones will be politically strategic and personally rewarding.

Successfully collaborating with other campus leaders, and effectively communicating a marketing/branding perspective on campus, are signs of a CMO’s leadership strength, and strong leadership is essential for a higher education marketing cycle of five phases infused with collaboration and communication…

Define Reality. One of the most important things a chief marketing officer can do is to define reality for the president, administrative colleagues, faculty, and staff. What is the present situation for the institution from a marketing perspective? What is the state of the brand, and the dynamically changing market? How is the brand performing in that market? The CMO should be honest, but politically wise.

Defining reality is the result of research and a lot of it: your dashboard indicators plus tons of other market data, internal institutional data, your competitive set, socialgraphics, best practices, etc. Included in this activity is the production of a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats).

Plan, Cast the Vision, and Advocate. Given present reality, what are we going to do about it? What’s the plan?

This is where a CMO’s creativity, professional knowledge and experience pays off, and where you detail your comprehensive marketing and communications program, from organizational considerations to media mix.

Marketing plans should be collaboratively produced, and should cover mission, SWOT, goals, target markets, market position, marketing mix, action plans, and assessment. (Previous posts in which I’ve focused on marketing plans: Planning for Changes in the MarketMarketing. It’s More than Promotion. The Marketing Plan. Navigating Your Way.)

Out of thorough planning comes a vision of where the marketing program is headed. This should be exciting! Communicate that vision with your team and the campus. Build momentum, or keep the momentum building.

But a vision is just a “what if” without funding. Importantly, a chief marketing officer must be an effective marketing and branding advocate. Simply put, your role is to secure university resources for the marketing program. Hopefully, you’ve done a good job in defining reality and in educating university leadership regarding the importance of marketing and branding.

Organize, Empower, and Create. Build the marketing organization. Work to get the right people in the right seats on the bus. Empower them to do their jobs well. Work to eliminate or moderate obstacles for them on campus.

Create a positive, productive, and creative culture for your marketing and communications team. Listen to them, brainstorm with them, and turn them loose. Out of that collaboration and input–and your right brain–comes strategic creative direction.

Leading a creative/marketing team requires a CMO to be on the cutting edge of the marketing profession and higher education. The nature of how business is conducted across industries is changing dramatically. You must know the trends and sea changes. and how they apply to higher education.

You should be involved externally in the profession, and be a practitioner with new media. Doing so will promote the university’s brand, and will energize and inform you for the creative marketing and branding work that lies ahead.

Manage the Plan, Manage the Brand. Stay the course with the marketing plan(s), but be willing to make mid-stream adjustments as you analyze data throughout the year.

However, this stage is not just about project management. The culture of higher education fosters a “we’ll do it our way” mentality on campus with brand messaging and design. Be faithful to brand standards. Tap into your relationships with campus leadership to troubleshoot branding issues.

Brand standards are easier to manage if you’ve been successful in educating the campus community about branding and why it’s important. And that should be the focus.

It’s not about being the “brand nazi” when standards are violated. It’s about the benefits of following a well thought-out branding strategy.

Define Reality, Again. Assessment. Analytics. ROI. What goals were met? What tactics worked and should be continued, and which ones should be phased out? What has changed in the external environment in terms of opportunities or threats? While assessment occurs throughout the year, this is the phase in which you’ll finalize your plans for next year…which begins the marketing cycle anew.

The Big Picture. Finally, a chief marketing officer must think beyond his/her portfolio and consider the best interests of the institution. The foundation of marketing and branding is the brand itself. Your marketing program can’t make up for an inferior student experience, especially  in this new environment of technology empowered students and social media platforms. As you define reality and respond with a plan, improving the academic/student experience may be one of your best investments in marketing and branding.

See posts on the marketing environment in higher education:

The Wonderful and Wacky World of Marketing Higher Education

The History and Status of Marketing Higher Education


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