The American Marketing Association’s annual Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education wrapped up on Thursday.
I missed that third and final day, which featured a keynote speech by former White House press secretary Scott McClellan. (Judging from the tweets on the #AMAHigherEd stream, he capped off a series of excellent keynotes in stellar fashion.)
Even though I was able to attend only two-thirds of the conference, it was enough to send me home with a head packed full of ideas, thanks to the many smart people I met and heard from during the event, and a suitcase crammed with new notebooks and swag from the vendor booths.
Here are my top five takeaways from the conference.
1. Tell your story
The importance of storytelling as an essential element of effective branding and marketing was evident all around that conference. From the keynote speeches to the booths of the marketing firms attending the event to the swag those vendors were giving away, storytelling was everywhere. As someone who loves storytelling, I have a bias for its use in marketing, so perhaps I’m filtering out other important messages about marketing from the conference. But if there was one thread that seemed to tie much of the event together, storytelling was it. From cowboy poets to university presidents, the theme of storytelling connected the conference’s several disparate themes, speakers and elements.
A thought: How can storytelling connect the disparate elements of our institutions to weave together a tapestry of solid brand identity?
2. Know your place
For the opening keynote, DJ Stout, a partner in the design consultancy Pentagram, teamed up with singer-songwriter Darden Smith to lead us through a session on the importance of place. (I won’t call it a speech or a talk, because the session combined Smith’s musical musings on guitar with Stout’s commentary, video of Texas cowboy poets reciting their work, and visuals of Texas scenery and client work.) Stout and Smith, both native Texans (Stout is sixth-generation), talked about the importance of staying true to your roots when telling your story. Their point: A sense of place is essential in branding your organization.
A thought: When thinking about branding and marketing our institutions, think about where we’ve come from and where our roots are. Think about our geography and our history.
3. But don’t just stay there
While Stout and Smith focused on the importance of roots in their keynote, University of Arizona President Ann Weaver Hart talked about branching out in hers. The University of Arizona’s brand positioning talks about geography, but extends the brand identity quite well with a platform captured in a single word: Boundless. Hart’s luncheon keynote also focused on the importance of building a brand that is connected to the university’s strategic plan, and described how the Boundless theme emerged from Arizona’s Never Settle strategic plan.
A thought: Do our institutions’ marketing and branding efforts align with our strategic plans? Can we easily and effectively demonstrate that alignment? Leaders and decision-makers want to see that connection.
4. NPR and higher ed have much in common
Emma Carrasco, another keynoter, is the first chief marketing officer of a well-established media organization, National Public Radio. As she described the brand-building challenges facing NPR, it occurred to me that NPR and higher education have a lot in common. Both have been slow to embrace branding, journalists can be as skeptical of marketing as faculty, and both NPR and higher education have been focused more on how their administrative bodies want the organization to be run than on figuring out what the customers or audiences want. Carrasco said NPR has “turned the microphone around” to give the audience a voice and to listen to what the audience is saying. In another turnaround for NPR, she said, “We can no longer wait for you to find us. We have to find you.” As a longtime NPR fan and supporter (KMST), I was encouraged by what I was hearing from Carrasco and about the ascendancy of brand-building at the national level. I hope that emphasis translates to local stations like the one I support.
A thought: Sometimes we in higher ed marketing think the challenges we face are unique. They aren’t. Listen to and learn from other organizations. You might find something in common. And you might find new approaches to challenges. Also, listen to your customers.
5. Marketing is coming of age
The lineup of keynote speakers was interesting. We had a university president, the CMO of NPR and a former White House press secretary-turned-university CMO talking about the importance of marketing. If a university president extols the virtues of marketing, if a well-established media organization sees the importance of marketing and if high-level White House staffer finds higher ed marketing to be a good career move, then these are signs that point to the rise of marketing as an important field in our sector. The number of universities who have chief marketing officers is also on the increase — another indication that marketing is coming of age. We heard a lot about the importance of marketers and chief communicators having “a seat at the table” of campus decision-makers.
And yet, at the conference, I continued to hear the complaint that marketing doesn’t get the respect it deserves. The ascendance of marketing is not evenly distributed in higher ed. Some schools are in the forefront, but many lag behind.
A thought: Be an advocate for the importance of marketing at your institution. Build the coalitions and relationships necessary to create a greater connection between marketing and leadership. That greater connection with not only benefit you and the institution’s marketing enterprise, but also the university as a whole.
Bonus 1: Best tweet of the conference
The award goes to @ICChris, who posted this gem early on in the conference:
Bonus 2: Best note-taker
Meagan Steele (@QuietMarketer) wins this award for her awesome sketchnotes, which she shared on Twitter. Thanks, Meagan!