On Thursday I received an email from The Chronicle of Higher Education inviting me to download a report about the state of marketing in higher education. An early version of the report — titled “Higher Ed Marketing Comes of Age: Data and Insights from College Marketing Leaders” — was shared last November during the American Marketing Association‘s Symposium on Higher Education. I was anxious to delve into the findings then, as Jason Simon of SimpsonScarborough, which partnered with the Chronicle to conduct the research, gave participants of a salon for chief marketing officers (CMOs) a sneak preview. Many of us in the room had taken part in the survey as well.
But as I do with many reports, I read that one, shared the findings with others on campus and tucked it away in my electronic files for safe keeping. The Chronicle‘s recent email, however, prompted me to re-read this brief but data-rich document with fresh eyes. Here are my five reflections on the results of what I’ll refer to from here on out as the “Comes of Age” study. (You can also read a summary of the study on the SimpsonScarborough blog or download the report for yourself. You should do both.)
1. Higher ed marketing’s identity problem
While marketing as a discipline has matured in higher education and has gained much broader acceptance in the academy, we still haven’t quite figured out what “marketing” means in higher education. Having a marketing identity problem may not be a great thing for offices and officers responsible for managing an institution’s identity.
Some of this has to do with the way our marketing units are structured, and how they’ve evolved over the years in the unusual environment that is higher education.
Unlike many corporate marketing units, which tend to be more centralized and monolithic, the marketing functions of colleges and universities in general are highly decentralized and lack strong central coordination. We also spend far less on traditional marketing than the private sector.
Almost every college or university has a central marketing department these days (although the department may be called something else and have any myriad of responsibilities or reporting structures). But as the Comes of Age study points out, nearly one-third of doctoral-granting universities have 20 or more marketers who are not part of the central marketing department — and 7 percent have 100 or more decentralized marketers.
This burdens campus CMOs with “significant management challenges,” the report notes. It’s difficult to manage messaging, identity and other tactical aspects of marketing when so many people doing marketing don’t actually report to the chief marketing officer.
2. What is marketing, anyway?
There’s also the question of what “doing marketing” actually means. The Comes of Age study reflects a breadth of activities that marketing departments are responsible for, or have a role in shaping. Topping the list is advertising, but a close second is the “media and public relations” function. In most corporate settings, marketing is more closely aligned with sales while PR and media relations are part of corporate identity or strategic communications programs. In higher ed, however, they all fall under the same banner — along with photo and video services, market research, crisis communication, and issues management. In many ways, higher ed marketing is more like strategic communications. In my view, all of it should fall under the bigger banner of “branding.”
Regardless of what you call what many of us do — marketing, branding, PR, strategic communications, etc. — it’s certainly not the textbook idea of “marketing.” There is a lot of cross-functional and cross-disciplinary work in higher ed marketing.
But all of that could be changing. As the study points out elsewhere, more campus CMOs are coming from the outside world of marketing, media and advertising, rather than through the ranks of academia. According to the survey, 74 percent of CMOs at doctoral-granting universities have previous work experience in those sectors. The influence of these marketers from the private sector is starting to show, but it will take some time before we fully realize the impact of their leadership on our institutions. (At the same time, however, the traditional approach to marketing is also changing. So let’s hope we don’t try to imitate traditional marketing too much and lag behind the changes being adopted outside of higher ed’s walled gardens.)
3. Higher ed marketing’s PR problem
In addition to some identity issues, higher ed marketing has a lingering PR problem. Or as the Comes of Age study puts it, marketers are “still seeking respect” from their campus colleagues for what they do.
“Although the importance of marketing on campus has grown, the ways in which marketing contributes to institutional goals continues to be misunderstood,” the report notes. Almost half of the CMOs surveyed agreed with the statement, “Others around campus generally think the marketing department’s primary role is to produce brochures.”
Of course, this is not great, objective data. This is our perception of how others perceive us. It would be better to ask this question of the “others around campus.” But still, I think the information has value. Fully acknowledging I have no data, only anecdote, I suspect that most people — not just in academia but almost everywhere I go — view “marketing” as “promotion,” e.g., producing brochures (or websites, press releases, ads, etc.) Promotion does play a role — it’s one of the classic four P’s of marketing — but that is not all there is to marketing.
This information is also valuable, I think, because it tells us perhaps more about ourselves than we might like. It confirms our own suspicions about how we see ourselves.
Perhaps we’re still feeling a bit too defensive about our role in the academy. When 28 percent of us say we don’t use the word “marketing” with faculty when we talk about what we do, how can we not have a PR problems? (It’s even worse with “branding”; one-third of respondents don’t utter the b-word around faculty.)
I’m not sure we’re going to earn much respect among our academic colleagues if we’re afraid to use the appropriate words for what we do.
4. Where does the money go?
Higher ed marketing budgets vary widely, according to the report. Doctoral-granting universities spend, on average, $3.56 million annually on marketing. On the low end, at least one CMO at a doctoral-granting university reported a modest budget of $300,000, and on the high end, someone reported “a massive $25 million” budget.
The problem with this information, however, has to do with the ambiguity of the question, “How much does your university spend on marketing?” (To be fair, I don’t recall the exact wording of the question, but I do recall feeling uncertain on how to answer it.) One CMO may have reported the budget earmarked for marketing expenses, such as advertising and promotional materials, while another may have reported the entire budget of his or her marketing unit. Yet another may have tried to estimate the total budget for an entire decentralized marketing operation.
The Comes of Age study tries to acknowledges this conundrum:
These budgets may be so wide-ranging and difficult to benchmark because there do not appear to be any standards for marketing department responsibilities and for whether the function is centralized or decentralized across campus. One institution’s marketing department might be responsible for the web, but another’s might not. One might include government and media relations and another’s might not. There is significant variability.
That significant variability again points to the identity problems of our marketing operations. But I hope that a future follow-up survey would try to get at more specifics on how a marketing budget is defined, and perhaps offers an opportunity for respondents to break down, by percentage of budget, where the money goes.
5. What constitutes success?
When it comes to measuring success, perhaps higher ed marketers aren’t so different from our corporate counterparts. In the business world, marketing success translates into sales. In higher education, most CMOs measure success by enrollment growth. This is a more important measure for baccalaureate institutions than for master’s or Ph.D.-granting schools. Seventy percent of baccalaureate-granting schools cited undergraduate enrollment as a key success measure, while 50 percent of Ph.D.-granting and 62 percent of master’s-granting institutions said that.
But awareness and engagement is also important — slightly more so for doctoral-granting universities (47 percent) than master’s-granting (43 percent) or baccalaureates (36 percent). Perhaps a shift is occurring in terms of how we define success in our marketing efforts. The former (enrollment) is more closely aligned with a traditional marketing approach, while the latter (awareness and engagement) has more to do with the university itself as a brand.
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I’ve only scratched the surface here. But one final thought: It appears to me that marketing as a discipline in higher ed, though a strange breed when compared to its corporate counterparts, is evolving into something that can perhaps bridge the silos of our institutions. I also think that marketing in higher education has an opportunity to leapfrog over the traditional definitions of marketing and into the realm of true institutional branding. The chief marketing officer of the future might very well be the chief branding officer. Perhaps it’s time to look toward that model.