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By: Tom Kegelman

50% of Universities Could Close. Alignment Can Save the Day.

With supply outpacing demand in most parts of the country, successful institutions will be the ones that realize they can’t compete when their own organization is fractured.

Admissions /
By: Tom Kegelman

8 minutes

Cats versus dogs.

Republicans versus Democrats.

Michigan versus Ohio.

Practically everything on this planet has a nemesis. It’s a function of life, and the everyday struggle to overcome adversity makes living a bit more interesting and challenging.

Now, let’s buckle up and explore one of the most contested struggles within higher education: the dynamic between marketing and admissions.

The dynamic between marketing and sales is as pervasive within the industry as it is in higher education. The perpetual finger-pointing between these two units practically predates the abacus. Marketing blames recruitment for not converting the leads. Recruitment says the leads are horrendous. Does this sound familiar?  

Let’s set the stage: The stakes are high in higher ed

At a time when many schools face an existential crisis, administrative officials sometimes blindly tinker with the four P’s of marketing as a last minute Hail Mary pass to keep the lights on. As universities experiment with steep tuition discounting, selecting the right product mix, and sourcing third-party partners to deliver online education, they are scrambling to find relevance in a crowded market. Building a rock wall as the solution to enrollment issues is so 2009. Is it any wonder that influential Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has predicted that half of all colleges and universities could face closure during the 2020s?

At some point, administrators and staff will be forced to break down the traditional organizational silos, rethink the C-suite, and learn how to create cohesive alignment between key groups like marketing and sales.

The problem is that universities have long benefited from a strong demand that outpaced supply. The reality is that the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education projects a rise in the number of graduating high-school seniors until the mid-2020s, when a steep drop will commence. That’s when Clayton sees the writing on the wall. If universities are struggling to adapt now, imagine the scenario in five years if the pool of international students also dries up. Why are universities so unable to adapt? In most cases, look no further than anemic, or at times, non-existent marketing and organizational strategy.

Located in rural Pennsylvania, Susquehanna University is emblematic of this shifting economical equilibrium. Supply is outpacing demand, so the University’s President, Jonathan Green, recently announced at CUPRAP’s 2019 annual conference that drastic actions needed to be taken– the creation of a marketing role within the C-suite.

It took 161 years to take severe measures.   

Why Has Marketing Taken A Backseat?

Push-and-pull marketing. When there’s strong demand, common pull-marketing elements like the viewbook and content pieces are at the top of the marketing plan to convert on prospective student interest. In this model, someone familiar with marketing communications, PR, and content, such an AVP of Marketing Communications, is absolutely necessary to implement the strategy. However, when institutions need to pull prospects within a funnel, marketing strategy is needed to help create and promote a value proposition that compels the right students to express interest. Creating demand is the main reason why for-profit universities have been some of the most adept in terms of creating an integrated marketing strategy. However, only around 30% of universities have formalized the role within their institutions.

“Marketing and Recruitment are too often viewed as side-by-side efforts, strategies, and tasks that inform each other but still exist within the discrete division.”

The absence of the CMO within the C-suite has created a power vacuum that can manifest throughout the organization. Ultimately, aside from the president, who has the accountability and authority to make the hard decisions to impact enrollment or fundraising? Remember that sales is a subset of marketing. And since recruitment = sales, the function of marketing is unquestionably compromised by separating the two into unaligned silos. This is what creates a culture of finger pointing within the organization. And believe it or not, some within the ivory tower have somehow come to the conclusion that there’s an inherent conflict of interest by aligning marketing and recruitment. It’s that line of thinking that can crush organizational culture and jeopardize the financial well-being of an institution. As long as the quality and quantity of incoming student metrics are agreed upon at the onset of the recruitment year, there should be no conflict.  In the wake of the Varsity Blues scandal, this type of organization alignment should help facilitate greater transparency, accountability, and potentially a more ethical approach to enrollment management and marketing.

A savvy marketer needs to ask: What’s your university’s winning strategy? How are you different? Relevant? Think about it: Are you secretly a commodity buy, but you won’t admit it? What’s your story? Is it compelling? How can we align?

Getting Alignment: What Higher Ed Can Learn From Silicon Valley

Higher education is notorious for creating silos. Faculty is grouped by department; staff by function (marketing, admissions, enrollment management, development, program management, etc); and then there’s administration and trustees. Silos can offer some benefit to organizational productivity, but they can also hamper collaboration and organizational alignment.

How about cross-functional teams? They don’t fare much better. A study published in Harvard Business Review of 95 teams from 25 leading corporations found that 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. 

Marketing and Recruitment are too often viewed as side-by-side efforts, strategies, and tasks that inform each other but still exist within the discrete division,” says Heather Dotchel, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Manor College. “But what we do across MarCom and Enrollment is really, at the least, a continuum and, at best, a fully integrated and intertwined effort.”

“This complete partnership is especially true at small institutions where we are always trying to maximize the impact of our resources. By looking to combine these resources to partner whenever possible — whether that is sharing staff talents or pooling budgets to onboard systems — we can accomplish far more to meet institutional goals than we would if we were doing our best collegial efforts on our own. At Manor College, we are integrating digital marketing with lead generation and yield in a seamless process to do just this.”

Silos can be fine as long as they’re all collaboratively working toward the same goal. That’s why the leaders in Silicon Valley recognized the need for a new role — the Chief Revenue Officer. Great CROs must be able to break down silos so that sales, marketing, and CRM are aligned and working together to create the best possible experience. What defines a CRO? They are typically collaborative, data-driven, strategic, sales-oriented and, perhaps most important, they’re customer (or student) focused. Why a CRO and not a CMO?

According to a recent article by the Harvard Business Review entitled “The Trouble with CMOs,” more than 80% of CMOs control brand strategy and customer metrics. But beyond that, the range of duties — including pricing, sales management, public relations, e‑commerce, product development, and distribution — varies widely.

Some CMOs understand sales, but not all do. And if your CMO is making decisions that impact the entire funnel, it’s critical they understand how each decision impacts the funnel and student journey. The need for one individual (aside from the CEO or President) who’s accountable for strategy, the P&L, and the commercialization of the products is critical in today’s higher education landscape. That’s why the CRO is now becoming increasingly popular in the C-suite.

Can’t Restructure the Leadership Team?  

Let’s assume you’re not the president of your institution and you don’t have the finger on the trigger to completely restructure the leadership cabinet. These are the types of things a CRO, or a savvy CMO that understands sales and marketing, could do to help create alignment:

1. Create a marketing brief.

The marketing brief allows the marketing, recruitment, administrative, and academic teams to agree on the product you’re representing. Take the necessary time to identify the primary and secondary targets, personas, features, benefits, and capabilities of the product and how you will prove these things to be true. Finally, you’ll need your recruiters to identify the rebuttal statement. Why aren’t the students buying what you’re selling, and how do you overcome that obstacle?

When recruitment goals aren’t hitting the mark, it’s important to fall back on the brief and analyze what components of the product might be causing the poor performance. The most important component when forming your own brief is to make sure that every stakeholder signs off on it before implementing the marketing and recruitment plan. This should help create alignment and reduce fingerpointing.  

2. Better understand how your counterparts’ performance is measured.  

If you can, try to get an understanding of what motivates members from outside of your team. A marketer might be evaluated on the number of leads and pieces of collateral that are generated, while a recruiter could be evaluated on the student quality of the incoming class. Also, when are your counterparts measured? Are the recruiters measured on a weekly or monthly basis, whereas the marketers designed a year-long plan and will be evaluated at the end of the fiscal year? Understanding in advance that the recruiters might be looking for immediate help if enrollment is floundering could mean that marketing should leave buffer time/resources to help accommodate requests in the future.  

The marketing staff needs to understand what is happening “in the field” to define what differentiates the program, and the admissions/recruiting staff need to learn how to develop consistent messaging and messaging appropriate to the channel.

Once you’re able to better understand the pain points of your peers, the more you’ll be able to potentially collaborate to form a better partnership. Ultimately, it’s partly up to leadership to create a culture of collaboration and communication, but it’s also critical for the teams to form their own working relationships built on empathy and trust.  

“The lines between marketing and sales (recruitment) can be blurry in programs with less staff or without dedicated marketing staff,” says Deirdre Kane, full-time MBA director at the Terry School of Business at The University of Georgia. “Technically, my role should be specifically sales-related, but I devote a significant amount of time to developing our story (and sharing that back to our marketing manager).

The goal is to develop an integrated marketing plan. So, if your admissions/recruiting staff are managing social media, email campaigns, and/or other content, and the marketing staff is managing the digital strategy, then it is crucial for those two groups to collaborate.

The marketing staff needs to understand what is happening “in the field” to define what differentiates the program, and the admissions/recruiting staff need to learn how to develop consistent messaging and messaging appropriate to the channel. They can learn these things from the marketing staff through consistent communication and collaboration.”

3.  Tandem Jump into the Funnel

We know in higher education that data analytics programs are all the trend. However, how much analysis does your department currently perform on the funnel, and how much of this is done cross-functionally? The earlier marketing and recruitment recognize the threats and opportunities, the easier it’ll be to collaboratively solve the problems. Do you use data visualization to see the funnel? If not, you should. Additionally, marketing should be intertwined within the recruitment process (information sessions, yield activities, open houses, student on-boarding, etc.). If both teams aren’t fully interacting within the funnel, it’s relatively impossible to have alignment.  

Keep the Lights On

Fifty percent of universities shutting their doors in seven years sounds ominous, but not all of these schools need to suffer the same fate. With supply outpacing demand in most parts of the country, the successful institutions will be the ones who realize they can’t compete when their own organization is fractured. At some point, administrators and staff will be forced to break down the traditional organizational silos, rethink the C-suite, and learn how to create cohesive alignment between key groups like marketing and sales. Because let’s face it, isn’t that better than the alternative?

Tom Kegelman

Tom Kegelman

Volt Editor in Chief & Managing Director of Higher Education

Tom is Editor in Chief of Volt and Managing Director of the Higher Education Division at eCity Interactive. With over twelve years of higher education experience at Villanova and Temple, it would be hard to miss Tom’s creative and strategic impact on the market. Both institutions saw a significant increase in enrollment due to Tom’s exceptional abilities in strategic marketing, branding, admissions and enrollment management. Additionally, Tom has significant experience outside of higher ed working within a portfolio of companies including Diageo, the world’s largest wine and spirit company. Tom’s achievements were recognized by the Philadelphia Business Journal, where he was a recipient of the PBJ 40 under 40 award.

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Josanne DeNatale

Drastic? Many colleges know and are implementing strategic marketing at the senior team level. We’ve always been advising this. To say: “Supply is outpacing demand, so the University’s President, Jonathan Green, recently announced at CUPRAP’s 2019 annual conference that drastic actions needed to be taken– the creation of a marketing role within the C-suite.” Implies that most colleges are blindsided. They are not. There will not be any one silver bullet that saves the day. But the slow and steady route of following a branded content strategy over the years will yield success. These are tough times. But we are… Read more »

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