How to Market a University

Stony Brook University’s Teresa Flannery discusses her new book and one of the most fundamental challenges in higher ed today.

By: The Higher Voltage Podcast
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“The pressures to stand out, successfully compete, and meet an institution’s goals have never been more acute,” writes Teresa Flannery in her new book, “How to Market a University.” And this week’s episode of Higher Voltage is all about that very topic – not the book itself, per se, but that foundational question of what it takes to define and differentiate a higher education institution, and to make it appealing to prospective students. That’s a challenge that has never been more imperative to solve than now, with applications declining and competition increasing.

Our Guest: Teresa Flannery is the interim VP of marketing and communications at Stony Brook University

Our Host: Heather Dotchel is the host of Higher Voltage. She is a Philadelphia-based higher ed marketing professional who most recently led two area colleges as their chief marketing officer.

Read the complete transcript:

Heather Dotchel:
Hello and welcome to Higher Voltage, our podcast explores the ins and outs of higher education marketing and touches on all aspects of the business of higher education. My name is Heather Dotchel. I’m a Philadelphia-based marketing and communication profession who more recently led the MarCom divisions of two area colleges. I’m excited to say that Terry Flannery, higher ed wonk herself, is here today to talk about her new book How to Market a University. Terry, welcome to Higher Voltage.

Terry Flannery:
Thank you. I’m ready to volt.

Heather Dotchel:
Excellent. Can you start out by giving our community a quick summary of your professional background?

Terry Flannery:
Sure. I’m a higher ed leader with 35 years of experience in the sector. I haven’t worked in any other environment but higher ed, and I have experience in different areas of higher ed administration. I started out in student affairs. I moved to admissions. And there, I had the first opportunity to learn more about marketing, where it was taking hold. Soon then in other parts of the college and university environment, and that’s where I kind of got my calling.

Terry Flannery:
I’ve been a higher ed marketer since 1997, and I’ve worked at now three institutions where I’m the chief marketing officer, University of Maryland was my alma matter and my first role, American University in Washington DC, and then recently I joined Stony Brook University as their interim vice president for marketing communications in New York. Three institutions with very different marketing challenges and opportunities, but great fun.

Heather Dotchel:
Wonderful. Thank you. Before we get into the meat of the episode, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that Higher Voltage is brought to you by Salesforce. Today’s higher ed marketers are faced with new challenges and must expand beyond their tradition tactics to engage with constituents. Learn how Salesforce empowers institutions of all sizes to unify first party data, build and measure targeted campaigns, and deliver personalized messaging across channels. Visit salesforce.org to learn more about how Salesforce can help your institution meet its goals. The title, How to Market a University, is simple and totally accurate.

Heather Dotchel:
It’s essentially a how to manual that only supplies immensely helpful advice, experience, and tools for all of us, but it also does so in a way that should be accessible to your president, your board, your fellow higher ed executives. I have to say, I was trying to skim through it in time for the episode and I found that I could not skim it. I kept getting pulled in. It just rang true of… It was so well-written with the flow that it was very easy to slip from skimming mode and go into deep reading. And then at some point, I just stopped skimming and said, “Okay. Everything’s going on hold. I’m going to go sit down and read this.”

Terry Flannery:
I got you.

Heather Dotchel:
You did.

Terry Flannery:
You know what it’s really fun though? Is that even though I know it’s an important work for CMOs, I wrote this book for presidents, provosts, and boards of trustees. It’s really written in a way that is accessible to them. It’s not filled with marketing lingo. It’s designed to help those leaders understand the value and true purpose of marketing, but it’s got some tools in it to connect those leaders with their CMOs. Every chapter has the set of discussion questions that I encourage folks to talk with their leaders about.

Heather Dotchel:
Yeah. It’s definitely going to be on my list of handing it over to my president at every position I might be in and perhaps positions that I’m not that I think it could just be useful for them. In the introduction, you talked a bit about the motivation behind the book, the process of writing this book. You actually left your position at American University to devote yourself to its writing. Yes?

Terry Flannery:
Yes, after 11 years in the role, and that was hard. But most of us know that our day jobs are very unpredictable, even more so since I stepped off this cliff to write the book. I was trying to do it for about six months just in my own time, and there was never my own time. In order to really do it, I decided to do sort of a self-funded sabbatical. It took about six months to write the manuscript and then into editing and all the other stuff that goes on afterwards.

Heather Dotchel:
You mentioned that you received advice that a good way to approach it would be to interview and converse with a few experts in the particular chapter topic and then use those transcripts. I thought that was genius. Did you find yourself using that technique?

Terry Flannery:
I did. This is an idea… I pulled all my faculty friends at American before I started writing to say, “How do you do this well?” And they gave me all kinds of tips. But one came from Jim Thurber, who is a prolific scholar, and someone who’s written, I don’t know… He’s at top of the field in terms of presidential and congressional studies. Written multiple books. He’s an extrovert like I am, and he said, “This is a solitary exercise, so one way that you can make it less so that will also help you write the book is to write an outline for your book. Do a paragraph for each chapter about what you want to cover.

Terry Flannery:
And for each chapter, send that to someone who you think is an expert that you’d be able to have a chat with. Sent it to them in advance. Set up a meeting for an hour. Record it. Ask about what’s missing. Ask for examples. See if they’re thinking is aligned with yours or not and why.” He said, “When you’re finished and you’ve recorded that, the chapter will virtually write itself.” And he was absolutely right. But it also gave me the benefit of talking to some of our greatest thought leaders in the field and some presidents who have been through this work from their perspective.

Terry Flannery:
It really gave me opportunities to have it not be a solitary experience, but also to bring in some really good thought leadership from elsewhere.

Heather Dotchel:
I love that. My path through marketing and comms, since we all have different ones, is publications and writing. When I was going through the introduction, that really jumped out at me and I thought, oh, that’s a fantastic way to approach it. I wanted to mention that.

Terry Flannery:
I recommend it. Yep.

Heather Dotchel:
You write at the beginning, I have a quote here, “The pressures to stand out, successfully compete, and meet an intuition’s goals have never been more accurate. In a period of declining public support, a shrinking pipeline of traditional college bound students, and a steady rise in tuition and discount rates, and in the wake of a devastating global pandemic that is likely to permanently alter the higher education landscape for years to come, leaders are under intense pressure to ensure steady or growing enrollments, cultivate greater philanthropic support, grow research funding, and diversify revenue streams all while strengthening institutional reputation.”

Heather Dotchel:
This is chilling, feeling and true, but it does really highlight how lockstep institutional strategy and marketing strategy must be in order to succeed. About what percentage of university leadership understands this, do you think?

Terry Flannery:
I’m not sure I know a percentage, but I would say, whatever it is, it’s on the rise. And even for those leaders who don’t understand this, they’re curious about it now, or they are inclined almost in terms of a burning platform, if you’ve heard that term before, to jump off and find out more about this work, because they’re in positions that the incentives have never been greater. And some of the forces that you mentioned in that quote are really challenging them to look for tools or options or approaches that they haven’t in the past. One of the essential premises of the book for this audience is marketing strategy is institutional strategy.

Terry Flannery:
There are three presidents that I talked to that I highlight in the book that were going through the process of developing their strategic plan and their brand strategy at the same time who understood that that was the case. They should be informed by the same research, and they should be aligned closely. They don’t always have to be done in tandem. Sometimes the circumstances don’t allow for that to happen, but clearly leaders are beginning to see the value. That’s certainly a new phenomenon.

Terry Flannery:
When I started in this work, we couldn’t even say the M word, and we weren’t allowed to do the brand research before the strategic plan, because, God forbid, we don’t want to have customers telling us what we should be teaching students. God forbid. That’s all changing. I know it’s on the rise, even if it’s not yet understood or recognized widely.

Heather Dotchel:
We loved seeing Angela Polec’s work cited extensively. She actually was on Higher Voltage right before the holidays talking about the importance of having the CMO at the leadership table. Let’s elaborate a little bit on that in light of your book and explore how to begin talking about marketing’s purposes, resources, and measurement with institutional leadership.

Terry Flannery:
Angela, I should just mention, was my thought partner on this book. Really, really important. And she’s one of the rock stars in higher education marketing. An important voice. Her research looked at how successful CMOs operate and what makes them successful, at least that’s my sense of her work. She looked at forces that support that success, both bureaucratic and network power, which I would translate as formal and informal power. You can think about walking into a role to see what the structure is going to allow in terms of formal power and try to choose wisely is what I would say.

Terry Flannery:
Choose something that you think fits with what you expect, what you want, but that includes the support from the top, the president in particular, who’s vocal and support about the importance of this work, willing to fund it, gives you a title and a seat at the leadership table as member of the cabinet, which is happening in more than half the cases at our institutions across the country right now according to some case data. The opportunities, in many cases, start to structure that formal power. But really the secret sauce, and I think Angela’s dissertation demonstrated this well, is in the work that goes on in the informal side.

Terry Flannery:
Marketing leaders who are transformational leaders, they exhibit transformational leadership capabilities, not transactional, are those that really developed kind of relationships and influence that goes well beyond your formal portfolio, reporting structure, any of those kinds of things. And that’s really key. Thinking about walking in the door and what do you have available and then what else can you cultivate is going to be really important.

Terry Flannery:
In instances where you don’t have those discussions happening yet, and I know some people do their directive marketing or an executive director or something that’s not got them there yet, I think I would say look across and look up. Who are your colleagues that you can have conversations with about this work, and who are you reporting to that could benefit from some more thinking about this? And sure, you can give them the book and have some conversations about this book, but really I would say think about things like bring the data.

Terry Flannery:
We have a unique position in our institutions where we have data that crosses many different functions and many different audiences, and we have this unbelievable perspective about the stakeholder audiences that’s about as wide as it comes. Maybe the only president has a similarly wide view in that regard. If you can bring data about those audiences to the table about an important decision and not say, “Let me in. I should be part of this,” but something to offer that might help us think about this, you’re usually going to be able to demonstrate some value that begins to unlock the keys to the kingdom, right?

Terry Flannery:
Then people start to see, “Hmm, this person has a perspective and some intelligence that could really help us with our thinking about our strategy, our position, our pricing, our service, our program.” And that maybe is the place to start if you don’t have it yet and then build on that.

Heather Dotchel:
Quite related to that, you provided a great deal of guidance about unit structuring, which I’d like to talk a bit about. But in a similar vein, you talked about marketing taskforce, working groups, and steering committees as essential to shaping vision, but also as having very separate roles. Can you highlight the differences and particular usefulness of each group for those who might not work with these types of partner groups already? I know in my institutions, we had one or not the other or two, or maybe something called by another name. Can you talk a little bit more about the structures that you work with?

Terry Flannery:
Sure. Yep. I think the structures that you’re talking about are tools for integrating that compensate for things that aren’t part of the formal structure. That’s how they’re presented in the book. In many instances, we are limited or hindered in some ways by our decentralized functions of marketing and communications across our campuses. And the bigger you are, the more complex you are, the more you are a research university, the decentralization is just wild. At a small, small institution, it’s not quite so egregious.

Terry Flannery:
But even in those instances, you may not have the kind of input or influence or buy in you need to be able to move forward successfully in higher ed marketing. We work in an environment with shared governance that we can fail really easily if we move too quickly without bringing out internal and our external audiences along with us on this ride, on this journey.

Terry Flannery:
If your structure has people and units, be they communicators or the people that those folks are reporting to who could make your program more successful or who could upend what you’re trying to achieve in terms of your primary responsibilities, then these structures are ways to help you compensate for that and to help integrate. Something like a marketing taskforce that I talk about is a group that becomes your most expert participants and really the recommenders to the decision makers about the key decisions in your marketing program.

Terry Flannery:
If you’re doing a brand study, they can help you identify what the key questions are that should be studied, how to ask them, which audiences, how to execute, and they’re not down the line marketing people in such a taskforce. They should represent kind of the power users of the brand across the institution and then some constituents and representatives. At American, we had at least two faculty members, one with expertise in marketing from the business school and one from the school of communications that was an expert in market research. Their expertise contributed, but they were also providing a faculty perspective.

Terry Flannery:
We had an undergrad and a grad student as part of that program. Taskforce is the kind of thing that can help you think about what should be the approach to the brand research, how do we make meaning of these findings for our community, how do the findings shape recommendations for brand strategy, what should the expression of our brand concept be based on those recommendations. Those are all kind of milestone in this process that we talk about in the book that are really representative and kind of not all the way high level, but fairly informed and influential group, can help guide the major decisions and recommend to the cabinet key decisions that they can then make.

Terry Flannery:
They’re so involved in the participation along the way, they become advocates for the process. They have buy in. They’ve been on the journey in a really informed way. Something like a working group in my thinking is a group of people who have the same kind of work, but don’t report to the same boss, for lack of a better word. You might take all your people that do media relations work or strategic communications and form a working group where you’re establishing your leadership authority and influence by gathering them. You’re the convenor. You have your staff there, but all the rest of them are there too.

Terry Flannery:
You provide professional development and opportunities to engage or collaborate on things that everyone would benefit from, or maybe you make decisions on a tool together that makes all their work easier. A working group helps bring people with similar professional responsibilities together even when their day to day jobs wouldn’t. And then the steering committee for me is more along the lines of an ongoing group of people at a fairly high level who are representing shared ownership of something that crosses functions. An example I give in the book is web governance.

Terry Flannery:
That many times crosses multiple different areas of responsibility, including technology, including marketing communications, but also has really key important stakeholders in the academic units, in the administrative units. Thinking about a group in an ongoing way that’s developing web policy, looking at compliance and enforcement, developing and scanning an enterprise approach to how do we keep the site up to date, how do we manage the content, all those kinds of things. That’s how I divide up those three things, and they all involve a great deal of consultation and meeting in order to keep our colleagues with us.

Heather Dotchel:
You also do make it very evident in the book that buy in from the community leadership needs to occur early in the process of these brand discoveries or refinement processes. You have a great example of a conversation with a provost about making sure that faculty ambition was included in the messaging. That seem to end very well, but do you have an example of learning this the hard way that you can share?

Terry Flannery:
There are always instances where things don’t go exactly like you want them to go. And I’ve been fortunate to avoid any real disasters, and it’s because it’s inherent in my professionally raised in higher education that I’m a creature of shared governance and consultation and collaboration. I know that that’s really important. I think people who come from other environments, they get a little frustrated with the pace of that. They short change that. It gets them in more trouble usually.

Terry Flannery:
I think I tell the story where at American when we had a brand concept recommended and chosen and even creative tested, but we hadn’t rolled it out yet, we took a summer to consult in small groups, 35 luncheons and teas, I joked that I gained 10 pounds, but a lot of brand support in the process, with faculty and staff in small groups, mainly faculty. And we walk them through all the research. They’re scholars. They understand research. Walked them through all the research and the resulting findings and the requirements that were informed by those findings and then the concept. And then we said, “How do you see yourself using this?

Terry Flannery:
How can we make this even more effective?” And that process gave them some education about what this is really about. It helped established what this thing is designed to do. It got us out of the discussions of, “I don’t like that color. I don’t like that typeface. I don’t like marketing. It’s commercial,” and brought tight to their work enrollment way, and then we were asking them to make it better. Sure, you’re going to hear things, and there were some people who want to derail it and say horrible things. But guess what? We get to hear what the gadflies are going to say about it before we actually roll it out.

Terry Flannery:
It’s great intelligence, right? You’re going to know who’s the obstructionist or the person who’s going to have concerns. If you can’t win them over, you at least know what they’re going to say. And certainly I’ve had my share of people who’ve told me what they think about that. I would say those are not going wrong, but it’s hard to hear this thing you’ve worked so hard on isn’t going to be loved by everybody and you just got to get over that. In the meantime, you also gain lots of advocates in a process like that. They help make it better.

Terry Flannery:
They actually think about it in a way that you could not, because you have a different lived experience, a different professional background, all those kinds of things. That helps you devoid that learning the hard way, I would say.

Heather Dotchel:
I particularly enjoyed the beating drum of market research and especially the audience first perspective that you brought throughout the book. You rely a great anecdote about administrative leadership. When presented with two options, also picking the opposite of what the student perspective audience would. Has there been a time where you’ve been completely surprised as to what your research revealed students or donors or other perspective audiences preferred or wanted?

Terry Flannery:
Yeah. I think as I get older, I start to see that same pattern happening where I am more removed from the experience of a traditional life student and it’s a little humbling, I would have to say. That provost in that story said, “Why don’t you just save money? We don’t need to do any more creative testing. Just ask me which one I like and take the other.” You always learn things in the research. None of us, even the most experienced, is going to think of everything. It helps your work become better. I guess a great example would be watching focus groups engage with the content and seeing it influences and really listening.

Terry Flannery:
With Fear the Turtle at University of Maryland, we could hear from faculty who really had kind of a bias that that came from an athletic rallying cry and it wasn’t academically serious. But all the messages were about how the institution had grown as a public research university in terms of excellence. It was using the athletic rallying cry as a pivot move. And conversations like that had the opportunity to help us think about how are we going to address that obstacle with a really important internal audience and how can we adjust this to make it better.

Terry Flannery:
Another example is at American University where we were doing the creative testing for the Wonk Campaign, and that was like unlocking the secrets to the universe about this campaign and how it worked. It was magical. We’re sitting in groups of perspective students and just showing the word wonk on a board and said, “What do you think of this word?” And they said things like, “Wonk. Wonk. It sounds funny. Willy Wonka.” They really didn’t know what it was, but their reaction wasn’t good. And then we gave them the information that wonk is know spelled backwards. And you could literally see people of all…

Terry Flannery:
Not just students, alumni, staff, faculty, sit back in their chairs and smile like, “Oh, that’s pretty clever.” And for a concept that’s for an educational institution, they could see that relationship. They realized where did this is come from. We actually gave them some stories about how wonk emerged as know spelled backwards. Then we gave them a definition. A wonk is someone who’s considered smart, passionate, focused, engaged, and ready to use their knowledge to affect meaningful change.

Terry Flannery:
And they’re like, “Oh, that’s American University. That’s so American University,” then they started using it and doing examples of what kind of wonk they were or could be and how we could use it. It helped give us the roadmap for our to roll out the concept, because it was going to have these challenges at the beginning that needed to be addressed. Great opportunities to see how you can learn from those experiences.

Heather Dotchel:
I love that and I love that that is a campaign that’s ownable. We’re talking a lot… I mean, we have for years, but I think the pandemic has accelerated things to such a point that we’re talking about schools really, really needing to dig in and differentiate themselves and having messaging outside the norm but that is very ownable for the institution with American’s location and all of that, Wonk makes a lot of sense. Fear the Turtle is different and it’s cheeky and you can’t just throw any institution in there and have it worked. Fear the Turtle, do I remember correctly, was that the second go round for messaging from that campaign?

Terry Flannery:
It was. It was the second expression of the brand concept or the brand platform. The first one was ZOOM, and it was a really good start for our very first brand expression at Maryland. But it had kind of a short shelf life. People got tired of it very quickly. It was a little gimmicky. In the words of my president at the time, Dan Mote, who was a huge advocate for differentiation, very courageous guy, said, “This one,” speaking of Fear the Turtle, “this one has legs.” And he was right. It lasted for more than a decade, and still the platform’s there and expressed in fearless ideas.

Terry Flannery:
Now it’s been modified in some ways, including after I left, but the notion of it having some longevity is really important. That expression came from what people were trying to express with the mascot, the terrapin, which is a really unique differentiated mascot. Right there you start from a place… I would just sort of say, look for places where you have clear differentiation in your identity, in your mission, in your position, in your location. What it is that you have a place to differentiate? And then ask whether that’s relevant, meaningful to the audiences, and authentic to the institution. Will folks internally say, “Yeah, that’s us.”

Terry Flannery:
Fear the Turtle had all of that in it. It was designed to express quality, discovery, impact, and momentum, which were all requirements from our research about what we needed to do. But the personality of the institution came through in that expression. Really fierce determination in the people at the University of Maryland. Kind of scrappy. Always moving forward. Never looking backward. A turtle can’t go backwards actually. And it was cheeky. It took a little bit of The Turquoise and The Hare tale as sort of its inspiration. And a terrapin is actually only about two inches long and we did things to make it look ferocious and powerful.

Terry Flannery:
It roared like a lion and it stomped like an elephant and all kinds of really fuzzy and cheeky things. There was a bit of don’t take yourself too seriously in it, which was also very characteristic of the personality of the institution. Very much us.

Heather Dotchel:
I appreciate the idea of sustainability, and I find it remarkable that you got basically a decade of mileage out of that at this point. How do you help the internal community to keep embracing messaging like that? I know one of my challenges has always been saying to the various branches, “You see our message every day and this is why you’re a little tired of it. You need to put yourself in the external audience and realize they’re not seeing this every day. They’re seeing it once a week on their commute or when they pull up a website and then an ad comes up.” It’s sporadic for them. It’s not constant.

Heather Dotchel:
What are some of the ways that you recommend having those conversations or encouraging our internal communities to stick with messaging and campaigns that they might be a little tired of?

Terry Flannery:
Well, I think first choose a concept that’s going to have some ability to flex and adapt, and that gives you a better starting point for something that will last, right? Warn your taskforce or whatever advisory group that you’re working with that they’re going to get tired of it and they’re going to be hearing from their colleagues and students who are tired of it. They’re going to get brand fatigue before it ever has a chance to do the job. Setting the expectation and saying, “We’re going to need to ward against that and here’s how we’re going to do it with research.”

Terry Flannery:
Because we need to see based on the requirements that we were trying to address with this program, we need to see some needles move and they don’t move quickly. We’re talking about changing behaviors and perceptions of individuals and our audiences who we want to engage in some level of support for the institution, whether it’s enrolling or giving or spending time or recommending, any of those kinds of things, working at the place. The requirements in your research that you address in your brand strategy become sort of the roadmap, Elizabeth Johnson calls it the insurance for your brand strategy, that you’re going to measure over time.

Terry Flannery:
I know we’re going to talk about measurement. You might have some early indicators that something’s getting recognized or picked up or recalled. But then you want to really over time, maybe over two, three years, start to see fundamental things change incrementally at first, awareness, variability, loyalty, the things that we look to measure. That’s going to take time. In the meantime, to get back to the answer to your question, you’ve got to be able to get the internal audiences to hang in there and put up with the fatigue. Have them onboard. Have them as advocates to talk about how we’re going to measure when this thing is done doing its job.

Terry Flannery:
And until it does, we need to think about how to refresh, how to use it well, how to use it differently, in what ways can we keep our own interest in it, but we’re not going to make a decision about using this or not because we’re tired of it. We’re going to make a decision based on data that says, “It’s done about all that it can do and we need something else.”

Heather Dotchel:
This seems an excellent time to talk about measurement. The book doesn’t just cover higher level marketing theory. You do cover tactics and measures and other gridier tactical takes. We’ll leave some of that for the book, but can you at least walk us through your short, middle, and long-term measurement parameters? What we should be looking for at those stages?

Terry Flannery:
I think this is one of the three things that leaders want to know about related to marketing. They want to know how to organize, resource, and measure this stuff, measure the effectiveness. I break down the measures into short, middle, and long-term measures, thinking in terms of time, because this process isn’t one that you’ll see immediate substantive results that say, “Yes! This is all working in the right direction.” Short-term measures are about showing that what you have put into the marketplace is getting some pick up. It’s getting recognized. Maybe some early adoption. There is evidence that people are interested enough to engage with it a little bit.

Terry Flannery:
If you’ve got digital strategies in your mix, those are the easiest ways to demonstrate pick up, engagement, et cetera. People are sharing things. People click through. All those kinds of things early on. Early adoption, you might look at things like if you did t-shirts with a brand expression on it and gave them out, are they being worn? Did they get picked up quickly? Are they being worn around the institution? Are people proud of it? Those are some ways to see early on. Midterm strategies have to do with what Sir David Bell at the University of Reading called proxy measures.

Terry Flannery:
He’s the CEO of that institution in the UK, and he said, “I can’t tell cause and effect that the brand strategy made attendance at our open house days better,” they call them open days in the UK, “or had more applicants or better conversion rates. I can’t tell you cause and effect, but I know the two are related.” And here he’s talking about behaviors. And if you think about what we’re trying to do in marketing, we are really trying to change the perception of the brand in the minds of our audiences, right, or reinforce it or elevate engagement with it. In many instances, that’s changing a mindset.

Terry Flannery:
You are often not going to be able to measure how people’s perceptions have changed right away, but you can see behavior start to change that really are reflecting that perception. It’s the behaviors, the proxy measures that most of our leaders care about, and those should be moving in the right direction. They might be moving slowly, but if you’re looking at yield rate for admissions for prospective students, if you had a low admit rate at AU… When we started it was 19%, so one in five admitted students. It moved through a process where over time, maybe over three years, it moved to one in three admitted students enrolling.

Terry Flannery:
Something like that. That measures moving in the right direction. It’s telling you this is working. If you’re looking at long-term measures, then you’re really looking at another take on the brand research to see how awareness or favorability or loyalty or recall of the associations of the brand you’re trying to lay in, how those are working, and those require more resources to do and more time. We want to do them probably be early after two years, two, three years. Definitely every three years makes a lot of sense and measuring over time whether those long-term things have changed.

Heather Dotchel:
You talked quite a bit actually about the dance between qualitative and quantitative research and how to balance them out and really take the time to use them to their full potential in that first round of brand research. Based on that work, you said round two and round three might be easier because you already have your questions very formable and calculable. For schools that have smaller amounts of resources that are really stretching, do you think it would be possible to create an initial set of strong research questions that you’ve gone through?

Heather Dotchel:
You’ve taken the time and resources and then administer part two and three via the college’s or university’s internal resources to follow up on that?

Terry Flannery:
I think it’s possible. I mentioned Elizabeth Johnson at [inaudible 00:33:41] a minute ago. She says you can do research for any budget. We actually showed… There’s a template there that shows kind of how you can expand or stretch, depending on what kind of budget you have, what kind of institution you have, and how many audiences, those kinds of things. I think the method should be driven by what you want to accomplish with the research, and then you can scale to how people you include, how big are the samples, those kinds of things. The difference between qualitative and quantitative is that qualitative helps you describe something.

Terry Flannery:
And if you don’t know how describe your brand yet or describe your institution and its strengths and its weaknesses, et cetera, then you need some qualitative research to actually give you good quality input. You can get that from your internal audiences, but you’re going to be biased in terms of what they see and not the external audiences. A quantitative study measures the magnitude of something, so you can see how much something is working, how big our problem is, why, what percentage of your audiences are aware of your institution, things like that.

Terry Flannery:
They do different things, and you’d want to think about, if you have small pot of resources, what’s the least expensive way to meet the right need with the right method? You don’t have to do it all at once. You can start small, but you need to start with what your research purpose is and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Heather Dotchel:
You also in that conversation talk about that it’s important when you are formulating this to not simply say, “Oh, we can go to institutional research and they can handle this for us.” Why is that?

Terry Flannery:
Well, sometimes they can, but they have a portfolio of institutional research that makes it hard to get this in the queue in a lot of instances and their perspective might not be related to market research, which is a particular kind of institutional research that gets done. If you work with someone who does this regularly, a firm or an individual, they already know how to form the questions in a way that’s a science really of market research in our work. If you work with somebody in an institutional research whose expertise is assessment, they’re not going to formulate the same questions. They’ll know all the methods.

Terry Flannery:
They’ll get the analysis. They’ll be a great partner in the process, but they might have some learning to do on actually what’s the state-of-the-art in terms of the questioning or the method in our specific work. Finding a way to figure out how to get the best research capacity that you can afford that will get you the best combination of method and good outcomes is important.

Heather Dotchel:
To everybody in the audience, there’s your clip that you need to start convincing the rest of leadership that market research is a worthy investment.

Terry Flannery:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Heather Dotchel:
You have an entire chapter dedicated to hard numbers that have to do with marketing and com, whether it’s the budget or position allocation. And I think that chapter will probably be in very heavy use by marketing and communications to reach leadership in their institutions. Let’s talk about that. Recognizing that every institution is its own special unicorn, what are your basic recommendations for investment?

Terry Flannery:
I joked around literally in the book that I expected that the presidents is the first place they were going to turn in the book. I know you went there first. They’ll be ready to have that conversation. The first thing I want to say is that it would be really helpful if you can get people to start thinking about marketing not as a cost or an expense, but as an investment. The parallels here are that your CFO who’s got an investment manager who pays a fee… If you’re an institution of my size, it’s millions that they pay annually to manage that investment and make sure that it has a return in terms of growth, financial growth, over time.

Terry Flannery:
In terms of facilities, if your administrative vice president is investing in the cost of a facility for let’s say a residence hall or an ancillary enterprise of some sort, all the upfront cost goes into building the building before there’s ever revenue to pay back debt that you’ve borrowed to build it, right? This is the same thing. There is an investment to be made that will create value both revenue and reputation, depending on what you’re using it for, right? It could be for enrollment. It could be to support fundraising.

Terry Flannery:
It could be for other kinds of things, for reputational purposes to build favorability for the institution, to build brand loyalty among your key audiences. All those of those are building value, which is the subtitle of the book, right? Getting people flip the script to get institutional leaders to think about this as an investment also implies that we’re going to be held accountable for showing what that return on the investment is. And there’s a piece of the chapter on that as well. For the numbers, I give you all kinds of ways to think about this. It used to being when I was kind of coming up in this world that the easy handle was presented of total budget.

Terry Flannery:
Marketers at that time were saying, particularly corporate environments, that you should have three to 5% of the budget. Now the American Marketing Association does a survey every year [inaudible 00:39:04] and they’ve demonstrated that in education, the percentage of total budget is 11%. That includes all kinds of education folks in the sector, including OPMs, online program managers, who’ve demonstrated in the media when you look at a place like a TU or something or Southern New Hampshire University. Still nonprofit, but big online presence. They’re spending like 19, 20% of their budget on marketing.

Terry Flannery:
But it’s got a huge return that performs well above that investment. We’re never going to be at those points in nonprofit higher education. We’re not, right? It was shocking when we started the brand work at American that 1% of the budget was going to go to this. That’s a tall order for people at some institutions for a president to defend it. Your boards are going to know much quicker than the rest of the leadership that that’s low and well worth the investment. I kind of go through here are some ways at different kinds of data to help you think about what you might need.

Terry Flannery:
There’s research from both case and from survey of CMOs that’s been done now three times that you can look at your type of institution and you can look at the min, the minimum, the maximum, and get a sense of dollars expended for your type of institution and see what realm you’re in that’s just what’s in your marketing budget. It sounds easy, right? But actually even getting what you’ve spent on marketing across the institution could be a real challenge. And that’s something you need to work with your provost and your CFO to help you gather that data, because it’s going to require deans to cooperate and communicators and other divisions or offices to share what they’re spending.

Terry Flannery:
But once you do that, you can look at the total spend and then think about where it’s being expended. If you go back to that percentage of budget, I would say if you think about startups, startups maybe spend one to 3% of their total budget. And if you haven’t invested in marketing before, maybe that’s the place to put a stake in the ground and say, “Here’s where we should start and here’s why and where’s the data,” and then work your way up after you have demonstrated some return on investment over time.

Terry Flannery:
It really requires you and obligates you to identify how you’re going to measure this process before you invest in it, and then report on it religiously to your leaders, to your key audiences. Make sure that you do that. And if something’s not working, then you got to make an adjustment or you won’t hold that investment.

Heather Dotchel:
I have found too that that also helps with the buy in as you go along when you’re starting to report, here’s where the successes are, here’s how this money has provided a sound investment for the college. When you can show that over and over again, the asks become easier and easier because the institution knows, your president knows, your CFO knows that not only are you looking for ways to advance the institution, but you’re also going to have the accountability on the other end.

Heather Dotchel:
And when you’re showing successes and when you’re showing also the places it didn’t work out transparently, it becomes a nice feedback loop of trust and an ability to make those more difficult asks when you need to with greater success.

Terry Flannery:
And that’s not just limited to marketing. In higher ed, there are investments we make that don’t pan out, but we’ve got to be good at saying, “This is not working. We need to adjust, or we’ve got to mitigate this issue.”

Heather Dotchel:
Lastly, what should CMOs and market and comm departments be doing now to prepare for the evolving tech future?

Terry Flannery:
Well, I keep repeating that if you don’t have an enterprise CRM, Salesforce is going to love this, right? If you don’t have an enterprise wide CRM, then you really understood how hamstrung you were in this environment communicating with all of our stakeholders audiences as frequently as we do, because you’re doing it all manually, trying to coordinate it, trying to anticipate it, writing it all on the fly. It’s nuts, right? A CRM helps us with that piece. That’s a form of technology that I’d really encourage us to think about. I think many of us are not sophisticated enough in terms of our digital marketing and need to get better at MarTech that is used to support that work.

Terry Flannery:
I think that the whole online experience of our students is giving us huge information about user experience that we should be tapping through our tech tools to understand how things are going, how to make them better. I guess I’m tying data and the tools you use to gather it together, but there’s the whole sort of notion of MarTech technology that supports marketing work, whether it’s marketing automation software, CRM, CMS, tools that help us understand the user experience and influence it over the course of the student life cycle are really, really important.

Heather Dotchel:
As we wrap up, we always like to pivot away from higher ed. We know you are a higher ed wonk. What else are you wonky about?

Terry Flannery:
Do you mean wonky? No. No. We don’t want to use that word.

Heather Dotchel:
No?

Terry Flannery:
I am a smart, passionate, focused, engaged advocate of politics. I love politics, even in the current environment, I would have to say. I’m a big fan of the constitution. I’ve been watching tools that our founders developed in the United States more than 200 years ago that have a series of checks and balances that were those brilliant, brilliant design. I know that times are hard politically, but those tools are working and it’s really fun to watch when you’re a political wonk.

Heather Dotchel:
Excellent. We’re looking forward to more great conversations with higher ed thought leaders in the weeks and months to come. Terry, thank you so much for being part of our podcast. Where can our community find you online?

Terry Flannery:
You can find me @higheredwonk on Twitter is the main way to find me. I’m on LinkedIn. And obviously you can come see what we’re doing at Stony Brook University anytime at stonybrook.edu.

Heather Dotchel:
And to our listeners, if you’d like to explore a topic further, please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @hdotchel.

The Higher Voltage Podcast

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