The Biggest Challenges and Opportunities in Higher Ed Marketing in 2021

Three higher ed marcomm leaders on what’s working, what’s not, and what’s in store for 2021.

featured-image

News flash: Higher education is in a state of flux like never before. What worked 12 months ago is out the window now. So with that in mind, we asked three higher ed marcomm leaders what they think is working, what’s not, and what the biggest challenges and opportunities are in higher education marketing for 2021.

Here’s what they had to say.

Gail Towns, executive director of marketing & communications at Georgian Court University

What’s Working

Appreciation for great communication: Communication has always been highly valued in our industry, but between all of the crises of the last year, it is clearer than ever that speaking up, active listening, substantive conversation, and effective messaging (and supporting the messengers) are appreciated like never before. This is especially true for our social media strategies and those who manage our channels: their work can be hard, never-ending and how they communicate with people matters.


What’s Not

(Not) Keeping it real: Anything less than authenticity in all of things we touch – from external branding to campus comms – is unacceptable. 2020 laid bare so many of the challenges our students, faculty, staff and alumni face. Glossing over their issues and concerns only serves to discredit our commitment to them. Platitudes, euphemisms, cliched approaches to getting our point across? Buh-bye. Our audiences yearn for us to get real and keep it real, even when doing so is unfamiliar territory or uncomfortable.


Biggest Challenge

Enrollment: For many of our institutions, the perennial debate about the value of a college education continues to hang over our heads like, well, a 20-year hangover. If there was ever a time for social proof –while keeping it real – it is now. 

Our tried and true recruitment strategies do not serve us as well when the majority of interactions now depend on the state of our wi-fi, the battery life of our devices, or our shrinking personal bandwidth. Writ large, our biggest immediate challenge comes down to connecting with students and families in ways that make them feel confident about investing in a degree right now.

Biggest Opportunity

Keep it moving: A quick look in the rear view mirror offers us an opportunity to leverage lessons learned last year: embracing the art of the pivot; reframing risks; making the most of virtual meetings to extend (not replace) how we interact; protecting our own and others’ mental health; showing up for colleagues to share ideas and resources that work; and the biggest opportunity of all—-getting clear about what matters most to our students. In other words, let’s keep it moving, ya’ll! 2021 has its own challenges and triumphs in store.

Teresa Flannery, interim vice president of marketing and communication at Stony Brook University, and author of the newly released “How to Market a University: Building Value in a Competitive Environment

What’s Working?

Building trust: Those using empathy, authenticity, transparency and institutional values to frame and guide their content strategy and communications with constituents are faring better in this environment, as are leaders who use data-informed decisions in times of uncertainty.  Tell it like it is, with sensitivity.  If you don’t know what to say or when you can say it, acknowledge the uncertainty and describe how your institution will approach a hard decision—on modes of instruction, or the format for spring commencement, for example—by identifying the factors you will use to make a decision, and by when. And then live up to your commitments and values.

What’s Not?

What’s not working is writing and distributing the same messages for different audiences, to address the same pandemic-related issues, for three consecutive terms, and doing so manually. Has there ever been a better case for an enterprise CRM to automate, schedule, coordinate and track the effectiveness of our communication workflow with various audiences?

Biggest Challenge?

There are many, but one of the biggest challenges may be helping our neediest prospective students with the support they need to navigate the college application and financial aid process during the pandemic. It’s yet another example of how the public health crisis has exacerbated existing disparities.  Guidance counselors at public secondary schools that have shifted to virtual environments are helping students with basic needs – food security and internet access – but college guidance has been completely disrupted. Our institutional pipelines of diverse and low-income students have been, too. Can we and our admissions/enrollment counterparts jump in with virtual webinars, personal counseling sessions, and tools for students and parents to fill the breach? If we want to maintain or improve our campus diversity, this is crucial.

Biggest Opportunity?

There’s never been a better time to demonstrate the value and impact of our work. Not only are our institutions’ leaders depending on us to lead challenging COVID and budget communications, they are also staring down the incoming threat of the demographic “cliff” and the long-term financial impact of this sustained public health crisis. Those that understand that marketing is a strategic approach to building value—revenue and reputation—will be in a better position to align their strategic priorities with the needs of target audiences, reposition their institutions, and effectively build brand equity. In a very competitive environment, such practices will drive growth in enrollment and philanthropy revenue, as well as enhanced reputation. CMOs are in a strong position to help their institutions build value.

Joseph Master, assistant vice president of marketing and digital strategy at Drexel University

What’s Working?

Not what — who. People are working. Higher ed has been a monolith — so hesitant to rethink how we work and how we innovate as marketers. Before COVID, remote work was almost taboo — as was the idea of using virtual events to yield face-to-face students. That has all changed. As 2020 showed us, we aren’t just working harder; we’re working longer hours with lengthier stretches between time off. 

We need to not just applaud our people — we need to find new and better ways to support them. Our teams have been functioning in a steady state of crisis and have met it with continuous agility and innovation. If we are to keep that going, we must also be agile and inventive with how we, as an industry, address professional development and express appreciation. 

What’s Not?

The old version of the message isn’t working. The value proposition isn’t working. Because the normal sequence of how we even deliver the message— the awareness, consideration and decision moments we bucket prospective students into — is as odds with the actual succession of moments in which students consider us. I’ve seen them called micro-moments. We cannot fit stiff squares into a chain of circles. And what did we learn last year as we navigated COVID, racial injustice, political acrimony and lives lost? The message can be tone deaf. Disingenuous. Just ask a social media manager. They’ve been banging this drum for years. Listen. 

Biggest Challenge?

If we don’t address foundational people issues, we won’t be motivated to transform. Burnout, I think, is the biggest attrition risk our teams face. We live in a society that glorifies the hustle; that wears burnout like a badge. If we do not address it, and add new policies for 2021, we won’t retain talent and we won’t be able to attract new talent. I’m not saying we shouldn’t work hard. I’m saying we’ve never worked harder. 

Biggest Opportunity?

Our purpose is always our biggest opportunity. Higher Education was built to serve. Its intentions are noble — and its influence is transformative. As we navigate so much disruption, those brands that can simply and masterfully convey purpose — that can show prospective students a value proposition that aligns institutional purpose with student perception of purpose — are on the right track. I have to believe that all tactics follow from there.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Newsletter Sign up!

Stay current in digital strategy, brand amplication, design thinking, and more.

Graphic design showing the word 'Marketing' with a capitol building as the letter 'a'

Government Relations and Marketing: A Potentially Dynamic Duo

Three ways Government Relations and Marketing departments can collaborate to successfully advocate for their schools.

Marketing & Branding /
By: Kristen Baker
Graphic design of a man looking at a laptop image of an empty classroom

Gone Digital: 5 Ways COVID Changed Higher Ed Marketing & Communications for the Better

Print is on the wane in all aspects of marketing collateral and on-campus operations.

Marketing & Branding /
By: Melissa Horvath

Ubiquitous Uniqueness: The (Almost) Impossible Task of Differentiating Your School

A four-step guide to identifying your unique purpose, brand and value proposition from a higher ed marcomm professional.

Marketing & Branding /
By: Peter Ashley
Graphic design showing the word 'Marketing' with a capitol building as the letter 'a'

Government Relations and Marketing: A Potentially Dynamic Duo

Three ways Government Relations and Marketing departments can collaborate to successfully advocate for their schools.

Marketing & Branding /
By: Kristen Baker
Graphic design of a man looking at a laptop image of an empty classroom

Gone Digital: 5 Ways COVID Changed Higher Ed Marketing & Communications for the Better

Print is on the wane in all aspects of marketing collateral and on-campus operations.

Marketing & Branding /
By: Melissa Horvath
A blue book laying on a blue wood table

Lessons Learned: Best Practices in Higher Ed Social Media

On the latest Higher Voltage podcast we dive into all things social media strategy and execution in higher ed.

Marketing & Branding /
By: Higher Voltage