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“What Presidents Should Expect from Their Communications and Marketing Offices”

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by Joseph A. Brennan

bluedog studio/Shutterstock

There’s a new emphasis on improving marketing and communications in higher education, driven by the enormous pressure on institutions today. Competition has intensified over the last decade as colleges chase a shrinking pool of traditional prospects, seek to recruit new students from new demographic groups, and struggle to manage costs for payrolls and physical plants that were built during boom times when the supply of students seemed endless and the market was willing to pay higher prices each year.

In response, savvy presidents are strengthening their campus offices of marketing and communications. They’re elevating director roles to the vice president level and filling these new cabinet seats with strategic thinkers with the skills to integrate efforts across multiple campus units and modernize communication operations that were designed and staffed to meet the needs of 30 years ago. They’re expanding marketing budgets and engaging external agencies to supplement their in-house teams. They’re starting to allow their chief marketing officers to have a voice in decisions about program offerings and pricing strategies. And this new generation of presidents is breaking the communications department out from under the chief fundraiser (or on some campuses, the enrollment manager) and reporting in directly to them, so that it can have an enterprise-wide view and serve as a peer with other top leaders.

Today’s marketplace requires a new way of envisioning the marketing function and structuring the marketing office. Here are the key elements.

Strategy first, then tactics.
It’s more important than ever to put the strategic horse before the tactical cart. Too often, communicators succumb to the temptation to create something — like a website, video, or ad campaign — that, based on experience or anecdotal evidence, they believe will solve the problem. Instead, they need to first do research to understand the situation, gain clarity about the people they’re addressing, and plan the right mix of communications to build awareness, shift opinions, and motivate behavior. Such a strategic approach requires an upfront investment of time and sometimes money, but it produces a much greater return than a quick seat-of-the-pants reaction.

The marketing office should be guided by a written plan that recaps key institutional goals, specifies priority audiences, identifies the desired behavioral outcomes of communication efforts, and spells out the broad strategies and more specific tactics to be used to produce those outcomes. The document should also specify how success will be measured and list the resources needed.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” (Yogi Berra)

Form follows function.
Most higher education communications offices were structured and staffed to meet the needs of 20 or 30 years ago. Today’s reality demands collaboration among experts in several craft disciplines and coordination of effort between centralized and decentralized communicators.

In the past, the marketing and communications office was largely an order-taking unit that produced materials in response to requests from schools and offices across the campus. Today, the office must be a strategic, research-informed function that creates a coherent and compelling brand narrative and projects it clearly to all stakeholders, using multiple channels.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all model for structuring the marketing office, it needs to include people who are skilled at research and planning, project management, execution of communications in paid, earned, owned, and shared channels, and measurement of outcomes. It’s helpful to locate everybody together in one location, to enable team members to work together easily.

While higher education institutions generally prefer decentralized models, there’s a growing trend to consolidate all communicators in a single division or office. This model provides greater coherence, improved efficiency, and increased effectiveness. Rather than having communicators report directly to deans, vice presidents, or the athletic directors, they can be embedded with these operational units but report to a central leader who can collaborate with the unit leader to establish priorities and shape performance programs.

“We’re altogether better when we’re all together.” (John C. Knapp, president of Washington & Jefferson College)

Measurement matters.
In the digital age, we’re able to measure communication outcomes more precisely than ever before. Presidents should expect reports that go beyond merely cataloging outputs — how many news releases, videos, or social media posts were produced — to demonstrate the outcomes of this communication work, including direct outcomes, like quantity and quality of news coverage or changes in audience attitudes and opinions, as well as business outcomes, such as increases in employee and alumni engagement or greater numbers of leads generated for the admissions office.

Vice presidents and marketing teams should use measurement to identify what’s working, reduce time spent creating content or managing channels with low return, and stay focused in the face of a thousand different demands.

“Good decisions depend on good measurement.” (Ben Bernanke, former chair of the Federal Reserve)

It isn’t easy.
Transforming the marketing office from tactical and reactive to strategic and proactive is a big shift for many campuses. It requires political backing from the board and the president and an investment of time and money for research and strategic planning. It also takes a vice president with the ability to navigate the complexities of academic culture, build trust with peers to enable cooperation across organizational silos, and teach and guide staff to think and act strategically, using measurement throughout the process.

This isn’t an easy shift, but it’s vital to help institutions survive and thrive amid a very challenging set of conditions.

Presidents who want to improve their institutions’ marketing efforts can and should expect that their communications and marketing leaders are able to deliver strategic thinking, build and lead an integrated operation, and apply analytics to improve effectiveness and demonstrate the return on the institution’s investment.

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