Higher Ed CMO Roles Must Evolve

by Carole Arwidson
February 2017

This post was originally published on

Although there is an intellectual understanding of broad marketing concepts on college campuses (including the guiding principles of the 4 or 5 P’s of marketing), the chief marketing officer’s role and responsibilities are more likely than not to be focused almost singularly on promotion. If marketing is to take its strategic seat at the proverbial table, then the CMO’s role will need to continue to evolve.

Decades ago when colleges and universities began in earnest to create admissions offices, send out printed publications, and call on selected high schools, their primary goal was to heighten awareness for the institution—thus, during its formative years, college admissions focused primarily on the art of promotion. Over time, higher education institutions began to embrace all the elements of the marketing mix (the 4 or 5 P’s, depending on one’s preference) and develop a more consumer-focused mindset. And once institutions made that shift, then the science of marketing became more important.

Today, there must be a balance between the art and the science of marketing, and there must be an understanding that marketing is much more than just promotion. Colleges and universities seem to embrace this perspective when thinking about student recruitment and enrollment, but not always in relation to the institution as a whole. This perspective came through in the results of the 2016 Survey of Independent College Presidents. Among the findings from private colleges and universities nationwide:

  • At 30% of the institutions, marketing leaders do not sit on the cabinet/executive team.
  • 70% of the institutions have centralized marketing functions (all initiatives and projects go through one office); yet at 48% of the institutions, marketing budgets are split almost evenly between the marketing office and individual departments.
  • While marketing leaders have authority over creative development and implementation of marketing strategies (at 96% of institutions), how their budgets are spent (at 95%), marketing and communication planning (at 95%), and organizational decisions within the marketing unit (at 93%), 13% of marketing leaders do not have full control of their institution’s website (which is surprising given its critical importance as the primary strategic communications vehicle for external audiences).
  • Regarding the 5 P’s, “product,” “price,” and “place” fall mostly outside the purview of marketing leaders. 42% of marketing leaders have influence over new academic program development, and 49% over new non-academic product development. 52% of marketing leaders have influence over pricing decisions. 25% of marketing leaders have influence over academic program delivery methods.

This all points to the finding that higher education marketing is still being viewed primarily as promotion, thus relying mostly on the art of marketing and underutilizing the science of it. Today’s chief marketing officers can be strategic partners who provide valuable market intelligence and insights. But for that to happen, institutions must embrace how marketing can advance the institution beyond simply promoting it.

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