Marketing's Significant Role in Higher Ed

by Rick Bailey
August 31, 2017

This post was originally published on

One of the goals of the 2016 Survey of Independent College Presidents we conducted in collaboration with The Lawlor Group was to garner specific insight and intelligence to be utilized in actionable ways by our readers currently serving as college or university presidents. Unearthing the common pressures and pain points shared among presidents allows us as higher ed marketers—and our readers as higher ed professionals—to begin understanding, articulating and solving these issues. While some of the concerns revealed by this survey are, for those in higher ed, long-standing or perhaps well-known, other issues were particularly notable in that they have gone relatively unaddressed. One of the most unsettling (particularly because of how solvable it is) examples of this is the limited perspective or understanding of marketing's value to institutions. Carole Arwidson of The Lawlor Group summarized the findings in a post, concluding “institutions must embrace how marketing can advance the institution beyond simply promoting it.”

Despite this limited perspective of marketing's function and place on a campus, we know that the actual outcomes that marketing can provide are, in fact, greatly desired. As an example, our research found that “heightening visibility and promoting awareness” and “creating distinction in the marketplace” ranked second and fourth respectively among the top ten marketing-related challenges identified by presidents.

In terms of marketing priorities, presidents reported that “product” was their highest priority among the five Ps of marketing. Indeed, 70% of presidents indicated that they added distinctive academic programs in the past five years. However, only half conducted feasibility studies prior to their launch. No surprise then that less than half were able to report “very successful” increases in enrollment and revenue due to the launch of these programs.

When it came to the influence on shaping new product and experience development, less than half of the presidents indicated that marketing played a role. 49% of the presidents in the survey stated marketers had influence on non-academic experience development; only 42% carried any influence in developing new academic experiences.

This information highlights an important disconnect that needs to be addressed; namely that a gap exists between the empowerment of marketing to shape program development and the importance that presidents give to building awareness and distinction in the market. This is concerning, at best; clearly, marketing is being underutilized on campuses. But what is particularly troublesome is that a more empowered marketing department on campus would actually help address, if not solve, many of the marketing challenges faced by presidents. Instead, a notable percentage of marketing departments are held to a narrower definition of responsibilities.

What seemed apparent from our research was the emphasis given to promotion and communications as the primary function of marketing. And, while promotion and communications should be housed and managed by the marketing department, and preferably by a senior-level CMO, responsibilities for marketing should by no means be confined to that end process.

Rather, a strong marketing team can and should be engaged in a multitude of on-campus endeavors that will advance the institution's cause and message. They should be involved in the beginning stages of new program development, advising program creators about market opportunities, audience articulations, competitive landscapes, future considerations and brand implications. Marketing teams are expert ideation facilitators and creative thinkers who can improve new product development during the process. Market researchers and analysts will step in to support program development teams, providing data and resources to make informed decisions to yield revenues from programmatic efforts. Marketing specialists can contribute market insights and sound brand counsel to ensure that cohesive and coherent positioning is considered, and that naming considerations are carefully evaluated.

It is understandable that there may be some resistance to this notion of including marketing early on in these various pursuits. In fact, we've written about some of this hesitance before. But not including marketing at these early stages will prevent your new program and experience development from reaching its greatest potential. Waiting for marketing to step in at the end of the process, only to promote what has been developed without their input, will inevitably shortchange your institution.

Our discovery of the reported minimal success rate with new program introductions was one of the most disconcerting; perhaps through earlier engagement with campus marketers these results could have been more satisfying. Empowering marketing sooner in the program development process will improve the chances the program finds the best success with your audiences; not only through a well-planned promotional strategy, but especially by designing a better program from the start.

This is a condensed portion of a white paper published previously at For the full version, which includes detailed information about how the marketing department on your campus should be assembled, as well as the specific personnel and resources you'll need to maximize marketing efforts, click here.

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