For university marketing professionals – and for the presidents for whom they work – the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything.
That’s the conclusion of Dr. Teresa Flannery, who was in the midst of writing her book, How to Market a University, when the pandemic swept over the world and forced instantaneous change on higher education.
“The pandemic has made apparent the value of the work that we do on literally a daily, almost hourly, basis,” she says. “The value of our work has never been greater, [particularly for] the strategic communications area.”
She adds that the pandemic underscored the importance of the marketing tools necessary “in order to do this well, like enterprise customer relations management that makes all of our communications with stakeholders about the pandemic more efficient, accurate and measurable.”
On a broader level, the experience of the sea change of 2020 has accelerated forces that were already in play, Dr. Flannery says.
“The demographic cliff of 2025 was introducing tremendous pressures on institutions to change what they are offering, and how they are offering it. The pandemic accelerated the time when institutions will be in real trouble. If we thought we had five years to get ready for the demographic cliff, it is staring some institutions in the face right now. Some of them may not survive, and if they do, they’re going to have to consolidate or merge or significantly reposition.”
Dr. Flannery’s book explores the full range of marketing and communications issues that confront today’s college and university leaders. Her work serves as a guidebook, covering basic principles, to strategic approaches, to the future of university marketing.
She currently serves as interim vice president for marketing and communication at Stony Brook University and as chair-elect of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. She previously led marketing and communications programs at American University and the University of Maryland.
In a recent interview, she described the current state of university marketing.
How has the view of college and university presidents changed over the years? Is the general perception they have of communications and marketing much different now than it was in the past?
Yes, I’m sure of it. And it’s probably out of necessity that they’re forced to look differently at tools that they had the leisure to be biased about before.
When I arrived at American University, I was the first marketing communications person in a cabinet-level role. But the president didn’t want me to be called a vice president for marketing and communications. It was just communication, though it was well understood that the very first thing I was working on was a brand campaign.
He wanted marketing in the university’s strategic plan, so we could do what we needed to do and provide resources for it. But he wanted it stated in terms such that people wouldn’t fight over the language and would get on board with what we were trying to do.
Earlier, at the University of Maryland, the president at first imagined that the position was going to be a one-person shop to coordinate the messages of the deans, and he was going to provide minimal support and resources. A member of the board of regents, who was the head of a major advertising firm, told him that he saw every part of the university saying something different about it, and until we got aligned in terms of what we needed to say to specific audiences, we were never going to reach the level of recognition or reputation that he and others aspired to. We found a way to structure it, and we ended up being very successful over time.
And now there’s greater recognition among presidents that strategic planning and marketing communications planning go hand-in-hand?
I remember that at Maryland, there was a very strict piece of guidance: the market research that we needed to do couldn’t come before the development of the strategic plan because, God forbid, we wouldn’t want the data from customers telling us what we should do – translated to what we should teach. That was the fear. “We know what the university should do, we don’t want market forces determining that.” I know all of that has changed – all of it.
There are presidents now with very strong recognition that the same research and data should inform both marketing strategy and institutional strategy, that they have to be aligned. That’s a huge revolution.
So you’re confident that we’re moving much more in the direction of research that informs marketing planning, and that it is also being linked to institutional strategic planning?
Absolutely. There are a lot of places now that are doing the research to inform both at the same time, and developing them as sort of a coupled strategy, with the institutional strategy coming first and the marketing strategy following, but very, very closely. There are firms like yours that are now offering to do both at the same time, because the expression of the strategic plan usually contains the kernels of ideas that become the basis of good marketing strategy.
The role of market research has changed considerably over the years. What have you learned about that along the way? How has it changed, and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I talked to several presidents who were engaged in the development of a brand strategy, or knew they needed one very quickly along with a new strategic plan. They recognized that there was survival, literally survival, on the line if they didn’t pay attention to what students and target audiences wanted and needed – what they needed not so much in what they studied, but in the way that the programs and services are delivered, and in what features or benefits they expected at the institution. They’re hearing that loud and clear, they understand that’s at the root of their success.
During my research I spoke to a president who said, “We’ve just undergone all this change management, and we knew that we were repositioning the institution. Why wouldn’t we want data to inform our thinking about how those choices were being made and how the market would respond to it? Why wouldn’t we?” I think people appreciate market research much more. Still, some leaders would like marketing not to cost too much – they’re often still hoping that they won’t have to invest much.
But from the research to the execution to the measurement, this is work that needs to be done by professionals. It requires expertise. There’s no way to do it on the cheap, and you need to start thinking about it not as a cost but as an investment, just like you do when you find the capital budget for a facility that isn’t going to earn revenue for the institution until you invest resources on the front end for the planning, design and construction. Marketing is an investment in that it requires upfront costs, but it will give you a return on that investment.
You have been among the leaders in integrated marketing communications and brand integration. How would you describe the state of the profession with regard to its adoption of the integrated model?
We’ve made progress. It’s still tremendously hard, and that’s a function of the organizational structures. Generally, those structures are not integrated, so our tools have to compensate for that. Many of the tools we use commonly in higher education to develop consensus are not very efficient in terms of time, but they’re incredibly valuable. In most instances the leaders, presidents and provosts in particular, expect those tools to be the way that we compensate for a lack of integration.
I’ve seen a few presidents, and a few vice presidents, who either had the mandate or were taking it on themselves to centralize the structure because there was financial pressure to consolidate the distributed resources for marketing and communications into a centralized approach. Some people lost their jobs while they were trying to do it. It takes so much political capital. I made a calculation in this book not to recommend that. I just think it’s too difficult and it’s not worth the political cost and capital to do so. There are ways to compensate that we use in our field. Maybe someday it will become more consolidated, but higher education in its very nature would have to change in order for that to happen.
How should today’s chief marketing officer approach implementing an integrated model in an environment that makes it impossible to centralize the functions?
I mention different kinds of groups, advisory groups of one sort or another, and they have different purposes to serve different functions. There are task forces to go with you on the journey of developing the brand strategy or refreshing one. That allows you to have a group of people who are the informed recommenders. They know far more than the rest of the campus by virtue of participating in a process like that, from the research all the way through the recommendations for brand expression and measurement of results.
But they’re not the people who decide, so they have to be influential and representative enough to help you get the campus to come along. Then they become advocates for the work in the process. When they make a recommendation, that has influence with the people who make the decisions – the executive leadership, the cabinet.
Returning to the challenges that accompany the Covid pandemic, what do you see as the long-term impact of the pandemic on university marketing?
Change is accelerated because we’ve moved to more digital tools during this time and we realize that there are ways to do more digitally, which inherently will introduce more artificial intelligence and machine learning into our work. Among marketing people, some jobs will be lost because they can be done by automation.
That will change not only how we work at the institution, but how we prepare students for work of the future. In the book I describe how the future work will force institutions to think more carefully about the work that robots can’t do. Things like being creative and expressing empathy and doing collaborative problem solving – things humans are better at than automation is. That will create a set of forces for institutions to think about what they offer differently than they have in the past.
If you were sitting down with a president who had just been elevated from an academic leadership position to a presidency, what would you tell her about how she should be viewing her chief marketing officer, and the work that the CMO contributes?
“Consider me your strategic partner. I have a role to best use my expertise and my resources. I should be a part of your team that’s making strategic decisions about the institution, not limited to how we’re going to communicate. I have a role, based on data I have about our audiences and stakeholders. My team has tools for helping us make the choices that will put us in a better position to succeed in meeting the most important strategic goals that we shape. That’s what marketing is designed to do.”
And let’s remember the Philip Kotler definition of nonprofit marketing. Our work is about developing relationships between the institution and individual people. The relationship is based on an exchange of value that has to be mutually satisfying and voluntary. You can’t just have sweet words – you actually have to understand what your stakeholders want and need, and convey in a compelling way what you have to offer that meets that need. If you’ve done that well and it’s satisfying, the relationship will continue, and then you’re on your way to a student who is retained and graduating, or a consistent donor, or an alumnus who remains engaged and sustains giving.
Those are relationships over time that become loyal relationships. That’s what marketing is about.
Bill Walker, Napa Group Consultant
Follow Dr. Flannery on Twitter at @higheredwonk.