By: Matt Hames

The Issue with Higher Education Communications

Marketing & Branding /
By: Matt Hames

4 Minutes

Higher education is the only high consideration, high involvement product in which the date of purchase is known. Higher education knows that someone has until January 15th to buy the undergraduate version.

Think about that for a minute.

At the high end, the product is $250K and the buyers and sellers all know the date of purchase. Everyone knows who the purchaser is, and when the purchase decision is being made. Many are on Facebook spending hundreds in an online auction on the SAME people, telling them the same thing: we have small class sizes, offer off-campus study, have a tree you can study under, and a professor who does class outside.

The issue

The problem is, most schools don’t think they need to sell. They don’t think it is a product.

The mission is higher.

The mission is to make better adults, to generate a love for learning. There’s often a 1000+ word mission statement, on a ridiculously obtuse website, about what the school wants to do, and how it makes a difference. I’ve seen the data on this, and no one looks, or cares.

I’m not here to tell you the missions is wrong, I think it is right. I’m here to tell you that the communications department needs a different mission.

Think back 25 years: one can imagine an editor and someone who can work a fax being the comms department, The team was responsible for an alumni magazine and a press releases faxed to the press about something or other that the school did. It is called news, and in an era where there were newspapers, news was important.

Schools had an alumni magazine, it was said, because alumni are interested in news.

The comms department might have helped with the view book, and they might have helped with the DM packages from advancement, but this is back at a time before higher education budget bloat, when the IT department was still 5 people with overhead projectors.

Fast forward to the first stage of the internet, and higher education got its first website, and the first major expansion of staff. More IT people, more comms people. The mission of IT was to support faculty in the mission. And maybe help with this website thing, but maybe not. It was school specific.

What is the website for, asked no one.

Admissions or advancement? Dean of Faculty? Dean of college?

As pages got added to the website, staff was added in IT and comms.

The annual budget

The typical private institution makes money in two ways, apps and gifts. I know a school where 65% of the annual budget comes from full-pay applicants. 25% comes from the endowment, and the remaining 10% comes from annual fund gifts.

Apps and love. That’s it.

My advice

When I worked as the marketing department for a Pressure Transducer company, the engineers used to say, “Matt, this product sells itself. Word of mouth is the key. We just need to make the product more maroon and people will buy it.”

They didn’t believe in marketing. They said, “let the product be the product.”

If you’re reading this, and you work in a communications department in higher education, ask yourself why it is called communications when it should be called marketing.

At a higher education school that I know, the President would said  “let our school be our school.” He probably also said more maroon.

This isn’t a criticism. Engineers tend to think about the product first, and how to talk about the product second. Make a better product is the strategy of all engineers. And the president of a college is the chief engineer. He or she makes decisions about the product that impact why people will buy it.

But that isn’t marketing. It takes a marketer to understand how to sell the product.

Hall of Languages Syracuse University
Hall of Languages, Syracuse University

What higher education needs 

This week, Syracuse University relaunched their communications department. They are hiring an associate vice president of marketing strategy. A director of digital strategy. A director of marketing strategy.

They get apps and love.

They understand that the goal is to market to people, at the right time, with the right content.

Instead of thinking about content as “news” – an old way of thinking about content born of an alumni magazine and a fax machine, they probably intend to have weekly strategy meetings to talk about content that can generate behavior.

“News” implies people care. A news feed implies people care. People don’t care. Higher Education can no longer launch a website or redo a website and assume people will give a crap.

I’ll bet at Syracuse they intend to focus in on the brand pillars that advance the admissions or fundraising elements of the school. I’ll bet all marketing content will crescendo in the middle of January, and then work towards yield and summer melt.

I’ll bet they will never redo their website, but instead finally give it purpose. They won’t have summer hours on their website because they’ll have purpose.

When deciding to create marketing content, they will ask who will care and why? They will also ask how they will prove people cared. They’ll ask questions of their content BEFORE they make it, and find the answers in the data.

That’s called marketing. Something that doesn’t get done enough in higher education.

It isn’t higher education’s fault. They know their mission. For the most part though, the mission of the internal marketing departments hasn’t been articulated.

Watch Syracuse. You’re about to see it get articulated.

Higher education is an important product for the world. We need more critical thinkers, not less.

If you’re reading this, and you work in a communications department in higher education, ask yourself why it is called communications when it should be called marketing. If you’re not in charge, ask the people in charge.

If the answer is that the mission is bigger than marketing, agree, and suggest that if you figured out a better way to use the stories of your school to sell it to people who will buy it.

The world would be a better place if that happened.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree?

Matt Hames

Matt Hames

Matt Hames is a data nerd with an English degree. He loves to take data and turn it into insights and stories that can help higher education meet goals. You can also find him on Twitter talking about The Arsenal, curling, and data.

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