You Already Have a Watch: Buying Perspective

In a previous piece, I outlined what marketing services an institution might elect to bring in-house and what services may be best suited for professional services outside of the university. Principal Rick Bailey—on the heels of the first edition of the Survey of Independent College Presidents—outlined the organizational structure for the modern in-house marketing team, complete with the associated talents that each team member should possess. If this ideal structure positions an institution with a more sustainable and cost-effective marketing team, what gaps remain that can be discovered from outside counsel?

One argument for the services that RHB provides is that what we offer in exchange for income should not be replicable on campus. More simply, we don’t want you to invest in things you’re capable of handling in-house (remember that diatribe about search?). So, when evaluating whether or not to find an external partner we think you should consider three measures:

Objectivity: Does the assignment require an objective view that can’t be obtained by employees of the university?

Perspective: Would the assignment benefit from a perspective that includes experiences with many institutions over a period of time?

Interpretation: Is the assignment to translate an experience or customer journey into a meaningful expression for internal and external constituents?

Note that none of these three measures focus on the tactic itself, which means that they won’t readily be found on a menu of services for a particular firm or easily sought by a procurement-driven RFP. They’d be found in the composition of the firm and the results of engagements they’ve had over the course of their existence.

We will explore all three measures, starting with perspective.

In the context of higher ed marketing, what is the value of external perspective? We think there are three primary benefits:

1. A volume of like-engagements reduces risk.

A consultancy should bring to bear all of their professional experience in the form of intelligence yes, but mostly in the form of proven processes for the project. One hallmark of expertise is the creation and implementation of expert processes (the other marks being: speaking and writing in professional forums). The presence of an expert process built on the lessons of previous engagements is a signal that the firm understands where the risk for the client and the firm exists. What types of risk? Two most importantly. First, risk relative to the cost/benefit for the client and the firm (is the client paying adequately for value gained, and does the client recognize that value as fair). Second, risk related to the satisfactory completion of the work. Any process should ensure completion in the most efficient manner possible. For example, a stage may include a diagnostic phase that engages a wide array of constituents (even those only tangentially related to the marketing challenge (staff, faculty). The logic for this step should be aligned with addressing inputs and friction that endanger completion. Processes should be transparent and fully disclose the purpose for each step so that each party understand its value.

2. A wider view enhances the ability to locate finer points of position.

In the contemporary higher ed landscape the “forest and trees” lesson isn’t necessarily sufficient. Trees need to be distinct from one another in ways that may not be outwardly visible. And, it’s simply too hard to determine position while sitting on the forest floor. What an external view brings can’t be replaced by secondary research. Even higher ed professionals, responsible to their campuses, can’t always see the difference between one college and the next with explicit detail. This isn’t an admonishment,  it simply means that deep internal focus limits the ability to see—let alone exploit—gaps in the market.

3. Engaging with multiple institutions enables pattern recognition.

One of the most valuable qualities of a consultant is the ability to recognize patterns: those found in data, such as the relationship among inquiries in a demographic, the number of applicants, and the quality of the counselor serving the population; or patterns relative to financial aid messaging to mid-high income families and the consequences of that. Enrollment professionals are capable of recognizing these patterns, but to see them from one institution to another, testing different outcomes and results is irreplaceable intelligence and experience. Pattern recognition also informs the ability to determine the difference between a symptom (e.g. declining yield) and the cause of the symptom. When you can see the symptoms across a portfolio of institutions you get a better, faster sense of what the true cause of the issue is.

Our aim for RHB.com/insights is to equip our followers with the intelligence they need to more effectively market their institutions. Transparently, our content strategy is composed of two types of efforts: one for those who seek reliable information to more effectively do their jobs and the other to articulate how RHB services can serve colleges and universities. Even more transparently, we understand the position commonly reserved for consultants. My favorite quip from a higher ed professional is “a consultant will borrow your watch and tell you what time it is.” While hilarious, it serves as a reminder to our team to consistently provide higher education with expertise that advances great causes with elegance and a healthy respect for what professionals on campuses can do themselves. You already have a watch.

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Sam Waterson

Sam is the Executive Vice President and Creative Director at RHB.