A conversation on strategic planning and the future of the CMO role

RHB vice president for marketing leadership Rob Zinkan recently joined the Higher Ed Demand Gen Podcast hosted by Shiro Hatori. Rob and Shiro discuss RHB’s research on strategic planning and explore how the CMO role can continue to evolve in higher education. Take a listen to Episode 55. The transcript is below

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Shiro Hatori: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Higher Ed Demand Gen Podcast hosted by Concept 3D. My name is Shiro, and today I’m very thrilled to talk about the future role of the CMO, especially in higher ed, and what we’ve learned from 108 institutions’ strategic plans. So for this topic today, I’m super excited to also introduce our guest, Rob Zinkan. Rob serves as the Vice President for Marketing leadership at RHB. And if you didn’t know, RHB is one of the top higher ed consultancies out there, specifying in a lot of areas all somewhat related to marketing. He also has a long history of serving at Indiana University. So please welcome Rob to the podcast.

Rob Zinkan: Shiro, thanks so much. Looking forward to the conversation, appreciate the invitation and congrats, by the way, on the podcast. You’ve had a big 2022-23 academic year. What are you 50, 50-plus episodes in now?

Shiro: 50-plus episodes, yeah. Thanks so much, Rob, appreciate the recognition. Well, yeah, let’s jump in. So if you’ve listened to the episode, you know I love asking this question. So Rob, what do you love about higher ed?

Rob: It’s a great question, because that’s why we’re in the sector we’re in and we do what we do. So I would say, number one mission. Is there a more important and compelling mission than higher ed, in terms of unlocking opportunity, improving people’s lives—transforming their lives, not just improving them, but transforming lives—and advancing society? And then number two, more specifically, would be the students. And you mentioned my long history with Indiana University and the last four years at RHB. So I had always been on a university campus. And now with RHB, a higher ed firm, I’ve missed being on a campus, and so I teach as an adjunct three courses a year at two different universities: a master’s program in strategic communications and a doctoral program in higher ed leadership. So going alongside students in that journey, it’s a remarkable gift seeing their growth and development, and I think I always get more out of it than they do. And they’re online courses. We just had a live session, though, Monday night, and I was telling the students how much inspiration I draw from them. And again, seeing their growth. So the students…it’s fantastic.

Shiro: That’s amazing. And before 2019, what was your teaching journey like before that? Was this new to you?

Rob: It was new. It had been many years since I taught. I think last time I taught a course was an undergraduate sports marketing course right after my master’s degree program. So it’s been great. It’s been really fulfilling.

Shiro: That’s amazing. I’m really glad to hear that. Well, let’s jump in, Right. And so I know you have tons of experience, and we could probably ask you about anything with regards to higher ed marketing and higher admissions. But, you know, one really interesting thing that you’ve done over at RHB, as of recent is, you conducted a research of around 108 higher ed strategic plans. This is from different universities, right? And you were able to analyze and do some more research on what really made this strategic plan, a good plan. Right? And so could you share some of the findings from it as well?

Rob: Sure, it was so fascinating to do this, and doing this research with me, Dr. Aimee Hosemann, who’s our director of qualitative research at RHB, and we had a graduate assistant speaking of Indiana University from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Connor LaGrange. And yeah, we’ve looked at 108 strategic plans, 2,400 pages of strategic plans, so some light reading there. You know, we slept well, in the evening, if we were—if someone was—looking at a strategic plan. Four-your institutions, and tried to get a public and private institution from each state. And then from those plans, we identified 16 that we considered the most strategic or they exhibited the most strategic tendencies, and then had the pleasure of interviewing leaders from many of those institutions ranging from the president or chancellor to the chair of their strategic planning committee or even their chief strategy officer.

And a couple of general themes I could touch on, to get the conversation started, that we saw: one would be a lack of strategy, and that’s the title of the white paper that you read. And we have a book that we even published from the study here that I’m showing on camera, What Makes a Strategic Plan ‘Strategic’? And so understanding strategy as an intervention, that it should be something that requires behavior change. And so something for listeners, as you look at your strategic plan to ask yourself, are these things that we should be doing already? And knowing that a list of ambitions or goals is not necessarily strategy, that a strategic plan should reflect a set of choices about how an institution should move forward?

So one example, Shiro, we saw plans that had as many as 20, overarching strategic goals. And so that’s, that doesn’t necessarily reflect choices. You know, if everything’s a priority, what truly is a priority? And how do I know what that behavior change should be? So that key point about strategy should be an exercise in making choices.

And then the other general observation or takeaway from this study, would be a lack of student centeredness, and the internal nature of strategic planning that plans are created for an institution by an institution. And Connor, our graduate research assistant, was so valuable because he was the first one to have that lightbulb moment that he said, Where am I in these plans, Where am I represented in these plans? And so plans that did exhibit the most strategic tendencies, they discussed students, student well-being, students success more frequently than others. And they also involved students in the process, so undergraduate students, graduate students were members of task forces or working groups. They had a meaningful role, and it wasn’t just one student, like okay we’re going to check the box and have a student representative. They would have multiple students as part of committees and working groups, and that’s hard work. Again, that that can be where strategic planning can get messy and having lots of different voices, but it’s an integral part of the process. So those two things, the lack of strategy and lack of student centeredness, were two of those key things that we walked away with from looking at 108 plans.

Shiro: And pointing out the lack of strategy that you just mentioned, you know, one thing I heard was there’s too many, often too many goals associated or too many ambitions. And did you find that the 16 that really stood out actually had fewer of those goals and that they were narrowed down and more focused on building out the strategy aspect versus just the ambition aspect?

Rob: Yeah, we did. On average, across all plans, they were there 5.5 goals on average. Among this set of 16, it was typically in the 3-5 range. And it does get to this issue of in strategic planning that you want to have an inclusive and participatory process. Everyone has a voice and is engaged. But does everyone have a vote? You know, again, if strategy reflects a set of choices, you want to hear all voices, you want to engage. But ultimately, you have to you have to make some decisions along the way. And one of the roles that marketing can help is the communication around those decisions. It was fascinating to see how institutions exhibited transparency in their strategic planning process, and how they, you know, how they bridged that great degree of participation within getting to three or five key goals versus trying to please everyone, or have, you know, a plan that tries to do everything.

So one quick example, we had a small college and talked to their president. They were one of the 16, and the president, they shared iterations of the strategic plan with changes tracked. I mean, it was that granular in terms of being transparent. And I’m not saying that everyone should do that, again, that gets to extra effort, and the messiness that is part of strategic planning, but it’s an example of one way that worked for them, that fit their culture. That was a great way to show, okay, you should know what, what changed or how this process is evolving or how our thinking is evolving, because it’s all right here. So again, not necessarily for everyone, but I admired that approach as a way to, yes, we heard everyone and here’s, here’s what we’re doing as this process evolves and we’re getting down to what ultimately the strategic objectives are going to be for the institution.

Shiro: Yeah, this is really interesting. I like how you point out this is a smaller institution. Of the 16 that you found that had those solid strategic plans, not all of them were the same, like school size, right? They were, so their goals were different, but their strategy was aligned to their goal. Is that right?

Rob: Yeah, yeah, for sure. We had a mix of large publics to small privates to religious affiliated institutions. It was a good, it was a good mix of institutions both across the larger set, and then the set that had the more-strategic strategic plans.

Shiro: Very interesting. And I know that the findings were not all specifically for marketing, but let’s talk a little bit more about the marketing takeaways or findings. Based on the condensed size of, the condensed report that you sent me, one takeaway was, you saw that there’s a lot of opportunities for the marketing function to be further develop beyond just promotion, I think is what it said. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you mean there?

Rob: Sure. That was one of the items we were most interested in is what would a review, an analysis of 100 plus strategic plans across higher ed reveal about higher ed marketing ,about the function of marketing. And just as you said, the focus was clearly around promotion, once we did a content analysis of all the mentions, and about half the plans had specific or explicit mentions of marketing. And so then doing that content analysis, seeing, you know, promotion, expressed in a variety of ways of things like “vigorously promote” or “boldly promote” or “promote our image” or promotion, promotion, promotion. And so the things that, that might indicate a more strategic role for marketing, whether that’s, you know, understanding the audience’s, understanding your constituents, helping to understand market conditions for program development, revenue diversification, any number of areas were less, were much less prevalent. It was actually a bit disheartening to see how marketing was represented in these plans, because marketing has made a lot of forward movement and progress in terms of CMO/VP level roles. But according to these strategic plans, there’s a lot of work left to do, but it does speak to the opportunity. Again, we did see a few exceptions to that, particularly among the 16, where marketing was collaborating with academic affairs and finance, and there was a market intelligence based approach to program development, and it was much more than just promotion. So that was one clear takeaway about marketing and the role of marketing and plans.

But along with that is the role of the CMO or the leader for marketing as part of the part of the plans. And, again, a great opportunity for marketing to be at the table. So, back to that point of transparency, fewer than half of the plans identified who all was involved in the planning in terms of core, core strategic planning committee and working groups and all of that. But then for those who did, a small number had marketing and communications, I think 15 or 17 had a marketing and communications leader as part of the core strategic planning group.

So if, if marketing’s role is to get the word out around promotion, or make the strategic plan look pretty, okay, that that makes sense. But if you’re wanting marketing as we think it should be, can serve an institution and its ambitions around more strategic areas in terms of understanding audiences, in terms of understanding market conditions, there’s so much opportunity, and so it’s a, it’s a miss. Marketing leaders can be fundamental agents in creating that engagement with the people who matter most to an institution and its, and its future. And so that constituent-centric perspective that can take into account all the various stakeholder groups who are part of a strategic plan in terms of taking action or being influenced, marketing can bring that expertise to the table. And so again, it’s a missed opportunity when marketing is not represented. So those were a couple things related to marketing. Branding is another area which I could touch on as well, what we saw there.

Shiro: Amazing. And it can you give us like an example of, you know, what is an audience-centric perspective look like? Maybe you don’t have to name the institution, or you can provide one example of what that looks like. I’m trying to just contextualize this and visualize this in my head.

Rob: Yeah, yeah, and I think it goes back to the very beginning of knowing that as you’re developing a plan, like who’s the strategic planning ultimately for? That was one of our main research questions, as we, you know, encountered strategic plans anyway through the course of our work, and they all kind of look the same and sound alike thinking, well, who are these are these ultimately for and who’s supposed to read them and act on them? And so going through that process of identifying your audiences or prioritizing audiences for a strategic plan can be really helpful, and also inviting audiences to see their own agency in moving the university forward and having that conveyed in a strategic plan. And so, you know, an example simply would be plans that were easy to read or even enjoyable to read, because they were designed with readers in mind. And that’s one, one characteristic of good strategy is that it should be easy, simple and even obvious to communicate and to understand. So we saw, unfortunately saw more examples that that weren’t necessarily audience-centric and even hard to follow priority, goal, initiative, tactic, and how do all these dots connect, for example, became, became cumbersome. It shouldn’t be cumbersome. It shouldn’t be onerous to read and understand a strategic plan. And again, I think it gets back to let’s think of this not just in terms of the institution, but in terms of our audiences. And again, marketing can be very valuable in that.

One other disconnect that comes to mind was, we, we identified the most common, overarching priorities or strategic goals. So diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging was one, research was another and scholarship creative activity. But community outreach, broadly defined, was one of those top priorities that we saw, most consistently across plans. But then digging into, well, who’s participating in the strategic planning process, and only 10 percent of strategic planning committees included any community representation. So another example of that disconnect for institutions that look and act in a more inward fashion for strategic planning, yet our missions are about, you know, when you ask that first question about why I love higher ed, about transforming lives and society, they’re outwardly focused. So that’s such an interesting disconnect in this plan. And so again, you know, we know we need to be audience-centric in our marketing work, but we need to be audience centric in our strategy, too.

Shiro: And, you know, this is actually reminding me a lot of? I don’t get the opportunity to talk to people who formulate strategic plans or review them like you very often. But this actually reminds me a lot of, I’ve had a lot of higher ed website redesign conversations on the podcast. And I’ll talk to people either directly supporting or directly managing full website redesign. And the thing I’m hearing is, you know, you don’t want to just go out there and create the website and expect everyone else to follow suit, right, and kind of going with your 10 percent of people are involved in the process of creating these strategic plans. A lot of the successful newer higher ed websites, talk to every college or every unit of the school to see, hey, like, is this page being developed in the way that you’re, you’re seeing opportunity, or where do you see frustrations, and they’re really getting this community-built approach to the website. And I found that a lot of folks are really moving toward this model, because one, they can condense the website into a fewer amount of pages and create a plan that’s actually easier to understand, like you just said, but also have involvement from all the departments that want a say in the website, and so that everyone’s kind of on board with the plan. And it’s kind of, I’m connecting the dots, and it sounds very similar to that, obviously, much higher level.

Rob: I love that connection, a clear, a clear parallel. And, and the thing that I take away from that, as you mention that example, going back to your question about promotion and seeing that heavy focus across these strategic plans. And, you know, that’s not the, that’s not the role that marketing can best play to serve an institution. At our core is our role to represent or champion our constituents and those who we’re engaging, those who we’re trying to reach and influence and move to action, those who are closest to the to the institution. Like when we represent those audiences and can bring their perspectives, worldviews, experiences to the table to help guide decision making, that’s, you know, that’s the role of marketing. That’s the beauty of what marketing can do, that external understanding of both our audiences, and then back to the point with strategic planning, market conditions and external forces.

That was another gap that we saw in the strategic plans is that so few strategic plans did any sort of environmental scanning or serving of audiences. We saw this pattern emerge that when strategic plans were introduced, there would be this broad overview of all of these conditions, you know, all the headwinds that we’re familiar with across the higher end landscape, whether that’s the changing demographics, or the scrutiny that’s heightened of higher ed. All those issues we would hear about and see, and that that’s helpful. But it didn’t get to the specificity of those beyond that general overview of how do these, how do these factors, whether they’re cultural, social, economic, how do they specifically affect this institution and the road ahead? And what are what are perceptions of our audiences and stakeholders? What are the, what are the market forces at play in our service region? So we didn’t see a lot of that to really understand the specific and nuanced ways that those different factors can affect a particular institution. So again, that speaks to an opportunity where marketing can add, add value. And so that, again, that broad overview helped to make a case for change, but there’s, there’s much more opportunity there when you get into specific data and insights from market research that marketing can help bring to the table and help understand current market position.

That was another takeaway, that there was a lot of assumption about institutions and their distinctiveness and where they stand in the market, but it wasn’t clear in strategic plans. We didn’t see a clear, across the set, a clear understanding and explanation of where an institution currently is. Where they want to go, their vision, their goals, all of that, they’re great about saying, Here’s what we want to do, we want to grow, and we want to start these programs. But truly understanding a starting point, where you are, is essential—obviously—to know how to draw a map to get there. And that current understanding, again, another area—I keep harping on it—that marketing can bring that type of intelligence to institutional decision making.

Shiro: Love that. Yeah, I mean, my manager might listen to this later, but you know, we’re all about creating, like rocks, which are basically like, our milestones. Sorry, not our milestones, they are our goals, like a strategic plan, for the individual contributor. And then we create milestones along the way to see, you know, where we’re at in that process. And so, yeah, I think that’s really fundamental to understanding like how far you’ve gone, or how far you’ve come so far. Love to hear.

Awesome, well I’d love to switch gears a little bit more, and before we do, I do want to mention that we will be sharing RHB’s resources out in the podcast description footnotes, as well as the webpage we’ll create for this episode so that you’ll have an opportunity to read more about what Rob and his team have been able to find from these learnings. So we’ll share that out for you and be on the lookout for that. So jumping right back into the conversation here. Well, you mentioned this lightly before, but what are your thoughts around the future role of the CMO and marketing as a whole in higher ed?

Rob Zinkan: Big question there, Shiro. We did touch on it as it relates to strategic planning. If I can back up and give you a current state of the marketing function. And that’s one of the things that we do at RHB is we help institutions with organizational effectiveness related to marketing and conduct organizational assessments. And what we see, we typically see institutions in either two camps, one of which would be a marketing function that is very much output oriented, which would be in that promotion vein, you know, telling our story, a service function taking requests and, and that sort of approach. And then the next area would be a more strategic function, where there are metrics associated with how marketing is affecting resources for the institution—revenue, reputation—rather than based on just activity. The work is aligned with key institutional priorities. There’s typically a VP level position dedicated to marketing. Resources toward marketing are seen more as an investment rather than a cost. Marketing is not a cost center that we, that we sometimes see in that more service/support type of function. Marketing enables revenue generation, enables reputation enhancement, so those two broadly defined areas—and we’re seeing institutions often in the middle because there’s always, always an executional element to marketing. So sometimes it’s hard to evolve. An institution realizes, we need marketing to play a more strategic function or strategic role for the institution, and we’re not exactly sure how to get there.

But then beyond that, because you asked the question about the future, where could marketing go? And it’s great when we see where marketing’s work is aligned with strategic priorities. Getting back to our discussion around strategic plans, there’s an opportunity if marketing does and can do those things to bring that information, that data, those insights, marketing can help guide those priorities. They can inform those priorities, they can help the institution decide what strategies to take, versus just aligning our work with priorities. They can inform the work, and that’s a that’s a critical difference. I talked about that as marketing as a chief strategy officer type of role to think of marketing in that way. So that would be that would be one area as we look to the future of marketing.

The other area, and I wrote a piece about this in Inside Higher Ed about a year or so ago about the chief constituent officer, which is not necessarily a title, it’s more of a conceptual thought about how marketing can represent a broader range of stakeholders. And it gets back to your point about an integrated constituent journey for our audiences, because we’re, we’re divided organizationally across our institutions into these functional silos, but our audiences look at the institution holistically. Like we’re all, you know, wherever you’re, wherever your alma mater is, like everyone, they don’t look at the “office of” so-and-so. It’s the university, you know, it’s one university. And so no one is responsible for thinking or strategizing in that way, and increasingly constituents’ relationships with the institution are multidimensional. They don’t just fit into one box or one area, like they have lots of points of connection, which is great ,with an institution. So who is taking that global view, connecting the dots with the institution. You know, we don’t talk much about student lifetime value. But those who do, I encourage them to think of student lifetime value also in terms of the value to the constituent. What is the value to them, not just to the institution about being engaged in the life of the institution for their, for their lifetime? And so that opportunity for higher ed, particularly as we get into CRM, and you know, one CRM, not multiple CRMs across admissions and student and advancement, but an integrated CRM or one CRM. And Slate CRM is something that we do at RHB. So that’s a huge, huge opportunity.

I presented at the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education last year with Mary Gresch, senior vice president at the University of Washington, and Binti Harvey, VP at Scripps College, because they are two marketing and communications leaders who now lead marketing and advancement, so they have an integrated portfolio. And you see that in higher ed, but that’s typically led by someone who comes from a development background. But this is, these are places that are being led by those with a marketing and communications background with oversight of advancement. And again, it’s not, it’s not a power play or anything like that. It’s an indication of the value that marketing can bring because of this constituent-wide lens and understanding and this institution-wide lens and understanding. So I’m really excited about seeing a few examples like that, and I think our institutions are going to be, need to be, more and more innovative in that way, and not just think in terms of organizational structures that have always existed. So I’m, I’ll stop there, but it gets me excited thinking about the possibilities for marketing leadership and the role.

Shiro: I have a question to, you know, ask why. Why does, you know, why did, why did these processes all need to be, I liked your example about, you know, your two colleagues who are combining advancement and marketing now right or communications together? Why is this need coming up? Is it because consumers now and students and potential students are now used to a society in which like, journeys are perfected by other experiences in their life, like this is very theoretical, right? But like, why does this need come up? You know, like, higher ed’s been doing the same thing for 30, 40, 50 years. Why has this need have to come up now?

Rob: Oh, wow. There’s probably a lot that we could get into there, and I think I’d put yours, you know, the reason that you just stated at the top of the list, because our expectations as, as customers, as consumers are changing, and you’re right, higher ed, we should be comparing ourselves or our institutions to the experiences that our constituents have with other brands, who are, you know, it’s seamless in terms of, you know, interfacing with technology, and, you know, heck, my Starbucks app, I mean, you can name any, any of those types of examples. But then if I can make the connection back to the strategic plans, one of those top priorities that we saw most consistently was revenue diversification or financial sustainability, and advancement plays a role in that. And it was interesting to see the difference, and we saw—and not to get too far into mentions of philanthropy and advancement—but it was very common to see that mentioned in, specifically in, financial sustainability and in a transactional sort of way. But we did see pockets of examples where it was a much more holistic approach of engagement, and all the ways that we want our constituents to, again, be part of the life of the institution, or be engaged in the institution, or the ways that we as an institution should bring value to the constituents throughout their lifetime, throughout that journey, and by doing so, that’s going to lead to increased engagement and increased giving. And so the financial piece of that, I think, is part of the, part of the picture, too, because it serves an institution well, over the long run. But that’s the thing is, it’s a long game, and it’s really hard to play the long game, when there are all these pressures, and we’ve got to fill the, you know, incoming class for next year. And again, I think that’s, that’s a great opportunity for marketers is to bring that long, like that long-view perspective that institutions need.

Shiro: Love to hear it. And one area I’m focusing on right now, as a content subject for Concept 3D is around student onboarding. So what we’re defining student onboarding as is your period from after you’ve committed, right, to actually showing up to school on move-in day, the move-in day itself, plus the first week or one month of orientation, and maybe that first, you know, two to three months of the student of the first-year student’s journey and kind of looking at that whole experience as a student onboarding process, and how, you know, institutions are starting to really, I think, invest more resources from a people perspective, from a money perspective, so that students have a really good initial experience, so that they can retain those students more and they can advance to the second year, third year and become, you know, loyal alums as well. And so that’s a conversation I’m having. The flip side of that is to talk about those three areas, pre move-in day, move-in day, and orientation, and first-year experience. Those are all managed by like three to four different departments. And so you can already see that the decentralization of that experience for the student, because if I was a student, whatever communications I’m receiving over summer before showing up at my dorms to that first year is going to be, you know, I’ll look at as one single journey or close to one journey, but it’s already fragmented, I think, from a department perspective at the institutional level.

Rob: Yeah, yeah, good. That’s high value work, so I’d love to hear more about that, because it does it—and it’s an encouragement to listeners and their institutions about the work that they do. And I’m sure there are comparable examples that they have is, how can you operate? How can you functionally organize your work around the student or the constituent and less like your organizational chart? Your work doesn’t have to look like your organizational chart. If you were to organize around those that you’re trying to serve, what would that, what would that look like? And you’re right too, it’s the transition points that get, get the rockiest or they’re the most obstacles there. And I would always say that that transition from student to alum would be one of those where, as a, from a constituent perspective, it’s almost as if someone has to reintroduce themselves to the university, right? They’re going to typically new information system, new staff, new all of that. And so is that experience, their interests, all of that carried over to where that’s just a seamless integration. And even looking ahead too where you might have, what graduate programs that are on a subscription model are all the different ways that higher ed will change and where just for yours is not enough, and we may be going in and out to get credentials or to get more education, and that relationship between being a student, being an alum is, you know, is less defined. So, you know, another example of why we need to be more integrated in the way we think, in the way we work that’s more tied to those we’re serving and less tied to all the organizational silos that are inherent in higher ed.

Shiro: Love that. And I think I want to pull a quote from this that, what was it, you said that your work does not have to be tied to the departments that it’s divided between or something along those lines?

Rob: Right, right. Yes, yeah. I mean, we’re all—you know, we’ve shown during COVID, all the ways that we can collaborate and work cross functionally. There’s so much opportunity there.

Shiro: Love to hear it. Rob, thank you so much for all your insights. That was a super fun conversation. I wonder where our audience can connect with you and learn more about what you’re up to or what RHB’s up to?

Rob: Yeah, thanks, Shiro. Definitely feel free to reach out on LinkedIn. Would love to make a connection and hear what other people are doing and facing in the challenges and how they’re, they’re working through some of the issues that we touched on. So feel free to reach out on LinkedIn, Rob Zinkan. And check us out on RHB.com; I would go to insights. There is a ton of information there and our writing that we share on, across our four practices of marketing, enrollment, executive counsel, Slate and related technology. Lots of insights there that we hope will be valuable and help you in the important work that you do.

Shiro: That’s fantastic. Thanks so much again for joining, and thank you for our listeners for tuning in. We’ll have another exciting episode next week as well. Thanks, Rob.

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Rob Zinkan

Rob is the Vice President for Marketing Leadership at RHB.