When to Go “Outside” for Your Higher Ed Marketing Needs

If you’ve been following our posts on RHB Insights lately, you’re likely aware of our stance on the importance of having an in-house marketing department on your college campus to properly meet your future needs. We’ve not only written posts that champion the idea, but we’ve created a guidebook to help aid your institution in effectively structuring its in-house marketing department. This advocacy may surprise you, considering we are an agency that makes its living by doing the work of marketing on your behalf. But from my perspective, any higher ed marketing firm that isn’t thinking about the future—yours and their own—isn’t thinking very much. When we talk about this subject at RHB, the gist of our conversations go like this: if higher ed matures to the point of recognizing the relative importance of marketing, and how they can (and should) accomplish their marketing goals on campus with their own in-house skilled professionals, for what services should they come to us?

In a day of high expectation for accountability, it makes fiscal sense to bring certain marketing activities in-house, specifically: functions that are economically feasible. More specifically: institutions that invest in a proper marketing team should be creating marketing and sales tools for the income generating divisions (gifts, enrollment). Building a remarkable team, a bevy of freelancers and an efficient production process will save you money and time.

For (a not so sexy) example, let’s say you have a firm of record, and those pesky postcards come up. That firm is going to charge you $2,000 a piece for those (we’ve done the research, and yes, everyone hates them). How many postcards do you have to pay for before you could’ve hired a designer with that money?

If you made it this far into the post, you’re thinking: “He’s going to tell me to pay for something next.”

Nope. Not yet.

Actually, here are more things that you shouldn’t go outside for:

  • Institutional data collection (including scrutiny of your competitors)
  • Media placement
  • Most writing and design
  • Fulfillment
  • Anything with “social media” in it
  • HTML emails
  • Most phone-calling

It’s worth noting, however, that most of these are services we provide for our clients all the time. And, I’ll add that we do these things very (very) well. Which leads me to the next point…

In the Future, Someone Will (Still) Take Your Money

Regardless of the increase in marketing activities taken on internally, institutions will remain reliant on outside agencies to help with particular marketing endeavors, or to help achieve certain goals that the institution cannot otherwise meet on its own. The future marketing firm specializing in higher ed will likely fall into one of three camps:

  • Those who rush to tools that can’t be economically supported by an institution, such as call centers, boxed marketing automation products and CRMs or other “gadgets” that assist in implementation.
  • Those who offer the same services that an in-house team can offer, but meet demand for increased capacity. Meaning, the institution has need to outsource design implementation (regardless of medium).
  • Those select few who will achieve “boutique” design shop (shoppe?) status.

The Good Ones

As stated, others will focus on marketing services that institutions cannot provide to themselves. In this case, I don’t necessarily mean services that cannot be achieved internally because of limitations in manpower or tangible resources. I’m referring to services that, by their very nature, are incredibly difficult for a college or university to achieve (unless they happen to be particularly enlightened). Those services are (in order):

  1. Objectivity

  2. Perspective

  3. Interpretation of experience to expression


Most institutions I encounter struggle with objectivity to some extent, knowingly or unknowingly. Those on campus simply cannot view themselves or their services objectively enough to measure true value. Higher ed, by nature, is insular. And for the most part, missions are written to be insular. But the relative importance of what institutions say and do cannot be seen purely from the inside. One example of this is: institutions that attempt to organize themselves by delivery method. Objectively, that’s not a good plan, but from the inside, it makes perfect sense. A reliable marketing firm will be able to offer experience-derived objectivity to its clients and dissuade them from plans that actually don’t make sense. (The hard part, then, is for the clients to accept the objective viewpoint…)


You don’t have to look far for the evidence: the keywords on your pole banners are likely the same as an institution 100 miles or 1,000 miles (or maybe only ten) from your campus. Everyone is promoting the same thing, in the same way, utilizing the same language. Part of this is subconscious pack mentality (what benefit is there in behaving differently?), but that’s the point: it’s not conscious. It’s mostly a lack of perspective. Part of what a well-positioned higher ed marketing firm will offer is the benefit of working with hundreds of institutions, and that should come to bear on the engagement. While objectivity is useful in preventing an institution from making the same mistakes that their unsuccessful peers have fallen prey to, perspective is particularly beneficial when an institution is venturing into less-chartered waters and could benefit from the instincts and point-of-view of a veteran marketing firm.

Interpretation of Experience to Expression

The sum of the first two informs how the actual experience should translate into external and internal expressions. This all needs to happen in sequence: an objective evaluation of your institution, with the benefit of macro perspective, leading to a true interpretation of: what you do, what you say you do and how you say it. At RHB, we call that Coherence. The expressions, of course, vary widely. They can be brand books (we call them Coherence Manifests), experience design, focused consulting, key passages of language or sensory expressions. I contend that the best deliverable must be something that provides clear guidance, and is perpetuating—meaning, your firm can leave you, only to return when you need to reevaluate anything on those three measures. A firm should leave you better off than where you started, clear on what your objectives are, and able to continue making progress with some autonomy. The alternative—leaving you helplessly inadequate to carry out the new marketing edicts and efforts on your own—is a failure on the agency’s part.


In some ways, this post is a Jerry Maguire moment. It’s affirming our commitment to helping clients in ways that they cannot help themselves. I do believe if more institutions were to focus on gaining these three types of intelligence, internal marketing teams would be sufficiently equipped to create, deploy and maintain marketing and sales initiatives in a viable way with little-to-no outside assistance required. And that’s good for everyone. But that transition will be difficult. In the meantime, knowing when to pay for outside marketing assistance and when to invest in building up your own in-house marketing to meet your future needs is a good place to start.


A version of this post previously appeared on rhbinformed.com



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Sam Waterson

Sam is President at RHB.