What Your President Expects: Insights for Higher Ed Marketers

One of our pet projects in the last couple of years is a survey of independent college presidents that we’ve conducted in collaboration with our friends at The Lawlor Group. In late 2016, we surveyed presidents at about 1000 private colleges and more than 200 of them willingly responded to share their perspectives on marketing challenges. In the fall of 2017, we repeated the survey, but targeted only Catholic college and university presidents to determine what specific challenges that these religiously-affiliated institutions faced.

A few months ago, Carole Arwidson, John Lawlor and I presented findings at the ACCU meeting in Washington, DC. We addressed the balance between being “too Catholic” and “Catholic enough” in positioning. Overall, our findings suggested that there were very similar challenges between the Catholic college presidents and the independent college presidents at large. Issues related to revenue generation and marketing were top-tier concerns for all  of the surveyed presidents, as suggested by the table below.

As a marketer in the higher ed arena, you have multiple challenges and an array of clients who need (and sometimes demand) your intelligent solutions to keep your institution afloat. It’s your president, however, who likely needs you most. From our research and experience with more than 130 colleges and universities, we offer the following suggestions of what she expects of you.

Generate revenue

No matter where you work, you are employed to, ultimately, generate income for others, your employer or yourself. Your president likewise has responsibility for generating income that sustains and advances your college or university. As you can readily see in the chart above, generating income is the first challenge that presidents identify.

More than anything, you need to keep in mind that marketing carries with it the undercurrent of making meaningful exchange, that is, generating revenue. Marketers “tee up” opportunities for development officers to receive gifts from donors and for recruiters to close sales with prospective students and their families. Your situation may also include responsibility for generating income from athletic programs and auxiliary enterprises.

Bearing that objective in mind, you can be guided in your choices and decisions for strategies, communications, expenditures and investments by knowing that you are an asset to your institution when it comes to fiscal responsibility and sustainability. Great marketers become indispensable to presidents when their work leads to improved income generation.

Tell the truth

You already know the scrutiny under which higher ed operates; and that’s compounded by technology that leaves nowhere to hide. Honesty is the best policy and your president needs you to not only be truthful but to provide information and insight that allows her to be truthful, too. Equip your president with accurate data and synopses of events.

If you follow RHB, you know our watchword is Coherence. Simply, coherence is telling the truth. Be genuine and authentic in your marketing efforts. Communicate clearly in language that your audience understands; avoid higher ed jargon. There’s nothing wrong with professional polish, but your audience will pick up on slick from a mile away. Be human rather than over-rehearsed. Teach your president to be comfortable with your true story.

Learn more about how RHB can help your institution tell the truth.

Find a story of distinction

Your true story should bring out your best. Your president needs your assistance in captivating audiences with what makes you stand out among peers. Supply your president with lively and real examples of your students, faculty and alumni to help amplify your market position.

Don’t confuse positioning with branding. Positioning is part of your responsibility to define how you wish to stand out from your competitor set. You and your colleagues can choose what position to occupy. Of course, you’ll need to prove that position sufficiently through your actions and offerings in order to turn your efforts into a believable brand.  To do that, be sure to find stories that support your differentiation from competitors and help your president tell them.

Build awareness

Look again at the chart above and you’ll note that half the presidents we surveyed were significantly challenged by creating some awareness of their institution. “We’re the best kept secret in [name your state here]” does not hold as a solid market position, although it does indeed suggest you are the “best.”

Making your institution more visible to people is good; making your institution more visible to the right people is better. Your way forward should include an assessment of your many and varied audiences so you know how to invest appropriately in your outreach. Your goal probably should not be to be in front of everybody, but knowing exactly which market segments will be most significant to your cause is one of the most important parts of your job as a marketer.

Attract students and donors

A recent survey of presidents conducted by Inside Higher Ed records that eighty-five per cent of college and university presidents are “somewhat” or “very concerned” that they will enroll the target number of undergraduates to sustain their campuses. Your role in influencing enrollment trumps almost all other marketing activities…unless it’s fundraising. According to the same study, only forty-nine percent of presidents say they felt well-prepared for fund-raising responsibilities when they took office.

This charge closely resembles your responsibility to generate income. Since most operational funds come from tuition and gifts (and that is especially so in a time when federal and state funding seems to be diminishing), your marketing efforts to influence prospective donors and prospective students—and their families—have likely never been more important.

Provide data

Your president needs meaningful data. You may not be the source for all data. Hopefully you have an Institutional Research Office on campus to gather, glean and distribute helpful data to shape messaging, planning and strategies. Even so, you may have access to reports, studies and marketing-related data that your president needs. A regularly-scheduled summary may assist your president with talking points or meaningful insight. A caution: don’t inundate your president with statistics; be selective and thoughtful when sharing your expert highlights.

Create a marketing dashboard for your president if you have not yet already done so. Ask what data is most useful and generate a regular posting for her that summarizes important benchmarks and progress bars. By proactively reporting your efforts and marketing achievements, you may save yourself unnecessary phone conversations and potential micromanagement.

Eliminate surprises

A surprise party might be fun, but presidents rarely want to be surprised by confrontations from alumni, donors, parents, or worse, journalists armed with data or concerns of which she may not be aware. As a marketing professional on the frontlines, you may know of circumstances or consternations circulating among your constituents. Do not hide from these. And ensure that your president is fully informed.

Likewise, proactively equip your president with profiles of the people or audiences with whom she is meeting, including a synopsis of their interests and suggestions for talking points or topics that will advance the cause of your institution and meaningfully connect with those she encounters. Marketing is all about exchange; help your president make the best exchanges possible.

Protect your president

Perhaps this should have been first on the list, but it’s also a great summary statement for all the preceding words of counsel. There may be no more lonely job than that of a college or university president. As the pressure mounts for higher education to prove its value, your president becomes more vulnerable to “attack” from both internal and external audiences. Advocate for your president in your marketing efforts by watching for news trends, national issues and hot debates that may be opportunities for her comment. Proactively offer suggestions for op-eds or speaking engagements to which she could lend her expertise. At the same time, alert her to dangers and potholes to be avoided.

Someone on your marketing team, especially your public relations specialist, should be near your president anytime she is speaking publicly or when question and answer sessions are inevitable. You’ll be able to listen for ways to refine messages and address issues in a positive manner. Share your observations with your president as a matter of care for your institution’s leadership. Help her stay on message, on point and on her toes.

Your president will, no doubt, add to this list of expectations twenty times over, but if you start with these important basics, you’ll be serving your president and your institution well. 

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.