The Marketing Maturity Model: Advantages and Limitations

Recently I have seen more examples emerge of institutions adopting a marketing maturity model. Jaime Hunt, Old Dominion University Vice President for University Communications and Chief Marketing Officer, discussed the topic over the summer with Jamie Ceman, Chapman University Vice President for Strategic Marketing and Communications, during an episode of the Confessions of the Higher Ed CMO podcast. Both have implemented a version of the marketing maturity model. The model can help colleges and universities identify their own level of marketing maturity and create some goalposts for further developing marketing capabilities and performance.

Four years ago while at my previous institution, we devised a marketing maturity model as a qualitative lens to assess capabilities across six key areas. While this type of model existed in other sectors, it was new to higher education marketing. We developed and deployed it not just centrally, but across the broader university and marketing community in a decentralized environment. 

Here’s that example of a marketing maturity model applied to higher ed. Along the Y axis, a marketing maturity model includes key functional and organizational capabilities. You can adapt this part of the model to establish the capabilities and categories that best fit your institution and its situation. For us, it was a lengthy and iterative process to ensure we had the right categories and right descriptions that captured our vision for optimized marketing work that would best serve our institution and its audiences. 

Along the X axis is a continuum to score a marketing organization’s level of maturity in 1-5 Likert scale fashion across those various key areas. At my previous institution, we labeled the descriptions of the five levels as follows:

    • Level 1: Undeveloped
    • Level 2: Developing
    • Level 3: Competent and Consistent
    • Level 4: Accelerating
    • Level 5: Optimized 

My favorite description was Level 5 (Optimized) for the category Integrated Constituent Journey: Timely, relevant and seamless personalized journey (communications and experiences) creates exceptional constituent lifetime loyalty and desired strategic outcomes. This aspirational statement captures the holistic impact that a mature, optimized, constituent-centered marketing function could have.

A Common Language and Understanding

Marketing goals can vary widely across the institution, even just among academic units. The marketing maturity model enabled marketing professionals—regardless if their core target audience was prospective graduate students or prospective season ticket holders—to view their work through a common framework. 

I organized a monthly marcomm forum for the many distributed professionals throughout campus who had marketing and communications responsibilities. The purpose was to build community and build expertise. Periodically I would send post-forum surveys, and the most regular piece of feedback was that our forums often focused on topics related to prospective student marketing and that some marketers had other core audiences. A great benefit of the marketing maturity model was that it could be applied across all schools and units, whose work encompassed a range of audiences. Thanks to the model’s universality, an academic unit, a campus or the entire university could all have a rating for its level of marketing maturity. 

The marketing maturity model is a self-assessment tool. It was not our intent to try to come in as the all-knowing central marketing team and rate an individual unit. Rather, we would facilitate a workshop to enable the unit-level team to constructively assess themselves. While no one wants to be in the 1 (Undeveloped) or 2 (Developing) rating range, I was always impressed at our colleagues’ level of self-awareness and genuine desire to improve. The model provided a baseline measure from which they could identify where and why to improve, and then we could help them create intentionality on how. 

Another advantage of using the model was in building a shared understanding of our work and shared marketing vocabulary. When we talked about an “insight,” for instance, everyone was on the same page about what that meant and understood that an insight is more than just data or an observation. We subsequently built a professional development marketing academy with a curriculum mapped to the maturity model, which lent additional credence to the model and the specific capabilities within it. Given that school- and unit-level marketing and communications directors had various backgrounds and skill sets—some with more expertise on the communications side—the common framework for improving practices and performance was especially useful.

Keeping the Scoreboard in Perspective

The performance measures that matter most are the institution’s strategic priorities that marketing is working to affect. Moving from 2.7 to 3.4 on the marketing maturity model is nice progress but not an end of itself. Remember, it’s a subjective self-assessment. That progress in marketing maturity should be reflected in the ultimate success metrics for which marketing is accountable. Plus, there is never an end state (even if you were to reach Level 5 on the model) to the development of marketing capabilities, and that development will likely not be a linear journey. 

An important point is that the model proved to be helpful at that period in our organizational evolution. I would not advise that marketing departments should all automatically adopt a maturity model. It’s highly contextual. It could be a useful tool as part of a change management process, as in our example, to help formalize and socialize newly defined capability areas. However, when it comes to enhancing organizational effectiveness, you must begin with some foundational work, including institutional alignment on the value marketing will create and the related process of mapping organizational capabilities to the institution’s strategic priorities and ambitions.

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Rob Zinkan

Rob is the Vice President for Marketing Leadership at RHB.