Your Board Has Marketing Questions, You Have Answers

Ready for your board meeting?

Part 3 of 3

“How much are we spending on billboards?”

“What does this really mean?”

“What’s going on with all the alternate football helmet designs?”

These questions are among many marketing-related ones that I’ve heard over the years from trustees in my work as a senior administrator and now as a consultant. With spring board meeting season upon us, I’ve been reflecting on what insights these and other trustee-posed questions reveal and how chief marketing officers can approach conversations with their board.

I am going to tackle these three questions one at a time and share the lessons I learned. 

“How much are we spending on billboards?”

Trustees are going to bring their own experiences to this topic as consumers of the institution’s marketing and communications, whether that’s receiving print and email from a variety of schools and departments across the institution or viewing the latest 30-second spot during halftime of a nationally televised basketball game. They see the work and expressions of position that other audiences see. Our job is to help them see and understand the unseen—the why, not the how. Trustees take the long view of the institution, so put marketing strategy in that broader context.  

Our job is to help them see and understand the unseen—the why, not the how.

In the billboard example, outdoor was actually a relatively small percentage of the overall paid media spend—and a visible one that gave a lift to other, more-measurable channels. But the trustee only saw the billboard executions, not the university’s array of digital ads, in their market. (We also rotated billboard locations regularly as part of a single buy, giving the impression that the institution was “everywhere.”) Interestingly, during that particular board meeting, the next session was a report from the student government association president. Unprompted, she said, “By the way, I drive by one of our billboards every day on my way to campus, and it makes me proud to go here.” I wanted to high-five her. Internal audiences were not the primary audience for this buy, but still an important one to consider—a helpful reminder that when using a mass medium such as outdoor, the audiences are broad, so your message should be sufficiently broad too.

Trustees will also bring their own experiences with marketing from leading their own corporations or organizations. I can recall a discussion with a trustee who suggested outsourcing a larger portion of the institution’s marketing operations, similar to how marketing functioned at his corporation. The institution was spending less than 1% of its annual operating budget on marketing, while the trustee’s company was likely spending in the 10-15% range. While an increased investment in marketing was warranted at the institution, the type of investment required to shift to a largely outsourced operation was simply not feasible or prudent.

Expect and embrace these questions that originate from trustees’ own experiences and use them as a springboard to educating your board and framing discussions around overarching strategy.

“What does this really mean?”

I recall this apt question from a trustee during a board meeting in response to seeing metrics about brand health measures. Sure, progress in this area is important but is not an end of itself. What does it mean in terms of enrollment objectives and the institution’s ability to attract talent and resources? We must demonstrate the relationship between brand health and key business indicators that often lag behind brand measures. It serves no purpose to report on brand health in a silo. What are trustees to think if they hear about rosy brand health metrics in one presentation and not-so-rosy enrollment figures in another? Marketing leaders must frame measures of brand health or brand strength in terms of their relationship to broader institutional goals. Thus, marketing is not an “office” or “department” but an organizational function and organizational imperative for which the CMO and their team provide leadership and direction.

Marketing leaders must frame measures of brand health or brand strength in terms of their relationship to broader institutional goals.

Arizona State University has long been an exemplar in this area. ASU uses structural equation modeling to understand how stronger brand perceptions are part of the critical causal path for alumni to have affinity for the university and to advocate for the university, demonstrated by increases in desired engagement behaviors such as referrals, event attendance and philanthropic support.

These dots are not always easy to connect, but it’s our responsibility to our trustees and our institution to do so.

“What’s going on with all the alternate football helmet designs?”

On one hand, this type of question is a wakeup call for marketing leaders who have not forged tight relationships with their colleagues in intercollegiate athletics. With the constant visibility and relevance that athletics has—at every type of institution—this relationship and partnership are critical. We obviously can’t tell a trustee, “Well, that’s not my department,” “We don’t work with them,” or “They kind of do their own thing.” Even in a decentralized marketing structure, the CMO and central team must answer for all of the institution’s marketing work. To the board, and frankly others outside your institution, organizational divisions and interdepartmental boundaries hold little meaning. You and your colleagues are all on “Team University.” Your strategies and operations should follow.

When a trustee asked this question about football helmet designs, though, I couldn’t help but smile. Heck, I probably would have asked that question too. Trustees, like us, are loyal fans and regular people. They too care deeply about the institution and its future, and their relationship with it will likely be for a lifetime. Some of my favorite interactions with trustees were over coffee or during a pre-meeting conversation, learning about their family and learning the rich stories behind their varied and deep connections to the institution. Listening.

Questions from your board, including ones about marketing, can sometimes send institutional leaders into a default protective posture. Instead, engage enthusiastically. The questions you’ve heard or will hear in your exchanges with trustees are different in detail from the three I have shared, but the questions’ underlying themes may be familiar—and full of opportunity.

In case you haven’t already, you may like to read parts 1 and 2 from Rick Bailey and Ken Anselment.

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Rob Zinkan

Rob is the Vice President for Marketing Leadership at RHB.