Higher education has, for the most part, not come to grips with what marketing is. It is all too often thought of as a collection of services – design, messaging, graphic standards, visual branding, etc.
The problem is this: the power of marketing doesn’t lie with services, it lies with strategy. Strategy is the ability to employ what I call structural decisions: decisions about how people are organized, how you spend your money, and what technology you use. In the private sector, structural decisions also include what products you offer. In higher education, not so much – but more on that later.
Several years ago, I was involved with a university that was interested in building their applicant pool from the western states. When I came into the organization, they were about to hire a graphic design firm to redesign their direct mail and they had grand plans to test different visual approaches to try and boost their response rates. But they weren’t looking at the single biggest driver of response rates: who were they mailing? The marketing organization didn’t control the list purchasing, that was done by the finance office as it was one of the biggest expenditures of the year.
We got a very smart student to map out response rates from the list for the last five years and then we targeted zip codes that tended to respond with multiple appeals and personal letters. The result was a 300% increase in response rate – and the creative wasn’t changed at all. We changed how we spent money and we changed the internal organization so that marketing was empowered to make structural decisions.
The very dangerous thing for marketing people in higher education is that most of you are charged having strategy-level impact but are only responsible for service-level tools.