Gut, politics, or data: What’s driving your higher ed marketing spend?

In a perfect world of automatons, all marketing spending decisions would be based purely on data. ROI would be the key driver in determining the best use of the budget, and success would be based solely on outcome. Yet in our imperfect world of humanoids, budgetary decisions are often much more nuanced than all that. Sometimes, time-sensitive fires are put out by gut reactions. Sometimes, an institution’s polity grants more weight to certain opinions in the room. When marketing ROI profiles are coated in such mortal inefficiencies, a data-driven mindset might seem logistically impossible.

While hard data form the ideal basis for marketing allocations, there’s a time and place for making decisions based on gut or politics. Gut decisions can, at times, mitigate time and resource constraints. Politically-sensitive decisions can help preserve institutional culture. Similarly to a marketing mix, the key is to balance these “soft” factors with hard data when making marketing decisions. Help gut and politics to work with your data, not against it.   

Go with your gut, but only as a baseline.

A number of circumstances cause marketers to act based on gut. When incredible data analysis is required to fully optimize budget allocation, time is often a marketer’s adversary. Evaluating the success of content, creative, and channel may simply be too labor-intensive before the rollout of a campaign that was just sprung on you with a deadline of a week from now. In instances like this, gut can provide a starting point. Then, you can spot check some early indicators. Is a channel flopping? Are you facilitating successful interactions? Are inquiries from that channel effectively going through the funnel, and at what cost? If campaigns are living and iterative, gut decisions can provide a baseline for further evaluation.

Weigh the cost of action against the cost of political fallout.

We all know that financial price is only one aspect of total cost. Maybe implementing a certain marketing channel doesn’t fit into your long-term strategic plan, but the fallout of not implementing it could include the disenfranchisement of a champion voice in leadership. Maybe your institution hasn’t seen much response from outdoor ads in a particular area, yet a board member keeps insisting that you need a billboard on Such and Such St. because she takes Such and Such St. on her way to work. If there’s a sector that understands the value of strong institutional culture, it’s higher ed. Needless to say, sometimes the short-term political win beats out the long-term ROI win.


Make decisions based on data when possible, just incorporate context when analyzing ROI. Gain a truer and more holistic measurement of marketing allocations by acknowledging the “soft” factors of gut and politics. By acknowledging the realities of the higher ed environment, you won’t leave your ROI profile hanging in the balance.


Eric Olsen

Eric brings more than a decade of award-winning creative brand development, marketing analytics and higher education experience to Helix Education. Eric is a graduate of Bradley University and earned his MBA at Lewis University.