Building a Modern Higher Ed Marketing Team at University at Albany (SUNY)

As a higher education professional, you are always looking forward. Forward to next semester, next year, the next graduating class, and forward to future enrollment goals across your institution.

On this episode of Enrollment Growth University, Dr. Joseph Brennan, VP of Communications & Marketing and Clinical Professor of Business at The University at Albany, discusses how to hire, organize and structure your higher ed marketing department to fulfill current and future institutional enrollment goals.

Organizing your Higher Ed Marketing Team to Meet Today’s Demands

The field of higher education marketing is rapidly changing. Digital is at the core of everything you do now, and more importantly, the demands on marketing and a marketing team are higher than ever.

Marketing has to become strategic and proactive in order to break free of the “tactical and reactive” labels that used to surround marketing teams.

Most folks aren’t approaching marketing teams looking for brochures anymore, or even websites. They’re looking for social media. They’re looking for engagement, and the tactical and reactive model doesn’t fully empower you to do what you need to as a strategic marketer.

Where to Begin in Building Your Marketing Team?

  1. Institutional Strategic Marketing plan.

Don’t picture a forty page binder full of graphs and numbers. Your plan should clearly articulate your institution’s top business goals (enrollment growth, how big, what kind, etc.)

This could also include alumni engagement and philanthropy, and if you’re a public university, it could include goals around engaging your legislators and other elected officials.

Outline your marketing activities that will drive those institutional outcomes, then outline the tactics and schedule. Remember the plan is the beginning because your structure follows your strategy.

  1. Align Positions to Priorities

What positions will you need in order to deliver the marketing activities that you promise in your plan? First, start with a blank piece of paper and identify positions and skillsets necessary to deliver your strategic plan.

Identify what you have to work with in terms of the people that are already in your organization, and see if you can match individuals into your ideal structure. If not, you’re going to have to lobby for the ability to create new positions.

You may have to ask some folks to leave, or to radically adjust what it is that they’re currently doing, but the reality is this adjustment will greatly help as you switch from ideal to reality.

So many people view marketing as simply service operations. They come with a problem and marketing delivers just what they asked. THe problem is they often come with the wrong problem.

While they may say what they need is a poster or a website or social media, what they really need are to fill seats in their classrooms. Helping the marketing department think of themselves more strategically and then helping to communicate that with the rest of the university is crucial.

Organize for the Unicorns? Or Build for their Absence?

Often a higher ed CMO has inherited was either a structure and a set of skills that were built for the reality of 20 years ago. Or perhaps it was an unplanned department that just grew because times were good and someone gave the marketing people another position.

You have to be disciplined enough to say, “the institutional goals come first.” Then come the marketing functions that will drive those goals, followed by the skillsets and structure that best supports that, and finally you look at matching people to the work.

Really finding out what your employee’s strengths are is a vital thing. It is often the case that you’ve got the right person, but they’re in the wrong chair. This is a simple realignment. But sometimes you will have a more difficult problem. You may have the right person, but thee chair doesn’t exist.

Maybe you just don’t need that function anymore. You may have some really well performing employees that are doing jobs that might have made sense a few years back, but the new strategic plan just doesn’t allot for them. You may have to cut those ties, and put those dollars back into some new capacity that didn’t exist before.

Staffing for Current Needs and Making Room for Growth

Higher education is a relatively low turnover environment. Universities tend to hire people who will come in and stay. You have to hire with an eye ten or even twenty years out. Think about where someone might go.

But alongside that, you can’t afford to hire someone who’s an expert in just one channel. Everything is integrated now. You want someone to be comfortable thinking in a multi-channel way.

The good news is, with the generation that is coming out college currently, there is a wealth of multi-channel talent available. Look for folks with the capacity to learn, who have shown the ability to adapt and grow, then invest in their growth.

What Marketing Positions are Understaffed?

As the marketing field is growing so rapidly, there are a host of positions that higher ed marketing departments are underestimating and understaffing for.

In order to be first-rate marketers, you’ve got to be data informed. We live in the era of big data. We need people that know how to systematically gather up this data and, more importantly, get the story, strategy, and insights out of it.

Looking at numbers on a page is one thing, but really understanding the implications for action is quite another.

How do you Communicate Functional Changes with Staff?

These are real changes that affect real people’s lives. As a good leader, you always want to be transparent, and you don’t’ want things to be a surprise.

Involve your entire staff, from the beginning, in the development of your Institutional Strategic Plan. This doesn’t mean putting everybody around a table and saying, “Help me do the marketing plan.”

It means talking to them about what a plan is, it’s importance, and their role in fashioning the plan. You solicit their input along the way, and let them know early in that the plan will inform priorities, so that it’s not a surprise.

Once the plan is developed and you’ve built the support of the president and other key senior officials, then bring it back to your staff and share it with them, revealing the structure and the positions necessary to deliver the plan.

Being a CMO can be a lonely job. You don’t really have any other peers to have frank conversations with, because they don’t’ know your world. Find somebody on the outside, maybe a trusted peer, or an agency partner, or an independent consultant. Let them guide you through this process and give you the moral support needed.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Joseph Brennan from the University at Albany – SUNY. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

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