The Business of Higher Education Marketing...Yes, Business
Last week's Wall Street Journal article, "Marketing Pros: Big Brand on Campus," was eye-opening for many outside the world of academia. In "Business," there is not a company that can afford not to think about their marketing efforts and sales on a daily basis. If you don't have sales, you don't have a business. Similarly, no students equals no college.
So, why is this article eye-opening? Because, to many, colleges aren't a "business." Instead, higher education is framed more as a public good, an altruistic, well-rounded experience that is a rite of passage into the world of adulthood, professionalism, and perhaps family life. The introduction of sales, marketing, and other dirty words sullies that image.
Unfortunately, with declines in state and federal funding coupled with intense competition for students from slews of institutions offering similar programs, schools have been forced to embrace the realities of the capitalist, private sector. And, that means sales, marketing, branding, advertising - the works.
Marketing encompasses the 4 P's: product, price, place, and promotion. Consider this: if a CMO was truly responsible for marketing, he/she would sit at the Cabinet and have the ear of the President and influence programming (product), costs (price), location (place), and marketing communications (promotion). If true CMOs operated at colleges and universities, they would have much more power and influence. Typically, marketing personnel in higher education get relegated to only one P - promotion.
Higher education is clearly about more than cranking out students with credentials. The altruistic, public good aspects are all real and important. If we think about the role of a college CMO as only a "saleswoman" who is focused on coordinating her team to deliver a class, then we have missed the boat. As we think further about the role of a CMO, I believe that the true purpose of this position is to build a culture of engagement, where everyone is singing from the same songbook, the experience is aligned with a promise, and the promise is delivered.
If we stop thinking about higher education marketing solely as "sales" and start thinking about it as a way to ensure the future of vibrant and diverse institutions that provide real value to students and to society writ large, then maybe the "business" of keeping our schools alive and well won't be viewed negatively.