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New Research Uncovers Challenges for Higher Ed CMOs

Michael Stoner

Marketers who work in higher ed face many of the same challenges as those who work in other sectors: keeping up with professional trends and audience expectations, dealing with declining budgets, figuring out how to deal with fast-paced competition, and managing changes within their own institutions as well as responding to seismic shifts in the industry.

But CMOs in higher ed face some challenges that are unique. Though managing the institution’s brand is an important priority, they often share that responsibility with other divisions at their institution. They may also share responsibility for developing and managing key segments of their college’s digital portfolio, including the website and email communications, with other offices at their institution. While marketing sometimes leads or coordinates these efforts, their partners in these initiatives, such as the admissions staff and alumni relations and fundraising staff, often assume primary responsibility for managing significant stakeholder relationships — prospective students, alumni, and donors — and the channels used to nurture them.

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New Research Examines CMO and CAO Relationship and Responsibilities

Last year, we conducted research with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), a major higher ed association. Our overall objective focused on how universities around the world are using digital media to enhance their image, engage stakeholders, and raise money — activities that are among those termed “institutional advancement” by professionals in higher ed.

Reporting Structures

Our research found that the chief advancement officer (CAO), who leads the advancement team, and the CMO both report directly to the institution’s CEO on a majority of campuses (60%).

Typically, the development (fundraising) and alumni offices report to the CAO. On many campuses, these offices shoulder the responsibility of communicating with donors and alumni — two key constituent groups for any college or university.

A subset of the questions in our survey directly addressed the roles and responsibility of CMOs and their teams. We also explored the overlap of roles and responsibilities between marketing and advancement.

Decentralized Audience Management

Our findings clearly showed that at most colleges and universities, relationships with alumni and donors — the key stakeholders for campus advancement offices — are not a top priority for marketing.

It’s common in higher ed for advancement teams to manage these relationships, down to responsibility for websites, emails, and social media outreach to these constituents. The reason? Many believe that advancement staff are closest to their stakeholders and can best cultivate these relationships for the benefit of the institution as a whole. On many campuses, marketing offices bear major responsibility for student recruitment — a key income source for colleges and universities. Often, but not everywhere, this responsibility is shared with admissions.

Decentralized Brand Management

When it comes to developing and managing the institutional brand, we found that 49% of institutions have developed a brand platform that is used for all communications, while 51% of institutions use a slightly different brand for their advancement communications. When an institution is actively raising money as part of a campaign, 29% of institutions have a distinctive brand for that campaign, while 57% say their campaign brand and their institutional brand are largely identical.

We also learned that at the majority of institutions, marketing is charged with primary responsibility for several areas of increasing importance, including market research, video production and digital marketing.

Our findings overall reinforce the importance of higher ed CMOs ensuring that their teams are doing their best work possible on brand development and management; digital marketing such as email, social media, and website development; and video production. These skills are particularly crucial for the institution to thrive in these chaotic and disruptive times; they will help marketing teams augment areas in which their advancement colleagues need expert help to be much more effective in fulfilling their own responsibilities to the institution.

That’s because today’s fundraising environment is unprecedented for higher ed.

Changes in the Roles of Fundraising and Marketing

In the past, the pattern for college and university fundraising went something like this: Fundraisers conducted a feasibility study, established some priorities for campus needs based on what they heard from donors, and began raising money. After a few years, the institution entered the “public phase” of the campaign: Having raised most of their dollar goal, announcing the campaign allowed them to create additional energy and conduct fundraising to meet or exceed it. The whole process took about five years, after which the institution paused major fundraising for a number of years before gearing up for the next campaign.

Today, the pressure on fundraisers in higher ed is greater than ever. Institutions are in perpetual campaign mode. Not only that: Goals are bigger than ever, and so is the need for more — more major gifts, more planned gifts, more new annual gifts, more alumni who give annual gifts, more mid level donors who have the potential to become major donors, and more ways to give.

The recent survey “Advancement Leaders Speak 2018,” conducted by fundraising consultants RNL, lays out these and other challenges higher ed fundraisers face. And the report’s findings indicate many ways in which marketing teams can provide substantial assistance to their colleagues in fundraising and materially enhance their institution’s interests.

For example, fundraisers told RNL that some of their most important needs for the next campaign include campaign branding, helping their internal community understand campaign priorities, creating a multi-channel donor engagement plan, monitoring results, and stewarding donors.

When asked, “If you had unlimited resources, where would you most like to invest with your next campaign?,” fundraisers indicated that key areas would be “amazing print and social media campaigns” and a new customer relationship management (CRM) system.

Many of these activities are ones marketers should already be leading on their campuses.

For instance: A strong institutional brand is essential to a successful fundraising campaign. Active, ongoing brand management by marketing provides a strong foundation for fundraising success. Indeed, the RNL survey noted “an increase in brand marketing” as one of the key expenditures fundraisers anticipated for the next campaign.

One senior advancement officer I spoke to recently talked about how grateful he was for a strong CMO and marketing team on his campus. He added, “We are so dependent upon having great positioning in place that if it wasn’t happening at my institution, advancement would be out here figuring out how to do it.”

Furthermore, marketers should lead the exploration of the best way to reenvision the brand for fundraising purposes. This isn’t necessarily straightforward because many higher ed brands are focused on student recruitment and don’t necessarily translate well for prospective donors.

At most institutions, marketing is responsible for the overall management of the institutional website and social media accounts. And fundraisers told RNL that “web and social media presence enhancements” are a necessary investment for fundraising success. Marketers should ensure that their websites are built using sustainable and extensible technology and are supported by plans for ongoing evolution, a well-considered governance plan, and a robust content strategy.

Similarly, they should focus on developing digital marketing strategies, building email lists, and creating robust social media marketing.

CRM is perhaps an even greater challenge in higher ed than it is for CMOs in other sectors. On most campuses, disparate administrative units with their own priorities and budgets maintain their own databases and there may be only scattered recognition among them of the importance of a unified, institution-wide dataset. Staff in these units may also be concerned about losing the benefits of their own, familiar systems. And, at a time of fiscal distress for many colleges and universities, it’s difficult to muster support for the time and money it takes to identify, design, and implement CRM. It takes time to bring together key stakeholders for discussions about an institution-wide CRM; it also requires a significant investment in building understanding and consensus for why such a system is important and then finding the money to implement it. But it’s essential to begin the process, and marketing should take the lead.

Making sure that the campus marketing team is prepared to step in as a partner in these key areas will help to ensure success across the institution as fundraising becomes a 24/7 endeavor.

Note: Rob Zinkan, associate vice president for marketing at Indiana University, and I presented research on this topic at the 2018 Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. Our talk, “Marketing and Advancement: Colleagues and Partners or Direct Reports,” explored some of the topics in this post.

Co-Founder and President of mStoner, Inc.