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High Priorities in Higher Ed Marketing

Steve Heisler

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Higher education consultant Rachel Reuben breaks down her day-one college marketing agenda

Rachel Reuben has stayed one step ahead of digital trends in higher education marketing throughout her 20-plus-year career. Her first position in higher ed was at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where she was hired in 1998 as a web editor—the first web-focused employee at the school. Websites were sparse, and even when colleges had one, they were only populated with pieces that had already run in print publications. She convinced her superiors to form a web team dedicated to marketing, which she led. More than a decade ago, she shifted her powers of persuasion to social media, focusing her MBA on how higher ed institutions can benefit from the platforms. Reuben outlined how both Facebook and Twitter could be valuable tools, even in their infancy.

These days, Reuben serves higher ed beyond digital, working as a consultant who provides interim marketing support when schools are between hires. She also offers strategic counsel to marketing teams in social media, organizational structure, budgeting and recruitment.

The nature of her work finds Reuben popping into colleges and universities both big and small, public and private, online and brick-and-mortar. Marketing News spoke with Reuben about her breadth of knowledge on higher ed marketing priorities, barriers to recruitment and why Facebook isn’t the proper channel to reach teens.

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What are some of the most substantial changes you’ve noticed in higher ed marketing?

So many schools are tightening their belts—the ones that I’ve been working with, at least. And there are changes in [required] skill sets. [Schools] really need to diversify their marketing staff to bring in a strong group of people that have varying skill sets than what was needed 10 years or even five years ago. You really need more in-house digital marketing experts and people who can wear a number of different hats depending on the size of the school. I’ve been noticing a lot of change in staffing, especially.

Have there been any changes as to whom colleges are recruiting? Non-traditional students, part-time students, etc.?

I don’t think I’ve seen a shift with an individual school that I’ve worked with to say that we’re recruiting different types of students. The only thing I can say is that a number of schools I’ve worked with are really trying to recruit internationally—especially from China—and we’re having so many issues with getting visa approval. [So much so] that many schools are saying, “We better diversify our international audience by not putting all of our eggs inside China’s basket.”

How do you think schools can best leverage social media these days?

It’s tricky. We’ve got hundreds of thousands of people following [schools] on Facebook, but different colleges have so many different audiences, especially the huge colleges. They have current students that follow the page, they have alumni, parents, fans of their athletic teams—all these different people.

So how do you create content, not only on Facebook but all their social channels, that’s relevant? It’s getting noisier than ever, and it’s hard to really figure out where your audience is. It’s about looking at insights and analytics that are available to see who is actually the demographic of the people that are actively engaging with your content. Broadly speaking, I think eMarketer and Pew Research are both saying that Facebook is dead for undergraduate prospective students. If you’re using Facebook at all for content, [you should target] the influencers, like their parents, guidance counselors and other counselor-type people that may be in their life [helping with] college prep. But the undergrad prospective students that are 16-18 years old right now think Facebook is for old people.

Let’s say you’ve just started a job in higher ed marketing. What should you do on day one?

The first thing is getting your hands on the college’s strategic plan, assuming there is one. It’s about how the college is going to sustain itself over the next four to five years, or whatever time period it’s developed for, and what things they want to do academically. The second thing would be working with admissions or enrollment management to look at what the data shows are the seller programs that they’ve got plenty of applications for and still have capacity for—or other programs that are not hitting the capacity. It’s impossible for most schools to advertise . . . everything within their college, so it’s really about setting up a small number of priorities for the year. These three or four programs are going to get the most marketing and advertising attention for the college for the year, and see how that moves the needle.

If you’re stepping in at the VP level, get job descriptions and the organization chart for everybody on the team to start the assessment of: Do you have the right positions? Do you have the right people in the right spots? Do you have people that have other skills that are not being tapped into that could be? That’s always part of building your foundation. You need a strong team to be able to support all these different goals and strategies.

What factors make for a strong higher ed marketing team?

Collaboration and collegiality, absolutely working together. In the older days of higher ed marketing, groups were siphoned off by media, so the digital or web team with one team, the print team with another. We need more than ever to have a true integrated marketing function. They all have to work together, projects should overlap and resources from all the different teams should come together. I’ve worked with many schools to break down the silos [that have] existed for many years.

What’s next for higher ed marketing?

We’ve been saying this for many years, so it seems crazy, but I’m still going to schools where there isn’t a real tracking of return on investment. All the things they’re doing, all the marketing wheels that are spinning . . . are they a value? Are they moving the needle? Are they [attracting] the kinds of students that they want? Are they filling the classes? There are so many different key performance indicators, [but] who is tracking all of that? There’s so much data that marketers need access to that they often don’t because of politics; in colleges, institutional research may not share, or admissions may not share. It would help inform future marketing efforts so much more, and help determine, “OK, well, this [aspect] is not worth our effort—we spent hundreds of hours on it and we’re not going to do that again.”

Your website says that you “believe in the power of higher education and the profound effect it has on the lives of students and by extension the global community.” Can you further articulate that?

It’s a personal thing for me. When I went to college, I had to pay for it completely myself—I wasn’t educated about loans, so I had to work full time to pay my way through college. I knew how critical it was to be able to finish and have a degree. I know how much it impacted my life. Therefore, I love being in higher education because of it. I know when we’re working with budgets, we’re ultimately working with tuition dollars someone like me worked very hard for in many cases. Or they took out a gigantic loan that they are going to pay [back] for a zillion years. I always want to be a good steward of those tuition dollars.

Steve Heisler is staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at sheisler@ama.org.