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A vintage pickup truck is parked on the side of a street in Austin, TX. In the bed is a large sign with a genie illustration and the word Genie in a vintage script.

Working harder, not smarter

Where higher ed spends marketing money matters.

As I’m coming up on the 10th anniversary of leaving my last university job, moving to Austin, TX, and starting Bravery Media, I’ve been laser-focused on pulling together what I’ve learned the past decade. So it feels a bit strange to just now be writing down a truth about the higher education industry that I’ve been talking about for years. I may have even talked about it on a Thought Feeder episode or two.

The super-smart folks at SimpsonScarborough recently published their Higher Ed CMO study results. One of the points that I found especially interesting was the breakdown of marketing budgets in the industry. Specifically, institutions allocate 56% of their marketing budgets toward labor compared to only 25% at mainstream corporations. Or, to put it another way, corporations spend 9x more on marketing tech than universities.

There’s a stigma that the work we do for colleges and universities is somehow inferior or incomparable to that done in the wider private sector. Never mind that we manage multimillion-dollar brands, sell a product that costs the same or more than a car, and share the same target markets as lifestyle brands competing for the same attention. But then those numbers come out, and it makes me think.

Marketing inefficiency

So let’s break this down a bit. It’s widely accepted that salaries in higher ed are low. The expectation is that we’ll find mission-driven people who believe in the cause. And to be quite honest, that was true for decades. The brilliant web and digital community I found when joining the industry in 2007 stuck around because, despite the monetary compensation, they felt like they were making some sort of difference.

Then competition heated up. Colleges no longer compete just with each other. Instead, we compete with companies providing their own certifications, alternative education routes, edutainment companies like MasterClass, and the discourse that higher education is overpriced and worthless. Heck, some residential programs compete with their own university’s online programs (or, at worst, their OPM vendor).

All of this created more work. We need more content; we need a better website; we need more recruitment outreach; we need more video! And on and on and on. And while some institutions have the leadership in place to think intelligently and strategically about solutions, most of those CMOs and SVPs are hamstrung by antiquated hiring practices, low budgets (SimpScar found higher ed invests 4x less in marketing overall), and small salaries.

Most institutions try to solve this work output problem by hiring more people. It doesn’t matter that in most cases, the foundations for effective marketing are crumbling. Adding more people to the team means more output. But the cycle never ends.

The crux of this is that lower salaries limit the talent pool. With a lot of higher ed’s talent leaving for private and public sector work, institutional demand for talent is urgently increasing while budgets stay the same. So, in the end, entry-level or just plain mediocre talent is acquired. And that doesn’t even consider whether the best positions are being created.

To flatten or not to flatten

There are options, of course. I’ve been in the industry long enough to see the operational cycles that grip higher ed. When the economy is good, we try to verticalize our marketing operations; when it’s bad, we flatten out. Anecdotally, most MarTech put in place serves website and social media content development. Maybe a new CRM is purchased. But primarily, institutions don’t have the expertise to generate the insights they need.

I’ve been thinking a lot about a university’s core competencies lately. Presidents are usually academically inclined (there are exceptions, of course) and rely on their staff to do the operational side of the business. But how does an institution know how to hire effectively for those positions?

In my opinion, there are a couple key areas that an institution could outsource and get better value while integrating their marketing operations.

1. Website infrastructure and performance

First up is the website. IT services can be better applied to internal-facing digital applications rather than maintaining web servers. Cloud hosting has already made substantial headway in higher ed, but let’s take that further.

I’ll also remind you of higher ed’s slow page speed epidemic, committee-designed websites, and just general awareness about how much more valuable the .edu website could and should be to the institution’s recruitment process. But unfortunately, modern web performance optimization isn’t a core competency for most universities. But shout out to Erik Runyon for being one of the few brilliant exceptions.

I think outsourcing the infrastructural management of the site, including hosting, web page speed optimization, and accessibility QA, while a very different operational shift, can provide enormous value. Reassign or (gasp) say goodbye to technical web staff and find a partner who will work with your marketing team to finely tune your website. [insert plug for Bravery, because we’re doing this already]

2. Data analytics and testing

Most institutions can’t afford to staff a data analytics team, have no idea how to do it, or both. They no doubt have analytics on their site and maybe run Slate or Salesforce or Hubspot, but their marketing staff hired to do content or design or development get tasked with figuring out what all that data means.

In the end, what a university marketing team needs most is actionable, data-informed insights. So find a partner who will put the right web-focused MarTech in place, parse the data coming in, and provide timely insights into how your website performs. Even better if they’re also your design team, web optimization management team, and testing team.

Combined with outsourcing your web infrastructure, an institution could get the expertise of both data analytics and technical web teams at the cost of 2-3 full-time employees and make subscriptions to 3rd party tools like Gather Content, SiteImprove, and a web CMS superfluous. The right partner, producing results, will quickly generate a lot of new revenue for the institution. [I’ve got something up my sleeve if you're interested in this.]

Making it work

Deploying more tech isn’t necessarily the answer. In fact, if you don’t have the staffing to understand what the tech is telling you in the first place, it’s for sure not the answer. And in most cases, putting a new CMS or “Digital Experience Platform” in place is the wrong way to be thinking about it.

Higher ed needs more marketers who can inventively communicate your brand promise, deploy strategies across campus, and unify the community. The bolt-on work that happens due to organizational silos and limited budgets is increasingly showing its cracks. But we don’t need to blow the whole thing up — we just need to get back to working smarter.