College Presidents Recognize the Need to be Highly Strategic Marketers

By Carole Arwidson

Several intriguing findings emerged in the 2016 LAWLOR & RHB Survey with Independent Presidents. (The survey was designed to provide sitting presidents with insights into what their peers perceive as the real marketing challenges facing private higher education today; clarify the marketing needs of independent college and university presidents; and identify the obstacles to addressing those challenges.) For instance:

  • 42% of presidents have always played an active role and work in partnership with their chief marketing officer (CMO).
  • 36% have had to devote increased attention to marketing during the past few years.
  • 11% view their role as president and CMO.
  • 60% said increasing revenues is “very challenging,” and 40-50% said that heightening visibility and improving awareness, building a brand, conveying their value proposition, positioning the institution against its competitors, addressing affordability, and creating distinction in the marketplace are all “very challenging.”
  • 59% said their marketing efforts are strategic and proactive, while 31% said theirs were a mix of proactive and reactive (the remaining admitted theirs were reactive and ad-hoc).
  • For almost two-thirds of the presidents, families’ ability to pay was mentioned among the top three market forces presenting the greatest challenges to their institutions, while families’ willingness to pay was a top three force for nearly half.
  • 60% listed “product” as their highest priority among the 5 P’s of the marketing mix, while an additional 15% said they want it to be their highest priority even though it might not be today.
  • 7 out of 10 said their institutions had added distinctive academic programs in the past five years with the strategic intent of increasing enrollment. Half of those conducted demand studies beforehand, and 46% said the programs successfully increased both enrollment and revenues (37% said enrollment and revenues increased but not as much as expected).
  • For 70% of the presidents, the marketing functions at their institutions are most likely to be centralized, with all initiatives and projects going through one office. But the marketing budgets reside almost evenly between the unit and individual departments (48%) and a single marketing unit (45%).

Higher ed marketing efforts today must be strategic (and not just about tactical implementation) and proactive. A skilled marketing leader can provide valuable data to help inform decision making, offer insights into what ideas are on or off brand, share competitive intelligence, and provide strategic direction for positioning and marketing of new offerings. Given the competitive higher education marketplace of today, marketing leaders with the right skill sets, experiences, and intellectual capital can exert more influence and provide strategic thinking to help advance their institutions. It’s likely that this will become an increasing expectation among college presidents.