Marketers should oversee the student experience to graduation and beyond

Why shouldn’t marketing staff have ongoing input into the brand perception they work so hard to cultivate among prospects, asks Victoria O’Malley

February 26, 2021
A giant sign reading "Brand" on scaffolding
Source: iStock

At what point in the student lifecycle are institutional marketers dismissed from the table at your university? When a prospect inquires? Or applies? Or gets admitted? Certainly, I’m sure, after they enrol.

But, of course, enrolment is just the beginning of students’ engagement with the institution whose brand perception marketers work so hard to cultivate. So does it not seem rather odd that marketers should have no subsequent role in curating the student experience?

Some academics may dismiss out of hand the idea that marketers should involve themselves in departmental affairs. However, allowing us to see how brand promises align with the actual student experience is important. When university leaders and departmental chairs commit to small class sizes, and marketers promulgate that commitment, should there not be some means by which we can ensure that the sales pitch reflects the reality?

And what about promotional messages about the online experience being interactive and robust? A collaborative approach that includes marketing would allow us to understand what claims to make when advertising courses in the future.

New courses developed by faculty and instructional designers can also benefit from consultation with marketers. Too often, the marketing department is handed a product – a new degree – as a fait accompli and asked to sell it with the help of little more than a paragraph or two laden with academic language and not at all ready for public consumption. While marketers may not have a say in what programmes are launched or what curriculum gets developed, inviting them to the early conversations can make a significant impact on their success.

Effective use of market research can provide institutional leaders with realistic enrolment expectations based on the current landscape, while competitive analysis and keyword suggestions when naming courses can maximise actual enrolment within those parameters. Such faculty-marketer interaction establishes expectations on both sides and creates a more viable, authentic and market-ready programme to pitch to prospective students.

Marketers can also play a useful role in enrolled students’ onward journey, especially for online students. That might mean, for instance, developing or reviewing the internal communications that students see – whether that’s a reminder to register, a course description, or a message from the dean.

Marketers should also be involved in graduation ceremonies. These may seem like an afterthought for many academics, but graduation is usually the last interaction that students have with your brand before going out into the world and – hopefully – becoming ambassadors for it. An unforgettable occasion can reinforce the brand you’ve worked hard to establish; by contrast, if a student can’t get enough graduation day tickets or the celebration cake is stale, that may quite literally leave a bad taste in their mouth.

Hence, you should brand the graduation experience from beginning to end, reiterating the key talking points you want graduates to promote post-graduation. Leverage the expertise of marketers to create branded invitations, registration, websites, materials, displays, social media, and videos that are reflective of the experiences of students.

Even when students become alumni, you guessed it: marketers still need that seat at the table. To maintain ongoing loyalty, connection and involvement, university leaders should task their marketing team with creating alumni engagement opportunities and outreach campaigns that coordinate between academic units and other relevant institutional departments, such as alumni relations, advancement or career services. It is surprising how disconnected academic units often are from these departments; are the events, emails and solicitations for donations that they organise aligned with the brand?

Today, marketers within higher education need to be data-driven, creative, strategic and aware of issues around return on investment. They are also required to be adept at website management, event planning, project management, email marketing, social media, public relations, graphic design, videography and writing. Yet, too often, marketing teams are held at arm’s length from the individual academic units they serve.

Your internal marketers know the brand, portfolio and value of earning an education at your institution better than anyone. They have a deep understanding of the customer and the core values of the institution, and they can help provide continuity for students at each stage of their journey. Keep marketers involved throughout the student life cycle and you’ll be amazed by the ripple effect on programme promotion, enrolment and retention, and student satisfaction. You may even improve staff retention and financial turnover.

Instead of investing in the agency around the corner, invest in your own marketing team – because they are invested in you.

Victoria O’Malley is adjunct faculty and the senior director of marketing and communications for University College, the college of continuing and professional studies at the University of Denver. She recently completed a doctoral dissertation on institutional branding and adult learners at Northeastern University.

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Reader's comments (5)

Students should not be treated as 'customers' and research/ teaching should not be 'branded'. Both have had a poisonous influence on universities, undermining science and pedagogy and replacing them with popularity and profit.
Totally agree. This is a depressing article.
Universities ought to be budget-autonomous government agencies with democratic self-governance, like in other countries. Have you have thought of brand marketing for government agencies? Didn't think so. The root problem is that the customers don't know what is good for them and would prefer to have less work in getting their degrees. This doesn't work because it is usually the lecturers who know better what the customers should learn and how. By asking for tuition fees, this is turned on its head and *has* to lead to a race to the bottom in standards, by design. This is a form of market failure, and even economists agree that either government regulation or self-government of institutions or a combination of these can overcome such failures. Why are we not moving into this direction? It's bad for students because they learn less and pile on debt. It's bad for the government and ultimately the tax payer because most debts are eventually paid off by the government because the former students never make it into those income regions where they could start paying off the loans. It's not even a popular thing on the basis of which the vote share could be increased. And it is also bad for lecturers and staff who have been suffering from its effects immensely. We need to move away from this unsustainable model and overcome this market failure *now* - instead of even adding more marketing activities as suggested here. Dear government, please do something about it. Please realise that the short-term economic gains of treating higher education as an internationally marketable commodity are worth less than the economic prospects of educating millions of Britons at a high level in the long term. Your party will govern Britain for the foreseeable future anyway, so you should not be constrained by short-term goals.
I do not know where to start with this article full of jargon, platituted and buzzwords. I am a marketing academic myself (mea culpa) but I despair of such hollow and unthinking gibberish. I am not against the branding concept per se (this where I beg to differ from the other commenters). However, it is a more nuanced and complex vehicle than the author makes it out to be. She does not seem to have ever heard of stakeholder marketing or corporate makreting, corporate branding and identity management etc. but applies simplified consumer marketing and product branding templates uncritically to a university (or any other organisation for that matter). No wonder our subject area and profession has such a bad name amongst our academic (and non-academic) peers.
*an edit function to correct spelling errors would be great!

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