How to run a marketing campaign in a devolved university

Advice on co-ordinating a university-wide marketing campaign in a large, devolved organisation

Heather MacBain's avatar
10 Apr 2023
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
A team of colleagues brainstorming ideas

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Edinburgh

You may also like

Amplify the authentic student voice in university marketing
4 minute read
Students recording a video

Many institutions, like ours, have a large and devolved community of marketing and communications (marcomms) staff, spread across the central marcomms department and then colleges, schools, institutes and deaneries. Limited central governance often leads to a fragmented approach to student recruitment marketing, with objectives and executions not being aligned.

In summer 2022, I started work on the development of our new University of Edinburgh student recruitment campaign. It will replace the current “open to the world” campaign from 2024 and aims to get institution-wide campaign adoption for the first time. Having worked at the university for almost four years now, it was clear to me that a co-design approach was fundamental to achieving this.

One of the biggest marketing challenges associated with a distributed staff model is that tactical campaign activity is not just implemented centrally, but locally in colleges, schools, institutes and deaneries at varying levels. A university marketeer therefore needs to get buy-in across all these areas. Schools, for example, will take the campaign concept and execute their own advertising, content production and prospective student communications to meet their local student recruitment objectives.

A good way to start is to conduct a stakeholder mapping and RACI matrix, which will chart each task and decision needed to complete the project and assign which individuals are responsible or accountable for each action and who needs to be consulted and informed. This ensures a clear understanding of who your key stakeholders are, who can influence your campaign and how they are connected. Clarity on who is responsible and who must be consulted and informed are essential from the outset in a very devolved organisation where projects can be derailed if this is not clear when challenges arise.

The outcomes of these exercises will differ across institutions, but for us it made sense to focus on engagement in four key layers of the university.

1. The communications and marketing department

The central marketing and communications team is responsible for the campaign. Collaborating with student recruitment and admissions, communications and marketing is accountable for all centrally delivered touchpoints such as the university website, social media channels and university-wide email communications, but not for the execution of local marketing activities in colleges and schools. Therefore, it was important to build a project team to act as ambassadors across these other departments of the university.

2. The project team

We built a project team made up of leaders in the student recruitment and admissions team, communications and marketing and our three academic colleges. It is important to have everyone on board with this kind of university-wide project at the outset to make the co-design and consultation effective. The purpose of the project team is to:

  • act as a central point for campaign decision-making;
  • ensure that the campaign meets its objectives and principles during the development process;
  • be ambassadors for its adoption and give campaign guidance to staff in their area of the university;
  • feed into campaign evaluation and continuous improvement.

Pan-institutional engagement will always be challenging. Competing with the priorities of internal teams and prospective student audiences with very firm deadlines is difficult. A diverse project team should provide marketeers with confidence that there are dedicated professionals representing each area of expertise.

They will help answer questions such as: “Does that messaging resonate with specific international audiences?”, “How will that work on social media?’ and “Will academic schools be able to adapt that for their needs?” A project team with broad expertise should, in theory, soundproof the marketing strategy before it goes live.

3. The university marcomms staff community

In a devolved organisation, engaging with the staff community is essential. While we wanted all marcomms staff to feed into the development of the campaign, we were also conscious of creating a “too many cooks” situation so the wider community fell under the informed category of the RACI matrix. They would be informed of the campaign progress and the final campaign output, and their views represented by their project team member, rather than having input on the creative development, which would have resulted in an unmanageable amount of consultation to meet tight deadlines. We have engaged staff in the following ways:

  • Staff were asked to contribute to a debrief exercise of the last campaign;
  • A survey was sent to evaluate the current campaign toolkit and identify gaps in current resources (in particular around the need for more campaign photography, guidance on digital advertising and staff training);
  • Presentations at monthly hybrid marketing and communications forum sessions, which are events attended by all university marcomms staff;
  • A SharePoint page with monthly updates sent to project team members to then cascade to their colleagues;
  • One-to-one meetings with some specific teams or departments where adoption has been a challenge in the past.

An effective campaign toolkit, which includes guidelines, resources (such as a photography collection and video footage) and templates for staff to use to ensure they are adhering to the campaign, is essential to its successful implementation. Let’s face it, the easier you make something for people, the more likely they are to adopt it. 

4. The senior leadership

Due to differing structures across most universities, senior management are instrumental in advocating for change. Marcomms colleagues are likely to meet resistance to their desired execution of the campaign without senior management buy-in. To tackle this, I have attended various senior decision-making committee meetings related to student recruitment, in the run up to launch, to emphasise the campaign approach and get senior leadership endorsement. It has allowed senior leaders to feed back any challenges they could foresee with campaign adoption in their departments. They have also made us aware of staff members or groups it was worth engaging with in advance, to make adoption of the campaign across the institution more likely.

Senior leaders do not need to know the tactical marketing benefits, just the assurance that the approach will help meet, in this instance, student recruitment targets and enhance the prospective student experience.

Key takeaways:

We are now completing the final preparations for the campaign before our internal launch at the end of April 2023. Here are some key takeaways that I have learnt so far:

  1. Develop a RACI matrix at the start of any campaign. Can you spot the key stakeholders in your institution? Are there layers within your university that you need to engage with or treat differently?
  2. Get to know your internal audiences. What makes them tick? What are their challenges? How are decisions made? Go and meet them for a coffee and have a chat. This will help you plan and co-ordinate your engagement work.
  3. Create community, whether it is a project team or a wider community consultation group. Stakeholders do not like to be surprised, so while they might not be directly involved in the campaign creation process, take them on the journey and communicate with them. People also love the opportunity to share their expertise and it is nice to have some friendly allies alongside you when things get challenging. 

Heather MacBain is head of marketing at the University of Edinburgh.

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site