For the past few years, we’ve traveled to higher education marketing conferences across the country asking attendees a simple question. “What keeps you up at night?”

Exhibit Booth

Our goal is to help ourselves and other higher education marketers identify and understand the unique marketing challenges facing our industry. What we’ve found is that:

  • Regardless of size, location or type of institution, many higher ed marketers face the same challenges

  • Writing down a challenge and learning that others share that same challenge can be extremely therapeutic

  • Unlike other industries, higher education has a distinct set of challenges because of the emotional attachments that stakeholders (this includes marketers) feel for their schools

In August, we traveled to Denver to continue our research at the eduWeb Digital Summit. Here's what we heard were the "biggest" marketing challenges: 

1. Reaching and Engaging the RIGHT Audience

  • “Finding the right people to target”

  • “Multiple campus locations with different target audiences and personas”

  • “Recruiting best-fit students outside of our region”

  • “Reaching a very specific audience – graduate biological sciences”

Knowing your audience is the foundation of marketing. In order to not only reach your target audience, but leave a memorable and lasting impression, you first need to know who they are (demographically, psychographically, etc.) and what they need from you. For eduWeb attendees who are largely charged with executing their institution’s marketing strategy through digital channels, knowing how to reach not just any audience, but the RIGHT audience, is a challenge we heard many times over.

In fact, one of the themes reiterated at a number of eduWeb sessions was how creating target audience personas can help institutions commit to reaching their audiences and hold themselves accountable for creating content that speaks to their audiences’ needs. In our experience, the underlying process of researching, listening and really knowing your audience in order to develop a concise set of specific, target audience personas can inform decisions from the types of content you create (e.g. videos, photographs, downloadable viewbooks) to the subject matter of that content.

Especially for marketers who need to generate awareness about a niche program offering, going through the process of creating multiple personas for unique audience groups and specific demographics will allow you to tailor your content to meet the needs of each individual group.

2. Inconsistent Understanding Regarding the Importance of Communicating a Consistent Brand Message

  • “Creating a consistent message”

  • “Getting my entire comm team on a consistent brand message!”

  • “Communicating the importance of branding and consistent messaging”

  • “Spreading the brand standards for a very siloed institution!”

Everywhere we go, brand-related struggles are among the most frequently shared marketing challenges. The same was true at eduWeb this year. Many attendees shared challenges like “getting faculty to buy in to the brand” and “communicating a consistent message across multiple programs.” Confounding this challenge is the fact that many internal stakeholders (outside of marketing, of course) still think of a brand as simply a logo or tagline.

Every brand challenge is unique. Institutional brands are complex and multi-layered – and everyone has an opinion on how best to tell your story. In our experience, here are a few ways to ensure stakeholders are fully bought-in and prepared to share your message: 

  • When developing or evolving your institution’s brand, involve stakeholders early and often. Informal “workshops” are a great vehicle for inviting stakeholders to discuss the merits of specific messaging claims and build consensus.

  • Brand launch events bring together entire campus communities and ensure that stakeholders understand the brand and are advocating for one comprehensive brand story that serves the institution’s overarching goals.

  • Creating a brand reveal video is a great way to document and distribute your new brand message and brand promise.

  • Brand guidelines are a helpful tool to ensure your brand is consistently communicated. But don’t expect a document to be your “brand police.” Institutions must continuously invest in shaping their brands – or risk letting outside forces erode the brand’s integrity.

3. Building Consensus and Creating a Culture of Communication

  • “Can we tear down the silos?”

  • “Getting administration on board with change”

  • “Communication. Working on different platforms. Understanding each other's' roles.”

  • “Moving in the same trajectory together. We have hundreds of communicators on our campus.”

Successful, consistent and effective marketing requires input and buy-in across all divisions of an institution. Unfortunately, building consensus is a challenge we often hear on campuses all over the country. With so many communicators spread across multiple schools, programs, divisions – and even multiple campus locations – fostering a culture of collaboration is tough. For many eduWeb attendees, this is a huge roadblock. Hard work and long days from a “silo’d” marketing department simply won’t cut it.

What we’ve found to be most successful in sparking a change is to bring communicators from various groups together under a set of common, brand-driven goals. Far from just “another committee,” consider creating groups who are empowered by leadership to drive real institutional change. For example:

  • A Marketing Advisory Board is a group of internal brand advocates who serve as strategic advisors to an institution’s marketing team. Members of this group should include representatives from across campus.

  • A Brand Promise Task Force is a group of internal stakeholders who identify academic and extracurricular initiatives that bring an institution's brand to life, and can be communicated as “proof points” of an institution’s commitment to its brand promise.

4. Never Having Enough Budget and Resources

  • “We don't have enough time & resources as a small college”

  • “We have great ideas but need more people to execute their great content ideas”

  • “There is a lack of provided content and budget but a lot of people demanding it”

For small and large colleges alike, budget/resource challenges are often the cause of frustration. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to complete all of the things you’d like to get done. How do you set priorities? How do you do more with less?

For institutions facing a serious resource challenge (that includes shortages of time and money), we’ve seen many schools improve results by prioritizing marketing efforts with an integrated marketing strategy and plan. The process of creating an integrated strategy and plan can be broken into seven simple steps:

  • Define your goals

  • Know your audience (see Challenge #1)

  • Understand your situation

  • Determine high-level strategies

  • Consider the engagement process

  • Brainstorm marketing ideas

  • Develop marketing plans

5. Keeping Website Content Updated

  • “The addition of materials/content without removing anything. So much outdated or unnecessary content”

  • “Helping stakeholders and administration realize the need for meaningful, concise content instead of only focusing on visual design”

  • “Lack of participation from stakeholders, leading to outdated info”

  • “How to keep website updated and relevant”

Lastly, we weren’t surprised to hear a multitude of website-related marketing challenges. But for all the talk about information architecture, UX design and technology, the website-related pain-point we heard most frequently was keeping content updated.

Written content is one of the most important – and yet most often overlooked or undervalued – components of an institution's website. For many eduWeb attendees, the challenge is not creating new content, but keeping older content accurate and fresh. After all, creating a visually stunning website that’s easy to navigate and that reinforces an institution’s brand will go a long way. But it's often the website’s content that compels target audiences take meaningful action (e.g. inquire, apply, register for events, donate, etc.).

In order to address this challenge, it’s important to first have a clear picture of just how much content exists on your website. A simple content audit will help to identify what content should stay, what content should go and what content needs a few tweaks.

It can certainly seem daunting to review the whole website, especially if you already have a small team and an endless to-do list (see Challenge #4). Breaking the audit into smaller chunks and distributing the work across various teams (think subject matter experts from other departments) will make it much more manageable and will begin to engage your content community.

In Conclusion

The challenges listed above are a sample of the unique obstacles facing higher ed marketing professionals. While the solutions to these challenges will be different for every institution, it’s comforting to know that we have the opportunity to learn from each other's experiences and push forward to accomplish great results in the future.