The Top 5 Challenges – and Solutions – Facing Higher Ed Marketing in 2015

Posted: January 20, 2015

Matt Walters Chief Services Officer

Swept up in the hullabaloo of Times Square and seduced by Ryan Seacrest’s glittering charisma, even the most skeptical of us often find ourselves making resolutions and imagining new possibilities for the New Year. By the time the ball drops and we’re sipping champagne and kissing our significant other, we’re sure of it – 2015 is the year when it will finally happen.

A few weeks later (months if you’re really dedicated), most of our resolutions are already starting to lose their confettied luster. We may not even remember what it was supposed to be. There are probably hundreds of reasons why resolutions fail, but the main reason is that resolutions often represent 180-degree shifts in our patterns of behavior. Instead of identifying and capitalizing on bits of positive momentum that we’ve already set in motion, we throw ourselves in front of a freight train of habits and hope we can not only stop it, but drive it backward.

Perhaps a better way to set realistic, attainable goals in the new year is to recognize and capitalize on threads of momentum that are already picking up speed, solutions that are on the cusp of discovery or trends of progress whose day is drawing nearer.

As we survey the higher ed marketing landscape and talk with partners and colleagues across the country, here are 5 trends and challenges that we’re confident will dominate or at least enter the conversation on your campus in 2015 – with our thoughts on how the conversations will, or should, play out.

#1 – The Emergence of Intranets

There are countless ways that our clients refer to their internal communications website. Sometimes it’s a portal, an intranet, their (insert branded name) or (insert third party software name). There are usually as many different functional specifications as there are names. But one thing is consistent – more and more universities are realizing that they MUST address their intranet because it is costing them money and it represents large missed opportunities to improve their recruiting, decrease their training costs, improve their brand building, improve their communication and faculty and staff efficiency, improve their collaboration, and save hard dollars.

What’s more, improving the intranet often has implications for the information architecture on public-facing sites, as internal content that once was public must now be moved somewhere else. While these changes have the happy effect of relieving the public-facing site of an undue burden and allowing it to focus more squarely on its primary purposes (i.e. recruiting and positioning the University to external audiences), the process of revamping information architecture requires significant time and careful planning.

In 2015, many institutions will decide that it’s time time to invest in the strategic planning required to improve their intranet solution.

#2 – The Riddle of Data Integration

As colleges and universities continue to adapt to the changing environment of student recruitment and enrollment, they’ll put an increased amount of time and money into digital efforts.

Whether clients are conducting online advertising, email marketing, social media outreach, etc., they’ll all ask similar questions of the data they collect: How is all of this contributing to our bottom line? Which initiatives are most effective at making connections with prospective students?

The answers to these questions lie in the data they collect, but who is to make sense of all of this? And what tools will they use to collect, organize, update, report and extract insights from this mass of disparate data?

Addressing the interface between their various sources and containers for marketing data is truly a daunting task. The reward for higher ed marketers who combine this information to extract strategic insights and more efficient workflows will be great. They’ll create personalized experiences for prospective students, reduce wasted effort and money, and most importantly drive better results for their institutions.

#3 – The Challenge of Differentiation

A nationwide conversation about the value of a college education, and a liberal arts education in particular, has been growing for several years, fueled by a post-recession emphasis on graduates’ career readiness as a key to economic recovery. Politicians, parents, CEOs and students have been raising good questions about the ultimate purpose of a college education, questions that have often (and sometimes unfairly) put the liberal arts model in the crosshairs.

In response, liberal arts institutions have been collaborating to reframe the conversation, striving to redefine and champion the continued relevance and the enduring value of the liberal arts model even while exploring new, fresh educational approaches that better equip graduates for the 21st century. The Council for Independent College’s Future of Independent Higher Education project, launched in late 2014, is one such initiative.

Beyond what these collective projects produce, though, the burden of differentiation – defining what makes individual schools’ brand promises unique – will still fall to institution’s marketing, communications and enrollment strategists in 2015. Not only do we need fresh language to replace tired cliches about the skills that almost any liberal arts degree cultivates (critical thinking, decision-making, empathy, the ability to learn, the appreciation for diverse perspectives, etc.), we also need new ways to demonstrate how those values are uniquely manifest on individual campuses and in the lives of real students.

As a result, 2015 will see more and more schools embracing the challenge of brand differentiation head on. As this new year begins, hosts of schools are still wondering how to set themselves apart, or even if there is anything unique about their educational experience. By the end of 2015, lots of those schools will have employed new strategic planning initiatives and brand marketing strategies that will leave little doubt, in their minds and in the minds of their prospective students, of what they stand for.

#4 – The Evolution of Content Strategy

Content creation at many colleges and universities has historically been more haphazard than strategic. Communications writers, PR experts, marketing professionals, enrollment communications managers, webmasters, faculty, and even students often play some role in tending to the institution’s content ecosystem, each with their own audiences and purposes in mind. However, without clear goals, editorial strategies, and governance structures in place to guide those efforts, institutions’ content ecosystems often become shabby and overgrown.

In 2014, we noticed a growing interest across the higher ed landscape in the emerging discipline of content strategy, which offers a new way of understanding and approaching content creation. Conference presentations and webinars on higher ed content strategy are becoming more and more prominent, and we’ve even noticed the title content strategist” appearing on institutional org charts. Still, for all the growing interest there remains no clear industry-wide understanding of the purpose and power of content strategy for higher education.

In 2015, that uncertainty will melt away as content strategy emerges as a legitimate, critical function at campuses across the country. Unsatisfied with content that is inconsistent at best and chaotic at worst, and unsure of how to measure a return on a content investment, many more institutions will begin hiring content strategists or partnering with firms to help ensure that their content communicates a clear and compelling brand message in ways that actually engage and deepen relationships with real audiences.

#5 – The Death of IE 8

Internet Explorer 8 is dying. With Windows XP no longer supported as of April 2014, and due to Microsoft changing its policy to provide support only for the most recent version of IE per operating system, IE8 support will officially end on January 12, 2016. Though IE8 usage has been steadily decreasing over the past few years, its overall usage in the United States still remains a respectable  4 to 7 percent of all users. A common rule of thumb is to provide support to all browser versions with larger than a 1% browser share, meaning responsible developers still feel the burden of investing more time and trouble into IE8 than the browser is worth.

Once Microsoft stops supporting IE8, it won’t just be – that browser that developers hate – but it will be downright dangerous to use because security patches that are now applied weekly will no longer be developed. Overall usage likely won’t drop off a cliff, but the pace of abandonment will likely increase.

The question for developers has become: should I spend extra time now, in 2015, to develop a website that works well in IE8 for an audience that won’t even be there when the website launches? Those with existing sites may ask a similar question, wondering where to draw the line between adding engaging and interesting features (using technology not supported in IE8) and keeping existing IE8 users in the loop.

The bottom line is that the death of IE8 is looming, and there will be a point in the next year where support won’t be worth it. Making the decision to end IE8 support – and communicating that decision to your users – will definitely be a challenge of 2015.

Crystal ball-gazing is always a bit speculative, but those are the trends and challenges we feel most confident will take center stage at campuses across the country in 2015. We’re poised and ready to face them and we’d love to help you do the same on your campuses.