What Keeps You Up at Night?: AMA Symposium 2015

Posted: December 2, 2015

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We’re back from Chicago after another year attending and speaking at the American Marketing Association Symposium for the Marketing of Education. AMA is among the most highly-regarded annual events in our industry, bringing together higher education’s brightest minds from around the globe. As I’ve come to expect from AMA, this year’s Symposium offered a bounty of timely and relevant breakout sessions and roundtables that left our team feeling inspired and invigorated to return home and get back to work.

AMA Attendees Answer “What Keeps You Up at Night?”

Our exhibit booth at this year’s Symposium was part of an ongoing VisionPoint effort to unearth the biggest marketing challenges shared by higher ed marketers from around the world. Our methodology is simple: we ask, “What keeps you up at night?”

Out of everything we heard at this year’s AMA Symposium (over 150 responses), several overarching themes emerged:

1. Brand and Storytelling

Many institutions have great stories to tell, but struggle to identify the best avenue for telling those stories.

We weren’t surprised to hear brand at the top of so many people’s lists of challenges. More precisely, what we gathered from studying our data, is that many higher education marketers are finding that simply having a strong institutional brand doesn’t work on its own. Marketers need to actively communicate that brand messaging to the right audiences by identifying and sharing stories that support the brand. We heard from several AMA attendees that in today’s competitive higher ed landscape, knowing where to find these stories and then actually telling them – whether by way of a viewbook, website, printed piece or ad campaign – is the cause of many a sleepless night.

Read on about VisionPoint’s experience with brand and storytelling in higher education.

Aligning all parts of the university behind a common brand strategy

Consistent branding and storytelling across the university

Brand strategy across a large, decentralized institution

2. Doing More With Less

Many institutions are struggling to accomplish lofty goals with limited resources.

With so many great stories to tell, finding the time, budget and human resources to do the work is a challenge in its own right. To be entirely candid, we’ve heard this scarcity predicament before. “We need more money,” is a challenge that’s plagued higher ed marketers for decades. Having said that, according to our data, what’s keeping AMA attendees up at night isn’t just the fact that budgets are smaller than they once were; it’s that they’re being tasked with doing more with less.

One of the best ways we’ve seen institutions overcome this scarcity challenge is by investing into an integrated marketing strategy and plan. Taking an integrated approach – as opposed to pure tactical execution – enables institutions to ensure that the resources they do have are focusing their time on the marketing initiatives that have the greatest impact toward achieving the institution’s goals.

Too many ideas, too little money

Competing priorities

Shrinking budgets and more target markets

3. Tracking Data and Using Data to Make Strategic Marketing Decisions

Collecting, storing and using data in higher education has become extremely complex.

Another challenge keeping higher ed marketers up at night has to do with collecting and using data to make evidence-based decisions. To quote one response, “Wrangling data – we have tons of information, but don’t have the capacity/coordination to utilize it fully.” While we’ve heard data-related challenges before, this year’s Symposium is the first time we received enough feedback to justify data management as one of higher ed’s biggest challenges.

Data collection (how to do it, what to collect, and what action steps to take after reviewing the data) has become extremely complex. With so many tools and metrics to consider, it can be hard to determine which data is most important and actionable. Confounding the challenge is the fact that many data management tools (CRMs, ERPs, Marketo, Banner, Google Analytics, etc.) don’t speak to each other. And many of these technologies haven’t kept up with institutions’ evolving needs.

What to do with all of our data

Data, data, data

How and what data to collecct

The most important thing to keep in mind, though, is to think of your data processes as an ecosystem. To get you started, here are some notes you can take and questions to consider:

  • Identify all of the moving parts (including marketing CRMs, application management systems, an internally focused ERP system, and even those wonky spreadsheets you keep that aren’t a part of any official system).
  • Who uses these various databases?
  • How is this data used?
  • How does data move from one system to another?
  • What fields are collected at different stages in a student’s life cycle with your institution (from the point where they become an inquiry all the way through enrollment)?

Once you’ve got a comprehensive picture of your data ecosystem, you can confidently communicate your needs with the bigger picture in mind – and wrangle all that data.

4. Breaking Down the Silos

Cross-campus collaboration is paramount for marketing success.

Along the same lines as Doing More with Less, one of the frustrations we’ve heard again and again at AMA was this notion of “silos” in the workplace. Many decisions which ought to be made at the strategic level are being made in a silo – often without strategic oversight to guide what matters most. To quote one response, “our biggest challenge is keeping an open and consistent line of communication between the members of our individual teams.”

While we heard this challenge articulated a number of different ways, many higher ed marketers – regardless of their institution’s size and structure – spoke of a genuine desire to bring about a culture of collaboration within their institutions. After all, successful marketing requires cross-campus input where everyone plays a role in delivering on the institutional brand promise. The challenge, then, becomes how do you get all departments to talk to each other, unite the campus around a cohesive strategy and break down those silos?

Uniting a divided campus

Breaking down the silos

Keeping and open and consistent line of communication

One of the methods we’ve found to be successful at driving this type of cultural change within an institution is the creation of cross-campus strategic advisory groups who foster collaboration between divisions. Two such examples we’ve helped implement with our client partners:

  • A Marketing Advisory Board is a cross-section of internal brand advocates who serve as strategic advisors to an institution’s central marketing unit. Participants in this group typically include representatives from divisions across campus including Undergraduate Admissions, Athletics and academic units such as individual degree programs, just to name a few.
  • A Brand Promise Task Force is a smaller group of internal stakeholders who identify academic, vocational and student life initiatives that bring the brand to life (i.e. proof points of the institution’s commitment to the brand promise).

In Conclusion

We’ve worked in higher education long enough to know that every institution is unique. Some marketers may be comforted to know however, that despite the nuances of their institutions, many share similar marketing challenges. As we’ve heard from AMA participants, articulating a cohesive brand story, doing more with less, data management and breaking down the silos are among the “biggest” marketing challenges shared by institutions in 2015. We’ll be sure to tailor our blogs, newsletters and Marketers Guides to address these challenges over the coming months.

Didn’t get a chance to share YOUR biggest marketing challenge?

 There’s still time, leave us a comment in the comments section below.