CMOs Pushing Boundaries and Seeing Results

Higher ed marketing isn’t synonymous with pushing boundaries, but some CMOs are trying to change that. We sat down with Jenny Petty, University of Montana, and Gabriel Welsch, Duquesne University, to pick their brains on the importance of boundary pushing in higher ed marketing. 

What do you think stops higher ed marketing teams from getting to higher stages of marketing maturity?

Jenny: I think it’s a couple of things. The first thing holding all higher ed marketing back is fear. Fear of doing things differently and the backlash you might receive from different audiences if they don’t like a choice you make. Another big one is budget restrictions. It’s really hard to move toward a higher end of marketing maturity if you don’t have the budget for staffing, martech, or resources to put you in the same tier as your competitors. It’s also the lack of understanding of the depth and potential of what marketing can do for a campus. To elevate the profession, we have to continually reframe marketing as institutional strategy, rather than the promotion-based mindset of the past. 

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how hard it is to set boundaries on campus when you’re trying to get to the next stage of marketing maturity. When you’re in a department that’s historically been a print shop or service on demand and you’re trying to become a strategic partner, it’s so hard to set boundaries and say this is what we’ve done in the past, but this is what we're doing now and why. It’s really uncomfortable—empowering people to have boundaries is difficult when they historically haven’t had that privilege. 

Gabe: One, which is endemic to higher ed, is that shared governance is great for academic matters, the conduct of a university, and its relationship to students and faculty, but it's not great for operations—giving equal weight to non-expert opinions doesn't help.

But understanding where non-specialist faculty and staff input is worthwhile and where it isn’t is something that most marketing teams struggle with. This is particularly true if the marketing folks are put in the Kinko's position or are accustomed to being treated as a service unit, rather than a strategic unit.

The other is more structural and operational—it’s a lack of investment for what it takes to run a sophisticated marketing communications team. It’s not just making sure the budget is there to run enough ads; it's investing in professional development and measures, the type of budgets that are necessary to keep your group maturing. You can only talk aspiration for so long, until you simply run out of resources. 

Being clear with your CFO and your president that you’re not asking for budget resources just for today, but over the next three or four years for what you’re going to need in order to mature. You need an advocate in senior leadership to successfully make that argument for resources.

If you didn’t have any limitations, what efforts would your marketing team initiate? Or are there limitations you’ve quashed to give yourself room to do something new?

Jenny: If we didn’t have limitations we’d burn the website down to its very foundation and completely rebuild it from scratch. We’d probably do more experiential and experimental marketing. 

When resources are limited, higher ed marketing teams cling to the traditional efforts we’re comfortable with and that comes at the cost of innovation. But at the University of Montana, our team is empowered to run with big, sometimes scary ideas. One new area that we're focusing on is brand experience so, for the first time, marketing is a driver of experience rather than being in a backup dancer role. We’re looking at our many audiences and then working across the institution with departments like Enrollment Management, Student Affairs, Athletics, and Alumni to ensure the brand is woven into everything we do and that we’re leaving lasting impressions no matter what environment someone experiences the brand in.  

Gabe: We do a little bit of everything, so the question is whether there is something we would do differently or new? I think we would move from executing at a B or B+ on everything and have the space and resources to execute at an A or A+. We’re at the point where we have a good sense of what to do and what works and we’d like the ability to execute at a higher level. We’re on the right path, but we need a better machete and better shoes.

What are you doing to push boundaries on your campus?

Jenny: We just launched a revitalized brand platform and out of the three concepts, we ended up following the creative testing and picking the concept most popular among current and prospective students. The concept made a lot of people (including me) uncomfortable. The first time I saw the concept the students picked I had a really strong reaction, but realized strong reactions mean something.

The development process involved a lot of managing the creative tension and bringing people along. Getting that effort across the finish line is the biggest boundary I’ve pushed; being okay with the criticism and standing by the work because it’s what our audiences want. 

The response completely exceeded my expectations. We launched it in April with a day-long Brand Camp, inviting people from across campus. Until that day I wasn’t sure it was going to be successful, but it ended up being so transformational. People started to see campus and themselves in a new light—less about the hardship of the last ten years and more about starting a new chapter.

We’ve seen so much campus adoption it’s been startling. People are ordering swag like crazy and we continue to host monthly brand camps with over 100 attendees last month. The campus is engaged and hungry for brand affinity. 

Gabe: Part of pushing conventional boundaries is to position marcomms with our cabinet and other vice presidents so that we’re a sought-after colleague at the table. We’re also writing strategic communication plans for each unit in the university, as well as with student life and enrollment. This involves getting everyone together and putting together a plan with measures and a structure that we can look at over time, taking into account enrollment and advancement goals, including media placement and everything else. On a practical level, the dean’s not wasting time talking to us multiple times, and on a strategic level the work is integrated. 

We’re also working to ladder sub-brands consistently as part of those strategic communication plans, up to the main university brand. Doing similar research to what we did for the university brand, so we can put together statements and organized expressions within the main brand. This gives us shared talking points that make sense within the overall university brand. Sharing our research has allowed us to get needed buy-in.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that higher ed marketers work in a fundamentally educational enterprise. Our role is educators. If we’re going to plan, we have to go in and engage in an education mode that’s useful and productive—persuading and sharing evidence—to be more effective. My team uses the word “colleague” and not “client”—we all have expertise to offer, let’s work together as colleagues to pursue our bigger goals.  

The business world is often far ahead of higher ed. Is there any one company that is pushing boundaries or innovating in a way that you’d like to see make its way to higher ed?

Jenny: I think any companies that are delivering a huge customer experience. It’s so typical, but it’s the Amazons of the world that deliver what consumers want. I think there has been resistance in higher ed to deliver the modalities and products that students want because there is fear of the impact it will have on the academy. We have yet to break down the mental model that evolving higher education means the erosion of quality or legacy. 

What we’ve seen with schools like SNHU and ASU is that they shifted a lot earlier than other campuses did and it’s paid off for them. They’ve started offering courses in a more unique way and responding to what adult learners want. Focusing on “customer” experience is something higher ed marketing teams need to get more engaged with. Tuition-revenue dependent institutions have become hyper-focused on enrollment funnels, and that comes at the cost of understanding the complete, beyond-the-funnel, lifecycle. 

Gabe: We sell a lifestyle product. You’re engaging with this for self-betterment or whatever your campus goal is. It’s a lifestyle, it’s an immersive change. 

I couldn’t think of any single business I think is doing a good job, but I do get impatient with the more effective campaigns or practices that are either willing to stand for a social cause or they’re willing to be irreverent. That is so tiresome because our students are fun and interesting and our faculty are fun and interesting, but our marketing doesn’t always reflect that. Why can’t we take ourselves a little less seriously? Because certainly when the students are here we do that. We have pancakes with the president, but we would never do that in a commercial where it has to be global or rigorous, or whatever.

Duolingo does this ridiculous thing on social media where they’re obsessed with Dua Lipa. We could launch a whole campaign about how we are the real University of Pittsburgh because the other, bigger, much more famous one is actually in Oakland (a neighborhood of Pittsburgh), but, well, you know ...

What kind of support are you receiving, or need to consistently seek out, to pursue your innovative efforts?

Jenny: I’m really lucky in that I have a great partner in the president. He understands the importance of branding and storytelling, and gives me a lot of freedom to take big chances. I don’t know how you would be a higher ed CMO without that. I’m also lucky to have a supportive cabinet. I often joke that our VP of Research is my AVP of marketing. He was on the brand RFP committee because of his institutional knowledge and he walked the journey with me, giving me good, hard feedback when he didn’t agree with something or saw language that was historically a problem on campus. He’s been a great partner to have.

Our VP of Enrollment is another key partner. In the phase of building buy-in for the brand campaign, the enrollment management team was instrumental in giving feedback and helping to champion the new work. On the day of Brand Camp, the admissions director told his team that if there were naysayers at Brand Camp, he wanted them to talk about what this work will mean to admissions. 

None of what I’m doing in marketing would’ve been possible without these really strong partners, this network of people. Healthy coalition building takes time, makes you feel vulnerable and often anxious, but it’s impossible to drive meaningful change without it. 

Gabe: Being open and transparent in what we’re trying to do has been trust-building. No matter how much funding you have, if you don’t have trust-building you’re not going to be able to do anything. We’ve been building trust with our audiences and we've had some victories that have allowed us to have better conversations and do more interesting things. We’re able to challenge bromides, reach better consensus, and so forth. 

We’ve also seen a slight increase in willingness to invest in our campus. In a time of resource scarcity we’re trying to launch a medical school. We have some donor funding, but there’s bridge funding necessary so we’re in a position resource-wise where we have to launch this school. Once we do that our resource position may look differently. All of this means I’m not getting as much as I’d like, but I see an open door to increased funding. I don’t know that I’ve met a marketer alive who says they have enough funding. 

Do you have any advice or tips for getting more support?

Jenny: In the past what’s worked for me is to find someone to be your champion—someone at the executive cabinet level. At the University of Wyoming, it was the Deputy CFO and CFO who saw the value of marketing and became my champions for getting more budget and responsibility.

My advice is to find those people who understand, buy in, and can help tell your story, then build relationships with them. I also think just having a lot of fortitude is important. The setbacks can be exhausting, but you have to dig deep over and over again and find the resolve to keep going.

Gabe: You won’t get help just by insisting on it. Think about times you've heard from vendors or potential campus partners, those who have done a little lead work to build trust—they’re the ones who get the work when the time is right, correct? That kind of investment matters. So get your staff on committees where their expertise can help build the reputation of your team. Make time (I know, I know ... ) to get involved in messaging where it might not be expected. And when those ventures are successful, be ready to tell the story of why, keeping metrics front-of-mind. Once you have some proof-of-concept stored in the credibility bank, the argument for resource investment is easier (read: less difficult) to make.

Is there any additional support that would be beneficial for your work on campus?

Jenny: I’d take more staff any day of the week. Resources like staff, technology budget, and advertising budget help our teams move to the next stage of marketing maturity. It’s also important to figure out support that’s not tied to your job. You need a way to decompress and get away from it. Whether it’s friends or a spouse or therapist or working out. Find the extra support so you can maintain that fortitude to keep going.

Gabe: Time and resources to educate campus partners effectively about what best practices are and why they matter. Put another way: fewer requests that do nothing to help move ahead on key priorities. Job out the design work on annual safety manual updates (for instance) to a firm and then spend your time polishing digital presence instead. Never make another “logo” for a faculty institute of one person—or waste the days arguing about the obvious so that you don’t make it. Could I use more staff? Yes, if nothing changes. If the staff were able to focus more often on what matters, though, I might not ask for staff. 

What words of encouragement would you offer aspiring CMOs?

Jenny: People who are taking CMO jobs now came up in the world of digital, they’re digital marketers. I think focusing on developing people as well as yourself and continuing to be a student of marketing/branding/advertising are great ways to prepare for a role like CMO. Higher ed is going to need innovation and our marketing teams need to continue to meet the needs of consumers. Younger CMOs are going to bring a different skill set than those who’ve come before us and it’s a good thing, but there is a lot of wisdom to learn from the people who’ve been doing these jobs for decades. There are parts of the job that no one can understand until you’re in them. These roles are demanding so aspiring CMOs should start practicing radical self-reflection now, explore styles of leadership, and build a network of people you can call on when you do get that first CMO role.

Gabe: This is a very dynamic and difficult job, made more so due to the way our tools shift constantly, especially considering the pace of digital change. With my own staff, the phrase that defines victory for us is “incremental gains.” As marketers, we know we run campaigns for a reason, and that staying power and presence yield the rewards we are charged with earning. The same thing goes for a CMO building and running a high-performing team: they will not nail it every day, but the incremental gains mean one day you can look back with your team and realize how far you have moved, thanks to strategy and persistence. 

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A version of this post appeared in our July 2022 Brain Waves newsletter. Every month we share social listening insights and higher ed expertise to help you take action. 

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