Can Marketing Build a Stronger Financial Foundation?
Why should colleges market themselves? With record numbers of students going back to school despite steep tuition increases, it seems like PR is the least of higher education's worries. But marketing is more than just getting the attention of students - for colleges and universities, it can lead to a stronger reputation, a higher quality of applicant and, perhaps most importantly, greater financial stability.
In a recent report co-issued by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), marketing firm Lipman Hearne argues that effective marketing can help institutions overcome a lot of today's biggest challenges: Tight budgets, 'nervous' philanthropists and steep competition for good students can all be battled by a good marketing campaign.
CASE and Lipman Hearne have been conducting surveys on marketing in academia for a decade, and they've found that this perspective is becomingly increasingly common among American colleges and universities. The strongest trend that has emerged in the past ten years is a steady increase in marketing spending across institution types. Since 2001, the median marketing spending at small, medium and large colleges and universities has increased between 60 and 100 percent (adjusted for inflation). As the report points out, marketing has become a 'mission critical process in higher education, worthy of significant investment.'
Of course, blindly throwing money at something doesn't make it effective. This is particularly true in a field like marketing, where trends and new technologies come and go seemingly overnight, leaving many institutions with, to quote the report, 'a sinkhole of unread and irrelevant blogs.' So CASE and Lipman Hearne have presented five 'key insights' from their latest research order to guide schools in benchmarking spending in support of effective marketing goals. Marketers seeking the most targeted information to their school can also view the results broken down by institutional size and type.
'Deep marketing' refers to the use of research and planning to guide marketing efforts. The researchers found that this investment pays off - 71% of institutions that devoted 6% or more of their marketing budgets to these activities reported a positive impact on the quality of their applicants.
The report suggests this effect may be due to a greater likelihood to use admissions viewbooks, employ social media and assemble institution-wide marketing committees. Other positive impacts from these efforts appeared in brand management and positioning.
Of those institutions that devoted less than 6% of their marketing funds to strategy and research, only 52% reported a positive impact in student quality or branding. These findings suggest that investing in strategic planning not only results in better identity control for the school, but pays off in a higher quality potential student pool.
In spite of the persistent cry that 'print is dead' from almost all sectors, CASE and Lipman and Hearne found that print publications are still alive and well among academia. Ninety-six percent of institutions surveyed produced some form of print publication and more than one-quarter of all marketing budgets went toward print, making it the largest single category of spending.
The increasing popularity of digital and interactive media such as online tours and student blogs hasn't affected print either. Only 45% of respondents spent less on print in fiscal year 2009 than they did in FY2008, and most of that was due to overall budget cuts. Across all types and sizes of institutions, print's share of the budget matched or increased that of interactive media, suggesting that even in this era of change, print is here to stay.
Changing the Mix
Even as print remains stable, spending on interactive and social media is growing. Between FY08 and FY09, 55% increased their budget allocation to interactive media and 52% increased their allocation to social media. The fact that these areas are growing while overall marketing budgets are shrinking indicates the importance placed on new media. The report suggests that the dollars may be coming out of advertising budgets - 42% of moderate-to-heavy social media users spent less on advertising in FY09 than FY08, and one-third of all respondents also dropped their advertising budgets in that time.
Is the tradeoff worth it? CASE and Lipman and Hearne's report suggests that new media may be more effective in drumming up interest. Moderate-to-heavy investors in interactive media were more likely than other institutions to report a positive impact on enrollment yield, the quality of applicants, website hits, overall philanthropic giving and alumni participation rates (the percentage of alumni who donate).
Are colleges and universities wasting all the time they spend pushing socialmedia? This report says no - social media pays off. Researchers found that, among moderate-to-heavy investors in social media, 56% spent more on interactive in FY09 than they did the year before. As noted above, this returned a positive impact in institutional position, website hits and alumni-giving rates.
Furthermore, social media use seems to save schools money. Moderate-to-heavy users of social media reported spending an average of $83 per student on marketing, as opposed to $121 per student for light-to-non users.
A final interesting pattern among heavier social media users: They seem to be overall more web-oriented in their efforts. Sixty percent of them utilize direct-to-online publications as opposed to only 38% of those who were less invested in social media.
According to these researchers, getting help pays off. The report showed that institutions that partnered with outside firms for digital advertising had better results. Partnered schools saw an increase in applicants (96%) than those who went solo (82%), as well as greater enrollment yield (88% vs. 67%) and total giving (76% vs. 49%). Applicant quality also improved more for partnered schools than solo schools, as did visibility.
Although this finding may be somewhat motivated by the nature of the researchers - the project was primarily run by marketing firm Lipman and Hearne - the point is clear: If you want a greater return on your marketing investments, get help from marketing experts. Whether the additional cost to schools with struggling budgets was actually justified by the return was not explored in this report.