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This year’s AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education was informative and fun (how could it not be when hosted in New Orleans?). We enjoyed many of the presentations as well as talking with folks from colleges and universities across the country (Canada and the UK as well!). Several themes emerged that have us thinking about the many challenges faced by college and university marketers. Many topics were discussed and explored throughout the conference presentations. In addition, the Primacy team enjoyed discussions with attendees between sessions. Themes that emerged include:

Integrated Marketing

Many attendees expressed challenges they face with the lack of integration between online and offline marketing efforts at their respective institutions. The folks we spoke with noted that it is slowly getting better each year but the siloed nature of their organization made it difficult to synchronize efforts. One attendee described her integration of online efforts as “bolting things on to the website” after the offline component was produced (in this case a new viewbook and related Admissions collateral). Primacy frequently hears this challenge. While the trend for integration is getting better there appears to be a long way to go for many. The most effective integrated effort seems to be when marketing plans are extended over multiple years, they include online and offline together, AND they are fluid. This allows the plan to adapt to changing needs rather than be reinvented each year.

Digital Marketing

Many institutions have embraced their digital marketing efforts with vigor. We had many interesting discussions around this topic and several attendees asked about how best to order the many marketing and technology priorities they face.
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO): Most that we spoke with noted the importance of SEO but admitted they could do a better job. One person revealed, “I know it’s important but with a limited staff it can easily get deprioritized against other initiatives, particularly when it’s so intangible to most of my colleagues.”
  • Search Engine Marketing (SEM): Paid search activities are on the rise though several expressed a method that is reminiscent of the “ready-fire-aim” approach.
  • Landing Pages: We were surprised to hear how many didn’t create custom online/offline campaign landing pages, and those that did weren’t optimizing them.
Overall the desire to incorporate digital marketing efforts appears high. Primacy expects this to continue. We see through efforts with our own clients that successful programs are those that start with an initial strategy, then assess and optimize over time based on appropriate/relevant testing methods (A/B, multivariate, etc.). Often what one assumes will be most effective based on gut instinct turns out to be just the opposite (see more about this in the link that follows below under the “big data” section).

Analytics and Marketing Dashboards

Interestingly, many that we spoke with only equate analytics and marketing dashboards to their online efforts. Perhaps this was somewhat a semantics issue in the discussion. However a disconnect seems to exist between organizations thinking about “activity-based” versus “performance-based” measures. Most that we spoke with are reviewing their “activity-based” metrics (such as page views and click streams) via Google Analytics and similar tools. No one with which we spoke had a good method for feeding the relevant data into a marketing performance dashboard that enables a view of the direct connection to “performance-based” outcomes (such as Admissions or Advancement objectives). Primacy encourages anyone not doing this to start.

Staffing, Website Governance, and Content Management

This remains an ongoing challenge. Key aspects that surfaced in multiple discussions include:
  • Staffing: Many are asked to do more with less. Numerous institutions seem to approach website redesign initiatives the way in which one person described to us: “We tackle the website redesign as one big capital expenditure project every 3-5 years. Then we go back to business-as-usual and don’t maintain it.”
  • Web Governance: Centralized? Decentralized? The pendulum seems to swing to the opposite direction of whichever the institution last utilized. Many we spoke with described challenges with understanding how best to handle the decision-making process, particularly with large numbers of people peripheral to the process whom want a say.
  • Content Management: Content still remains the number one challenge with all Web initiatives. Comments heard at the Symposium confirm this to still be a large challenge for schools. Much of the discussion we had centered on the expectation by senior leadership “for having unqualified people update content just because they are the subject matter expert” as one attendee remarked.
Primacy sees these challenges surface on nearly every engagement. And, it’s not just unique to the education world as it may feel to those working within a college or university setting. Working with many of our clients to help define best approaches for Web Governance, Staffing, and CMS selection and implementation we have learned there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all solution”. The most effective examples share some common attributes, including:
  • Support by the senior-most person at the institution
  • Editorial and curatorial emphasis is treated as a high priority
  • Advisory feedback should not be confused with every person needing to give approval

“Big Data”

The topic of “big data” surfaced with a few attendees though it wasn’t always raised under that moniker specifically. However, the ability to “take all this data and do something meaningful with it”, as one person described, is very important. Particularly as colleges and universities look to effectively position themselves in an increasingly competitive education landscape. The recent presidential election offers interesting thoughts and insights on this very relevant subject. Regardless of your personal political leanings the following link provides access to a good article on leveraging analysis and insights from “big data”: particular note, the article speaks at a high-level to all the testing the Obama campaign conducted and how often assumptions of what they thought may work was proven incorrect by testing.Quote: “Here again, data collection and analysis were paramount. Many of the e-mails sent to supporters were just tests, with different subject lines, senders and messages. Inside the campaign, there were office pools on which combination would raise the most money, and often the pools got it wrong.”

Social Media

As it has been for many years, social media continues as a hot topic. Now that “being social” is reaching some level of maturity (are there still naysayers out there?) the aspect of social that appears to be most top-of-mind is how best to leverage each social site, platform, and/or tool. Often we heard attendees struggling with which social avenues to choose rather than trying to tackle them all. Related to this is identifying when to chase the latest trend (e.g., Pinterest) and when to consider abandonment (e.g., does Facebook risk being the next MySpace). For the foreseeable future the popular triad of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter continue to dominate. But, don’t blink; here comes LinkedIn as a formidable player in the social media space in higher education. It makes a lot of sense, especially as many institutions wrestle with helping students prepare for the real world AND constituent communications with Alumni/ae.


Some frequently asked questions remain: “How should I approach mobile? Should we build Apps? Mobile-specific website? Responsive design? Should we wait to redesign the entire site? How many devices and platforms do I need to consider? Smartphone first? Tablet friendly? Touch? Apple? Microsoft? Android? HTML5?"  The questions are numerous.With each set of these questions raised during discussions we had with Symposium attendees the answer often became “it depends”. Many will argue that you should begin the transition using a responsive design approach (some good thinking by my colleague over here… Each school will have its own set of considerations to add into the discussion. What seems to be most effective is:
  • Consider it in the context of your overall digital strategy: Make smart choices as you develop your overall digital ecosphere to ensure a relationship as it evolves over time to meet your objectives and the demands of your target audiences.
  • Don’t try to boil the ocean: Large scale digital initiatives are resource-intensive and raise the need for many on campus to want to weigh in on the decisions made. Look for low-hanging fruit and quick wins as a means to gain traction (e.g., capital campaign, accepted students website).

In Closing

Connecting with peers from other institutions can be illuminating on many levels. The end of a conference such as this one often sends attendees back to campus energized and full of ideas only to find others aren’t as invigorated. Share what you learned. Look for ways in which to get traction. Think in context to an overall strategy, even if you don’t own that part. Try to insinuate into your organization that which got you excited in the first place. If we can be of help along the way, don’t hesitate to ask. See you at the next AMA Symposium in 2013 (in Boston!).