• Issue #28

Marketing is NOT a code word

Red letters that spell "idea," are placed into a box marked, "brain."

Marketing is NOT a code word

Inside Higher Ed published an opinion piece a few days ago on marketing as a code word. They don’t actually tell you what marketing is a code word for, but you can infer they mean something to the effect of an administrator saying, “Addressing the root problem is too hard or complicated, so I am hoping marketing has another solution for me.”

The main idea is that marketing in higher education is all promotion. Marketing teams have no say in the price, placement, or product the way they might if they were marketing paper towels or toys. But even given this limited marketing role, people think it can somehow work miracles.

I agree with this article. I really do. But I want to build on it a little bit.

The author is right. Marketing professionals in higher education can’t go to the faculty and say, “We ran the market research, and we discovered our target market wants to see younger, more dynamic faculty, courses offered in the late afternoons (maybe daily in 25-minute increments), and with substantially less testing and homework. Can we offer an incentive, maybe a first-month trial: ‘Like it or your money back?’”

It’s true that marketing teams in higher education cannot do things like that (for the most part). But it’s not really a set of tools you would want to use anyway.

You’ve probably heard me say it before: In higher education, your community is your product.

Part of what I mean by this is that faculty and administration, including you, for that matter, are included in the product itself. But that doesn’t mean that we treat ourselves like products. We’re still human. We have dignity and designs and full lives with families and obligations.

Consequently, faculty and administrators have a say in their culture, as they should. And this is how marketing in higher education will always be different: Toys and paper towels don’t get a say in their own making and marketing.

Another aspect of community-as-product thinking is to recognize that students become part of this community product, too, for the duration of their education and beyond. That’s what they’re hoping will happen when they apply. For those two to four or more years that they’re in your community, they serve in roles as contributors actively shaping your culture and also representatives of what your culture is. The features of the community you have now were part of the package they wanted when they chose you.

These features come about through a series of small negotiations between faculty, administrators, and students. To welcome the community of people you already have, your ever-changing institution had to offer faculty and students incentives that work for them. In those negotiations, you get things, and you trade things away.

So we’ve established that this community product is shifting and emergent over many small deals. Let’s make it a bit more complicated. For marketing and branding purposes, your community is the product, but it’s not exclusively a product. It is also a process. When students enroll, they are expecting to evolve. They want to grow and become more knowledgeable and confident in their chosen disciplines.

Faculty and administrators know many things about the array of experiences, opportunities, protections, and pacing that students need for their intellectual and personal growth to be fully realized. They also know the value and the costs of those things. In order for their careful planning of learning and development efforts to be successful, they also need students’ cooperation in doing some hard things.

The devil is in the marketing, right? How do you tell prospective students they must commit to hard things and pay for them?

I think what I am trying to say is that when you sign on to market a community in which:

  • personal change is the goal, and
  • community members have a say on what is shared and how much it costs

That price, place, and especially product are not tools to manipulate for sales. The four Ps (shoutout to the University of Minnesota marketing department - the generator of this model) are not that helpful of a lens.

To see your role as hampered by fixed costs, fixed delivery/location, and fixed identity with only promotion at your fingertips is to miss the point. You’re the ushers helping new students find their seats. You’re matchmakers.

Please indulge me; I’d like to use a flowery metaphor: When you make a new friend, you both take on obligations. These are loving obligations: to be interested in the other person’s thoughts, to be invested in their success, to be gentle and consoling in their failures, and to be thoughtful about their feelings. Those obligations are worth taking on because the other person has taken on those obligations for you too. And, our lives are richer for the mutual interest, care, and thoughtfulness.

Our role as marketers is to help our students see the worthiness of taking on obligations to be part of our community. It’s never going to be easy or everything they ever wanted, and our faculty, administrators, and current students all get a say in exactly what is being offered. Balking against that or root-causing our way out of responsibility puts us on the outside of our community.

This is not to dismiss your enrollment struggles or the intense pressures and stresses that come with a community that struggles to adapt to a changing environment or allow those negotiations for new students to occur. It’s to say that manipulating product, price, and place isn’t the just-out-of-reach solution in bad times. And, it’s not what you’re doing well when you’re in the good times. It’s not what we should long for.

You’re playing an entirely different marketing game. You’re matchmakers.

- Kristin Van Dorn