Industry Insights

Valuable insights from UPCEA's trusted corporate partners.

Higher Ed Marketing: A Corporate Approach for Institutional Success

By Kevin Phang, VP, Partnership Development, Marketing & Enrollment, Noodle

Marketing plays a key role in shaping a company’s success, and in higher education it’s no different. Colleges, universities, and other institutions face more competition every year, and with market demands and trends in constant flux, the need for strategic, impactful marketing that delivers has never been greater. With that in mind, let’s explore how higher ed can learn a thing or two by adopting marketing strategies proven successful in the corporate world, and why a unified approach is emerging as a preferred solution.

 

It starts with understanding the need for change

Higher education brand and marketing agency SimpsonScarborough compiled a 2022 study urging institutions to begin treating marketing as a vital investment—as the corporate world does—rather than merely a strategic one. This requires universities to adopt a more proactive and strategic approach that starts with understanding the importance of aligning institutional goals and priorities with marketing efforts. And while there are many parallels between higher education institutions and corporations, that doesn’t mean higher ed should train its focus on the bottom line.

First of all, yes—encouraging institutions to adopt corporate practices to drive innovation and success challenges our traditional view of higher education as completely distinct from the corporate world. Some suggest that universities are already run too much like businesses, and that teaching and learning have taken a back seat to generating revenue. But if you look at the mission of most higher ed institutions, you should see some areas that would benefit from a more businesslike approach. Take, for example, the way in which companies identify talent and provide the resources to support and advance it; or the agility and speed at which a successful company can pivot in response to market trends.

Higher ed would benefit from a more businesslike approach. A Twitter post from mathematics professor Robert Talbert didn’t mince words, stating that higher ed “needs to treat teaching innovations like (good) businesses treat innovations.” Talking with users, developing products, and iterating on them—just as businesses do—is the way. You can’t wait for a problem to arise before addressing it.

Others have examined the potential benefits of applying corporate management strategies to higher ed, arguing that adopting more businesslike approaches would improve an institution’s operational efficiency, enhance its financial sustainability, and help them better meet the needs of their students and stakeholders.

It’s a compelling case. By recognizing marketing as a strategic investment and aligning their practices with corporate principles, universities can improve their chances of achieving their goals while navigating the complexities of the modern higher education landscape.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the current challenges facing higher ed marketing and look at some practical strategies for overcoming them using a corporate-inspired approach.

 

Recognizing the challenges

Higher education institutions face more than enough challenges when it comes to marketing themselves—culture, programs, and offerings alike. The biggest may be their competitive internal dynamics. Unlike corporations, where departments work collaboratively towards common goals, colleges and universities can struggle with siloed departments and conflicting priorities. This often leads to disjointed marketing efforts and a lack of cohesion in messaging that can damage the institution’s brand.

Inefficient ad spending is another pain point. Many universities allocate their marketing budgets haphazardly, with little attention paid to ROI or strategic alignment. This leads to wasted resources and outcomes that fail to move the needle in terms of effectively reaching and engaging their target audiences. Further supporting that point, the SimpsonScarborough study notes that only a fraction of higher ed marketing budgets are allocated towards research and strategic planning.

A rapidly evolving higher education landscape compounds these challenges. With online learning on the rise, alternative credentialing options increasing, and an ever-growing percentage of learners coming from new and or underrepresented demographics, universities must focus on adapting their marketing strategies to remain relevant and competitive by focusing on agility and innovation. However, many institutions struggle to keep pace with these changes, leading to stagnation and missed opportunities for growth.

 

What lessons can we learn from the corporate world?

Given these challenges, higher ed can draw valuable marketing lessons from the corporate world. An excellent David Rosowsky article in Forbes emphasizes the potential benefits : treating colleges and universities as businesses by adopting corporate strategies can lead to operational efficiency, financial sustainability, and better results across the board.

Consider the importance of strategic planning and data-driven decision-making. Corporations invest significant resources in market research and analysis to inform their marketing strategies and help them allocate resources effectively. Higher ed institutions can certainly benefit from conducting market research—both to understand the preferences and needs of their target audiences and to develop tailored marketing campaigns to reach them.

The concept of brand management is key to corporations and higher education alike. Just as corporations carefully cultivate their brands to position themselves in the marketplace, universities must develop and promote their unique value propositions to attract their target audiences. Articulating your institution’s mission, values, and strengths in a compelling, authentic way will help your story resonate with prospective students and donors.

Current spending indicates that higher ed is not getting the message. In general, institutions spend over half of their marketing budgets (56 percent) on labor. Corporations? Less than half that amount (25 percent). Corporations also direct nearly nine times more of their budgets to marketing technology than higher ed institutions do, and spend about 25% more on advertising than higher ed spends on all marketing expenditures combined.

Higher education institutions can overcome the challenges facing their marketing efforts and achieve greater success and sustainability in the competitive landscape by adopting corporate management strategies and principles.

 

The Noodle solution: A unified marketing approach

Noodle believes that a unified marketing approach is the solution to the challenges facing higher education marketing. This approach follows corporations’ focus on efficiency and consumers, and aligns institutional goals with market demands to drive success. Students are increasingly savvy customers. By adopting a research-led marketing model and treating them as discerning consumers, institutions can enhance enrollment and meet evolving educational expectations.

The unified approach emphasizes cohesion and collaboration across departments and internal stakeholders. Rather than operating in silos (as many institutions do), marketing efforts should be integrated seamlessly across all other functions, including admissions, academic departments, student services, and others. That’s the roadmap to achieving consistency in messaging and maximizing the impact of your marketing campaigns.

The importance of leveraging technology in higher ed marketing can’t be overstated. We’re in the midst of the digital age, and embracing the innovative tools and platforms is a must in order to effectively reach and engage your target audiences. From social media advertising to personalized email campaigns, tech offers endless possibilities for institutions to connect with prospective students and differentiate themselves in the increasingly competitive marketplace.

 

Steps you can take

A corporate approach to marketing in higher education requires planning. Consider these practical strategies on your road to transforming your institution’s marketing efforts:

  • Develop a comprehensive marketing plan — Begin by conducting a thorough assessment of your institution’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT analysis). Results will help you develop a plan that outlines clear objectives, target audiences, messaging strategies, and tactics for reaching your goals.

 

  • Collaborate across departments — Build a culture of collaboration among all departments involved in marketing efforts. That means admissions, academic departments, student affairs, alumni relations… everyone. Cross-functional teams working together towards common objectives sharing resources and insights can break down walls and maximize your efforts.

 

  • Invest in market research — It’s true: putting resources towards market research is the only way to gain insights into the needs, preferences, and behaviors of your target audiences. Conduct surveys, hold focus groups, and arrange interviews with prospective students, current students, alumni, and other stakeholders. They’ll go miles toward informing your marketing strategies and messaging.

 

  • Embrace analytics — Data analytics is one of your most valuable tools in tracking and measuring marketing campaign effectiveness. Key performance indicators (KPIs) like conversion rates, web traffic, and social media engagement provide a window into how you’re doing and help you make informed, data-driven decisions that get you better results.

 

  • Go all-in on digital marketing — You’re at the party; you might as well dance. Digital channels like social media, email marketing, search engine optimization (SEO), and content marketing are here to stay. Don’t shy away; they’re all necessary to reach and engage your target students. Create compelling content that resonates with them, then use targeted advertising to reach them where they are. You’ll maximize the bang for your buck.

 

  • Personalize communications — Tailor your marketing communications to the specific needs and interests of each segment of your target audience. Segmentation and personalization techniques can help you deliver the relevant messaging and content that speaks directly to your students’ preferences.

 

  • Be agile! Be responsive! — Higher ed is a constantly evolving landscape. Learn to be agile and more responsive to changes in the market. Monitor trends, the competition, and student feedback with an eagle eye, and use that info to decide how to adjust marketing strategies to stay ahead of the curve and stay in front of your competitors.

Implementing these corporate-flavored strategies can help institutions overcome the challenges they face and achieve greater success in attracting and retaining students, securing funding, and enhancing their reputation in the marketplace.

 

Where to go from here?

Adopting a more corporate approach to marketing shows true promise in driving success for higher ed institutions. Viewing marketing as a strategic investment and embracing corporate management strategies can help universities overcome challenges and achieve greater marketing success. Noodle recommends a unified marketing approach that creates a usable framework for aligning your goals with your market demands. Cohesiveness, collaboration, and technology are your keys to optimizing marketing efforts and distinguishing your institution in the marketplace.

As you look towards the future, it’s important not to lean on one success for too long. Institutions need to continue evolving and adapting their strategies to meet the changing needs and expectations of students and the higher ed market. Embracing the lessons the corporate world has learned can position your institution for long-term growth, sustainability, and success.

 

Kevin Phang is VP, Partnership Development, Marketing & Enrollment for Noodle. Noodle is the leading tech-enabled strategy and services partner for higher education. A certified B corporation, Noodle (founded in 2013) has developed infrastructure and online enrollment growth for some of the best academic institutions in the world. Noodle empowers universities to transform the world through life-changing learning. It offers strategic consulting to advise partners as they navigate their futures, provides services tailored to meet their growth aspirations, and deploys technology, tools, and platforms that integrate for scale, making our partners more resilient, responsive, efficient, and interconnected. Noodle.com

 

References

What If Higher Ed Marketing Budgets Looked More Like the Corporate World?” SimpsonScarborough, February 28, 2022.

John Warner, “Where Higher Ed Should Be More Businesslike,” Inside Higher Ed, November 17, 2022.

David Rosowski, “If Colleges Are Businesses, Why Not Run Them That Way?” Forbes, May 10, 2020.

 

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