What strategic plans reveal about higher education marketing

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What makes a strategic plan “strategic”? This question was at the heart of a Study 2020-21 that my RHB colleague Aimee Hosemann and I led – with the help of Connor LaGrange, graduate student at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy – by analyzing 108 active strategic plans spanning a wide range of public institutions and four-year deprivation in all 50 states.

We wanted to better understand who the strategic plans are ultimately for, why the process can be so complex, and how relevant plans can be in a context of rapid change, including disruption caused by COVID-19. While our goal was to study these dynamics, identify the most strategic trends among plans, and help inform and improve future planning efforts, our analysis provided a fascinating – if not depressing – window into the future. state of higher education marketing.

According to current strategic plans, the marketing function remains mainly in the field of promotion.

Of the 108 plans we examined, 52 (48%) explicitly mentioned marketing or marketing and communications. Most strikingly, the references to marketing were almost exclusively about promotion. “Boldly promote”, “vigorously promote” and “promote our image” are some of the marketing expressions in these strategic plans, as well as several versions of “better telling our story”.

The more strategic capabilities of marketing in areas such as developing market intelligence-based programs, shaping the constituent experience to create lifelong value, and aligning institutional behaviors with a selected position on the market is not reflected in the current plans.

A more holistic view of marketing would serve institutions well and facilitate strategic planning. If you are starting a strategic planning process or soon will be, here are three recommendations for your institution, informed by these search results.

1. Make sure your marketing manager has a seat at the table from day one.

Of the 108 strategic plans, 45 (42 percent) identified the constituencies from which the committee members came, and far fewer listed the actual names of the committee members. (We would recommend more transparency with readers about which members of the campus community are leading the planning process.) Of those 45 plans, only 17 had a marketing and communications manager on the main steering committee.

This figure is not surprising for institutions that view marketing work as a promotion to “get the word out” about all activities in a strategic plan. If, however, we recognize the strategic capabilities of marketing to help an institution deliver relevance, then not having your marketers as planning partners represents a missed opportunity. Strategic plans cut across all facets of a college or university, and marketing can bring an institution-wide perspective that overlaps with a constituent-centered understanding of market perceptions and opportunities.

2. The expression of your mission looks outward; create a planning process that does this too.

There is a disconnect between the outward expression of institutional missions aimed at transforming lives and society and the inward-looking process of strategic planning. For example, broad community outreach was one of the five most common strategic priorities or themes in all plans. Yet only 11 percent of strategic planning steering committees included community representation. (Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging was the most common strategic priority. We identified 16 plans containing the most strategic trends, and these plans envisioned a detailed and holistic perspective of the goals and actions of DEIB.)

As further evidence of this inconsistency, our analysis showed a general lack of student-centeredness in all planes. In contrast, the 16 most strategic strategic plans paid more attention to student well-being and success, and more frequently engaged undergraduate and graduate students as members of task forces and research groups. job.

3. Focus more on positioning and less on branding.

While “brand” or “branding” appears in over 40% of strategic plans that refer to marketing, the plans only mentioned “position” or “positioning” in the market a few times overall. Despite our observation that most colleges and universities pursue similar dreams and take similar action, institutions take a distinctive posture in their plans. Branding (or more branding, or better branding) will then, they hope, generate the desired notoriety and recognition. Almost all colleges and universities want to be better known. But what they want to be known for is less certain.

While many strategic plans resembled an institutional wishlist (a university had 22 strategic priorities) or contained things that an institution should already do (‘provide excellent education’), strategy results from making choices – choices that marketers can help inform. Additionally, marketing leaders are fundamental agents in creating engagement with the people who matter most to an institution and its future.

Rob Zinkan is Vice President of Marketing at right to right, a higher education consultancy company founded in 1991. He joined RHB in 2019 after more than 20 years in higher education administration with managerial positions in marketing and advancement. He also teaches graduate courses as an adjunct in strategic communications and leadership in higher education.


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