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Investing in Institutional Visibility

By John Lawlor

One of the most frequently mentioned things we have heard at many campus communities during our many years of working with colleges and universities is, “We are a best kept secret. Not many people know about us, but those who do recognize how good we are.” But of course, if a prospective student doesn’t know about a college, then that student won’t think of the college at all. For better or worse, the reality of today’s higher education marketplace is a catalyst for more college presidents and other senior leaders to recognize the necessity of getting the word out so an institution’s brand name and value proposition are no longer a “best kept secret.” One of the resulting challenges and a key planning consideration is then determining how much the college should budget in order to expand its name brand recognition.

In The Lawlor Group’s collaboration with RHB, Higher Ed Intelligence, we’ve been asking, “How common are challenges like these across private higher education institutions nationwide?” Our inaugural Independent College Presidents Survey uncovered some of the prevailing forces and operational practices that influence private higher education’s marketing efforts, including these items pertaining to investment in promotional marketing:

1) Improving awareness is an almost universal challenge.

Asked the extent to which “heightening visibility and improving awareness” is a challenge for their institution to effectively address, 50% of private college presidents find it very challenging and 46% somewhat challenging. In fact, the only thing on our survey list that presidents find more challenging is “increasing revenues.”

2) Presidents recognize that promotion is a strategic marketing priority.

56% of responding presidents believe they are appropriately prioritizing “promotion” in their marketing mix. (The promotion function consists of ensuring that students/families’ are aware of and favorably regard the institution and are being communicated with in meaningful and appropriate ways. Other elements of the marketing mix are product, price, place, and people.) Another 25% would like to be prioritizing promotion more, while the remaining 19% would like to be prioritizing it less.

3) Spending on promotion is a primary driver of marketing budgets.

As an estimate of what percentage of their institution’s overall marketing budget currently is spent on promotional efforts, the median cited by presidents is 52%. Over the past three years, the overall institutional marketing budget has increased at 61% of the presidents’ colleges. (It has remained flat at 35% and has declined at 8%). However, 86% of presidents say their institution has been investing more in promotional marketing efforts specifically, and another 11% are planning to do so.

To be successful, promotional marketing must be addressed not in an old-school tactical manner, but with a full-fledged strategic perspective. This requires considering how centralized the budget for promotional marketing should be (as opposed to distributed across departments), selecting the appropriate distribution channels for promotional messaging via paid, owned, and earned content, and building in systems and processes to measure effectiveness, analyze data, and further optimize efforts based on results.

For some institutions, moving toward a more strategic approach could be accomplished with a reallocation of existing dollars and human resources. For others, it could mean greater investment is required. Either way, active efforts to generate more widespread brand awareness are essential in today’s competitive higher education marketplace.