Lonely at the top: the chief marketing officer in higher education
According to Zippia, there are currently about 69,000 active chief marketing officers, or CMOs, working in the United States. Roughly 65 percent of them are male, and their average age overall is 38. The same data suggests that the education industry accounts for only 3 percent of this total number — or about 2,000 CMOs. Of course, without knowing how the data was collected and organized, we don’t know how closely these statistics reflect reality. (Does “education” include ed tech? Publishers? For-profit universities? Likely.) So we can’t say for sure exactly how many CMOs there are in higher education today, working in a cabinet-level role and driving the marketing functions of a college or university.
What’s not in dispute, however, is that the CMO role is on the rise in the industry, and marketing within higher education is being taken more seriously than ever before. Yes, there are still naysayers, but their numbers are dwindling, especially as forces like increased competition from nontraditional players, shifting demographics, and the need for differentiation loom larger each year.
It’s also clear that the marketing function on campus is changing. Twenty years ago, you might find a collection of decentralized communications teams across various departments like government relations, crisis communications, enrollment management, advancement, and alumni relations. Today this model is being eclipsed by larger, more sophisticated, centralized agencies that drive the total marketing effort, including brand management, integrated communications, and even product development. You heard that right — some campuses are allowing marketers to have a voice in the educational offer! Sarcasm aside, these are seismic shifts.
But what about higher ed’s CMOs? What do they think about all this? I was curious, so I asked a few. No, nothing like a large, statistically significant market study. To dive a little deeper, I kept it simple and asked three questions:
1. How is being a CMO in higher education different from other industries?
2. What are the most important hard skills for a higher ed CMO to have?
3. And what are the most important soft skills?
Higher Ed vs. the World
A few of the people I spoke to said there was little difference between the CMO role in higher ed and in other industries. But this was a minority view: most cited the fact that higher ed is still very decentralized, and not just at large universities. While the marketing function has become increasingly centralized, pooling communications budgets and resources to increase reach, the rest of the institution has generally not followed suit. This means that, compared to their counterparts elsewhere, higher ed CMOs usually have less direct authority to craft and implement a singular message, and they must exercise more influence and less control.
Another common factor is how CMOs in higher ed are asked to take a hands-off approach to product development and marketing. In this case, the product is (basically) education, and the longstanding sentiment on campus is that education should be the exclusive realm of educators, not marketers. This too is changing, as schools realize that they have too many majors, courses, channels, and programs, and that all too often the “customer” is confused. Little by little, marketing leaders are being invited more often to help evolve the educational offer and the overall student experience.
The final idea I heard repeatedly is that colleges and universities are more than a company or an enterprise. Each one is a community, made up of various subcommunities with discrete cultures and histories, and diverse pools of people (faculty, staff, students, alumni, and others), all of whom have different relationships with the overall brand. Building and managing a message that unites these communities, yet recognizes and honors their differences, is a challenge that’s unique to this type of organization.
Hard Skills: Leading Initiatives
My second question was aimed at better understanding the hard skills necessary for higher ed CMOs to navigate their unique circumstances. Here we mean the knowledge and technical skills required to manage teams, wield influence, and oversee a complex set of disciplines like market research, branding, campaign management, and creative execution.
The first common theme was communication skills. CMOs in higher ed must manage a layered approach to communicating with both internal and external stakeholders. Whether it’s with trustees, or institutional leaders, or faculty, staff, and students, these CMOs must be excellent and effective communicators, knowing when to provide vision and direction, and when to dive deep into issues of tactical execution. Respondents also mentioned needing a solid grasp of crisis communications, in this time where institutions are placed under a microscope by legislators, the media, and the public.
Beyond communications, another necessary skill set is marketing planning. As one CMO put it:
This is the ability to craft a strategic marketing plan that illustrates the value of all marketing efforts to the cabinet, as well as to ensure that the internal marketing organization strategically and intentionally focuses its efforts on the institution’s mission and vision.
On some campuses, this might be limited to a few key areas, such as enrollment management and advancement. But more and more, this type of plan is becoming a blueprint for the entire institution, and includes areas like athletics, research, colleges and schools, and community relations.
Of course, another key hard skill involves analytics. Another respondent said that CMOs need “a keen understanding of analytics and the ability to infuse them into both communications and marketing.” They expanded on this idea:
There’s no reason to guess our way through anymore. Messaging effectiveness can be measured at every step. Channel preference and engagement statistics can demonstrate what’s working and what’s not. We have more and more opportunities to build a truly impactful strategy for our institutions.
Final on the list is the capacity for big thinking. CMOs must be able to tap their intuitions, to recognize big ideas and overarching themes, and to appreciate first-rate creative execution as the key to differentiation. Put another way, this means having a strong creative “right brain” to balance the analytical “left brain” — or knowing which you excel at and surrounding yourself with people who complement your strengths.
Soft Skills: Leading People
The third area I asked about was soft skills, those less tangible qualities that define great leaders. But which are most required in higher ed?
The one mentioned most often was empathy: being able to understand and share the feelings of others. I was reminded by several CMOs that great marketing always carries both rational and emotional content — how you think about a brand and how you feel about it. And loyalty is often more about the latter. As one of my colleagues stated:
Empathy doesn’t just make you a better leader, it makes you a better marketer. It allows you to be more consumer-centric and positions the CMO as someone who understands the audiences perhaps better than anyone else.
This was followed by vision — as in visionary — envisioning a brighter future for the organization and inspiring others with that vision. Good CMOs remind people why we all get up every day and do what we do to promote our institutions. As trite as it may sound, colleges and universities do change lives — through upward mobility, through enlightenment, through lifesaving and planet-saving research, and even through simple things like making connections and fostering community.
While several other soft skills were mentioned — including humility, character, listening, and patience — the last common theme I want to highlight is discipline. For many reasons, marketing came later to higher education than it did to many other markets. Clearly, times have changed, but higher ed is by no means a natural environment for marketing. So the successful CMO must not only have discipline, but must also instill it in others. This includes the discipline to stay the course, even amid fierce criticism. The discipline to be bold. The discipline to take a long view, even when so many around you (like enrollment) have to take an annual view.
The higher ed CMO is here to stay. All the people I talked to agree that the role will become more comprehensive and, eventually, will use the kind of holistic approach we see in other categories. In the meantime, I urge you to rally around this important type of marketing leader, and help them all be successful — regardless of title, reporting structure, budget, or tradition.
Author’s note: Numerous people helped me with my discovery for this piece. But I’d like to thank a few people by name here: Ethan Braden, Deedie Dowdle, Terry Flannery, Eddie Francis, Jaime Hunt, Nancy Paton, Ira Rubien, Doug Ruschman, and Nicholas Scibetta. These individuals, along with a few others consulted for this piece, represent a wide variety of institutions at different points in the evolution of marketing within higher ed. I am grateful for their insights and wisdom.