Keeping Austin weird: 5 Things that piqued our interest at AMA Higher Ed

November 24, 2014  

Earlier this month, hundreds of higher ed professionals gathered in Austin, Texas, for the AMA’s 2014 Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, where thought leaders spoke about trends, challenges, and opportunities in the industry today.

The opening address set the tone for the conference: Russ Klein, chief executive officer at the AMA, talked about how marketers’ responsibilities at institutions often exceed their authority to create real change. The key to making that change happen, he noted, involves inspiring your stakeholders and moving them toward a shared vision, and agreeing on what success looks like. (This idea had all the Ologists in the room nodding our heads.)

We encountered many other thought-provoking ideas at the symposium. Here are a few of the highlights we walked away with.

  1. Embrace your place.

    When you’re figuring out how to distinguish your brand or create meaningful connections to your brand’s story, there’s a tendency to first look outward. But according to Austin-born DJ Stout, partner at design firm Pentagram, it’s just as important to look inward, at your institution’s roots. What does your college, school, or university stand for? What is your “place”? Digging deep into what makes you special will help you tell a better story. Don’t underestimate the power of history, culture, and tradition.

    KEY INSIGHT: Identify the truly unique aspects of your institution. (Hint: It’s probably not small class sizes or cutting-edge research.) What do your campus, location, and traditions say about you? Take the characteristics that are a part of your school’s legacy and make them prominent in your brand story.

  2. Listen to your audience.

    When you’re charting the path toward marketing success, it’s easy to listen almost exclusively to your organization’s administrative bodies. NPR’s chief marketing officer, Emma Carrasco, identified this point as a marketing challenge common to public radio and higher education. Her advice: Give your audience a voice and listen to what they’re saying. Whether it’s content, technology, or events, put the audience at the core of your decision-making. By listening and responding to students, prospects, alumni, and donors, you’ll ultimately gain their trust and develop a deeper connection with them.

    KEY INSIGHT: Start to establish an audience-centered marketing culture. Interview students, faculty, alumni, and donors; then let the data and insights be your guide. You can even use them as a filter when you’re considering direction from your administration.

  3. Stop talking about stuff.
    According to Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, traditional higher education won’t come close to closing the learning gap until we become more thoughtful and creative in our approach. You can begin by talking to students in terms they can relate to; for instance, how easy it is to transfer credits in and out of your institution, or a flexible education track that won’t lock them into a program if they decide they don’t like it. In other words, stop talking about what complicates your internal processes to your outside audience. Instead, start selling what your students learn and what they experience. Tell these stories from the student’s perspective, in ways that demonstrate how your college is unique.

    Invite students to be part of a university relations marketing committee. Give them a way to share their on- and off-campus experiences, and draw on what you learn as you create communications.

  4. Fight for internal alignment.
    In her keynote, Dr. Ann Weaver Hart, president of the University of Arizona, stressed the importance of connecting your brand platform with your strategic plan. How? By creating a closer relationship between marketing and leadership. Nearly every high-level decision at an institution has an impact on marketing, so it’s critical that communicators have a seat at the table. Seek input and alignment from voices across campus, the business community, and the city. When you do, your brand can actually help unify your institution’s academic vision and achieve its business goals.

    Gather wide-ranging input from diverse voices all across campus. Then work toward getting everyone on the same page. This will help you make your case for telling a unified brand story.

  5. Lead well, and lead wisely.
    Often in higher ed marketing, you can find yourself contending with antiquated layers of bureaucracy, much like those found in politics. Scott McClellan, vice president for communications at Seattle University (and former White House press secretary), spoke about the value of leaders who keep the focus on the institution’s greater purpose. Smart leaders, he said, have a compelling, relentless focus with a strategic vision. Wise leaders have an open-minded perspective and embrace others who know more than they do. Both types are needed in your institution, but wise leaders tend to serve a more creative purpose.

    Make sure you have the right leaders on your team. Create a leadership group to tap different perspectives of your organization, and delegate according to leadership styles and strengths.