Moving Your Marketing Office from News Bureau to Strategic Partner

August 2011. Institutional marketing departments are increasingly asked to be all things to all people and are frequently under-resourced and under-staffed. In order to be effective and meet the competing demands of various campus constituents, department heads need to think creatively and strategically about structure, staffing models, and resource allocation.

We turned this week to Elizabeth Scarborough, CEO of SimpsonScarborough, for her advice on leading an effective marketing department. She frames the challenge in terms of moving from operating simply as a service provider to operating as a communications strategy partner.

"Ten years ago," Scarborough notes, "most marketing departments were thought of as a news bureau or as the internal Kinko's. Now, offices are beginning to shift from operating like a print shop to operating like a strategic marketing innovation center."

Scarborough offers these four recommendations for marketing and communications departments in higher education:

  • Stop taking orders for publications, and instead work with other offices to address their marketing challenges in more strategic ways
  • Set strategic goals and measures for your marketing operation
  • Ensure that the marketing office owns the functional responsibility for the website
  • Staff your office with "marketing strategists"

Stop Taking Print Orders

"On many campuses," Scarborough notes, "marketing departments are still stuck in the rut of producing so much paper. In conversations with marketing directors, I inevitably hear something like 'Our office produces X number of brochures a month' or 'X number of publications a year.'"

Rather than focus on generating media hits or pumping out a high volume of print communications, Scarborough suggests offloading the busywork and then devoting your staff's time to working with other departments to address more strategic challenges. For example, develop and provide templates and carefully thought-out guidelines to other departments, who can then develop their own brochures and other print communications using your templates.

Strategic Goals and Measuring Return on Investment

"Think about your goals," Scarborough suggests. "If the president and the rest of the cabinet evaluate the marketing department in terms of media hits and the number of brochures published, those metrics will keep you stuck where you are. The marketing departments of tomorrow's university are setting goals around brand visibility and brand awareness."

Also, Scarborough suggests setting more strategic measures of return on investment for your marketing efforts. For example, while a marketing department working toward a goal of increased media exposure may be measuring its efforts against a set number of media hits per month, a marketing department that's instead working toward a goal of increasing baseline visibility within key target audiences may be measuring its efforts against data on traffic to the website.

"The challenge marketing directors face is not just meeting increased demand and increased expectations, but redefining the expectations," Scarborough adds.

Own the Website

Scarborough cautions that in order to ensure a focused, consistent Web presence for the institution, the marketing and communications office must own and manage the functional responsibility for the website, including its content, design, layout, functionality, and architecture. While many institutions recognize the need for this, two challenges persist for many campuses:

  • The marketing office may have been granted functional responsibility, but has not added the staff needed to support action toward managing the institution's web presence
  • It's important to secure not only nominal responsibility but influence over all aspects of the website -- "if the English department builds an entirely different and separate website," Scarborough warns, "this is less than ideal; it is ineffective for a university to be managing many different websites. We need to integrate the institution's Web presence as much as possible"

Staff Your Office with Marketing Strategists

"The marketing office has not historically had many people on the team who work like project managers or account executives. We have writers, designers, public relations professionals, and Web specialists, but what marketing departments often lack are marketing strategists."
Elizabeth Scarborough, SimpsonScarborough

Scarborough advocates creating positions within the marketing department whose role is to consult with various schools, colleges, and divisions that act as clients of the marketing office. This internal consultant does more than simply ensure that their client school has all of their invitations to an event available on time; the consultant thinks strategically about the client school's communications goals and consults with them on how best to leverage the resources and expertise of the marketing department to meet those goals.

This professional:

  • Has at least five years of experience in marketing and communications
  • Engages in big-picture thinking
  • Does not necessarily have technical expertise in writing or designing -- they need to have a comprehensive understanding of marketing and communications

"Most importantly," Scarborough adds, "this professional's role is not to impose a university-wide marketing strategy. They are there to listen with care, and find a marriage between the institution-wide strategy and what the individual department is striving to accomplish."