Embracing the future

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Long-time strategic, innovative higher ed leader on what lies ahead

As one of the leading university marketing professionals in the world, when Terry Flannery speaks, higher education administrators listen. It is a role she earned honestly. Over the years, Flannery has led some of the most successful brand campaigns in all of higher education, including the last 11 years as VP for Communication and a member of the executive team at American University (AU).

While there, she was deeply involved in the development of two strategic plans, co-led the design phase of an initiative to Reimagine the Student Experience (RiSE), and co-led the development of the institution’s comprehensive Plan for Inclusive Excellence. Flannery was also instrumental in the development of AU’s first brand strategy, creating a cross-unit team that produced a groundbreaking, searchable, interactive website to demonstrate the value of an AU degree.

Her tenures have been rendered in large, medium and small institutions, both public and private, and serving in roles such as advancement admissions, enrollment management and student affairs.

These days, Flannery spends her time working in myriad capacities, including author, consultant and Policy Fellow at the Center for University Excellence at American University.

EDgage caught up to Flannery to get her insights on the state of the higher education marketing world today and what institutions can expect moving forward.

Give us a snapshot of today’s higher education landscape.

If you cannot see what is ahead on the higher education landscape, that is for two reasons. First, visibility is limited by the gloomy fog of declining public trust in higher education and the perception of its value. Collectively, our institutions are perceived as untrustworthy and greedy organizations that perpetuate inequity, ones that build wealth while their graduates build unsustainable personal debt, and are too slow to respond as institutions to the great challenges we face. We need to reframe and recommit to our foundational values and reclaim our public value to shed a bright light and burn off that dense fog. We’ll need to work cooperatively with other institutions to make that case successfully.

Second, and not too far off, the road ahead seems to drop precipitously, as if headed off a cliff—in fact, a demographic cliff. From the middle to the end of the decade, it is projected that the pipeline of college-age and college-bound students will decline by as much as 15 percent—primarily as a result of the “birth dearth” that happened during the Great Recession. All sectors and regions will be affected, some more than others.

Competition will be fierce and attitudes must shift. The good news for higher education marketers is that there has never been more incentive to truly differentiate from other institutions and to demonstrate how we transform lives and societies.

The good news for higher education marketers is that there has never been more incentive to truly differentiate from other institutions and to demonstrate how we transform lives and societies.

It may seem like a paradox—to work together with other institutions to collectively improve the perception of our value, while simultaneously working to differentiate from others to attract students, employees, donors and funders for our singular institution’s benefit. But it is possible. Our missions represent the common ground. They are remarkably similar—while the ways that we seek to achieve our mission should be as different as our institutional cultures, strengths, founding values and personalities.

Cooperation and differentiation will be the keys to the future of our industry, and the data and skills marketers possess to help their institutions survive and thrive as they address these challenges will be more valuable than ever.

What are some of the trends (and challenges) today’s university marketers and enrollment professionals are looking to embrace?

The trends include differentiated, data-driven, digital and driven by martech.

Differentiated: It will no longer suffice for our institutions and leaders to frame their institution’s qualities in terms of others they aspire to be like, nor will it be sufficient to hold on to academic excellence and personal attention as primary messages. Those who embrace strategic integrated marketing as a means to build value will stand out, differentiating by their distinctive mix of programs and services, their price, their means of educational access and delivery, and their distinctive communications.

Data-driven: Institutions will depend on marketing and enrollment professionals to use data to understand and improve the experiences of their students, alumni and employees, as well as to identify new markets where their institutions have the chance to compete successfully. Marketers will need to ramp up their data-driven decision-making about marketing investments to demonstrate return on investment.

Digital: While there are good reasons to hold on to a few print communications and traditional advertising for important stakeholder audiences, a lot of what we do will be done through digital means. Staff with skills for social listening, digital marketing, content strategy and data analysis will be more important than ever. Getting our teams to understand, collaborate and work toward measures of success in the digital realm will be job one.

Driven by martech: Institutions that let go of their siloed tech approaches and move to integrated, enterprise tools, including CRM, marketing automation and ERP, will be in a better position to understand their student and employee experiences and their institution’s abilities to deliver on their brand promises.

What is the one thing that every university must learn to deal with in 2020 and beyond?

The opportunity to innovate and improve. This decade is filled with looming challenges, but I refuse to avert my gaze in denial, gripped with fear or paralyzed by impending austerity. Why not embrace the inherent opportunities to innovate? Embedded in every challenge is opportunity, and the demographic challenges ahead, the digital transformation that is underway—all of it—give us the opportunity to differentiate, to clearly articulate our value, and to innovate for the benefit of our students, employees, alumni and communities.

What is the biggest piece of advice you can offer?

Think like a strategist and help your institutional leaders realize that the time is now to plan for the challenging years ahead. Those who build institutional strategies to stand out and offer demonstrated value, those who are willing to innovate to address the needs of the students who are different than those we have attracted in the past, are the ones that are going to thrive in this decade. Time is wasting. If this conversation isn’t happening on your campus, it’s time for marketing and enrollment professionals to raise it and show their worth.

Where does the state of higher education stand today?

Higher education is not immune from the cultural influences that impact other sectors, and so it might feel like a time of impending austerity, conflict and disruption. But the academy is a very resilient enterprise—it has existed for two millennia. We have always served as a symbol of hope, optimism, and the promise of future potential.

I would encourage professionals working in higher education marketing and enrollment to embrace the challenges ahead as opportunities for their institutions to improve, for their students to be better served, and for their faculty and staff to find renewal in our mission and purpose. It has never been more important, and we have skills and knowledge to help our institutions succeed.