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Need Visibility? Get Integrated

Campus communicators are natural leaders for integrated marketing programs. Here's why—and how to pull it off

By Larry D. Lauer


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It's no secret that we on campus are finding ourselves in an increasingly aggressive marketplace-competing not just for students but also for funding and even name recognition. The landscape of competition changes almost daily. Every school, college, and university seems to be after the same students and philanthropic dollars. Financial aid is more than a means of helping lower-income students fund an education; it's an important tool for recruiting top students. And major campaigns are no longer the province of higher education-they're multiplying like rabbits in all types of organizations. All this has caused one business executive and university trustee to observe that campuses "have become retailers, pure and simple."

Taking on this increased level of competition while still maintaining our integrity is the challenge that all of our educational institutions face. To do it successfully demands that we rethink the way we promote ourselves and do business.

The question is: Are we developing the necessary professional talent to meet the challenge? Education needs a whole new breed of professionals who not only comprehend this competition-driven marketplace but can also figure out how to mobilize resources-both human and financial-to address it.

A new take on marketing

A possible answer is a concept called integrated marketing-a holistic approach to organizational communication. It combines the power of marketing, advertising, and public relations and involves the entire organization in communicating a consistent message.

But integrated marketers don't create that message themselves. They seek out the needs of their audiences first, and then tailor marketing plans to meet those needs.

Basically, integrated marketing turns the traditional perception of public relations on its head. Consider the differences between old and new:

Old: Campus marketing functions were decentralized. Administrative departments each defined their own marketing procedures. The admissions office communicated to attract applications. Athletics programs sold tickets and built team support. The development office designed each fund-raising campaign separately.

New: We coordinate all departments' efforts into one focused program. To reach prospective students, parents, and donors for maximum impact, we create integrated marketing teams with members from a variety of campus offices.

Old: We sent audiences the information we wanted them to have. Each campus department generated press releases, news stories, and the like.

New: We ask audiences to tell us what they want. Research is crucial in integrated marketing. Using focus groups and various types of interview research, we find out what our key constituents want to know. Then we provide them with that information-in the ways they've asked to receive it.

Old: Competitive advantages were temporary. As soon as one institution offered a new product, changed its price, or provided a better delivery channel, others raced to meet it. This topic-to-topic competition forced us into an endless catch-up routine.

New: We create long-term competitive advantages. Focusing on interactive communication leads to more personal relationships. Technology like e-mail and the World Wide Web makes it even easier to get feedback from our key audiences. The loyalty and commitment that grow out of such personal contact are the only true competitive advantages we can hang on to for a longer period of time.

Old: Marketing was a narrow function beneath the PR umbrella. There's been a historic aversion to the word "marketing." As a result, its role was often little more than placing advertising for the PR office.

New: PR is the promotional part of marketing. In an integrated marketing structure, the PR office handles certain aspects of the overall marketing drive: special events, contacts with the news media, and publications production.

This last change has led some PR folks to think integrated marketing relegates them to mere service providers. But this isn't the case.

As Porter Novelli executive Barbara Hines observed in a recent issue of PR News, "PR has become far more than a simple tool to generate positive media exposure; it often serves as the unifying link to all constituencies, the underlying 'glue' to the marketing proposition."

Though the initiative could come from almost anywhere in the organization, integrated marketing programs offer a compelling leadership opportunity for the PR office. After all, who can understand integrated concepts better than communicators? Most of us know both communications and marketing theories. We regularly take mandates from the president and turn them into coordinated plans of action. And we often bring together talent from across campus with the purpose of putting the place on the map.

In short, integrated marketing is a new opportunity for communication prominence-an opportunity for PR pros to step up and lead the coordination of our campuses' total assault on the marketplace.

Getting started

Granted, this is a huge undertaking. Before you let the magnitude of the project overwhelm you, realize that change will not occur overnight. When you're just starting your integrated marketing program, concentrate on these four important areas:

  1. Form a marketing task force. This group will provide you with the broad input you need to make your efforts truly integrated. Your president or school head should commission the task force and ask it to report to him or her, but the group should be chaired by someone with a marketing and communications background.

    Members should include the most talented marketers, strategic planners, writers, designers, and event planners at your institution. They should represent all departments interested in marketing the campus-admissions, advancement, alumni relations, continuing education, the bookstore, and athletics, to name a few. This group must also include at least one representative of the campus leadership, such as a dean or the faculty senate chair.

    Meetings should center on the kind of big-picture discussions that a group of this large size can handle. The task force might discuss campus strengths and weaknesses, mission and vision, niche and quality. Its primary job should be to get everyone in the institution to agree on your main messages and then submit these ideas in a report to the senior administration. Later, the task force will break into smaller, project-oriented sub-groups to do the actual work.
  2. Conduct a communications assessment and audit. This should be one of the task force's first activities. During the assessment, use focus groups and interviews to identify your campus's niche-defining strengths, cultural traits, program features, environmental features, and the like.

    Then, use the audit to compare these findings to the messages you're actually sending out. Examine your message vehicles for clarity, consistency, and effectiveness. Then study sequence and flow. What do your key audiences receive from you, and when? Do they receive materials at the appropriate time, and do you ask for feedback?

    Be sure your review is systematic. Lay out all of your materials on a table, grouped by audience and in the order they'll be received. Analyze content by listing themes and commenting on consistency. You'll soon see whether there are too many messages, if they reinforce each other, if they're clear, and whether the design is consistent with your message and appropriate for your institution. You could ask an outside firm to conduct a study like this. But if task force members go through the process themselves, they'll gain a thorough understanding of how your institution communicates and what you're actually saying. They'll undoubtedly find a few surprises-from conflicting overall messages to poorly written recruitment brochures. But those are exactly the things you want them to find and then work on improving.
  3. Include development. The fund-raising office can find a real boon in integrated marketing. Since this process concentrates on defining your unique strengths and then focusing the entire campus on communicating them, it basically writes a campaign case statement. With such a strategy in place, your fund raisers can cast a campaign as the central program for supporting essential campus goals.

    Then you can write and design your various visibility, admissions, and fund-raising materials to reinforce the campaign's message. This way, the institution really looks like it's taking off-a dynamic that is sure to attract more financial support.
  4. Leverage your visibility. Making our campuses more visible to the public is a mainstay of educational marketing-so much so, in fact, that the term can get worn out. Once, during yet another discussion of visibility, a colleague remarked in exasperation, "Why don't we just give people cans of spray paint and have them paint 'TCU' on all the bridges in America?"

    While tempting, we're obviously not going to start condoning graffiti. But this comment served a good purpose: It helped me explain what visibility does not mean in integrated marketing. It's not merely hanging a few banners. Nor is it a physical, in-your-face marking of territory. And it's certainly not putting your institution's name in places where it's not wanted.

    What visibility does mean is that your institution is visible in your audiences' eyes as well as in their hearts and heads. Here at TCU, we found that our visibility is more of a state of mind for individual people rather than something concrete that exists "out there" in the world. The steps we use to reach these individuals are simple yet effective. We:
  • Identify priority audiences.
  • Identify the key opinion leaders within each audience.
  • Identify the media of choice for each key opinion leader.
  • Initiate a program of regular, interactive communication directly with each opinion leader.
  • Ask each one to become a vocal advocate for TCU and actually give them the information to brag about.

This differs from traditional public relations strategies in two ways. First, we don't rely on a set group of media vehicles-we pitch to the outlets our opinion leaders tell us they use. Second, the communication doesn't end there. A key to integrated marketing is interactivity. We not only ask our opinion leaders what they want to hear about us, but we ask them to help us talk to others about it, too.

Questions to grapple with

Of course, no simple list can prepare you for the complexities of applying integrated marketing principles to your campus. Here are a few questions your marketing task force will want to consider:

  • How do we define ourselves in terms of product? Is your campus one product or many? If your institution is like most, you argue not only about how you should define yourself but also if your publics will define you the same way. Answer this: What do people get when they buy an education from your institution?
  • What do we mean by quality? We think we know until we try to pin it down. Defining it only by our students' characteristics leads us all to compete for the same small prospect pool.

    Is it possible to define quality in different terms? Look at how you might broaden your institution's definitions of quality not only for students but also for campus services, job placement results, alumni services, and the like.
  • Where does "place" fit in? There's a difference between the physical look of your campus and the experienced place. Students form their first impressions of your institution by what they see, but they develop a long-term attraction through a combination of what they see and what they experience.

    Because of this, institutions with great facilities can feel cold and ones with poor facilities can actually feel exciting. Determining how attracted your students are to your institution and why they feel that way is the first step to effective planning and marketing.
  • Of our many markets, which are the primary ones? All of our constituents are important, so it's hard to relegate them to primary, secondary, and even tertiary categories. You'll have to decide the parameters for determining these categories. For example, should they be based on the group you depend on most financially, such as your undergraduate student prospects? If so, how will you accommodate graduate and continuing education programs? In other words, you must figure out how you can describe your institution in terms of its primary market without ignoring your secondary markets, and at the same time maintain a consistent identity. And once you've identified your primary market, you'll also need to describe it in terms of market segments.

    Choosing a primary market doesn't mean you should exclude the others. You'll just have to decide how much time and money you can spend on secondary markets. It sounds tough, but with determination and patience you can accomplish all of this.
  • Where does your athletics office come in? In most institutions it operates independently. But its programs can have a big impact on your campus's overall visibility and name recognition.

    You should make marketing plans that include athletics as one part of the big picture. So recruit athletics office representatives to the task force to help you sort through their special interests.
  • What about financial aid? Rising costs are undoubtedly one of the most serious issues facing education today. Campuses are increasingly using financial aid policies as a marketing tool to attract students. Pardon the pun, but your task force can't afford to ignore this issue. You'll want to consider such tough questions as whether to discount your "sticker price," how and when to use financial aid, and when and if it's acceptable to give second offers to admitted students who decided to go somewhere else.
  • How much research do we need, and how much can we afford? Standard market research can produce a lot of information-sometimes for a very high price. Often, we never use this expensive information because it doesn't really answer strategic questions. Your task force probably won't have to look far to find this problem on your campus.

    But you still need research. The task force's job is to show administrators and other colleagues how you can save money and be more efficient with integrated marketing research methods, such as building databases to support long-term relationships. (For more on this topic, see "Research: The First Frontier.")
  • Do we make the most of technology? With the Internet, we can communicate instantaneously with thousands of people, one at a time. And this communication can be interactive. So should you still spend time communicating through the traditional news media or with mass advertising? Can you build the competitive advantage of long-term relationships with television ads and hometown press releases?
  • Can we deliver what we promise? An advantage of the task force concept is that every office participates in planning-from making a goal to deciding how to communicate it. However, a critical part of the integrated process is follow-through: tracking prospective students not only through admission and enrollment, for example, but through matriculation, graduation, and beyond. To be successful, you'll have to make sure that everyone involved can commit to the long-term process.
Facing reality

Yes, you have a lot to think about. But a marketing task force is the perfect place to do it because it brings together so many different views of a new world.

No one in education wants to become just another retail business. If we did, we would have already installed carnival rides in the campus commons and arranged for Mickey and Goofy to greet our students at orientation.

But the marketplace requires us to mobilize our institutions to compete creatively in a complex, information-cluttered environment. We have to do this without compromising the quality and integrity of the academy. And, we need to have marketing leadership ready and able to do both.

The question is: Are we in the communications profession up to the challenge? I believe we are-and that we should take the lead.

About the Author Larry Lauer headshot Larry D. Lauer

Larry D. Lauer is vice chancellor emeritus at Texas Christian University.

 

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