Rise of the CMO in Higher Education

Note: This article contains adapted excerpts that originally appeared in Fathom’s “EDU Standard: The CMO Edition.”

The marketing industry, not unlike the education industry, is abuzz these days with notions of revolutionary change and visions for a radically different future. This future involves both the actual structure of marketing departments and the marketing function itself. Higher-education marketers that want their careers and schools to thrive in a world of savvier applicants (not to mention budget cuts) should pay attention to marketing’s ever-evolving potential to make a real difference.

ivory tower

Start with the biggest question: How can a school make itself memorable to prospective students? In the words of author-entrepreneur Seth Godin, is it creating experiences worth talking about? Only by making your institution invaluable to students do you win their loyalty. And one of the best ways to initially attract students is to give them something to talk about.

In other words, the message and challenge to the most effective marketers of the future is: Be significant.

Regardless of industry, the way to be significant is not simply to mass-produce messages down the conveyor belt from the giant slogan machine. It is, rather, to think long-term about what resonates with that ideal mix of students you’d like see proudly graduate from your campus  … and provide compelling ways for them to experience that in their own language. Godin elaborates further:

“The marketer now needs to be in charge of everything the company does.”

Substitute the word ‘school’ for ‘company,’ and you might have a better appreciation for the gravity of the modern marketer’s (and school’s) responsibility to positively affect student lives in authentic ways. Only by making your institution exceptionally helpful and interesting throughout the entire application process will you be memorable and do right by a would-be enrollee. This is exactly the kind of marketing that can propel schools ahead in today’s college search climate.

But wait, my school’s marketing is already great! Our hallowed history and reputation markets itself, some might say. Granted, I can think of a few cases where a school can thrive on its name alone (Harvard); however, most could stand to reengineer their marketing mindsets if they haven’t already.

Those who doubt the need for improvement should take a cue from their very own chief marketing officers (for example, Chris M. Kormis, CMO of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business); the people who should know best rate themselves lower than other CMOs on how well their organization is “driven by customer needs.” Rather than greeting this new environment with skepticism or apathy, forward-thinking schools think of better ways to adopt “student-first” approaches. They embrace the new philosophy because they understand the changing role of marketing in a broader context: Namely, the new buyer-empowered universe.

Marketing departments of the future

Marketing departments of the future—including those within schools—are looking for capable leaders to reach across the organization and take on a greater share of traditional customer experience responsibilities. Central to this duty is the act of managing relationships with buyers from the discovery phase all the way to long-term commitment. The biggest voice in this group is the CMO, who Marketo chairman and CEO Phil Fernandez recently argued is the most important corporate executive after the CEO.

As a reference point, Indiana University, Northwestern University and Lynn University have all made noteworthy first-time CMO hires in the last 2 years. In fact, job-search website Indeed.com recently listed more than 135 open positions for CMOs at a college or university.

Where does this higher-ed demand for CMOs come from?

Technology, connection and growth

Today’s visionary education marketers recognize the need to grow their schools and sell like any other exemplary business. Meeting connected prospects where they are is crucial to this mission, as is articulating and differentiating the value of a given institution over the hordes of (easier-to-find-than-ever) competition.

One place where student prospects can always be found is the digital realm. For evidence, I could cite widely known demographic usage statistics for Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, texting, mobile habits, etc., but I’d rather share Aditya Joshi’s prediction that 60-70% of marketing spend will be allocated to digital in the next 5 years for industries “where the product is digital or customers [i.e., students] are digital in their behavior.” Joshi, a partner in Bain’s customer strategy and marketing practice, knows a thing or two on the subject (via “The Future of Marketing“).

As everyone knows, the proliferation of smartphones and social media has changed the way prospective students and their influencers discover and pursue educational opportunities. The growth of the CMO in higher education coincides with the technology-fueled transformation of the student application process for a reason: Schools need to be using new technologies to build and support coherent, exceptional student experiences. One of the most important obligations of a CMO is to help a university recognize and adapt new marketing technology in step with (or ideally, ahead of) its rivals.

University CMOs: The What and Why

In addition to being technology champions, university CMOs are primarily responsible for attracting high-quality students and world-renowned faculty. They also are asked to:

  • Apply strategic insights from Big Data.
  • Enhance school visibility and extend reach with clear, consistent branding.
  • Engage alumni and friends of the school.
  • Forge positive relationships with employers and other potential partners.
  • Support community and government relations.
  • Inform deans and university presidents (who are often asked for their opinions of other academic institutions).

The hiring of a CMO sends a message: This school is taking marketing seriously. No longer is marketing just a function of admissions; it is the admissions driver. According to the 2015 CMO Impact Study, “Firms that take marketing seriously have almost two-thirds higher market share than those that don’t.” In the same study, when asked about the degree to which the organization is “driven by customer needs,” the average CMO in higher education gave a rating of 3.53 … vs. 4.54 for CMOs outside of higher education (bigger is better). This discrepancy signals an opportunity for leading schools to adopt “student-first” marketing that starts in administrative offices.

Marketer as change agent

Achieving these goals requires discipline and collaboration across all areas of an institution. Chief marketers must coordinate across departments and among individuals as varied as admissions, student services, advancement, deans, alumni, and the president, to name a few.  The more original and focused the shared marketing purpose, the more likely the passionate CMO ambassador is to attract institutional allies to her cause, and ultimately, loyal student advocates.

Instead of taking the easy way out, the biggest marketing minds dare us to create something that endures. For schools, this means delivering a narrative that wields a bigger influence in the imagination of your best students. Can you be the agent of change? Marketers are being asked. CMO or otherwise, the time is now to stand up and lead.


For a deeper look at marketing trends that affect higher education, check out the latest installment of Fathom’s EDU Standard: The CMO Edition.


Photo courtesy of Tom Verre via Flickr.

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