highlights: digital meetup for higher ed marketers

a conversation with leaders in higher education recruitment marketing, admissions + alumni relations

joe adams
11-minute read

in brief

  • On July 30, Fathom hosted a digital meetup for higher education marketing leaders to share common challenges and opportunities without having to leave their campuses.
  • Topics of conversation included: data visibility in agency-led initiatives, building relationships with prospects and alumni before making an ask, and how to get the most from external partners.
  • These are highlights from the 90-minute conversation; to view the entire conversation, scroll to the video below.

On July 30, higher ed recruitment marketing, admissions, and alumni relations leaders came together to share their challenges, offer solutions anchored in experience, and find common ground despite their diverse backgrounds. The event? A digital meetup for higher education leaders hosted by Fathom, in partnership with Marketo.

The topics of conversation were as diverse as the colleges and universities represented, ranging from a lack of visibility into agency-driven results to a call for closer collaboration between recruitment and alumni relations teams. Over the course of the 90-minute conversation, representatives from more than 20 institutions joined the conversation, many taking advantage of the opportunity to share their personal experiences.

What follows are selected highlights from the conversation, bringing forth the best insights from the most engaging portions of the conversation. A video follows the highlights, so you can watch the entire digital meetup if you’d like.

This conversation was moderated by Jim Kohl, Fathom’s Vice President of Marketing. Jim was joined by two of Fathom’s experts in the higher education industry: Amanda Klitsch, Digital Strategy Consultant, and Brittany Trafis, Vice President of Account Partnership.

data visibility + agency partnership

“Gone are the days of the tear sheet. Since [digital] is so intangible, how are people monitoring their agency spend?”

Associate Director, Marketing – Harper College

Marketing leaders across many industries struggle to demonstrate struggle to demonstrate return on their efforts, and this is no different in higher ed. Compounding the problem for some are partners and agencies who refuse to–or can’t–provide clear visibility into the effectiveness of the campaigns they’re managing.

The Associate Director of Marketing at Harper College, one of the nation’s premier community colleges, shared an example of her experience which highlights the lack of data visibility that sometimes exists between agencies and their partners.

Associate Director, Marketing – Harper College: What really is sort of popping out is just the number of different types of digital formats that are really hard to touch and feel.

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Associate Director, Marketing – Harper College (continued): There’s, you know, gone are the day of the tear sheets. So it’s all in what the agency is telling us. It’s out there. There’s an agency site that we can go and monitor things, but we’re, we’re struggling.

How are we picking the best channels? Much of what we do is niche. So we’ve done Geo-targeting, we’ve done remarketing, we’ve done search, TV. You know, a little bit of everything I guess you would say. But I’ve had a hard time finding visibility, and I’m hoping maybe somebody can comment from their perspective is.

You know, “back in the good old days” we would get affidavits from radio stations, tear sheets, and confirmations from TV. But since it’s all so intangible, how are people monitoring their agency spend? What’s running? I’m sure everyone’s aware of all the rebate issues that have been floating out there with regards to digital advertising. And how are you keeping tabs on all of this with not an increased staff?

Amanda Klitsch – Fathom: I can start with the plethora of channels and even in a niche environment, I understand that there can be so much to parse through in order to understand, “Am I doing the right thing?” The understanding of what works where.

Even working in the digital space and having that background knowledge on the agency side… to say we should do everything all at once for everyone is irresponsible. So start by breaking down where you’re seeing drop off with your students. For example, a client I work with, I know that paid search drives and majority of application starts, but when it comes to ultimately gaining deposit from those students, we see a complete shift: paid search drops off and we see an increase in social engagement with those audiences and completions of those actions from social media channels.

So, it’s important to work with your agency partners to understand what works where in this process because not everything’s the best thing to be doing at that time. I don’t think anyone online probably has all the budget in the world that they’d like to be working with… you have to make some of those trade offs and understand where you’re seeing that ultimately drives performance.

Bringing [internal and external stakeholders] to the table to talk about what they’re doing and how you can share those learnings is really is a game changer, and it takes some of , that pressure off of you to be able to manage that alone or within your small team.

building relationships with prospects and alumni before making the ask

“We’re eager to rush in, but it’s that relationship… and really showing the great things that are happening at the institution that motivates alumni the most.”

Marketing and Recruiting Manager – Tulane University

Doing more with less. Many in higher education face the reality of needing to drive stronger results despite reduced or flat resources: smaller teams, less budget, etc. This is true for marketers across the university ecosystem, regardless if they’re responsible for enrollment, alumni engagement, or both.

When facing this scenario, it’s easy to expedite “the ask,” whether that’s an invitation to apply or a request for donation. Oftentimes, this means the volume and frequency of asks increases as well, without regard for the audience’s experience.

The Marketing and Recruitment Manager for Tulane University’s Houston Campus–who also oversees alumni relations for the satellite campus–offered a word of advice for her peers who find themselves being pushed to make an ask early and often.

Marketing and Recruiting Manager – Tulane University: The university was focused on the relationship, and that’s what they really promoted first. And then they started to get into some of the donations, and I think sometimes we’re eager to rush in because we are very dependent on getting the donations. But it’s that relationship and continuing that network and really showing the great things that are happening at the institution that motivates alumni the most.

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Marketing and Recruiting Manager – Tulane University (continued): My husband is an alumni, so I noticed that from even a personal experience that, most of the time you hit people up for money. There is no way to survive if that is the end game.

And very often those emails are getting deleted or those mailers go into the trash right away without looking much at it. But if you create like a different type of approach that you have events, my emails are usually open like 50, 60% of the time, you know, which is really, really good because I’m offering opportunities, I’m offering networking so that that is something that I always can sell because they, this is a different type of relationship.

So I really think that if anybody is in a fund development role, you still could offer a varied approach, and I think you have a better chance of actually getting to that end goal what you like to achieve versus just trying to say that, “Oh, it’s time to give back.”

You know, I have kids who recently graduated, and the ink is barely dried on their diploma, they already get a request for a donation. And you know, I don’t think that’s the right approach. I really think you should kind of nurture those alumni. You know, before you ask for a donation and some times ask for time versus donation because I really think those relationships are super important and more important than actual dollar figures that you could attach to them.

Brittany Trafis – Fathom: This is music to my ears. I think it was very well said, and that’s something that we all experience personally: getting those phone calls and getting asked. And I think you’ve nailed it in terms of we should really be nurturing that relationship when alumni are looking back and they’re thinking about their experience on campus. There are great memories, and they don’t want to see that phone number pop up and create dread because they’re getting asked for money. But they still want to feel that connection.

And I really, I really appreciate you bringing up that point. I think it applies here in this alumni conversation and more broadly across all different areas of the institution. The more we’re asking students to take this action, do this thing… they have all of this information available to them from different institutions.

How many are really trying to nurture a relationship with a potential student regardless of of where they are in their higher education experience? So, I think taking that to heart and nurturing those relationships regardless of where the student is is incredibly important.

how to partner with marketing agencies in higher ed to create the best results

“I often encourage institutions to… ask your partners to work together and share their insights. Open those lines of communication.”

Brittany Trafis – Fathom

Many marketers partner with agencies to augment their teams, but few get the most value from the partnership. Real value and better performance come from cross-team collaboration, and that includes agency-to-agency connections.

Brittany Trafis, Fathom’s Vice President of Account Partnership, encourages marketing leaders to facilitate broad conversations that highlight the biggest bright spots and areas of opportunity across normal boundaries: insights from traditional media can influence digital strategies, for instance.

Brittany Trafis – Fathom: Quite honestly, a lot of us are starting to see budgets get cut as we see enrollment decline. And so it becomes even harder to be able to manage all of the resources we do or don’t have available.

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Brittany Trafis – Fathom (continued): So, what I often encourage institutions to do is don’t be afraid to ask your partners to work together on projects and to share their insights. Maybe what your traditional agency is working on can benefit your digital agency, and what your internal team is working on can benefit both. Open those lines of communication.

You can have reporting, and reporting is key. Especially when it gets into digital, to be able to understand all the campaigns and all the different channels that you’re running is important.


If you found these highlights compelling, I encourage you watch the entire conversation: