Is your marketing team swimming or just splashing around? (Part 1)

This is the first in a multi-part series about focusing higher ed management practices. This week, we will discuss the importance of goal planning and regular feedback. Next week, we’ll talk about creating a culture of accountability and how to implement effective metrics. Upcoming posts will discuss how to focus your advertising spend and other work efforts.

I attended two higher education marketing conferences on two different coasts during the last two weeks. I met incredible people and heard terrific sessions.

And I heard the same problems, again and again. We have good ideas, but we just can't get 'em done. We don't have the buy-in/resources/time/support. 

I started to wonder why this was the case. I ruled out red herrings. Higher education is not suffering from a lack of smart people. Higher education is not suffering from a lack of tech solutions (seriously). Higher education is not suffering from a lack of great strategies.

Higher education marketing is suffering from a lack of focus.

I’m talking about the type of focus clear goals and time-tested management practices force you to find and maintain.

I’ve heard a lot of good excuses about why this is, and some even made sense to me. Managers are being asked to do more than ever. Institutions are searching for short-term solutions to the long-term problems of pointless programming and sky-high tuition. The target keeps moving. There simply aren't the resources to do everything. All fair and then some. 

Higher education marketing officers have a tough job. Managers continue the search for that magic bullet strategy (that never takes off like it should) or new software solution (whose salespeople promise to solve all your problems, but only end up adding to the list). Teams are confused about their role and don’t know what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to.

We’re using trendy tech and sexy strategies to self-medicate the pain caused by a lack of institutional focus, or perhaps even our own lack of focus. We savor the buzzwords: Data. Digital. SEO. Snapchat.

Understand that both strategy and technology are essential to achieving your goals. Stay current on marketing channels and trends. Know your data. Responsible use of strategy and tech is a good thing, but the patient suffers from overuse. Don’t get addicted to a short-term fix when you need long-term treatment. 

Or, let’s put it another way: Instead of splashing around looking for a life vest, learn to swim. 

Change Your Mindset

It’s been a tough few years in higher education, and unfortunately, it’s about to get worse. I am empathetic when I hear smart higher ed marketing professionals tell me what they can’t do, because I know their struggle is real. They’ve been getting kicked in the teeth for at least a decade. Who wants to keep coming back for more?

Well, you, for one. If you plan on staying in this field, you’re going to have to gather yourself and get back in there with a smile on your face.

Stop telling yourself about what you can’t do and start telling yourself you can. You need to adopt a successful mindset first. This is something smart people like Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison realized a long time ago. I don’t know you, but I can promise you this: You’re not as smart as them. Take the advice.

It all starts here. If you don’t have a successful mindset, you will not be successful.

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.
— Thomas Edison

Set Measurable Goals

Goal-planning should be collaborative: Include your team in the goal-planning process. Have your entire team read your institution’s strategic plan, and ask them to think specifically about how their job supports the plan. Provide an outline for the the key areas they should focus on, like driving recruitment, building retention or helping raise money for the university.

Reading the strategic plan is important for your team because it does three things:

  1. It ensures executive buy-in because you’re aligned with institution goals
  2. It allows you to prioritize projects and to even say “no” to projects that don’t support the plan
  3. It focuses you on the projects that deliver value for your institution

Set goals that are challenging, but can realistically be achieved. Don’t set too many goals. Three major goals is plenty. Too few and you’ve set the bar too low. Too many more and you will lose focus.

Break the year up into a set of terms. You can have two, or three or four. I’ve found that three tend to align best with the university calendar, but every institution is different. Create strategies and tactics that support your annual goals in each of the terms.

Create goals that are measurable with one key metric and designate one person to be responsible for each specific strategy or tactic. Make sure this metric can be directly influenced by an action. In other words, when you crank the lever, the machine should start up. 

Hold Staff Meetings and One-on-Ones

Here’s a scandalously true thought: No employee should have to wait for their performance review to know how they are doing. You should schedule purposeful opportunities to give and receive feedback from your team members.

Have your team members prepare short, conversational reports on their progress toward the goals your team has set. These reports should be completed at least 24 hours before your staff meeting. Make sure to share relevant information with the staff and keep the atmosphere fun, but focused.

Schedule regular one-on-ones with your direct reports. Done correctly, one-on-ones show your team members that you are personally invested in their success. Make this time for them to talk to you, but keep a few conversation-starting questions handy. Here are a few that will provide you with useful feedback:

  • What do you love about your job?
  • What makes you want to quit your job?
  • What do you wish I would do more of as a manager?
  • What do you wish I would do less of as a manager?
  • What do you want to do with your career?

Be prepared, because when you ask these questions, you will get real answers, and you may not always like them. That’s O.K., because one-on-ones are not about your feelings, they are about making the team better.

NEXT UP: Hiring, Firing and creating a culture of accountability

Darren White is the principal consultant for D. White & Company, a higher ed consulting firm that specializes in marketing and management training. Want to schedule a training session with your team? Let’s do it. Contact us and let’s get started.