Many higher ed marketing and enrollment teams are not equipped to keep up with today’s changing recruitment expectations in the race to attract and enroll prospective students. Teams need to master data-driven digital marketing and seamless web experiences to attract leads and nurture them to applicants and enrolled students.
This is a challenge I felt acutely in my previous role as a higher ed CMO. Now, in my work with chief marketing officers, vice presidents of enrollment management, and other leaders at institutions of all shapes and sizes, I see colleagues staring down a “build vs. buy” challenge. Insourcing areas like digital marketing or enrollment-focused web strategy limits scale, stifles innovation, and leaves you exposed to today’s high staff turnover rates.
So how can CMOs adapt their staffing models to meet today’s staffing and market realities? Here are three practices higher ed CMOs should consider.
1. Insource core capabilities aligned with strategic assets
Your brand is more than a logo—it’s a strategic university asset that encompasses the creative expression, key messages, and storytelling that define your institution’s identity. As such, your brand should be managed closely by in-house experts. Critical assets like the university’s website and social accounts should be managed by in-house resources with digital fluency: baseline skills in content strategy, web development, and web measurement and analytics skills, are necessary to ensure these assets are not only safeguarded but also enhance relationships with prospective and current students.
2. Outsource functions where you need scale, specialization, and staffing support
While maintaining your university brand and digital presence is best done in-house, not all marketing functions can or should be owned internally. Consider tapping into external resources to achieve scale, access specialized expertise, elevate your prospects’ digital experience, or when you can’t insource or scale work easily.
Scale: Coordinated and responsive outreach to thousands of leads across social, email, text, snail mail, and other platforms can be daunting—or even impossible—for small university marketing teams. Partnering with enrollment solutions providers can offer the scale and resources to reach prospects effectively.
Specialized expertise: Agency-grade marketing talent is not easy to come by or retain, nor does it always make sense when these resources are readily available on a project basis. By outsourcing to experts in content strategy, SEO, digital media buying, user experience, data science, and enrollment-specific content strategy, your institution can access cutting edge talent in short order. And working with external experts advances your internal marketing and enrollment organization’s digital maturity while ensuring these teams deliver better digital experiences that drive results.
Staffing support: Having agency partners you’ve worked closely with can make you less vulnerable during periods of high staff turnover or attrition. Agencies can often provide instant scale in terms of skills and resources when key university staffers leave their roles.
3. Elevate digital experiences while advancing in-house skills
Elevating your digital touchpoints has never been more paramount given students’ high expectations for their enrollment experience. Prospective students are accustomed to receiving personalized marketing messages from brands of all types—and these expectations carry over into their engagement with your institution across all digital touchpoints. Uncovering what motivates each prospective student, crafting marketing messages that speak to these intentions, and translating that message across digital touchpoints can help your institution stand out and accelerate students’ enrollment journey.
In addition, partnering with agencies that can elevate your university’s digital experience will advance digital maturity across the organization with exposure to best practices in innovation including:
- Design thinking: consider how you can emphasize design thinking as part of the student journey
- Testing: consider how you can implement testing and learning cycles rooted in measurement, analysis, and action
- Evidence-based and transparent decision making: as I wrote in my last blog post, the most effective marketing teams don’t set it and forget it. They carefully monitor progress, diagnose issues, and remedy them.
CMOs must carefully weigh which functions to insource and which to outsource to navigate the evolving landscape successfully. By preserving brand integrity, tapping into external expertise for scalability and specialization, and infusing in-house teams with a culture of innovation, colleges and universities can rise to the challenges of modern digital marketing—and better meet their enrollment goals. It’s time to embrace a new staffing model playbook that positions your institution for enrollment growth and long-term success.
Val Fox is a Senior Director and Principal with a focus on partner development in EAB's Adult Learner Recruitment division. In her role, she advises future partners on how to grow enrollments for their graduate and professional programs, spotting opportunities by sharpening their market insights and audience engagement strategies.
Val brings over a decade of higher education experience, having consulted for dozens of universities and serving as the Chief Marketing Officer at Bentley University. Prior to higher education, she worked at Forrester Research, helping organizations adopt digital-first strategies to reach - and stay relevant with - consumer audiences.
Val earned a bachelor's degree from American University and an M.B.A. from the University of Maryland.