Interview with Rob Zinkan by Kathy Cain and Megan Youngblood

Let’s face it: Higher ed marketing teams have to do more with less.

In the modern age of social, video, digital and print, we’re constantly feeding the content beast. We have to reach more audiences, use more channels and promote more programs. Although expectations of marketing departments have grown exponentially, the staffs and budgets at many institutions haven’t.

So how do you make the case that your institution needs to invest more in marketing?

We sat down with Rob Zinkan — associate vice president for marketing at Indiana University — to discuss his insights about higher ed budgets and marketing team structures. In his central marketing role at IU, Rob leads the university’s brand strategy and internal full-service marketing agency.

The 1.5 to 6 percent rule

Our conversation follows his blog post in Inside Higher Ed, where he cited that public and private nonprofits typically earmark 1.5 to 6 percent of the institution’s annual operating budget on marketing.

What could that mean for your institution’s marketing budget? Here’s what Rob had to say.

Q. You’ve asked this question several times to marketing leaders at national conferences and through your own surveys: Do you know how much your total marketing expenditures are across the entire institution? What is problematic about not knowing — or being able to track the answer?

As the higher ed landscape has changed and become more competitive with several market forces at play, we’re seeing marketing play a more strategic role in academia. With these increased pressures, we have to make our marketing dollars work harder than ever.

University leaders are increasingly — and rightfully — asking questions: “How much are we spending on marketing? What are we getting from that investment? What’s the outcome?” When these activities and expenditures are spread across the institution, the questions can be difficult to answer.

We all want to be able to clearly demonstrate ROI. It’s a basic point, but you can’t determine your ROI unless you know first what your total investment is.

Q: At some institutions, central marketing offices may cover only a quarter of the marketing for the institution, while three quarters of its marketing exists in different silos. Do you have any tips for how to track institutional marketing spend? 

In terms of benchmarking, “marketing” can mean different things at different institutions, so trying to benchmark marketing spend across our sector is quite a challenge.

My advice is to make sure that you’re counting the same way at your own college or university, with a clear definition of marketing.

How? On one hand, everything — every touchpoint — is marketing. We want marketing to be an organizational function that our faculty and staff understand, value, and see their role in. For tracking, though, we have to be very specific and put a box around it to have some common ground.

At Indiana University, for the purpose of budgeting and tracking, we defined it as any owned or paid media where the university is strategically targeting an external audience, and the university controls 100 percent of the message development and 100 percent of the media placement. Moving forward, we need to broaden this to account for combined marketing and communications activities.

Q: Why that range of investment: 1.5 to 6 percent?

Educational Marketing Group (EMG) has done some excellent work in this area and is the source of this benchmarking range. It’s a pretty wide range, reflective of all types of nonprofit colleges and universities.

For a Chronicle of Higher Education report, “Higher Ed Marketing Comes of Age,” SimpsonScarborough surveyed CMOs in 2015. One of the takeaways was that marketing budgets vary wildly.

That’s not a surprise. It’s hard to say what the right amount is for any institution. There are multiple factors: size, location, strategic objectives.

At Indiana University, we have regional campuses. We have one campus that serves mostly rural counties. Then we have one campus that’s right outside Louisville, and it’s in a more expensive media market. So that’s a factor. Nationally prominent online programs or MBA programs can require substantial investments due to intense competition.

For the Chronicle report, at the time, budgets ranged from as low as $300,000 to a high of $25 million for doctoral-granting institutions. For master’s-level colleges, the range was $200,000 to $18 million. And for baccalaureate colleges, it was obviously smaller, but still a wide range: $100,000 to $7 million.

Q: Do many universities know where they stack up against their competitors?

I doubt it. I have been surveying peers in the Big Ten Conference. In 2017, I asked everyone about budgeting, including if they track total institutional marketing spend across their entire university.

Of the 14 Big Ten schools, only three universities tracked total marketing spend (or projected spend) across the enterprise. Two somewhat did, and nine did not at all.

It’s hard, especially at large research universities, but it will become an imperative.

Of those institutions that do track, there were two mechanisms. One, which we do at Indiana University, is to work with our partners across the institution — campuses, schools and key offices — and request marketing budgets and plans for the coming fiscal year. It’s information on projected spend and therefore not exact, but it certainly gives a sense of where we are collectively and enables us to track trends year over year. The other mechanism is through analyzing purchasing data. However, that can get cumbersome if there are inconsistencies with labeling and coding.

Q: In your survey to Big Ten folks, for those nine that didn’t know their total marketing spend, was it because their teams were structured differently?

I think it’s less about structure, because there’s really no “one model.” It’s more about the progression of marketing’s role at the respective institutions. For example, some schools may have newer chief marketing officers, so tracking and optimizing overall spend may be on the priority list but isn’t something they can tackle immediately. When you’re working with so many partners across the university who are engaged in marketing, it takes time to build relationships and trust.

Q: It’s interesting to hear you talk about building trust because, of course, branding is all about everybody being on the same team. At many institutions, there tends to be this competition between their own schools: the law school may be doing terribly while the business school’s a cash cow — but not sharing what works. How can central marketing help in a decentralized environment?

If you could start from scratch and build a model that would maximize marketing effectiveness and efficiency, there’s no way you would create one that is siloed or uncoordinated. But we have to embrace our environment. Our institutions do so much and serve so many in order to transform lives and society. Colleges and universities have multi-pronged missions and are inherently complex, with academic schools, departments, centers, institutes, athletics programs, art museums, and so on. How do we make it work?

“On one hand, everything — every touchpoint — is marketing. We want marketing to be an organizational function that our faculty and staff understand, value, and see their role in.”

Getting out of the mindset of centralized/decentralized is a start, because it shouldn’t be about who has control. The overarching objective is to optimize outcomes for marketing as a whole. Therefore, how can we work toward building a culture of the “whole,” regardless of the organizational structure? Once again, I think that starts with trust. Marketing expertise resides throughout the organization. Central marketing teams aren’t the only ones who can “help.” They shouldn’t necessarily be solving problems for partners, but with partners.

Q: What can an institution expect when marketing spending is much lower than 1.5 percent of its annual operating budget?

I think they could be missing opportunities to move their institution forward. Greater spend doesn’t automatically mean greater impact, but at the same time, you can’t have unrealistic expectations for results if you’re not resourcing marketing appropriately. As EMG states, these are minimum funding levels for effective marketing.

We’re still figuring all of this out, and we have to remember that while there is enhanced marketing sophistication in higher ed now, marketing is still relatively new as a strategic function and must continue to progress. Going back to the Big Ten information I collected, what struck me in looking at organizational structures in 2016 across 14 universities was that for the chief marketing officer position or equivalent, no two job titles were alike. Marketing is still evolving organizationally.

Q: Do you have any advice for how to approach your president, CFO or trustees about getting more dollars for marketing?

As one of our campus chancellors says, good things come to those who do good work. You have to show it, you have to prove it. Look for those small wins — whether it’s a pilot project or a collaborative endeavor or something where you can show success. Reposition it not as an expense or a cost center but as a strategic investment.

Also, you can help your cause when you can come to the table as a strategist — and that starts with a deep understanding of your audience (those you’re trying to reach, influence and move to action) and of the market. It has to be a data-driven discussion. It’s more than just aligning activities with key institutional priorities. It’s preparing the institution for the future and the change ahead.

Q: For marketing departments working with smaller budgets, what would you prioritize?

Marketing priorities certainly could vary from institution to institution or from entity to entity within your own institution. It depends on the institution’s goals and strategic priorities.

If you have limited dollars, you’re not going to make much headway with the one billboard or the one big ad. Those things need to be integrated into a multi-channel, multi-touch campaign.

So I would say invest in the experience. That’s the area where marketing’s role, without question, has room to grow. Help drive those discussions about the student experience and how we’re delivering on the experiences we’re promising them.

Q: Investment in branding is one aspect of marketing that can be challenging to track. It starts as a positioning concept and then during implementation it’s connected to so many other factors and activities. How do you recommend that institutions track branding ROI?

It certainly goes back to your goals and your institution’s goals.

Anytime an institution has undertaken a brand strategy process of positioning and branding, it does so with something specific in mind. There’s a bigger objective out there related to enrollment, advancement or reputation, so those ultimate bottom-line measures need to be part of the equation.

You’re right, it can sometimes be challenging to track, especially if your team and your leadership are not aligned on what those brand performance metrics should be.

For brand strategy in general, it’s worth the investment for institutions to do ongoing brand tracking research with their key audiences. Tracking over time where you and your competitors stand related to brand awareness, familiarity, associations with the brand, and audience preferences can lead to powerful insights.

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