Expert tips from top university marketers

McKenzie Gregory

At Marketing United 2017, we hosted some of the top minds in university marketing for a special panel session, "The ABCs of Cross-Channel Marketing for Colleges and Universities.”
Our esteemed participants?
(MODERATOR) ELAINE ARMBRUSTER – Director of Email Marketing, The Ohio State University
KIRSTEN GRADY – Associate Director of Strategy & Planning, MIT Sloan School of Management
DIANA TOMLIN – Marketing Manager, Texas A&M Foundation
MIKE NAGEL – Customer Marketing Manager, EverTrue
They discussed a little bit of everything, from email marketing (of course!) to collaborating across departments. Here’s a look at some of their top advice. 

The challenges of university email marketing 

Elaine opened up the discussion by making something very clear... email marketing for a university is NOT like email marketing for a retail brand. With a background in retail herself, she was able to say with confidence that university marketers face a ton of unique obstacles. 
For the university space in particular, she noted these challenges, among others: 
• Decentralized communications 
• Different systems across departments
• Inconsistent branding
• No list hygiene 
• Limited analytics 
• Potential CAN-SPAM violations
That doesn't mean university marketers can't learn from retailers, though. Here are a few examples she gave of how her retail skill set has transferred over to the university world: 
Retail – Product recommendations based on purchase history
translates to
University – Content recommendations based on website browsing history 
Retail – It’s time to restock a product!
translates to
University – You attended this event – here's a similar one.
Retail – Cart abandonment message 
translates to
University – Finish making a donation or filling out an application
After her short introduction to the world of email for universities, the panelists dove into these topics. 

What are your top focus areas for email in 2017?

“At MIT Sloan, we're focused on cleaning up our lists. We're decentralized, so not everyone uses the same platform... which leads to a lot of overlap. And of course, we’re working on personalization – customizing messages based on interaction, or even non-interaction.” 
“We use Emma, and our main goal this year is to onboard all our different colleges and units... to continue to train them and empower them to do their own email marketing. Getting all our data in one system will be a huge help."
"Segmentation – getting the right message to the right people – and consistent storytelling across channels. Those are the big ones for us.” 

How do you wrestle with messy (and often unreliable) data?

"We have so many different programs and initiatives. Everybody has a different message, and everyone has a different goal. How do we help each other? What are the metrics that matter? Honing in on that is where the right organization of data begins to happen.” 
“The sheer volume of data is definitely overwhelming. I have a couple of recommendations for other university marketers struggling to make sense of their data: 
  1. Consistently name your campaigns. That way, you’re aggregating information and you’re able to see what interests certain donors have over time. 
  2. Name your links. By seeing which people are clicking on which types of links consistently, we were able to track down a $20 million donor!"
“I’m obviously biased on this one, but EverTrue is a huge help with this. You can’t talk to people as an individual if you don’t have the right information about them, and EverTrue easily and automatically surfaces those insights. 
Also, don’t ask your audience for the data you already have about them! That’s one of my biggest pet peeves in the university space.” 

What are some table-stakes automation triggers for universities?

“Definitely remember to use automation to steward your subscribers through important dates – birthdays, anniversaries, homecoming, etc.” 
“Like many universities, our audience is always getting too many emails. If we can start to see where people’s interests are, we can use that to trigger similar stories – and, just as important, suppress them from the more generic sends."
"It depends on your goal and your office. If you’re in development, after a gift has been made, automate an email to thank the donor and showcase stories of impact before you ask them to give again." 

How do you develop an integrated marketing approach?

“Tie your metrics across channels to see the full story. Being able to track every place people are interacting with your university and plan your campaigns accordingly is essential.” 
"Internally, a tool that’s been helping us immensely is the calendar system Trello. We have campaigns listed in that, and it helps us be able to see at what time is everything going out and how can it work together. We’ve also been using Evertrue. It’s helped us integrate our social media with our email and see where there’s crossover."
“Sometimes, in higher ed, there are so many silos and little content production pods, so how do you make those things connected and get more from what’s already being produced? Get coffee and see what stories everyone’s telling. You can produce a unified message without just duplicating stories across departments."

How do you maintain a cohesive brand across departments? 

"Get people to take a deep breath and say, 'What is important, and what is my goal for my individual office, group, or program?' For us, we’ve found that we always locate an ambassador in other departments. By having those key contacts, you’ll have an eye on what’s happening across the board.” 
"Use your department’s success stories to show that what you’re doing works. Spread the good word with your own analytics: That’s what lets you say, 'Please don’t send a PDF newsletter anymore’ and have some weight behind it.” 
"Help people understand that the shotgun approach of just spewing content from a firehose is not going to accomplish anything – in fact, it’s damaging our reputation. Do more with less.” 

Hungry for more university marketing tips? Check out our webinar, "Ask Us Anything: University Edition"! 

About the Author

McKenzie Gregory

McKenzie Gregory is a senior content manager on Emma’s marketing team. A Nashville native, she can be found covering all things email on the Emma blog, debating hyphenation rules, and watching obscene amounts of Netflix without a trace of shame.

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