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Is in-house college marketing best?

July 19, 2012

Amid the current high-profile rows about security staff shortfalls at the London Olympics and the ability of the private sector to make up for cuts in the public sector, it seems appropriate to consider the value of in-house marketing teams in colleges.

Some marketing departments are currently under threat of outsourcing: others have already gone, and it will be interesting to see how the effectiveness of these external contracts will be evaluated and disseminated, and against what criteria.

For example, how does an external service develop the local knowledge and understanding so vital to the current government’s drive for local responsiveness, provision for local employers and development of a local economic development strategy? The College Marketing Network has been working with RCU this year on an LSIS-funded project looking into using data in marketing, and this has discovered a mass of good practice in using research and information in planning and marketing. To develop this good practice needs time and a good understanding of both the college itself and of the local communities the college is working with – just what many college marketing staff have.

Developing good links in the college’s community requires skills and continuity – effective colleges put time and effort into creating marketing teams which make and maintain contacts both internally and externally. Some of this time is inevitably “goodwill”, as the kind of hours required to attend events can rarely be fully repaid. Yet in-house staff see the benefits in the long term of the positioning and reputational work they are doing when they attend school events, festivals and business meetings on behalf of the college – and what’s more they know and can talk about the college offer while they are there. Goodwill clearly isn’t something to run the college on, but time and again, marketers tell me that they put in far more time than they can claim back because they know that what they are doing is valuable, both for the college and for the individuals they meet. Surely this is true value for money and return on investment? Do external marketing services offer good will and free overtime, in addition to a deep knowledge of the organisation? And how do we measure the impact of loyalty to an organisation and a belief in the power of FE on the individuals being advised by in-house staff? – a research report commissioned by the FE Reputation Strategy Group may soon be able to tell us.

In-house staff devote time and energy to getting to know their colleagues: through links with curriculum teams – this leads to effective links in planning curriculum, good links for PR and confidence amongst other staff that marketing is doing its job. It also puts marketing staff in a stronger position as professionals within the college, one where they can say no to some requests, but can offer evidence-based advice on more effective means. The marketing team should be able to advise, based on a good knowledge of the local community through market research and information.

Marketers are aware that they need data on which to plan their activities – and build planning and evaluation into their annual cycle. The College Marketing Network has always required planning and evaluation to be key elements of entries to the FE First Awards for Marketing Excellence, now in the 15th year. We understand that marketing shouldn’t just be about a smart new website or a glossy prospectus, but should be about matching the message and the medium to the target audience, which is identified through research and analysis.

Do colleges confuse marketing with promotion when they think about what kind of “marketing” team they want? I would argue that both require the kind of “embedding” in the college that in-house teams acquire – promotion through press work, social media, publicity and events all require good knowledge and understanding of the organisation and close links with staff across the college. Marketing in its widest sense, the sense in which it is surely of the most value to the college’s senior leaders and planners, has to be based on being closely tied to the community the college serves, through research, market intelligence and co-ordinated planning. This kind of intelligence-led marketing isn’t bought off-the-shelf and those colleges which have invested in it give every appearance of finding it pays dividends.

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