by Pam Cox-Otto, Ph.D.
We all know how important our annual marketing plans are. They help us map out strategies, see the big picture, determine budgets, and set markers for success. More importantly, they drive enrollment for your entire college which in turn drives your budget.
So why is it that so many of us fail to get our yearly plans written until just before the start of the Fall semester, and then scramble again to implement them before it’s too late?
The professional answer: we’re incredibly busy. The not-so-professional answer: shit happens. And when it does, planning for the future gives way to surviving in the moment. After 30 years working in and with colleges, I’ve lived it, seen it, and now, I expect it.
Don’t get me wrong, I know how incredibly good you are at this. If you weren’t, you would have gone crazy or gone missing by now! But let me also tell you this: Sh*t is going to happen. And while you can’t always keep it from hitting the fan, you can be prepared.
By finishing the one thing you think can wait: Your marketing plan. Here’s why:
Time is of the Essence
You know as well as I do, our colleges basically grind to a halt from December to the beginning of spring semester. While this can be a nightmare when you need approval for something, it also means you have a little extra breathing room because people are away.
That’s why I always tell people that now is the time to get your annual plan done. Use the “dead” time of winter break to your advantage. If you can’t get it done by January, at least shoot for the end of February. Why?
Knowledge is Power
Getting your plan done early means you can anticipate the events that will destroy them. I tell everyone to pull up last year’s calendar and look at the of the “stuff” that happened that was not planned for and assume it’s going to happen again. Wait, there’s a trustee dinner? An alumni event? A staff team-building retreat that requires a harness?
The idea is that by building in these events, you’re prepared for them if they happen and if they don’t, you’ve built in a little extra padding to deal with the things that do.
Faculty Don’t Get It (So Fix That)
Don’t get me wrong, I love faculty. My husband is a professor. I have a PhD in Communications. Academics are my people. But they’re also clueless when it comes to marketing. (Although they will tell you they know it all…)
One of the things about targeted marketing is that if we’re doing our jobs right, professors will never see it. Why? Because we’re not recruiting 60-year-old baby boomers with MAs and PhDs. (Tell them that, they’ll laugh, and finally understand.)
Getting your plan done early means you have time to show stakeholders what you’re planning and what you’re doing. Faculty aren’t the enemy, they’re just knowledge addicts. So give them (and other high-maintenance stakeholders) the knowledge they need so they understand the important work you’re doing.
Share your plan (it helps them understand your job!). Share your messaging (particularly if you are bragging about your great faculty!) Solicit input (and implement enough so they see you listened!) And show them how you’re using data to drive decision making (they love that stuff!).
It’s Hard to Say No
This is true for desktop candy jars as it is for last minute requests from administrators. One jelly bean isn’t going to blow up your waistline, but who takes only one? “Small favors” are the same way.
But here’s the thing, any time you allow people to throw off your campaign work you’re in trouble because you’re taking care of their needs over the larger needs of the college. (Um, yeah, what you do is important!). Even when it’s the president, it’s not right. But, as we all know, that doesn’t mean you get to say no.
So, instead, be prepared so you can say yes. Get your marketing plan done with all of its strategy, tactics and target marketing. Then, get your creative messaging for the year done. That’s right! Frontload as much of your year’s marketing collateral as possible.
Get the applied-not-enrolled campaign copy written; get the alumni day flyers designed; get your enrollment pipeline messaging arc plotted out. Load it all into your implementation schedule so you don’t have to do anything for it to roll. Give the media buyers all the ads with the start and end dates (They love that!) Set up all the mailings with the mailroom and email blasts with your email system… so they just GO!
Then, when something happens, you are still accomplishing your mission critical work… while responding to the crisis du jour.
Speaking of important, go ahead and grab a handful of jelly beans while you’re at it.
Creatives Are… Creative
With your marketing plan done, you can actually get started on the marketing. That’s why in the last section I suggested frontloading your campaign collateral all at once. The reason this helps is because creatives get bored easily. That’s why we love them. That, and their colorful socks.
Creatives like to innovate and try new things, but that’s not necessarily a good thing when it comes to marketing campaigns where visual and linguistic consistency is key. Whether you’re branding yourself as a leader in career education, or leveraging your college’s unique “outdoorsy” vibe, this messaging will only stick if it is
consistent over time.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve laid out a year of a college’s collateral and the only thing that holds everything together is the logo. Little tweaks over a long period of time turn into big tweaks, even if unintended.
Getting things done quickly and early is how you avoid this. Strategizing and seeing everything all at once means you can make sure that everything is adding up the way you want it to.
In the end, getting your marketing plan and campaign collateral done early is about making it easier for you to go with the flow because, as we in college marketing know, it doesn’t take much for that flow to become a tsunami.
But next time it does, don’t worry. Just give us a call. With over 20 years of experience working with community college marketing departments just like yours, we’ve gotten pretty good at bailing water… and eating jelly beans.