What's in a strategy?

I talk a lot about the importance of marketing strategy. In an environment with limited resources – and let’s face it, everyone operated in an environment with limited resources – it’s important to spend time, money and energy on things that will contribute to business results.
So what is a marketing strategy? There are many definitions, but these are the elements that I include in a marketing strategy document:


What are you trying to achieve? The most powerful strategy documents state this as a measurable business goal. Some examples:

  • Increase in-store revenue by 5% in F’18
  • Increase online student applications by 3% in Fall 2018
  • Generate one repeat purchase from 5% of new customers 

Target Audience

Who are you trying to reach? It can be tempting to say “everyone”, but that’s not a realistic target audience.  A neatly defined target audience has at least some shared behaviors, attitudes and goals. A target audience can be based on demographics:

  • Women between 25-44
  • Adults over 65 

It can be based on lifestage:

  • Moms of elementary school age children
  • 17-year-olds in Chicago who are planning to go to college 

It can be based on goals:

  • Adults planning to move to a retirement community
  • People in northern California who are thinking about buying a new house

(It’s fine to have multiple target audiences, or primary and secondary target audiences, but list them separately.)


What are the three primary strategies you will use to achieve the goal?  It can be tempting to list more than three, but including only three forces you to focus on the top things that will achieve the goal. 

Here are some examples of robust strategies:

  • Increase social media presence in key markets 
  • Develop a web portal to provide prospective students with a personalized experience
  • Build communication flow for parents of prospective students 


The tactics provide specific details for activities around each strategy. Why separate the tactics from strategies? I think it’s easier to get buy-in, because if you get objections to your marketing strategy, it helps clarify whether the objections are at the strategy or the tactical level. I find it easiest (and clearest) to show each tactic with its associated strategy:

Strategy: Increase social media presence in key markets

Run Facebook ads in Chicago and Detroit in Q1 2018
Identify and follow key social media influencers

Strategy: Develop a web portal to provide prospective students with a personalized experience

Develop specific web content for prospective students
Create password-protected portal


The budgeting method will depend on how firm the cost estimates are for the tactics. If you know the cost of each tactic, you can show an additive budget. Alternatively, if you have a fixed budget ceiling, you can show one total budget number as a “not to exceed” budget.


The timeline should list the project’s key milestones and the target date for completion of each one. This does not need to be a detailed timeline for the project – that will come later. But it should identify the start date, final completion date, and key stages in the middle.

Key Issues

This is a list of potential roadblocks or issues that will need to be overcome to complete the project. For each issue you list, you also need to present a possible solution.

Next Steps/Responsibilities

The final strategy element is a list of the 2-3 immediate next steps and, importantly, who’s going to do them. This leaves the reader with a sense of action and urgency.

Brand vs. reputation

At a conference I attended a few years ago, non-profit CMOs gathered for a conversation about brand vs. reputation. There was much good discussion, and the consensus was that, while they are related, brand and reputation are different things. To put it overly simplistically, the sentiment in the room was that:

Your brand is what you manage. Your reputation is what happens to you.

I’ve thought a lot about this question of brand vs. reputation since then, and I think there’s a lot of truth in those statements. However, I think it’s a bit more complicated than those statements suggest.

Let’s start with a definition. I define a brand as what you stand for in the minds of people you’re trying to reach, influence, and move to action. Not what you want to stand for. That’s your brand strategy (or brand positioning statement, if you prefer.) Your brand is what you actually stand for.

If you buy into that definition of a brand, then brand and reputation could be exactly the same thing. But that doesn’t feel quite right. So what are the differences between brand and reputation?

  1. A brand is enduring. Reputation is more temporary, yet it can bolster or diminish the brand over time.
  2. A brand is usually shaped by the personal experience people have with it. Reputation can be influenced by many things, but is largely affected by crises, news and word-of-mouth.
  3. It’s not possible to completely control the brand, but a brand manager has more control over the brand than the reputation. Brand is largely shaped by paid and owned media, which allows more control over messaging. Reputation is largely affected by earned and social media, which is much more difficult to control.

That said, there are things you can do to not only protect but actually strengthen the brand in times of crisis:

  1. Make sure that leadership and key communicators are familiar with your brand language and can comfortably weave key messages into talking points during interviews.
  2. Develop a strong PR strategy that clarifies how the brand story will be told through media outreach. Weaving clear brand messages into talking points can help strengthen the brand throughout crises and help to ensure that the reputation doesn’t become the brand.
  3. Develop specific strategies to close the gaps between reputation and desired brand positioning. Market research will tell you the top associations people have with your organization. That’s reputation. It’s just as important to know the associations you want to lose as it is to know the brand you want to build.

A enduring brand can withstand any repetitional issue; however, this requires careful and close management of both brand and reputation so that they become – and stay – synonymous.

Minimizing scope creep in 5 easy steps

Let’s say you work for a college. Let's say you have an idea to build a website for parents of current students. (I’m not saying it’s a good or bad idea. It’s just an example.) The site would provide all of the information that parents want to know about your college. You call a meeting of all of the key stakeholders, including representatives from Marketing, Student Affairs, and Enrollment Management. At the meeting, you present your idea and everyone gets very excited.

The Enrollment Management representative thinks prospective parents would be interested in it as well, and wants to add functionality that allows parents of admitted students to connect with other parents. The Student Affairs representative wants to add functionality that allows parents to order care packages for their students at finals time. The Marketing person believes that Alumni and Development should be included as well, because they will be interested in connecting with parents as potential donors. At this point, you put your head in your hands, recognizing that your idea will never actually be implemented.

Does this scenario sound familiar? You’ve just fallen victim to scope creep.

Scope creep is a common occurrence in many organizations, but particularly in highly matrixed organizations. It happens because in matrixes organizations, different people are working toward different objectives. Enrollment Management is trying to achieve new student goals. Student Affairs is trying to retain students and keep them happy and healthy. Alumni and Development is trying to build alumni affinity and raise money. Marketing is trying to help lots of different groups achieve lots of different objectives.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, regardless of where you sit in an organization, as a project leader there are five steps you can take to minimize scope creep, as follows:

1. Keep the number of team members as small as possible.

Because areas of responsibility can be unclear in a decentralized organization, there is often a tendency to include more people, vs. fewer. Keep the size of the core team as small as you can. You can always get input from others along the way as necessary.

2. Get agreement to the objectives.

Scope creep often happens because the team isn’t in agreement about the goal. Make it clear upfront, in writing, what you see as the objectives and strategies, and present it to the group for discussion. Do not move forward until the full team is in agreement with the proposed objectives.

3. Write a project brief.

Once you have agreement to the objectives, write a full project brief and distribute it to the team. The project brief should include the objectives, strategies, timeline, responsibilities, budget, and key issues. Having the brief in writing will allow you to say, “Great idea, but it’s outside the scope we agreed to, and will endanger the timeline” when new ideas come up.

4. Clearly define the roles of each team member.

Even within a small team, you as the project leader don’t necessarily need (or want) each team member to weigh in equally on every aspect of the project. Engaging the team in a  RACI Matrix exercise will help each team member understand their role on the team ­– what they’ll be responsible for, what they’ll be consulted on, and what they’ll be informed of after the fact. It will also ensure that everyone understands who the final decision-maker is for each important project element.

5. Break the project into phases.

In the above example, adding prospective parents to the target audience and allowing parents to order care packages weren’t bad ideas. They just added complexity to the initial project. When stakeholders have good ideas that are outside the scope, suggest breaking the project into phases. This allows you to more the project forward and accomplish the original objectives within the desired timeframe.

Those are my five proven steps to minimizing scope creep. Are there any others that you’ve found helpful? I’d be interested in hearing them in the comments below.

Market Research on a Shoestring Budget

At a recent higher ed marketing conference, I repeatedly heard variations of the following question:

“How do we do the market research required to inform brand strategy when we have no budget?”
Before I answer that question, I want to say that I am a huge fan of sophisticated market research.  If the budget allows it, I think that sophisticated market research can provide tremendous insights that can both inform and support brand strategy.
In the real world, though, many institutions don’t have the budgets that allow them to do it. And marketing people in those organizations are often left thinking that they can’t begin to do brand strategy without the sophisticated market research.
In my experience, market research doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated to be insightful. There are effective shortcuts to gaining audience insights that can be done by just about anyone, just about anywhere, and they can provide a way to jump-start brand strategy work. The most important thing is that you look for insights beyond just your faculty, staff, and administration. Their viewpoints, while important, may not match those of students, prospective students, alumni, and other important stakeholders.

Conduct Focus Groups with Current Students
Good brand strategy is the right mix of reality and aspiration. It has one foot in the present and one foot in the future. And current students are a great source of information about the present student experience at your institution. Invite them for lunchtime focus groups and offer them pizza and a $10 gift card. Here are some things you can ask them:

  • Why did you choose this college?
  • How has your experience of the college compared to what you thought it would be like?
  • What are the characteristics of students who succeed at this college?
  • What does the college do well?
  • What could the college do better?
  • What are the three words you would use to describe the school?
  • When you describe the college to your friends, what do you say?

You’ll likely want to conduct multiple groups. You’ll want to talk to a group of freshmen and a group of seniors. You’ll want to talk to students who started as freshmen and students who came in as transfer students. Also, depending on how much the student experience is likely to differ, you may want to have different groups by major and/or school.
I recommend that you either tape the sessions or have someone taking copious notes. You’ll want to use (unattributed) quotes in your summary so that you can help others to “hear” the voices of the respondents.

Listen in on Social Media
An intensive search of social media outlets and online college guides will give you great information about how prospective students, current students and alumni describe your school. Make social search part of your daily routine and capture what’s being said. Compare it to what you hear in the focus groups, and use the focus groups to probe on the things you don’t understand.

Conduct Your Own Survey
If you want to get more responses than are feasible with focus groups, you can use one of the free tools, like Survey Monkey, to conduct surveys. The downside to surveys, however, is that they’re not very useful for answering “why” questions. For instance, you may have respondents tell you that they don’t think your college is good at preparing people for careers, but without the ability to ask follow-up questions, you won’t necessarily know why. For this reason, I recommend pairing a survey with focus groups so that you can dig deeper on some of the survey responses.
With a survey, you can ask many of the same questions as in the focus groups; however, you’ll need to develop lists of possible answers for respondents to choose from.
To develop and execute a new brand strategy, it’s likely that you’ll want and need to do more sophisticated market research at some point. But sometimes it’s easier to get the support and the budget for it later in the process, when senior leadership can see the beginnings of a brand story. So if you’re putting off starting brand strategy work because you don’t have the budget, wait no longer. These shortcuts are a place to start.

6 Rules for a Highly Effective Marketing Team

Building a highly effective marketing team means creating the right structure with the right roles, and then finding the right people to fill those roles. In doing this, here are six rules to follow as you build your team:

1) Think competencies, not skills.

When looking to fill open positions, many organizations look for an exact match in skills and experience. This often limits opportunities for internal career advancement, since existing employees are unlikely to have an exact match in experience, particularly if the position is new. Companies that are committed to talent development focus on the competencies required to be effective in the job (for instance, communication skills, team orientation, problem-solving ability) and assume that smart employees can learn new skills. 

2) Take calculated risks.

Relatedly, a commitment to talent development means sometimes taking risks on people who may not be quite ready for the role. For instance, junior staff members may not have had experience managing people. Retaining and developing talented employees means sometimes taking risks on smart, motivated, committed employees and helping them to develop the skills they need to succeed.

3) Keep it short.

Higher ed job descriptions frequently list 20 or more “main” responsibilities. It’s impossible for an individual to focus on this many priorities. For each role, identify the five most important things you need the person in this role to accomplish.

4) Put content first.

Move away from having “web writers” vs. “magazine writers” vs. “prospective student materials” writers. Consolidate the responsibility for content development with one group to help to ensure that you're thinking first about identifying the stories that best represent your brand, and then figuring out what audiences to communicate them to in what vehicle. This ensures you're making the best use of the content we have, and not duplicating efforts.

5) It’s about the experience.

One of my mantras is that effective branding is 10% what you say and 90% what you do. The experiences that people have with your brand are way more important than your ad campaign ever will be. For this reason, the role of User Experience Manager is vitally important. This person’s job is to focus on the experiences that people have across platforms and over time. Understanding the perspective of your customers and representing their voices in your conversations is a critical part of your Marketing efforts.

6) Identify one person.

Assign every department an account manager whose job it is to understand the client’s marketing and communication needs. This simplifies the process for the clients, who don’t have to keep track of whom to go to for a press release and whom to go to for a website update. But more importantly, it will help you be more consultative vs. order-taking. The goal is to help internal clients figure out what they need to do to achieve their goals vs. simply giving them what they ask for.

Customer Service is Not a 4-Letter Word

"Customer service" can be a four-letter word, especially on a college campus.

We don't like to think of prospective students and their parents as potential customers, because the educational experience we offer is far more complicated than a typical consumer product or service. But prospective students have grown up in a world where they can order a book with one click and have it delivered to their door within hours. Since they've come to expect great service from companies, why not from their college or university?

So: How can you improve your institution’s customer service?

Think like them.

Our role as marketers is to represent the voice of important audiences. So, in this case, think like a student/consumer. What do they care about? What are their fears? What do they want from us? Understanding their perspective allows you to turn the focus from you to them. It helps you understand what needs to be on your home page and what doesn’t. And which staff members need to be cross-trained on what topics. It allows you to put less emphasis on the things that matter to your institution (like the number of buildings you have) and more emphasis on the things that matter to your students.

How do you understand their perspective? By staying in touch with student voices and needs: conducting regular focus groups or one-on-on interviews with prospective students, current students, and parents of both.

Consider the full journey.

We tend to segment and “hand off” different parts of the the student journey from prospect to enrolled student to alumna. That makes sense internally, because different staff members handle admissions versus orientation versus financial aid. The problem is that this artificial segmentation leads to disjointed messaging and communications for your target audience.

Having a communications team that looks at all of the communication points – across all interactions – can help to ensure consistency in messaging and experience as students pass from one group to another.

Eliminate unnecessary obstacles. 

Segmentation of the student journey doesn’t only result in inconsistent communication. Because higher ed institutions tend to be siloed, we often fail to look at ways to simplify processes across departments. Think about a student with a question about her tuition bill. Does she need to go to the financial aid office? Student accounts? Somewhere else? Often she’ll be sent from one office to another to another in search of the answer to her question.

Process mapping – the activity of physically charting the processes that people have to go through to receive answers and solve basic problems – is a good way to identify the unnecessary obstacles that students and parents face. The act of drawing the steps a person must go through to complete a task makes the process difficulties easier to see. Once your map is completed, ask how you can can eliminate unnecessary steps or make the process simpler.

Talk like a human.

One of the biggest problems with any type of organizational communication is that it sounds like organizational communication, complete with jargon, buzzwords, and overly stuffy language. Edit your communications with an eye for simple language and short words. Your audiences will thank you.

Own the problem.

Don’t you hate that experience of being handed off from one person to another? Students do too, whether they’re prospects or enrolled “customers.” Train staff to own the problem rather than handing it off to someone else. Not only will students and their parents be happier, it will also help with cross-training staff, as they have to learn about other areas in order to solve the problem.