Outsourcing marketing functions from printing and direct mail to video production, email, digital advertising and social media isn’t new for higher ed, but it has become increasingly essential in recent years.

The trend of decreasing enrollment nationwide has driven colleges and universities to become more competitive. Two million fewer students enrolled for the fall in 2019 than in 2011, putting added pressure on enrollment marketers to make their case to a smaller pool of prospects.

Your institution has to think more like a business than ever before.

To compete in a competitive marketplace, businesses adapt. They rely more heavily on outside vendors to help them become more efficient.

That was before the pandemic.

Now, in 2020, virtually all businesses are scrambling to adapt to a dramatically changing marketplace. Higher ed is certainly no exception.

With a question mark on the balance sheet where fall number projections should be, your institution is likely turning to a variety of outside vendors for urgent help.

    • Priority 1 was the conversion to online learning, which suddenly went from essential marketplace offering to the only option for currently enrolled students. That must remain robust.
    • Priority 2 is bold, clear messaging about your commitment to the future that re-emphasizes your brand position.
    • Priority 3 is cutting through uncertainty with strong, ongoing communication about upcoming program offerings (and modalities) that maintain the interest of your primary audiences.

These priority items are a tall order for most higher ed internal marketing teams; nevertheless, they are mission-critical and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

This is why best practices for vendor relationship management are more important than ever. 

As a higher ed vendor and business owner who routinely utilizes contractors, I would like to offer a few “rules” for outsourcing marketing. These are evergreen and will serve you well throughout your institution’s post-pandemic future.

Rule #1: Choose vendors according to your needs.

Depending on where you look for marketing help, you could have completely different experiences.

Independent Freelancers

Individuals are ideal for simple, one-off tasks. A bevy of individual graphic designers, copywriters, email marketers and other specialists can be found on sites like Fiverr and Upwork.

Expect to find a wide range of talent and price points. You can find extremely talented professionals this way (I have) who are interested in taking on short-term gigs at a fair rate.

You can also find plenty of inexperienced vendors who may be inflating their skill level, so do be careful. Take a little time to make sure the vendor is highly rated by a significant number of clients (at least in the double-digits). Better yet, seek a personal recommendation.

Collective Agencies

Boutique marketing companies are often collectives, groups of experienced, independent professionals who come together as a team on your project. Their flexibility makes them great for a variety of multi-faceted projects from short- to long-term.

Expect pricing to be scaled to your needs as talent is pulled in as needed by the agency’s project manager.

Once you build trust and establish a relationship with the first engagement, you can call on the team on an as-needed basis.

It’s always best to do your research before engaging with an agency. Look for experience in higher ed, read testimonials and ask around. (Full disclosure: we have a collective model, and expect no less scrutiny than anyone else!)

Traditional Agencies

The traditional model involves partnering with a firm referred to as an agency of record (AOR) whose staff is highly experienced and retained by the agency full time.

This relationship can be a fruitful extension of your internal marketing team, but typically involves a long-term contract at a top-of-market, “brand name” price point.

Expect strong opinions from a traditional firm about how you should be presenting your brand. Be sure your relationship is one that values collaboration with respect to your understanding of your institutional identity.

Rule #2: Keep strengths in-house, weaknesses outsourced.

Simply put, outsourcing is about achieving goals at a higher level and/or faster than you can on your own.

“You’re looking for that relationship with a partner who can bring resources to bear, and that you can leverage to do things either at a level that you weren’t capable of doing internally or in a time frame you couldn’t do institutionally.”

– Steven Sayers, Associate Vice President, University of Cincinnati

When it comes to outsourcing marketing, the big question is: “As we’re working toward our short-term goals, will this vendor help us accomplish our long-term mission or distract us from it?”

As a higher ed institution, your mission is your greatest strength. You should continue to own whatever functions your internal team is doing well to communicate that mission.

Outsource to Get It Done Faster

Are you a strong content creator? 

If your content is on-brand, frequent and effective, there’s no reason to hand that function over to a vendor. However, if you are struggling with distribution frequency, it’s a good idea to reach out to a digital marketing specialist.

Outsource to Get It Done at a Higher Level

Do you have a strong, mission-focused, responsive website that is functioning well? 

There is likely no need to outsource website management. Where you might be weak is in raising the site to the next level with a full redevelopment and brand refresh.

Keep Doing What You Do Best

The main point here is to avoid handing over the functions in which you are strong, because that’s where you are most hands-on, maintaining the quality of your brand every day.

Handing those functions over as part of an oversized, outsourced marketing package won’t make your job easier. It will only distract you from the mission as you struggle to maintain creative control.

Rule #3: Set up clear expectations.

A basic requirement of a good vendor-client relationship is a statement of work (SOW) that both sides fully understand and agree to.

One issue that can come up with the SOW is one side viewing the listed deliverables and responsibilities as minimum duties when the other views it as the comprehensive scope. 

Seek clear agreement with your vendor. Throw out some what-ifs, as in, “If we wind up needing this, would that be considered in scope?” If you don’t, those questions are bound to come up during the project window. You could easily lose precious time renegotiating on the fly.

But setting up clear expectations is about more than a clear SOW in the beginning. Outsourcing marketing is not a “set it and forget it” proposition, but requires hands-on leadership to ensure expectations are being met:

“In reality, managing a satellite team is just as much work as managing your in-house team — the timeline is likely to be much more aggressive, the check-ins more frequent, and the opportunity for revisions less frequent. Establishing and maintaining your leadership role in the project is imperative.”

– Donna Lehmann, Assistant Vice President for Marketing, Fordham University

Rule #4: Expect efficiency, not clairvoyance.

If this is starting to feel a lot like leading your internal team, good! That’s what it should feel like when you’re working with a good partner.

A good partner understands your institution’s mission and can increase your efficiency by focusing on those tasks that slow you down. It should feel like having extra employees that know the job and get it done right.

This dynamic doesn’t happen on its own, however.

To quote Donna Lehmann again, you won’t get this level of seamless service unless you trust your vendors enough to show them the complete picture:

“They can’t apply their best thinking unless they see the whole picture — the good, the bad, and the ugly … We are complex organizations with some complicated problems, and it’s unrealistic to think that anything meaningful can come from a superficial understanding of our needs.”

Your marketing partner won’t be able to help with declining enrollment without understanding the underlying causes.

A fancy new website can’t solve the problem of bad PR about an academic program. 

Great design alone won’t help you make a business case for direct mail.

But in any case, an honest and open strategy discussion followed by trust-based collaboration can solve a host of problems.

Rule #5: Tap your vendor for training resources.

Outsourcing marketing to the right partner brings more than the benefit of pushing task duties out. It also brings expertise in.

When the University of Florida needed to build an online campus, they reached out to vendors for help.

They had Rule #2 nailed down pretty well and knew what they needed from vendors. Strong in instructional content development, they handled that in-house. What they really needed help with was marketing their new online offerings.

But rather than simply hand over the keys to their digital marketing vendor, they engaged in a knowledge exchange:

“The primary benefit to the partnership was their expertise and experience in marketing and they also had some additional expertise in terms of what they call ‘coaching.’ They had some in-house tutorial services … digital content that was useful … in-house research development that they wanted to partner with us for.”

– Andrew McCollough, Associate Provost for Teaching and Technology, University of Florida

This new idea that the relationship goes both ways – the client may assign the vendor marketing functions, the vendor may educate the client on performing those functions, or both – is the new trend.

The “Inexternal Agency”

The vendor doesn’t function as a traditional external entity kept at arm’s length with a limited role. Rather, the new flexible model is of an “inexternal agency” with unlimited possibility for collaboration:

    • The agency tends to form a long-term relationship with the client and comes to deeply understand the institution’s brand.
    • It acts less like a vendor delivering services and more as a support team, prepared to respond to the needs of the marketing department in creative ways with the agility of an internal department.
    • It does not push back at the idea of the institution maintaining control or working with multiple vendors, but instead expects to work with a diverse group of specialists as needed.

One way to tell whether you’re working with this kind of agency is to tap them for training resources and gauge their response. 

If they seem more concerned that you’re going to take over their functions and make them obsolete than they are about supporting you, you’re working with a very “traditional” vendor.

Thankfully, most successful agencies today understand that the model has changed. Your needs are evolving so fast that bringing certain functions in-house isn’t likely to eliminate your need to outsource.

There will always be new frontiers to explore, new challenges to confront. The job of any good “inexternal agency” is to provide any new expertise when you need it most.

Outsourcing marketing should feel a lot like insourcing talent, even when you’re not hiring a W2 employee.

You could easily apply these rules to hiring employees. That’s by design.

When I engage with clients, I try to make it feel like you’re bringing on a trusted assistant marketing director … one that comes with a team as ready to dive in as any new employee, but with a lot more experience.

Let’s talk about what working with the Caylor Solutions team looks like and what we can do to help you tackle your top priorities with the “inexternal” expertise you need most.


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