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September 4

Generative AI in Higher Ed Marketing: Take Your Time Back


I’ve been in the marketing space since 1987, and I’ve seen new tech come and go, but nothing has grabbed my attention like generative AI since the internet’s early emergence.

Frankly, it’s astonishing that we’re only months removed from the pandemic, yet we’re already witnessing the next incredible disruptor in higher education.

How Will Generative AI Impact the Future of Higher Ed Marketing?

Let’s face it — from a big-picture perspective, higher education has been a tortoise in the race for innovation. We often take a measured approach to adopting new technologies, sometimes to the point where we’re integrating tools just as they’re becoming outdated.

While we’ve barely scratched the surface of generative AI’s capabilities, I believe this technology has the potential to catapult higher ed marketers into a new age of efficiency.

I recently had the privilege of being part of a great panel discussion at the HashtagHigherEdUS 2023 Conference on this very subject.

So I’d like to unpack some of my thoughts on generative AI in higher ed marketing that we discussed.

Ethical Concerns of Generative AI in Higher Ed

First, let’s address the elephant in the room — the ethical implications of generative AI in colleges and universities.

Lots of school administrations and faculty are understandably wary of AI’s impact on the future of academia.

Will it make students lazy? Are we compromising “intellectual vitality”?

Not to mention that several legal questions around intellectual property and privacy still need answering.

All of these matters are worthy of consideration. But that’s exactly what they are — controversies, not conclusions.

I think the critical issue is these concerns have made many higher ed marketers overly reluctant to even try powerful new AI tools that can exponentially increase their efficiency.

Like a carpenter using a table saw, the safe and practical application of these tools comes down to good judgment. With practice, you’ll be able to make precise cuts in no time.

It Costs Nothing to Take Generative AI Tools for a Spin

I witnessed people’s hesitation firsthand as several of the panel’s audience members, primarily fellow marketers, asked questions regarding different ethical use cases around generative AI tools like ChatGPT.

Joining me to answer them were Raffi DerSimonian, VP and Chief Strategy Officer at ERI, and Gil Appel, Assistant Professor of Marketing at The George Washington University School of Business.

I’d like to paraphrase Raffi’s response to one question concerning the use of these early iterations of generative AI:

“Experiment liberally and adopt judicially.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Just about every prolific AI application has a “freemium” version you can explore, so it costs nothing upfront just to try them.

And let’s be frank… at the end of the day, data security is about common sense. If the email you want to revise includes confidential information, then don’t upload it to these tools!

Higher ed marketers can’t afford to ignore the time-saving opportunities that generative AI tools offer.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve gotten 10-15 hours of my time back each and every week by using them.

With practice and accurate prompting, generative AI can absolutely do the same for higher ed marketing teams.

Generative AI Is a Tool, Not a Replacement

First and foremost, AI is a tool.

Generative AI is not a replacement for human intellect, intuition, or the highly nuanced understanding that comes from years of professional or academic experience. 

However, ignoring its growing importance would be as foolish as dismissing the significance of websites and email in the mid-90s.

Back then, I knew several leaders in higher ed who were adamant that their school would never need an enrollment website.

Well, we all know how that turned out, don’t we?

How Generative AI Fits in Higher Ed Marketing

I believe another roadblock to AI adoption is that while marketing teams are fully aware of these tools, they don’t understand just how powerful they really are.

New generative AI tools that offer an unprecedented range of personalized messaging at scale or analytical research are popping up everywhere in 2023.

They can help answer prospective students’ queries in real-time, automate follow-up emails, or even assist in content creation.

But just because they can do these things doesn’t mean we should unleash them without adequate oversight and understanding.

And that leads us to a new epidemic that’s gaining traction in content marketing.

The Content Question

Before I get to what I see as the real problem arising from AI-generated content, I’d like to address the plagiarism debate around it.

Some of you may remember the Ed Sheeran court case about copyright infringement in which Gaye’s estate accused Sheeran of stealing elements from a Marvin Gaye song from the ‘70s.

After only a few hours of deliberation, the jury determined that any similarities in Sheeran’s song “Thinking Out Loud” to Gaye’s classic hit were happy coincidences.

That’s a classic example that even in human-generated content, the line between inspiration and plagiarism becomes blurred.

Now, introduce AI into the equation. You’ve got a tool that can write an entire blog post in minutes. But should it? How much of that is genuinely “creative,” and how much is just an amalgamation of existing ideas?

This thread brings us to what I believe is the real content dilemma in the age of AI — AI-generated spam.

ChatGPT has been breathing public air for about nine months at the time of this writing, and editors are bloating content-heavy websites with lifeless blogs and articles.

For example, content farming websites like Buzzfeed are already inundated with cookie-cutter articles they scraped from AI tools.

So now I’m going to echo my earlier statement, higher ed marketers.

A Supportive Cobot

Think of it as a collaborative robot, like the helpful “cobot” conceived at Northwestern University in the ‘90s. While the original cobot was designed with physical labor in mind, AI can support your mental bandwidth.

Generative AI is great for helping humans generate ideas and build frameworks for your student-centric content, but it’s not a replacement for human empathy and discretion.

So use your best judgment if you start using ChatGPT or another assistant to help you write content for your school. Keep the good bits and leave the rest on the cutting room floor.

Generative AI Has the Power to Change Higher Ed Marketing for the Better

As higher ed marketers, it’s our responsibility to keep our fingers on the pulse of innovation.

Search engine optimization is about to undergo drastic changes, and generative AI will be at the forefront of this shift.

It would be wise for all of us to familiarize ourselves with this technology, so I would encourage everyone to at least try it. Use it, experiment with it, but never stop questioning its place and purpose in your team’s enrollment marketing strategy.

As we inch closer and closer to the enrollment cliff, standing still is not an option.

It’s not a matter of whether generative AI will become a part of higher ed marketing. That future is already here. It’s about how we’ll let it shape us and our profession.

If you have questions about how your higher ed marketing team can use generative AI in your content marketing strategy (and I’m sure many of you do), connect with me!

I’d be more than happy to help you and your team familiarize yourselves with the future of marketing.

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