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Chief Academic Officer as Chief Marketing Officer

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Chief Academic Officer as Chief Marketing Officer

Most chief academic officers wear more than one hat. They help guide the curriculum. They are involved in recruiting new faculty. They sit on the senior team. They oversee academic planning. They often guide accreditation reviews. Although the number of hats they might wear is seemingly endless, one more must be added to the mix: that of chief marketing officer, or CMO.

It is a given that no one has greater influence on a college’s academic quality and direction than does the chief academic officer. This has long been the chief academic officer’s primary and most important role.

What has changed, however, is that a curriculum can no longer be developed in isolation from the marketplace. Rather, it must be developed in concert with marketplace needs and expectations. This recognizes a larger marketing truth: a curriculum that is differentiated from your competitors’ and is in demand by students is your most important strategic asset.

This is a pretty bold statement; let me explain.

Although the current model of higher education may not be broken, it is certainly imperiled. As tuition increases, a growing number of schools are having difficulty defining and declaring a value proposition that students will pay for and that students can afford.

In addition, much of higher education is in the grip of an academic sameness that makes it very difficult for students to differentiate one school from another. In fact, I believe that the primary reason we spend so much time and money on marketing is because, on many levels, the academic programs at one institution are largely indistinguishable from those at another.

Although there is safety in sameness, there is also danger. Sameness forces students to rely on another variable to differentiate among institutions, and too often that variable is cost. This has caused discount rates at many institutions to rise while net tuition revenue falls.

Meanwhile, we are seeing a change in how marketing is defined. Historically, most colleges and universities have viewed marketing as promotion. In other words, the goal of marketing has been to get the word out, as if simple awareness will attract students.

This definition of marketing is decidedly institution-centric. The institution gets to decide what to teach, when to teach, how to teach, and how much to charge.

Today’s marketplace, however, is dominated by the buyer, and the buyer demands a voice. Students are increasingly interested in what is taught, when it is taught, how it is taught, and how much it costs. Institutions that recognize and respond to this dynamic are audience- or marketplace-centric.

A necessary alignment
As both the chief academic officer and the chief marketer, your job is to align, within the spirit of your mission, the academic programs you offer with the programs that students want to buy. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that all academic programs should be based on marketplace interest, but enough must so that you can afford the others that are not.)

Creating this alignment will require you to have a set of very specific understandings and skills.

First, as stated at the outset of this article, you must make as many decisions as possible based on the critical understanding that marketing is much more than promotion. More than simply being strong or great or unique, the programs you offer must be compelling. They must differentiate you from your competitors, and they must be in demand.

Second, you must look forward. It has been my experience that there are generally two types of chief academic officers. Some look at the rearview mirror and hope for a return to the golden age of higher education. Others, however, look ahead. They respect the past, but are not beholden to it. Rather than focusing on how to protect the academy from the marketplace, these academic officers look at ways to serve the marketplace.

Third, you must look at the curriculum as a portfolio of academic programs and seek to manage that portfolio, just as one would a financial portfolio to ensure stability and growth.

Fourth, you must be comfortable collecting and using marketplace data to guide decisions about academic programs and planning. Numeracy and an understanding of the context of data are essential.

Fifth, and this one is tricky, you must be as loyal to the students your institution serves as you are to the faculty you lead. You must recognize your responsibility to both internal and external constituencies.

There is one other factor that will contribute to your success—political support. You must have the active, demonstrated, and long-term support of the president, the senior team, and the board. There is perhaps no cow more sacred than the curriculum; to successfully negotiate changes to it will require great care and great support.

Five moves to foster alignment
There are five things you can do to help make your institution as audience-centric as possible and further align your school with the needs of the marketplace.

1) Make the case for change

This means collecting real-time marketplace data and using that data to project a likely future for your institution. It means looking at cost data, student debt data and prospective student data, non-matriculant data, and graduation data. It means delving into your financials and looking at both the cost and revenue sides of the ledger.

Using data rather than opinion, and including as many stakeholders as possible in the discussion, will help develop an impetus for change. Remember, your goal at this point is not consensus. That will never occur. Rather, your goal is functional consensus, the feeling by enough faculty and administrators that the present course is not viable.

2) Assess your existing academic programs

Use the following four dimensions to analyze your current programs: 

  1. Quality
  2. Demand
  3. Cost
  4. Revenue

When we conduct these analyses for our clients, we look at nearly 30 institutional and marketplace variables and then create a graphic that arrays their programs in quadrants:

  • High demand, high quality
  • Low demand, low quality
  • High demand, low quality
  • Low demand, high quality


This visualization allows clients, in one glance, to determine which programs are in greatest demand and which programs are not. Each program is depicted by a colored dot. The color ranges from red to green. Red dots have a less favorable cost-to-revenue ratio, while green dots depict programs that have a more favorable ratio. These datasets—quality, demand, cost, and revenue—allow you to better manage your academic portfolio.

3) Use market research to identify new programs
Using a blend of primary and secondary data, including census and employment data, it is relatively easy to create a list of potential new academic programs that are in demand and programs that are not offered by your competitors.

These analyses are useful for creating a list of potential programs, and this list must be vetted to see which programs are most appropriate for your institution. This brings us to the next idea.

4) Create a business plan for new program development
One client, a provost at a state school, distributes a business plan outline—one that we developed with ideas for new programs—to all faculty and deans. He then sends the completed business plans to us, and we rank them by marketplace interest. This allows the provost to make the best possible decision on which programs to advance. The business plan we developed includes nearly 50 questions placed in four “buckets” (If you would like a copy of this template, let me know. I’d be glad to send one to you.) The buckets are:

  1. Strategic issues
  2. Marketplace issues
  3. Economic and resource issues
  4. Marketing and promotion issues

5) Identify four or five keystone programs
These are the programs that you will market more aggressively than your others.

This strategy is based on a handful of realities. It is better, for example, to focus tight resources on a subset of programs than to spread the resources across an entire curriculum. By concentrating resources on a smaller number of programs, you are more likely to have an impact in the marketplace.

When successful, this approach will almost always boost campus confidence in the idea of a more marketplace-centric approach to academic programming. There really is a “rising tides” effect. It is highly likely that these keystone programs will become very profitable, and all institutions need such programs to help support the programs and areas that do not generate sufficient resources on their own.

As you think about which keystone programs to advance, consider programs that: 

  • Already offer substantial quality
  • Are undersubscribed by prospective students (you have capacity)
  • Are high margin
  • Are of high interest in the marketplace
  • Are not offered by your competitors
  • Have an effective champion in place
  • Have a high barrier to entry for competitors

As you think about building and marketing your keystone programs, you must be willing to allocate a disproportionate level of strategic resources to maintaining or enhancing these programs’ quality. This often includes investment in staffing, facilities, marketing, and scholarships and financial aid.


Today’s chief academic officers are uniquely positioned to help their colleges build and take full advantage of their most important asset—a differentiated curriculum that is valued by the marketplace. Doing so, in many cases, will not be easy. It will require careful analysis, certainty of purpose, and demonstrated political support. At the same time, those who do not recognize the need to take the lead on these issues will miss a tremendous opportunity to move their institutions forward.

On December 3, Dr. Sevier will lead the Magna Online Seminar “Increasing the Marketability of Your Academic Programs.” For information about this program see www.magnapubs.com/catalog/increasing-the-marketability-of-your-academic-programs/

Contact Robert A. Sevier at bob.sevier@stamats.com.

Robert A. Sevier, PhD

Robert A. Sevier, PhD, is the senior vice president for Strategy at Stamats, Inc. With more than 35 years of leadership experience in strategic thinking and planning, integrated and brand marketing, market research, and student recruiting, Sevier’s innovative work has been featured at hundreds of professional conferences as well as in higher education’s major marketing publications, including Currents, Trusteeship (AGB), The Presidency (ACE), University Business, and College & University. He has authored nine books and more than 200 articles on strategy development, strategic planning, integrated marketing, brand marketing, and leadership. His book, Integrated Marketing for Colleges, Universities, and Schools is the most comprehensive book on educational marketing available. After teaching and working as an administrator at The Ohio State University, Denison University, Mount Vernon Nazarene University, and Oregon Health Sciences University, Sevier joined Stamats in 1988.Sevier earned a PhD from The Ohio State University in policy analysis and higher education administration and an MS in journalism/public relations from the University of Oregon.Updated 01-10-2018

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