New Study Reveals Shifts in Marketing Investments at Colleges and Universities

Lipman Hearne, a US-based marketing and communications firm serving the nonprofit sector, and by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) recently partnered on a new study called “Marketing Spending at Colleges and Universities.” The study shows that colleges and universities are diversifying their marketing strategies to include a mix of time-honored and new-generation tactics. From a greater focus on research and benchmarking and more strategic use of new media to employing established methods of print publications, institutions are using blended strategies that are paying off in terms of greater visibility, increased alumni giving, and higher quality applicants, among other indicators.

“In the last five years there’s been a much greater interest in proof, in validation, and in testing,” says Donna Van De Water, COO, director of research at Lipman Hearne, and one of the study’s authors. “Marketers need to be able to show that their investments are going to have a payoff, whether it’s in increasing enrollments or generating a higher profile. Having the metrics helps an institution understand where it sits relative to competitors, how to better manage reputation, how to shape messages, and how to maximize resources.”

Key findings in the survey:

  • Interactive and social media budgets are growing. Between FY2008 and FY2009, 55 percent of institutions surveyed allocated more to interactive; and 52 percent allocated more to social media.
  • Institutions that invested more in social media were more likely to report positive outcomes in three important areas: website hits, positioning, and rates of alumni giving.
  • Moderate-to-heavy users of social media were actually spending less per student overall on marketing activities. The moderate-to-heavy investors spent $83 per student, and the light-to-non-investors spent $121 per student.
  • While interactive and social media budgets were on the rise, traditional advertising budgets were on the wane. The study found that more than one-third of the institutions allocated less to traditional advertising in FY2009 than they did in FY2008 (35 percent). And 42 percent of moderate-to-heavy social media users spent less on traditional advertising compared to the prior year.
  • Institutions continue to rely on print publications. Of those surveyed, 55 percent spent the same portion of their budget on print publications in FY2009 as they did in FY2008. In fact, more than one-quarter of marketing budgets went toward print publications, more than any other category.
  • Among institutions that were moderate-to-heavy investors in market research and strategy—those who devoted at least 6 percent of their marketing budget to these activities—71 percent reported that marketing efforts had a positive impact on the quality of their applicants. Other positive outcomes were seen in brand management and positioning.
  • Though marketing spending has decreased at some institutions in the short term, marketing spending has increased substantially over the last decade. According to an earlier study, in FY2001, the median marketing spending for a midsized college or university (2,000-5,999 students) was $259,400 (or $321,900, adjusted for inflation). Not even a decade later, that figure rises to $800,000—an increase of more than 100 percent.

The study separates colleges and universities into types and sizes: liberal arts colleges, master’s-level universities, research institutions, and two-year institutions, as well as a number of independent primary and secondary schools. Results were collected from February 1 to March 19, 2010, in a detailed, online survey completed by representatives at 212 CASE member institutions.