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Marketing Post-Covid: Jeff Harmon, Chief Communications & Marketing Officer, University of Arkansas

Transcript

Brian Erickson:
Thanks for joining the ‎Cardwell Beach Marketing Podcast. My name is Brian Erickson, Chief Strategy Officer and partner at Cardwell Beach. In this series, we’re interviewing senior marketers across industries to develop perspective on what marketing will look like in a post COVID-19 world, which is hopefully coming soon now that we have some vaccines rolling out to the public here. Today’s guest is Jeff Harmon, Chief Communications and Marketing Officer at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and an adjunct instructor in digital marketing at the University of Illinois. Jeff, thanks so much for joining us today.

Jeff Harmon:
Thank you. I appreciate you having me.

Brian Erickson:
Let’s jump into how you’ve been weathering the storm and it’s been quite a long storm. The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way that universities do business, both from attracting students to managing classes and keeping campuses safe. So you’ve certainly had your work cut out for you. How has the pandemic changed your approach to marketing? And I’m sure it’s gone through a couple of different phases. What does that look like for you?

Jeff Harmon:
Well, interestingly, it seems that it would be unnatural for a MarCom team to be able to work remotely and get the job done easily. But so many things change operationally as we disperse from campus at least for a few months. And we found out that we really cherish those face-to-face meetings, the instant collaboration you can have in the hallway. It’s just not the same as pulling up a Google Hangout or a Zoom meeting. They’re just not impromptu. So we found that some of our creativity was taken away. We also moved into a really neat space on our campus, well, during the middle of this thing and haven’t been able to take advantage of it. So it’s been interesting. We have hit our stride. We haven’t really missed a beat, but I still feel like we would be a bit more tight-knit team if we were in person.

Brian Erickson:
It’s interesting. Obviously your internal dynamic has had to change and you have a lot of different stakeholders and your team are definitely an important group of folks there. How has the pandemic changed the way that you reach out to external stakeholders, let’s say prospective students, families, and changed the nature of that conversation for you?

Jeff Harmon:
Sure, really I would say that the channels pretty much stayed very similar. But the way we utilize the different channels has changed and also the messaging. We have found that we were really worried and the research showed that a lot of students chose to go nowhere this last fall. So the pandemic caused them to take a pause or perhaps take a break. So we have been doing some marketing that we normally wouldn’t do pretty heavily to hopefully convince some of the folks that took a break or decided not to go this semester to consider us for spring.
And I think a lot of folks that might have been coming in as freshmen or had planned to might not realize that they could still start that same degree program mid-year and it would not be a problem. So we’re trying to get that message out and that has helped a lot. We’ve done that across multiple channels, tried some A/B testing with some different messaging. And still we did increase our digital spend a little bit, more Google display, more OTT. As we know, people are at home streaming like crazy. We want our brand in front of them during commercials. So those things have changed a bit.

Brian Erickson:
And have you found that there’s been any shift in your balance of, let’s call it, brand building versus more transactional or performance tactics?

Jeff Harmon:
That is a great question. Typically we’re always doing both the brand and trying to acquire students/customers. I would say we went a little bit more, for the last three months, a bit more toward the student acquisition messaging. We’ve never really taken our foot off the pedal for brand. It’s just that we really increased our spend to try to acquire students for spring.
Brian Erickson:
It was unexpected when everybody dispersed and started going to remote learning and whatnot. How did you communicate during that phase very early on where I imagine you guys had to make a big shift and change your model?

Jeff Harmon:
Interestingly, internal and external were pretty challenging. Internally, students were very resistant and so were parents. But we are much less of a traditional on-campus residency-type student population compared to, let’s say, the flagship university of Arkansas, Fayetteville or University of Illinois, or some big land-grant school. We had a little bit less of a problem, a little bit smaller problem, making folks happy. Once they realized that we were doing everything we could to change modalities and make it as engaging as possible at the last minute to keep folks safe, I think that people became, should I say, satisfied with the effort. So that has gone pretty well. And I think as a result we built quite a bit of trust with our current students with regards to that.
Now, as far as new student marketing goes, we really did shift our message to, and it’s ongoing too, our classes never stopped. It is one of our taglines now. Online. Hybrid. Face-to-face. So we’re trying to make sure that people know that we’re here for them. One way or the other, they’re going to get their courses delivered and be able to continue moving toward earning that degree.

Brian Erickson:
Looking to the future, do you think a lot of those shifts are going to stick in a post COVID-19 world, or do you anticipate that we’re going to largely return to the way things were pre-COVID in the education sphere, at least? Certainly not as a society as a whole. And what are some of the lessons learned from the pandemic that you feel are really important to ideally carry forward?

Jeff Harmon:
I think we have found out that most of us, our organizations are definitely more nimble than we thought they were. Especially when people think of higher ed as being a giant government behemoths that can’t turn on a dime. As it turns out we may have surprised ourselves and the marketplace in how well we pulled this off and did a good job doing so. So most of us, at least at my institution, are pretty happy with what we’ve done. I think the students still would like a chance to learn face-to-face when they want to.
And I don’t think that this is going to be a permanent change. I really believe that those traditional populations, they just still want what they want, especially the younger age groups. They’re going to want to have that on-campus experience. But I think that the ones that were, let’s say, perhaps the students that could go either way, but just had not been exposed to the online modality. I think those students, they may be more apt to switch or consider switching to a fully online degree program or something more hybrid-based. But in truth, though, I think we’re still going to see there’s still a huge demand for that face-to-face experience, that they get that socialization that we all know the 18-to-22-year-olds are looking for.

Brian Erickson:
And you’re probably not going to continue sending out branded university masks as part of your orientation kit, I would guess.

Jeff Harmon:
I’m hoping we don’t have to. My gosh. You know what’s funny? We’ve had a lot of requests through our licensing system for people to be able to make masks with our logo on it. And we’ve had to finally start denying some of those because we really don’t know what quality they are and we don’t want our brand associated with some mask that might not do a good job. Not that any of them do a fantastic job, but we want to try to get our brand on the best ones possible. So it’s interesting.

Brian Erickson:
That’s interesting. I haven’t thought of it in that level of granularity, as I’m sure that you have. But that’s a new challenge that sprung up and you had to deal with, and the nimbleness aspect is certainly important when faced with things like that, that you wouldn’t have thought of in 2019.

Jeff Harmon:
Oh my gosh, no, you’re right.

Brian Erickson:
Looking forward, let’s say we’re two years out, five years out. Obviously higher ed was on a trajectory where there were going to be some changes coming down the pipe, regardless. But what do you see coming now as the future of universities and higher education in general? How will things, in your view, progress?

Jeff Harmon:
Well, what’s interesting is, I started out my career in higher ed with University of Illinois Online and then helped launch ASU Online at Arizona State. And I really thought that we’d be moving more quickly toward that modality much more quickly than we have. I think I’ve come to the realization that maybe technology is not going to be that disruptor in higher ed, but something else will. And perhaps COVID, and the realization that these things can happen will force us to think in different ways.
And honestly, I haven’t quite witnessed or thought I have witnessed something that is going to help us see what the future might look like yet in higher education. I do think there’s many other issues that are outside of this realm that I think are going to affect it. And a lot of it is funding and affordability, the student loan situation, all those things. I think we have to make education more affordable for the masses and be a better advocate for social mobility. And ironically, we are the highest ranked school in our state for providing social mobility for students. So that’s been neat. But we really have to all get together and figure out how to keep the cost of higher education from increasing so dramatically as it has the last 20, 25 years.

Brian Erickson:
Yeah, definitely. I’m sure a major challenge. I can’t even imagine. The operational aspects of running a university can’t be cheap. But there’s what the market can bear and what the operational costs are. So I’m not envious of your industry in figuring that challenge out. I definitely agree that the pandemic has, we’ve been using the term pandemic time warp there, in terms of some trends just accelerating five, 10, 20 years of progress in the course of a year and other things slowing down. Definitely some of the tech aspects and online learning and whatnot have accelerated. So it’s certainly interesting to see that in your space. And in terms of the shift to digital, with folks spending more time online right now, could you unpack a little bit more when you talk about having a presence on streaming and getting your brand in front of people and emphasizing your presence there, your brand in front of people and emphasizing what channels you’re emphasizing?

Jeff Harmon:
Sure, sure. Well, so as far as the over the top, which is a term that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. But sometimes our terms in advertising don’t make sense, like outdoor is billboard. But anyway, so the OTT, the streaming advertising, we think is really big and it’s going to be huge in the future as people cut the cords, rely more on just the high bandwidth of their house and then streaming through whatever it is, Hulu or Netflix doesn’t have ads. But all those different possibilities and all the free channels out there on Roku TVs and whatnot. That’s really where we see the future being. And also the interactivity capability that’s coming with that kind of advertising. The ability to interact with it like you’re on a phone or on a laptop or a computer is really going to be impactful. And that’s great from a metric and tracking standpoint as well. So we think that’s important.

And then of course, YouTube is just huge and it’s not going away for so many reasons. And we want to have a bigger presence there where we can control who’s seeing it and when, et cetera. And we’re moving a little bit away from typical broadcast media. But the people that we did use to book our over the top placement is actually one of our local stations. And they’re a national company and they do have a streaming service called Premion. And there are several good ones to choose from. But these folks did a nice job for us. And so that’s become more their role. And they’re also looking for other ways to stabilize their revenue. And so them getting into digital ad spend and being an agency is important for them as well.

Those two channels, YouTube, and then streaming is really where we think we’re going to be increasing our spend moving forward. Now, we will continue to take a look at channels that have been around for a long time, even direct mail, as there becomes a little bit more room in the mailbox these days. An odd-shaped mail piece with some enhanced printing and there’s a new thing called clickable paper that Ricoh has. And it turns any image into what might be a QR code and can have people that can take their camera and just move directly to a particular landing page and things like that. So they’re trying to innovate as well.
And so we’ll try other things, but we’re trying to be where the audience is. We’re doing more geo-fencing around high schools and things like that with display ads. But the thing about that is right now we have paused those campaigns because we would have a lot of wasted clicks when there’s nobody at the schools. I’m sorry. Wait, I should say wasted impressions, I should say. So we paused those, but those are pretty cool. So you’d be able to really pinpoint a high school and target the device IDs of all the juniors and seniors. It’s frightening and wonderful at the same time.

Brian Erickson:
I would agree with both of those. I recently watched the Social Dilemma on Netflix and I can see the frightening aspect of that. But from a marketer’s standpoint, definitely some hyper targeting benefits to that. So that’s pretty awesome. And it sounds like you guys are really on the cutting edge with a lot of tactics that you’re using. And glad to hear that you’ve got some traditional media folks that are looking to get in the game on OTT and boost their streaming media buys as well. Got to stay competitive on that front as well. Looking at your 2021 plan and looking at your 2020 plan coming into the year, what are the major differences that you think are going to roll out in ’21 versus ’20?

Jeff Harmon:
Interestingly, we will shift some budget. We already had started this, but shifting more budget toward digital over time. And then I would say that the most important thing I’ve learned is the messaging. And so we also launched a bit of a new brand just before the COVID happened. We’d gone through a long process of identifying new messaging and new messaging strategy. Unfortunately, we couldn’t launch it the way we wanted to because now we all of a sudden had to focus our efforts on making sure people knew what was our strategy for delivering our product to the students during this challenging time. And I think we’re going to have to continue to innovate the way we talk about what we’re doing and how it’s as good as everybody else. But also perhaps unique to our target audience, which is more of an urban city area instead of a small college town feel. So it’s a little bit different. So we’ve got to completely got to be ready to shift pretty quickly to different messaging.

Brian Erickson:
Looking at ’21 and moving into the future, how is your marketing mix going to be a little bit different, maybe coming into 2020 before all of this happened? Where are you going to make some adjustments and make some shifts?

Jeff Harmon:
Well, we’re definitely going to be continuing our gradual move to increasing our spend, or percentage of spend, to more digital. We literally just started the over the top streaming stuff, really just a few months ago. That’s going to probably increase dramatically after we get our feet wet and understand how to track well and A/B testing. But that said, we’re really going to have to be cognizant of our messaging. And I think that continuing to relay to prospective students and current students alike that here are the things that are upcoming. Here are the changes that we’re making in our modalities here. Here’s how we’re making your courses more easy to access, also more engaging and why you would want to continue your studies here rather than transfer or why you’d like to come here rather than somewhere else that might not be as good at doing this as we are.

So I think that COVID has made us rethink how to do things and also how to even talk about how we’re doing things. That’s a challenge because so much of it is new and changing constantly. We just need to make sure we know how to describe and how to discuss what makes us stand out. Besides the typical brand elements that we’ve uncovered during the last year and have started to launch, now we need to shift and think more about what’s happening right now and how does that affect us.

Brian Erickson:
Nimbleness has definitely been the name of the game in 2020, for sure. And I think what we’ve seen with our clients and just even having conversations like this with folks is if you have really clearly defined brand values and principles and a positioning that you’ve owned for years in the past, that has in some ways maybe, seemingly a little bit counter-intuitively, enabled some of that nimbleness. If you have those pillars that are locked down, you can pivot around them and allow, have a framework in place to make decisions really quickly, even if you don’t know what those decisions are going to be.

Jeff Harmon:
That’s right. I agree.

Brian Erickson:
So looking to the future, if you could give one piece of advice to university marketing departments right now and going into ’21, what would you say is most important to stay focused on?

Jeff Harmon:
I would say, just keep your minds open, continue to collaborate across all kinds of different departments and people. Be nimble, like you and I both mentioned on this call. And also I think something that we’re finally launching here are some dashboards for transparency. Using, whether it’s Google Data Studio, Tableau, custom solution, whatever. Share your information, share your data. Show the institutional organization that you work for how you make decisions based on data, and that you have the best interests of every single dollar and also investment in time spent and capital labor spent to implement your plans. You’re basing what you do on the success of what you do daily. So I just think it’s really important to make sure people can see how you’re making these decisions in a responsible way.

Brian Erickson:
That’s great and interesting too, you bring up dashboards. I would be curious, how do you deal with the mountains of data and disparate sources that you’re dealing with and what do you look at and what do you just ignore and leave in the mountains of information that you could look at?

Jeff Harmon:
Well, that’s a huge question. Because I do have a couple of digital folks on our team. But their capabilities are more about media placement than they are about building the dashboards and really setting that stuff up. So we did outsource that work. But that is enabling us to be able to get what we really need. A lot of times it sounds so great and easy to set up the goals and the tags and Google Analytics and all those sorts of things and then retargeting codes and all those sorts of things. But to have that stuff done right from the ground up so you can trust that it’s working and then passing that data into some more easily digestible formats, so that not just you or a couple of people on your team can understand that. But perhaps the chancellor or the president or a vice chancellor can actually understand, see the campaigns, the sources, pass those UTM codes and all that data into the hidden fields, that RFI form, that was MRFI actually, and then dump that into a CRM, so we can really get some almost real time ROI.

We’re not doing e-commerce obviously because our ROI goes up over time, every time someone re-enrolls or signs up for courses each semester until they graduate. We can look at the average value over the lifetime of a student and extrapolate the real ROI based on our efforts. And so I just think that I got lost in that answer there. But I get really excited about the data. And this is the first time in five institutions that I’ve really been able to get everybody on board with doing this the right way, like a company would that has the wherewithal to make it happen. So we’re going to be one of the more well-equipped, I think, MarCom teams at higher ed pretty soon.

Brian Erickson:
That’s pretty fantastic. Obviously a data nerd over here as well. And I think in your instance, it can be difficult to convince people to get on board with just even defining a lifetime value of a student. And also you have online elements and offline elements to your marketing mix. Like you mentioned, it’s not e-commerce. So tying that conversion all the way through to the actual admission of a student, it’s great to hear that you guys are doing all of that and really prioritizing that. That’s super exciting.

Jeff Harmon:
It is for us too. Thanks for saying that.

Brian Erickson:
So that’s some advice to folks that are on a university marketing team, and I think that’s fantastic advice. As we continue to forge ahead into uncharted territory, there are still quite a few people in our industry and in marketing roles that are unemployed as a result of the pandemic. And what advice would you give to marketing and digital executives who find themselves as free agents in your industry right now? How can they best position themselves and their skillsets for this moment, given some of the areas that you feel are important to emphasize?

Jeff Harmon:
I think that something important. I’ve had a break in my career by myself, and I think it’s important to not think that well, gosh, I’ve really got to just concentrate on finding the next gig. And the thing is, I think the best thing for us to do is to keep our minds active and get to work immediately, whether it’s building your own website, becoming an entrepreneur with something that you have a passion for. Try to do that. Also look at Upwork and Toptal and Fiverr and some of those and just put your name out there so you can stay busy on some projects and do some consulting in that way. I just think it’s best to stay busy. And of course keep that LinkedIn profile up to date. That doesn’t hurt at all.
But I think people are better off just trying to do something that keeps them excited and to not let this environment get them down because it certainly could. I think even those of us that are working and really busy, we also. I wake up and think, gosh, this is such a strange situation and I really don’t enjoy it every day like I did two years ago. But look at all the people that can’t even say that. So they’re not at work and so doing something and continuing to get paid for it. So just stay busy. I think that’s the best thing, keeps the mind active.

Brian Erickson:
Absolutely. And make a little cash on the side while you do it. I think it’s a great way to not rush into a situation that might not be the ultimate long-term best fit for you. It allows you to slow your burn rate there and be a little bit more thoughtful about the opportunity that you do end up accepting when you find it. That’s some great advice. Awesome. Well, Jeff, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today. I really appreciate it.

Jeff Harmon:
Thank you. I enjoyed it.

Brian Erickson:
This is Brian Erickson with Cardwell Beach. Thanks again for listening. And please make sure to check back for more senior marketers sharing their perspectives on what marketing will look like in a post COVID-19 world.

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