Digital Marketing

College Internet Marketing: In-House or Outsource?

Steve Wolgemuth | Feb 10, 2012

The biggest question that comes up on campus, either in the marketing/communications office, the alumni affairs office, or the admissions department, “Do we need to hire someone to help us with digital marketing or should we do it ourselves?” As in most cases of black and white, neither extreme is typically the wisest, and a college’s decision in this matter may be a telling indicator of their culture. “We think we’re smarter than other folks so we can do this ourselves,” or “That’s not in my job description so we need to outsource this.”

Over the past six years I’ve had numerous discussions with several colleges and universities about Internet marketing. While those anecdotal experiences, and my following of reports and blogs on this subject over the years may not make me an expert, I believe I’ve gained a few insights that may help you become one – particularly if you are a decision maker at a college with between 400 and 10,000 enrolled students.

From what I’ve observed, colleges that take all digital marketing work in-house or rely heavily on outside vendors will miss important opportunities. Colleges that are relying completely on vendors for paid search, search engine optimization, or social media services may be thinking too much about the short term, and doing so at the expense of the college’s future. While the college’s immediate needs are being served, it will always be dependent on vendors outside their walls which may or may not align with their culture, or speak the right language of their brand.

Recently I was asked to help develop a five year digital plan for a college. After I picked myself up from the floor from laughing, I politely pointed out that Facebook was only seven years old. How are we supposed to project five years in the future? We might have servers on the moon by then.

With more thought, I realized that while platforms may come and go, the digital revolution is here, now. And while it may become more mobile and location relevant, the shift has happened enough so that we can actually develop strategies. But those strategies aren’t built on any currently popular channels, they point to the urgent need to develop a web savvy workforce, armed with great written communication skills, social media literacy, and digital familiarity. Those strategies craft a culture of learning new skills and working together as a unified brand. After all, with everyone “talking” the brand is no longer tightly managed by the communications office. Too much outsourcing means not developing a broad, well-trained, digitally savvy culture on campus.

Building a digitally savvy culture on campus requires buy-in all the way from the college president, to the grass-roots interns, tweeting at sports games. It means broad cross-campus participation that overcomes department lines and budget disputes. Success stories, whether with conservative approaches or edgy marketing experiments, align with a brand and a content/search strategy. These are rarely achieved with in-house efforts. Why?

Unless you’re fortunate enough to be in the lucky 10%, your leadership doesn’t tweet and doesn’t embrace the appropriate budgeting for social media. Your leader hasn’t been prepared to lead in digital. Your HR folks are listening to their legal counsel and drafting “policies” for social media participation destined to shut it down (instead of rewriting job descriptions that describe online participation). You’ve probably got a department(s) on campus whose leader still isn’t using Facebook. You probably have no plan for cross department training on popular social platforms, and you are probably missing out on hundreds of thousands of in-bound searches for your course offerings. You are probably relying on your employees to do something that isn’t their core competency.

If you’re a decision maker considering an outside vendor for social media services, search engine optimization, paid search or mobile marketing, I’d suggest that you consider both your near-term and long-term needs as you decide. Consider a vendor relationship agreement that brings valuable “right-now” solutions to problems you can’t fix, but also long-term empowerment/training for campus staff. If you interview vendors that want to serve you without empowering you, steer away.

You might also consider how you might strengthen the digital culture of your college/university from the top down. Chances are, your leaders don’t have the insights they need to monitor, support and evaluate (reward) your Internet marketing efforts. So, while it may feel uncomfortable to do so, you might consider the idea of getting an independent  assessment of the college’s digital participation and share it with the college’s leadership. An independent vendor will be more objective and can be key in getting you a realistic share of budget to carry out your marketing objectives online.

Deciding on a partnership for Internet marketing vs. doing the work in-house shouldn’t be a black or white decision. Do you best to create a blended approach by finding vendors that provide Internet marketing services, but also contribute to your in-house potential.