Adding Project Management Expertise to Higher Education Marketing

Project management know-how is urgently needed in higher education.

Stewarding any project to completion in an efficient and timely fashion in an higher education ecosystem is a well-documented challenge. A more difficult one than it should be. As evidence, consider how many times your higher ed marketing campaigns and initiatives have launched on time and without a hitch. Most higher ed marketers reach such an outcome with rarity rather than regularity.

Why? Because there are too many things that get in the way. Too many voices competing for attention. Too many opinions driving decision making. And too many approvals dragging out timelines.

Many colleges and universities could benefit from a more business-centric approach to operations. Yet, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone talking about project management in higher education institutions. The skill set just isn’t found in most higher ed marketing departments.

Schools that embrace and incorporate modern project management techniques, however, will be better positioned to withstand the new realities being imposed by the looming enrollment cliff. But where do project managers fit in in the world of higher ed marketing? And what benefits do you gain with a greater emphasis on project management for higher education?

Project Manager: The Missing Role in Higher Education

Higher ed marketing projects and campaigns have a multitude of pieces and people involved. Even the simple ones. And university marketing departments rely on several roles and specialties — marketing strategists, designers, copywriters — to create and carry out these projects.

In the business sector, a well-staffed, fully capable marketing team would also include a project manager responsible for the health of the team’s projects. Someone whose entire job it is to keep tabs on the resources, requirements and moving pieces. On college campuses, however, this need is often underappreciated, at best — unacknowledged, at worst.

Too frequently in higher education, the project management role is handed to (and sometimes imposed on) a staff member not prepared for the responsibilities (or willing to carry them out). Sometimes a marketing strategist steps up to lead the charge. Sometimes a team member who’s simply bringing attention to a problem ends up tasked with managing the solution, despite no previous project management job responsibilities. Often, the head of an academic department or unit will assume the project manager role and view it as part of the job’s broader leadership responsibilities.

In most cases, whoever ends up with the project manager hat is not equipped to wear it. Managing a project, especially a large and complex one, is a challenge for anyone not trained and experienced in true project management. A certified project manager knows the methods that keep projects on time and on budget. They also know how to represent the needs of the project to the stakeholders, advisors and core team members.

Without a true project manager, higher ed marketing projects often contend with:

  • Poor communication
  • Inaccurate information
  • Missed deadlines
  • Duplicate work
  • Extra costs

Additionally, without someone to keep an eye on the prize, the scope of higher ed projects can change quickly and dramatically, with old goals suddenly discarded in favor of new ones.

A Leading Voice for the Project Itself

Higher ed marketing projects involve many decision makers. As academics, higher education leaders value debate and a free exchange of ideas. Some of the voices, however, carry more weight than others based on positions they occupy within a department or college. And project decisions and direction can often be swayed by the more influential voices.

We’ve talked previously about the tendency of higher ed leaders to discount the value of marketing expertise. On many campuses, a similar blind spot exists for project management as a professional vocation. They might mean well, but, without expertise in marketing and project management, an academic dean’s preferences are more likely to veer a marketing project off course than help it reach the finish line faster. Those preferences may take into account the needs of a pet academic program, for example, but fail to consider how limited marketing resources might impact other program areas.

It doesn’t help that some department heads view project management as a simple organizational function, often considering it a leadership opportunity any ambitious staffer should be motivated to undertake. With such a perspective, assigning managerial responsibility for an important project isn’t seen as adding onto an already past-capacity workload, it’s viewed as fostering personal growth in leadership capacity.

And while project managers do have to be excellent leaders, there is a lot more to the skill set than that. Marketing project managers have to be outstanding tacticians, strategists and politicians. They have to have an expert-level understanding of all the details and nuances of various marketing specialties and disciplines. On top of all that, they have to be outstanding communicators.

In fact, experienced project managers know that communication is job one. They take into account the voices of the SMEs (subject matter experts) and stakeholders, and respect the perspective they provide. But, at the end of the day, a project manager is the leading spokesperson for the project itself.

Project Management in the Academic Landscape

Project managers are common in a variety of industries, especially marketing and business. However, for project management to succeed in higher education, it’s best to combine the skill set with some work experience in academia.

Higher education leaders are not business executives. Nor do they fit the mold of other non-profit leaders. Project managers in higher ed institutions have to understand the dynamics and realities of working with faculty, researchers, administrative staff, students and other key groups on campus. It’s also helpful to be familiar with academic financial systems as it relates to budgeting. A project manager with higher ed experience should know how to schedule projects during an academic calendar year instead of a business fiscal year, for example.

Having certified project managers in every higher ed marketing department would be an ideal outcome. However, schools are struggling to meet staffing needs in most areas due to pandemic-related hiring challenges. But you don’t need to wait for the professional project management cavalry to arrive. Get the ball rolling by widely sharing project management best practices within your marketing team and among your school’s executive leadership.

All schools have to do more with less these days. Adding project management know-how can help you operate a more efficient marketing department by:

  • Creating clarity and structure for your projects
  • Identifying a decision-making process
  • Establishing open lines of communication
  • Filtering excessive stakeholder input
  • Focusing your marketing team on marketing tasks (instead of political ones)
  • Preventing scope creep (extending projects beyond original goals)

Ultimately, project management expertise helps your department save time and money. Getting those unwanted administrative or communication-oriented tasks off your marketing staffs’ plates can also do wonders for team morale.

Prioritize Project Management in Higher Education

The need for standout marketing in higher education is only growing. Many higher ed marketing departments are already stretched beyond capacity and struggling to keep up. A more structured, business-centric approach to project management is how higher ed marketing teams can rise to the challenge.