How Universities Can Engage More Effectively with Business

Business and higher education are ideal partners.

It’s far easier to be successful in business with ready access to smart, efficient, well-educated employees. And the ability to tap into the resources of a vast network of corporate supporters makes it easier for universities to create and foster an attractive environment for education and innovation.

From research partnerships to employment opportunities for graduates, corporations and higher ed institutions have the potential to help each other meet a number of critical goals.


Yet, despite these seemingly natural ties, schools have not always done a great job speaking to their business counterparts. The truth is, higher education marketing efforts rarely hit it out of the park when it comes to wooing corporate interest.

So, what can academic institutions do to better engage with corporate America?

Marketing is only as effective as the knowledge of your prospects. The key to making inroads with potential corporate partners may simply be to know them better.

How do Universities and Businesses Help Each Other?

Institutions of higher learning and businesses share many things in common, starting with their communities and the people they serve. It’s in the interests of both groups to expand economic and academic opportunities for their local constituents. In some schools’ cases (land grant universities), that’s actually specified in the charter.

College graduates contribute to a better, more impactful workforce, which, in turn, leads to smarter and more efficient businesses and products. This, in theory, helps to raise the standard of living and drives more economic development in the area. Subsequently, those attracted to the area, in turn send their children to local colleges and universities.

Economic growth lifts up everyone, and the best way to achieve and sustain it is through high-quality education. Education and economic growth and opportunity go hand in hand.

That’s the big picture. But how do higher education institutions and local businesses specifically benefit from their relationships with each other?

Why Schools Want to Connect with Business

Universities are complex organizations. While educating students may be the primary mission, it is by no means the only one.

Research universities, for example, are very much concerned with recruiting the best researchers to their faculty and being on the cutting edge of innovation. Business schools are often committed to fostering more entrepreneurship opportunities in their communities. And there are always expansion and development projects that require substantial fundraising.

Growing relationships within the local business community can be extremely advantageous in helping to advance that long list of priorities that university leaders are tasked with managing. These relationships can help secure:

  • Research partnerships and the licensing of intellectual property
  • Fundraising and development milestones
  • Sponsorships for key programs and initiatives
  • Student placement for internships
  • Hiring opportunities for graduates

Actualizing these goals help schools elevate their brands and raise awareness in critical audiences. And a more prestigious brand tends to see success in meeting academic recruitment targets, attracting top faculty and securing other key resources.

However, achieving these goals is harder, if not completely impossible, without partnering with the business community.

But, let’s not forget, businesses need help with accomplishing some of their goals, too. Business leaders are just as much on the lookout for productive partnerships as you are. And they often view colleges and universities as effective and convenient partners. They’re looking for you to market to them — which means, they are qualified leads.

So, Why the Struggle?

We know that the business community can be a critical ally. Why then do higher ed marketing departments sometimes miss the mark with their attempts to reach business leaders?

There are a few reasons.

Reason #1: Businesses and corporations aren’t students and parents

Schools tend to be pretty good at talking to prospective students — which should be the case, since students are a school’s primary target audience. Most university editorial calendars are, in fact, set around the recruitment cycle. And schools’ marketing staff probably have the academic, geographic and socioeconomic attributes of their incoming freshman class memorized.

Corporate and business leaders, on the other hand, are a less familiar demographic. Which brings us to…

Reason #2: Academic leaders aren’t profit-driven

People from different organizational environments have vastly different motivations, priorities and ways of operating. It’s no secret, for instance, that business cultures put a higher priority on moving quickly and more directly to meet goals than academic environments.

While a more business-centric mindset is slowly starting to take root in higher education, most university leaders still embrace and facilitate an academic or non-profit culture. That mindset trickles down to most higher ed marketing departments, as well. And while organizational culture differences don’t always stand in the way of a good partnership being formed, they don’t necessarily smooth the way, either.

For example, in seeking a corporate partner for a research initiative, it isn’t uncommon for a school to just publish the research priorities on its website and expect prospects to arrive.

Such an indirect, passive approach is rarely pursued in the business world. A potential prospect from the business community might reasonably expect at least a call-to-action to help orient them to the step they should take next.

And this relates to…

Reason #3: Marketing Dollars Are Short

Ideally, there’d be a senior marketing employee, if not a team, charged with executing a more professional approach to making inroads in the business community. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case in higher education settings. With marketing dollars spread thin at most schools, there’s no guarantee that the required resources and sufficient time are appropriated to help zero in on the right way to target this critical market segment.

What does all this lead to? All these issues end up in the all-too-familiar marketing mistake of acting without understanding.

How to Better Calibrate Your Outreach Efforts

Without knowing anything about the contacts (audience) you’re trying to cultivate, it’s difficult to find and establish effective partnerships.

After all, you don’t just blindly throw a dart in hopes of hitting bullseye. To get it right, you apply precision — and, if you’re just starting out in darts, a good amount of calibration. Same goes for approaching an unfamiliar target audience.

To get it right, you have to have the right message — calibration starts with knowing your targets better.

As such, you must first define and understand your audience. Then you identify the strategies and tactics that might work best for this select group of people. And only after that do you take the shot.

The Business Marketing Persona

The best way to define your specific business audience is by making a model of your ideal prospect. That’s where the marketing persona comes in.

Business personas are a great resource. They don’t require much capital investment (just time and labor), but have potential for huge ROI.

Personas for business audiences allow you to zero in on appropriate messaging and the right mix of marketing strategies and tactics. This, in turn, helps you to position your school more effectively in the business community. More than that, a persona gives you a (somewhat) “real” person to help calibrate your approach.

Anatomy of an Effective Business Persona

There are a million different persona templates out there tracking many different traits and attributes. Which ones are the important ones?

There’s no need to get overly complicated. You need just a few key characteristics in order to create a nice, well-rounded picture of your audience. In our opinion, a well-crafted persona should include:

  • A title (defining role/relationship)
  • A narrative description
  • Demographics
  • Psychographics
  • Motivations/needs
  • Entry points
  • Suggested calls to action

Having this information documented is key to executing effective, strategic marketing efforts. And to be impactful in the real world, it helps to also base at least some of these details (to start) on your real contacts in the business community.

As you get better at marketing to this group, you’ll meet more prospects. This will help you to continue to build out and refine your personas, making them more accurate, more real and even more effective at driving the right marketing strategy. Brand positioning, tone and voice, distribution channels and other marketing decisions are much easier to make when you have an accurate representation of your audience in mind.

And there’s no doubt that better informed decisions yield better results.

Crafting Effective Personas

The best kind of a relationship is a mutually beneficial one. As such, it’s important to create personas that accurately represent the needs and motivations of your target audience. These needs have to align with the needs of your school — or the needs of the specific project or initiative — in order to ensure the right fit with a potential partner.

If your target audience is wide-ranging, like the business community, it may be helpful to create a few different personas to capture the diversity of the market segment. However, you don’t want to create an endless stream of them. Three to five personas is about right. And keep in mind that your personas will not be perfect from the get-go. You’ll need to continually revisit them about every six months or so as you learn more about your target audience.

Personas are integral to improving your understanding of your potential partners in the business world and boosting the effectiveness of your marketing efforts aimed at this important community.

Getting Better at Business Community Outreach

Corporate partnerships are incredibly helpful assets for any school. But it’s difficult to create and sustain these mutually beneficial relationships without a serious, thoughtful and sustainable marketing strategy. If you want to improve your odds of success, make sure your outreach efforts are based on real, in-depth knowledge of your potential partners.

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