Episode 57: Challenging the Enrollment Cliff & The Role of CMO in Higher Ed with Carrie Phillips

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Shiro Hatori
Hello, everyone. Welcome to the higher ed demand gen podcast hosted by concept 3d. My name is Shiro. And today, I’m really excited to talk about the role of the CMO in higher ed, and how regional universities can challenge the enrollment cliff. And for that, I’m thrilled to introduce our guest. Today, she’s serving as CMO at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Welcome to the podcast. Carrie,

Carrie Phillips
thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here. And really looking forward to the conversation on the enrollment cliff and the role of the CMO.

Shiro Hatori
Love to hear and I do, I’m gonna say love again, twice in a row. But what do you love about higher ed, I asked all my guests this as an icebreaker.

Carrie Phillips
Absolutely. Um, so I will start kind of going backwards. My grandfather was a child of the Depression, he was the oldest of eight. And so at the end of his seventh grade year, his family came home and said, you know, with this, the depression the country is in unfortunately, you’re not going to the eighth grade, you’re going to have to stay and work on the farm, so that you and your brothers and sisters have something to eat. And so my grandfather was very much robbed of education and moving forward as he was a laborer and very skilled. He always pushed education for my my father and my uncle, and really wanted that for them. And so both of the boys graduated from high school. And they both went on to a local community college and then went to a university as well. And the thing that I’m so proud of is they both earned their masters and their doctorates and became university professors. And so fast forward, I finished my doctorate about a year and a half ago. And what really resonates with me in higher ed is how much it can change the lives of people. I look at the life that my grandfather had and the life that my dad had. And they’re very remarkably different. And the differentiator is, my dad had access to higher education. And so I love that our work and the work that we do, provides that opportunity for families to change the trajectory of their lives for generations to come.

Shiro Hatori
I love that story. That’s inspirational. That’s amazing. Thank you so much for sharing that. Well, with that I’d love for you, for us to jump into our topics today starting with, you know how regional universities can challenge the enrollment cliff. And if I remember correctly, this was also part of your dissertation for doctors. Yeah.

Carrie Phillips
So I looked at this because I think regional publics have some of the most to lose, and some of the most to gain and then enrollment cliff. And so a big piece of the findings out of that is marketing teams specifically have the opportunity to really be this change agent. There, you may have heard about this thing that we haven’t hired, it’s called silos. And so there are all of these different groups that don’t always work together. And so marketing teams work with the entire campus. And so that means we have an opportunity to bring folks together when they need to be together to better the student experience, I can give you an example at a prior institution that I was at, we wanted to map the enrollment journey that a student would take from deciding they were interested, and getting on our website and hitting the Apply button all the way through what would happen when they enrolled on the first day of class. And what we learned is that crossed five divisions and 17 offices. And to no one’s surprise, that process was confusing to the students was difficult for them hard to follow, there were multiple times that different groups were talking to students at this exact same time creating confusion. And so the marketing team decided we’re going to be the ones to bring these folks together. And we started getting all of those offices in to a conversation and just mapping. Step one was just looking at what day are we talking to them? What day? Are you sending your reminder? What day are you sending yours. And it was really eye opening for the entire group to see that we’ve got to work better together. And so I think that was probably one of the biggest pieces that came out of my dissertation is that there are so many opportunities on our campus are things that are siloed that negatively impact the student experience. And because marketing already has so much rapport with folks across campus, we have the opportunity to recognize those and to bring people together to help solve those challenges.

Shiro Hatori
That’s very interesting, better together in it’s interesting you say that marketing actually have this better report across as a department that has cross campus or cross department cross unit collaboration, and that’s why they have both an opportunity and a need to kind of get their foot in the door early.

Carrie Phillips
Absolutely. You know, one of the things that I I work really hard as a marketing leader is making sure that you know, we’ve got a, we are a strategic partner. And that’s how I like to look at things. But we, we partner with the entire campus. And so it’s really making sure that we’re able to do what’s best for the institution and be able to help all of those different areas. And so we’ve set up regular meetings that we meet with admissions, we meet with advancement, we meet with athletics, and we have regular conversations with those offices. And that’s so helpful, because it does help build that collaboration. Because when you walk into that meeting, you hear about someone’s child and what they’re doing or what somebody did on vacation. And so all of a sudden, we’re not these disparate offices that are siloed. But we’re all people. And when we become people, it’s been much easier to all really make sure that we’re on the same team, and working together for our students, which is really the most important thing at the end of the day.

Shiro Hatori
Love that. And so what I’m hearing is, you know, just to get started in connecting some of those silos and opening them up is just setting those meetings and time for conversations to happen, which was not happening before it was happening in limited capacity. Am I hearing that correctly?

Carrie Phillips
Absolutely. You know, one of the things at a prior institution is we started these meetings. And, you know, it’s real easy. And one of the things that I set up that I think probably changed the game is that we had multiple people from both offices. It wasn’t just, you know, director and director or assistant director and assistant director, it was multiple teams. And what that allowed is everybody to understand the mission and the vision of what we were trying to do. But it was also really important for continuity, that if somebody was on vacation, or somebody was out of the office, there were three or four other people from that team that knew about the work that had been in the history had heard the context. And so it allowed us to keep moving every single time we met and continue that work, regardless of if x person or white person had to miss for that day.

Shiro Hatori
All that and I know your focus here was on a regional universities and colleges, was there something like Did you see that four regional universities that silos occurred more? Or like Was there something very specific to that?

Carrie Phillips
I think silos exist in every university, unfortunately. And I think it just happens a little bit out of convenience. That’s one thing that I think the pandemic in some ways made a lot easier is, we now are able to do so much virtually, that it’s so easy to just hop from zoom call to zoom call, without picking up the phone or walking across campus are having that face to face conversation. But I think it’s something every institution that I’ve ever been a part of, and every institution that I’ve had these kinds of conversations with, they’re all struggling with, you know, we operate in these way that we don’t always work together in the way that we need to.

Shiro Hatori
Understood, Yeah, amazing. Or, you know, I’ve also spoken with several regional universities on this podcast. And, you know, they all I hear is very similar sentiment right around, you know, they’re the schools getting impacted the most, I think I’m seeing some colleges like combined into one mass organization, like, are there other things that you think they could be doing differently, to really help set themselves apart, right, become unique from other schools around their area region.

Carrie Phillips
I think the other piece is, you know, regional publics do a lion’s share of the work in terms of educating many of the students that are going to college and after high school. And that’s really who this enrollment Cliff kind of piece looks at. And so I think another part of that is understanding your brand and who you are, and what type of student is going to fit well at your institution. So that’s something that we’ve really worked on it at my institution, you a little rock, to understand what is the kind of student that’s going to fit here culturally, but it’s also looking for the kind of experience that we offer. And so I think the more that’s that marketing teams can help the university tell their brand story in a consistent way, and know what their identifiers are, I think the better off we’re gonna be, you know, we’re nearing a time that we can no longer be all things to all people. We’re gonna have to make choices. I think as institutions about what are the programs that we highlight? What are the programs that we offer? What are the modalities and so as we’re making all of these choices, I think it’s really important that we also think about what types of students that’s going to fit well, and make sure that those are the types of students that we’re engaging. I think that’s just the smart way to think about that, to help set the students up for success because at the end of the day, if they’re expecting X and when they get on campus, and they’re they see why that’s not going to align with what they’re hoping for and what they’re looking for.

Shiro Hatori
That makes perfect sense. Yes. And, you know, kind of moving things to the next page here around, you know, your role here, as CMO, again, a title that probably barely existed 10 years ago, but it’s a, it’s a topic that keeps coming up, I had a call with Rob Zipkin, the other week around his beliefs on the CMO, I’d love to learn a little bit more about your story, and also specific for you a little rock, because I know it’s a newly created position as well. So I’d love to learn a little bit more of that about that there.

Carrie Phillips
Absolutely. So this is my first time in the CMO role. And here at UA Little Rock, they, you know, recognize that marketing is an important part of what we do. And so they’ve always had kind of this VP of marketing type of roller, a VP, however you whatever your org chart looks like. But I think there’s been an understanding that in the community, this is how businesses this is how our industry partners, how our corporate partners, this is what their organizational chart looks like. And we’ve got to be able to be nimble and adapt to be able to have conversations that others are going to understand and relate to. It’s the same, I think, in a lot of ways to how institutions sometimes, you know, get away from from titles that a first generation student might not understand. I think the work is still very important. And I think the title reflects that the University understands that we’ve got to change how we think about marketing and communications, and really be forward thinking and proactive if we’re going to continue to be successful.

Shiro Hatori
Absolutely, yeah, I completely agree. And do you has the reporting up change at all, with that shift in creation of a new title as well,

Carrie Phillips
the reporting has not changed, necessarily, I think the biggest change is the understanding that this is an internal and an external position. You know, historically, most offices were a communications shop. And so they focused a lot on telling stories and internally communicating news. And I think that’s certainly part of what this role is. But there’s also an understanding of we should be out in the community telling our story, we should be advertising, we should be getting the work out there. And so that’s helped me from the internal side, is to make sure that we’ve got the right people in the right seats on the bus on the staffing side, to be able to tell both sides of that story.

Shiro Hatori
Gotcha. And I assume you’re also very involved with enrollment and admissions and, you know, marketing to prospective students as well.

Carrie Phillips
Absolutely, you know, we have great conversation, great rapport with our partners in admissions. In fact, I had a meeting with him about an hour ago, making sure we were aligned on something and we meet in a regular cadence with, you know, three or four folks from their team three or four folks from my team, just to make sure that we’re in lockstep because we have to support each other if we’re going to be successful. You know, and there’s a lot of win there. We’ve got great stories and great content, and we want to tell our brand messages, they have a captive audience of people they’re talking to, and they need great stories, great content, and brand messages. And so there’s a lot of synergy. It’s just important to set that that’s going to be a priority for the office.

Shiro Hatori
Well, you know, is are some of those goals or metrics also shared across the teams are responsibility shared as well.

Carrie Phillips
Absolutely, you know, in the same way that you’ve heard the saying, you know, recruitment is everyone’s goal. Retention is everyone’s goal. And so we were, we’ve got to help with both of those things, we’ve got to be making sure that our student experience lines up to retain students. But we also have to make sure that we’re telling a compelling story to prospective students. And so we we fit on both of those sides of kind of that conversation. And our enrollment is a big indicator of how successful our marketing team is. That’s the reality as, as a regional public, you’re an enrollment focused institution. And so that’s a big part of what we do is enrollment. There are other components to that. Absolutely. But at the end of the day, enrollment is a key driver of success.

Shiro Hatori
In I know, you mentioned retention, which isn’t something I always talk about as much when I’m talking about missions or enrollment, specifically, but how do you think marketing has a player you and your team have a play into retention as well?

Carrie Phillips
I think it’s a couple of things. I think one is making sure the campus environment is compelling. So you know, is that making sure that people feel like there are points of pride that they have excitement to be part of institution? Do they feel like they’re seen? Do they feel like they’re heard? And so yes, some of that is interacting with their professors and with their classroom experiences. But if the processes and the communication and the campus environment are confusing or not welcoming And then that’s something that marketing can be helping with. And so I think that kind of thing is something that we’re seeing more and more that marketing teams are taking on. Because it’s, it’s one of those things that again, it touches so many areas, that marketing has this natural ability to kind of be a change agent and say, Hey, this is gonna matter. If there are fewer overall students, keeping the students we have become so much more important. We can’t just go recruit new ones, which is kind of the old model. So retaining those students and making sure we’re doing everything to help them is also important.

Shiro Hatori
I love this conversation. I know you’re a couple of levels above but in your managing these folks, but I talked to a couple of social media oriented people Andrew castles Senior Social strategist, Nicky Sundstrom, who came up in social media, and now is at a VP cmo role as well. And they talked so much about highlighting students stories, and how that actually engages the current student body. And that actually benefits the surrounding communities, including prospective students, alumni, the community, parents, even like parents who had message the school because they can’t get hold of their student as a way to stay in touch with their, their school as a parent as well. And so I thought that was super interesting. And so I think, you know, highlighting those stories is something I’m hearing from many people in the industry,

Carrie Phillips
I think they’re spot on, you know, people want to see themselves in the work and see themselves in your institution to see if it’s a fit. And so the more students stories we tell that are real, authentic stories that they experience. I think that helps students and parents, and alumni as well to kind of see themselves in that current scenario, and gives them something to understand, would this be a fit or from an alumni perspective to say, Man, I’m really proud of that institution, they’re taking a student that was just like me, and helping that student succeed the same way they did with me.

Shiro Hatori
Love to hear it. Yep. And kind of going back to your role as a CMO here, you know, what’s what’s been building up your team? Like? What are some factors that you need to consider that are, you know, different for cmo versus a chief admissions officer or chancellor of communications, like what’s very specific to cmo that you found, you know, over your experience as well.

Carrie Phillips
I think two things, I think one to be successful, we’ve got to understand all of that the other entities on our campus, it’s really hard to be a great marketer, if you don’t quite understand how enrollment functions or how the advising process works. So we’ve got to be knowledgeable of those other things, I also think it’s really important to have an appetite for learning, you know, the marketing field as a whole has changed drastically in the last 10 years. And I think the next 10 years, are going to be the exact same story, it’s the only thing constant is change. And so we have to always be willing to be learning to be trying new things to be testing out new strategies, and then to sometimes say, Okay, that didn’t work. And I think we’ve got to feel comfortable in learning everything that we can, because the technology of what is out there, and what we can do, can change at any given moment. And so the more that we can learn about all of the different martech tools, and all of the different marketing strategies, the better able we are to adapt to this environments in which we find ourselves to develop the best plan to help our institutions.

Shiro Hatori
Love that in it, you know, I love this topic of learning. I’m a self learner myself, do you think that this is an assumption I have, so feel free to contradict it? But my assumption is like traditional higher ed, right, I’m talking 20 years ago, 10 years ago, is like the learning was expected that it would cup come from top down. So like you, you your managers would teach, you know, the student interns or, you know, first year hires, right, and it would come top down. Do you think that’s shifting at all? Because I feel like now, you know, a lot of things are coming a little bit more ground up?

Carrie Phillips
I absolutely agree. I think, you know, I may understand the overall marketing strategies. But we had a great conversation yesterday about a giveaway. And I quickly got schooled that I was not the target audience, that what I was thinking as someone a few years above the target audience was very different. And so I think that’s why some of these student groups and student ambassadors and the way that we can engage students is so important, because they have a much better pulse check than than I do. I’m, I was reminded yesterday that I was old. So I think the more that we can learn from one another, they may know the latest technology that’s out there, and how people want to be talked to, but I may understand some core principles and some leadership lessons. And so I think learning is so important. It doesn’t matter. or necessarily whether that was up, down left or right, I think it’s important that you be open to the ideas that somebody brings and figure out what it is that you can learn from one another?

Shiro Hatori
And how do you create that space, like you gave a great example of someone coming up with an idea, like, I think when I was, you know, first year into my career as a marketer, like it was kind of a little bit scary to bring up new ideas, especially with a larger Oregon. So, like, how do you create that space? So that, you know, you’re your team?

Carrie Phillips
So I think there’s a couple of things, I think one is, especially with our student, interns, we bring them into our content planning staff meeting. And there, the expectation is that we leave our titles at the door, and everybody is a valued member of that team. And we set those norms at the very beginning. And we say, you know, this is your opportunity. And there will be, you know, at first folks are a little quiet. And then it takes a couple of times of of somebody else saying well, what do you think about this? If, if you receive this as a college student, how would you react and hearing that and seeing that that feedback is really welcomed, all of a sudden, those folks are interested and willing to engage, because they want to be part of the conversation, I think we can model the same from our own teams have this idea that, you know, the smartest idea in the room does not have to be mine. And it shouldn’t be mine, you know, we really shouldn’t build off of one another. And so we use a phrase a lot that we say we’re in brainstorming, and we use that phrase rough draft. And that means this idea is that fully fledged, like, I’m just trying to come up with something here. But I want you to know that I’m thinking along those lines. And so that phrase has been a really important part of that kind of conversation, to get people comfortable with coming up with starting point ideas that may not be fully fledged out may not be perfect, but it gets the conversation going. And then somebody else may chime in and say, Ooh, what if we took that and took that one step further. And so it really creates this environment where it’s okay to not have the perfect idea the first time.

Shiro Hatori
I love that I think this actually reminds me of the conversation we had before, which is around like one differentiator of like a maybe a, as a CMO or leader of a marketing team. That’s different from you know, faculty or admissions or staff, like General Staff has that, like you have this element that you need to be data driven. But there’s also this creativity element, because if you’re only a numbers team, like you’re not going to be successful, and finding that balance, and I love that conversation, because it’s so true, right? Like if you don’t have creativity can’t be a good marketer. But if you don’t have data, like how do you balance that like in terms of your team,

Carrie Phillips
I tell people all the time, I am part creative and part analyst. So I love creativity, I love to kind of think in that side. But I also love the numbers, the data, I love my Excel. And I think it’s creating a culture where both are are accepted. You know, we need somebody to say, Hey, this is really creative. And here’s an approach. But then we also need somebody else to come in and say, but how do we track that? How do we analyze that. And so where I think marketing is most successful is when you have form meets function. So it can be this beautifully creative approach. But if it doesn’t achieve the desired goal, we haven’t accomplished anything. And so I think more and more marketing leaders are, are the people that can balance and understand both sides of that equation. Because you’re right, the data driven is so important. And we have some great folks on our team that are very data focused. And we have some folks that are very creative focused. And so I tried to do a lot of cross functional teams within our internal work to bring those two entities together, because they’re both valuable, and they’re both so important.

Shiro Hatori
It I love this conversation, I struggle with it, obviously. But you know, some weeks I’m more left brain and some weeks I’m more right brained. And that finding that balance is is key, though is definitely key. It is I love that. And then, you know, I think we had a previous conversation also on this, which is kind of tying the enrollment cliff that we talked about with regional schools and in higher ed as a whole. And, you know, your role as a leader in marketing, you know, how do those two relate, I think you mentioned like marketing may need to be asked to cover more ground as you know, we’re not seeing as much propensity and other strategic efforts right now. Can you elaborate a little bit more on that as well?

Carrie Phillips
Absolutely. So you know, I think what all marketing is is being asked to do is really changing and so marketing I think more than any time before really has a seat at the leadership table. You talk about the four P’s of marketing is product, price, promotion and place and historically the way it’s worked as marketing teams for brought in and said, Hey, we want you to market X thing. And I think we’re seeing a shift in that. And we’re starting to see more and more where marketing is in the conversation about things like pricing, or about the experience, which focuses heavily on the product itself. Or, you know, maybe it’s what’s the, what’s the strategy at the modality that this is offered, and marketing teams have access to really great data and insights. And so I think that helps us to be in those other spaces. And I think more and more, we’re starting to see that kind of strategic partnership. And give you an example of that. At a prior institution, we had a department come in and say, Hey, we want you to help us market X program. It is one of the programs on our academic viability watch list. And so we did some special one time monies to help market that. Well, as our team was looking at our data and doing some research, we realized that that program was the number two program on the website for Request for Information visits. So all of a sudden, we have this program that it’s the number two generator of traffic, but yet it’s on the academic viability list. And so that told us that something didn’t quite line up there. So as we continue to do that research, what we figured out is the program, the way it was named, it sounded like it was really focused on X thing, but it was actually focused on y. And so the people interested in X, were interested after all, and the people that were really interested in what it was about, weren’t finding it because of how it was named. And so it helped us to be able to go back and say, Hey, we should really think about how we rename this. And here’s some of the data that we’re seeing on this. But it also shows there might be a case for this other program here. And so marketing went from being brought into have this conversation about promotion, to being brought into a much bigger conversation about what we were offering and how we were offering it. And I think that’s where marketing really adds value across the board and can really help in terms of the overall enrollment cliff is being part of those other intentional strategic conversations that happen.

Shiro Hatori
I love that. So like, you know, if you’re in marketing, you may or may not own web, but probably have access to it. So you know, you you can look at data and say, Hey, like, you know, what we’re seeing actually isn’t aligned to our it’s to some strategic plans, or, you know, product even. And you can help to have those conversations together. I love that. And I think Rob’s he can talk a lot about, you know, creating audiences and defining audiences early and collaborating with marketing to do that, which relates to our conversation here as well, because we get those insights early on, about, you know, like, hey, there’s a need for a cybersecurity program. Like there’s a ton of high school students in our area who are interested in cybersecurity, like, we have this data, let’s let’s do something or do some testing here. Right, which is not something that you know, most other teams have as quick access to they probably have to work for a consulting agency to survey that data. And we can get that much, much quicker,

Carrie Phillips
right. Absolutely.

Shiro Hatori
Love that example, also nice, nice finding.

Carrie Phillips
Thank you. Thank you, God,

Shiro Hatori
claps and kudos for that. Sure. Your team love that.

Carrie Phillips
Indeed, indeed.

Shiro Hatori
That’s great. You know, I really enjoyed our conversation. I’m wondering where some of our listeners could connect with you. They have questions if they want to hear what you’re up to at UA Little Rock.

Carrie Phillips
Absolutely. So you can find me on LinkedIn. I’m Kerry H. Phillips. I’m also there on Twitter. And then I have a website where I regularly talk about higher education and leadership. And that website is and carry on.com

Shiro Hatori
Oh, cool. I didn’t know that and carry on on.com A true marketer? Right are clever name. Okay, I’m gonna pull up pull that up real quick. Okay, I’ll look at it later. That’s amazing. Okay, perfect. Yeah, this is this was a great conversation. Thank you so much for joining as a guest. And thanks to all our listeners for tuning in as well. Please catch us on the next episode. And make sure to like our conversation and leave a comment in your respective podcast listening platforms. Thank you so much.

Carrie Phillips
Thank you have a great day.

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