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Building the Best Relationship with a Higher Ed Marketing Agency: A Conversation with Suzan Brinker

Building the Best Relationship with a Higher Ed Marketing Agency: A Conversation with Suzan Brinker
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When Suzan Brinker started Viv Higher Education, a higher ed marketing agency, in 2019, she knew she wanted to refresh the relationship between higher education and its external partners.

“As an agency, your KPI needs to be enrollments and applications. Agencies still focus too much on lead volume and not lead quality. Then they wash their hands of it without taking responsibility for what ultimately happens, whether people enroll, deposit and then show up.” she explains.

"Halda has made great inroads in letting people see full-funnel, so that would be an example of a partner that has actually done their due diligence to provide data visibility." -Suzan Brinker, PhD

According to Suzan, who worked in higher education for years as a marketing leader before following, as she calls it, the “entrepreneurial itch”, that level of commitment from an agency isn’t enough in today’s higher ed marketing landscape.

“Push your agency to say, ‘You’re gonna take responsibility alongside us for enrollments’. They at least need to be willing to bring in an expert for whatever CRM you’re using to help you improve your visibility into the funnel. That’s really a baseline requirement at this point,” Brinker explains.

Make Data Visibility a Priority

Of course, when Brinker mentions visibility into the funnel, she’s talking data and understanding which of your marketing efforts are actually making a difference. 

“Many agencies don’t have the technical ability to give visibility beyond first touch,” she elaborates.  “Find a marketing agency that understands the challenge of providing full-funnel attribution and is scrappy about addressing it. Find someone who realizes they need the visibility to demonstrate the effectiveness of your campaigns to university leadership.”

Brinker argues that this data infrastructure is step one to building a sustainable marketing infrastructure but that the research shouldn’t stop there.  

“As an agency team, are you rolling up your sleeves and working with internal teams to get the qualitative data you need?” she elaborates.  “If you ignore what happens after the leads are brought into the funnel, there will be a disconnect.” 

Effective Differentiation and Implementation

She bridges that disconnect primarily through two strategies: Transparency and Differentiation.

“There are some agencies with the business model where you have to hand over the keys.” explains Brinker. “They don’t give you visibility into the tech stack and targeting strategies because they are afraid you’ll bring it in-house. And I just think that’s really short-sighted and unwise. It should be a partnership where it’s fully transparent and they’re helping you build internal capacity.”

When it comes to building capacity, Brinker encourages schools to “own the learning”, to become actively engaged with agency activities so that the agency helps them level up their own skillset and the internal capabilities of the department. 

Brinker’s next strategy, differentiation, takes into account the reasons students choose to pursue higher education. In her experience, conventional sales tactics get it wrong from the very start.

“People don’t want to be sold to by education because it’s supposed to be an honor to get in. Students are supposed to feel lucky for the opportunity. So selling education to people like it’s a regular commodity makes them a lot less interested in pursuing it.”

Brinker pivots from this ineffective paradigm with what she calls a content-first approach.

“A content-first approach flips that on its head.” she elaborates. “It takes the stories from people on your campus–which are inherently differentiating because no one has these people on campus–then you tell those stories.”

According to Brinker, this powerful storytelling infuses every piece of communication.

“Even in the paid media campaigns, those stories are established.  Then they carry all the way through from an awareness campaign to lead generation to nurture. And the entire time we pair every transactional ask with something engaging. It’s a further way of making something not cookie-cutter. It has to be custom if it’s going to work.”

Brinker rejects those agencies who claim that they know how everything will perform before they’ve researched a university deeply. “It’s all about humility and understanding that you don’t always have all the answers. So look for agencies that underpromise and overdeliver. Agencies need to understand–even if they’ve worked with 300+ schools–that they don’t know everything about your institution. There’s still something intricate about yours they need to learn.”

For this reason, Brinker suggests that schools enter relationships with caution and transparency; and sometimes need to do a little learning on their own before they can properly deploy an agency’s capabilities.

“Agencies have the ability to develop sophisticated targeting sets and think strategically through the entire funnel. The best ones combine lead gen with awareness with nurture tactics from a paid media perspective that work in concert with each other. Doing that in-house is a challenge because those platforms have a lot of technical requirements, and then being able to build the volume of creative assets and things you need to put in market.” she explains. However, jumping right into that process without a clear sense of what you want can be a problem.

“Sometimes it is best to start that in-house.” Brinker continues. “You can test things, make the case for the budget and then bring an agency on board. They can help you scale all of that.” Sometimes, she claims, you can even use them in an advisory, consultative role. “There are people out there on the external partner side who can be helpful by just looking over your shoulder and making sure you’re using industry best practices.”

Getting School and Agency on the Same Page

Whatever the relationship, Brinker claims it needs to be a team game, with everyone on board and pulling in the same direction. That way, agencies can be a unifying force, rather than just a new player in the higher ed blame game.

“There’s a triad of blame between admissions, marketing, and faculty.” Brinker explains. “Agencies are often thrown under the bus. But really great agencies understand the relationship between entities on campus and bring everyone to the table. They get everyone aligned against the great challenge. It can’t be ‘us vs. us’. It has to be ‘all of us vs. the challenge’.

And when things start to sour, get ahead of the problem with early, honest communication.

“Conflict can bring connection.” Brinker explains. “We’re all working in higher ed because of the transformative effect our institutions can have on students. It’s up to us to lead through the disconnect to build better relationships with our institutional partners.”

Brinker’s perspective positions the agency-institution relationship as one that requires deep connection, communication, and accountability on both sides. If that happens, Brinker claims, “We all get on the same page, on the same team, for the student.”

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