7 Things I Learned at the 2018 AMA Higher Education Symposium

December 6, 2018  |  Tamalyn Powell


It has been nearly one month (where does the time go?) since the 2018 AMA Higher Education Symposium occurred in Orlando. For me, this is always an opportunity to meet great people, be inspired and learn first-hand what’s working and where there is still opportunity for growth and improvement in the industry.

In this post, I would like to share some of the overall themes and areas of interest and/or concern shared by attendees at this year’s event. And compare them to past conferences giving you an idea of where things are heading.

1. Brand is a Big Topic

Four or five years ago, few talked about branding for colleges and universities. And when the brand topic did come up, it centered around brand guidelines. In other words, type font, colors, and imagery. In 2018 that has changed.

Brand is now a big topic and it’s front and center in the minds of many. I sat in a half-dozen sessions where the speaker(s) made a point about the need for a strong brand to stand out from the crowd. And as high school student populations and enrollments decline across major portions of the country, branding will only continue to grow in importance as the way to differentiate from the competition.

2. The Ongoing Issue of Working in Decentralized Model

Over my three days at the conference, I had the good fortune to connect with many. And what I repeatedly heard is that operating in a decentralized structure is extremely difficult. This has been an issue for years, and sadly, it’s still an issue today. No matter the school, the challenges are the same:

The problem with this model is that in today’s hyper-competitive world, what’s required is speed and agility to spot and take advantage of opportunities – a decentralized model is just not built to be fast nor flexible.

And this way of operating won’t change any time soon. Over the years, higher ed has created a number of “kingdoms” in addition to the overall university brand. These are: Alumni, Athletics, Admissions, Academics and Advancement. And these “Five A’s” have taken on a life of their own that make brand consistency much more difficult. This doesn’t do much for operating efficiency either.

3. Attempting to Do a Lot with a Little

Marketing departments are trying to keep up, but from the conversations I had, many are still swimming upstream. And the current is strong.

Marketing is still too often viewed as a catch-all department responsible for building a brand, driving enrollments, maintaining the website(s), the production of collateral materials like viewbooks, flyers, web pages, and brochures. Add to the list event planning and coordination.

That’s a lot…and I’m sure I’m missing some items.

Compounding the problem are factors like budgets that are stretched too thin and not enough staff. And many within marketing are still looked upon as tactical executors vs. strategists. This is improving — but it is still taking a long time for marketing to have a real seat at the table.

4. A New Appreciation for the Website

In my opinion, there’s a noticeable change in the way higher ed marketers view the function and importance of their website. Until recently, use of the web was more of an afterthought — a viewbook in a digital format. Moreover, it was viewed as mainly a tool for purposes of recruitment, where prospective students went to learn more about the university after the college had already generated their initial interest using “traditional” brand channels.

But a shift has taken place. Most higher ed marketers now view the website as THE gateway to the brand – one that can be used for engaging storytelling, elevate the university’s brand, attract prospects and authentically capture the student experience. That’s a long journey from a digital viewbook…

5. It’s All about Mobile

Higher education marketers now realize mobile is the game. The numbers of visitors using a mobile device to research and engage with a school’s content are rising and will only continue to increase as apps become more sophisticated, and wireless speed improves. Higher ed, like every other industry, needs to continue to think mobile first, laptop second. Many understand this shift, but it will be interesting to see who really takes action. Because the universities that embrace the mobile-first world will have a leg up with this new generation of students who are going so far as to complete college applications on their phones!

6. A Clear Focus on the Next Generation

Gen Z (or iGen as they are also referred since they are such an “innovative generation”) is on the radar of many in the higher ed space. It was the topic of a keynote session and a frequent discussion point during my conversations with attendees. This is good that many are aware and want to learn more about this new generation of students. Overall, I feel higher education was late to the Millennial game. They saw the change happening and could see the differences in students but really didn’t take the time to fully understand/address the needs of this generation.

Now, Millennials have moved on to the graduate level or into their careers. Which means marketers must again pivot to address this new generation. And iGen is different from Millennials. The good news is many schools recognize this and are already trying to address these differences.

7. Finally, What I Didn’t Hear

For all the conversation about the importance of defining and articulating a differentiated brand, I’m not hearing much about the importance of operationalizing that brand from the inside out. What I mean by that is that a brand does not live solely within the confines of the Marketing Department. The best brands are experienced at every touchpoint throughout the organization, which means that every department/college within the university (remember the “Five A’s” from earlier in this discussion) have a similar understanding of the overall brand and how it should be experienced in their particular area… Perhaps this is happening, and it just never came up? Or perhaps this will be another area that gets more attention at future conferences?

If you attended the AMA this year, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments. There’s so much to take in – it can be a bit overwhelming. So, please share your impressions and thoughts. We’d love to hear them!


is a Senior VP, Group Account Director at BVK

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