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More Than Behind the Scenes: A Call to Leadership for Digital Marketing Pros

Josie Ahlquist, EdD, with Danielle Sewell, MFA

Digital marketing and communication professionals fill a variety of increasingly important roles on college campuses. The past decade in higher education has seen the expansion of positions like social media manager, content strategist, web designer, multimedia producer, and many more. Marketing and communications directors, vice presidents, and CMOs are now expected to have a deep understanding of digital media and best practices across platforms. Our lives, the lives of our students, and the modern workplace requires not only digital literacy but digital fluency. And digital platforms change quickly. 

As colleges and universities try to connect with prospective students, current students, alumni, employees, and other stakeholders, positions in digital communications and marketing no longer fall into the “nice to have” category for campuses. They perform essential functions, often with a birds-eye-view of institutional operations.

These professionals work in website maintenance, multi-platform social media management, user experience, blogs, podcasts, design, storytelling, crisis communications, public relations, project management, research, community outreach, student engagement, recruiting, fundraising, event management, advertising, campaign management, writing, photography, and videography. They contribute to customer service, change management, community development—and the content strategy that pulls all of those disparate elements together. And at many institutions, all of this work is completed by just a handful of people (or less)! 

So…digital marketers are basically magicians. 

Know what else they are?

Leaders.

In the book, Leadership for the 21st Century, leadership scholar Joseph Rost states that leadership is relational. It’s multidirectional, mutually beneficial, and purposefully seeking positive change (Rost, 1991).

That’s a spot-on description of the work that many digital marketers and communicators are already doing on college campuses—and it is imperative that campus executives encourage and cultivate these efforts. But also, these professionals need to see and frame their work as leaders. After all, today’s social media managers are tomorrow’s chief marketing officers.

Our digital communication and marketing professionals are poised, with both the necessary skill set and the broad perspective, to become vice presidents and university presidents within the next several years. Bookmark this blog, it’s coming quickly.

I believe that we need these digital marketing professionals in cabinet-level positions. These professionals have a wealth of talent to bring to the decision-making table and are positioned to make valuable contributions to executive and campus-wide discussions – not just to run social media channels or PR campaigns.

After all, there’s no area of a college or university that isn’t touched by communications in some way. Marketers are naturally collaborative, creative, and critical thinkers, and they build their careers on a broad perspective of university life. With that in mind: Digital marketers, this one is for you. 

Discover Your Leadership Framework

“Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purpose”

(Rost, 1991, p. 102)

At the heart of leadership, you’ll find terminology related to management, power, influence, followership—so let’s start by defining what we mean when we talk about those dynamics. This is basically your leadership 101 or CliffsNotes, so we can get to applying leadership theories, philosophies—and of course, action!

Management

It’s important to understand that leadership and management are not the same things. As we discussed above, leadership is relational. It’s purposeful, and it flows from many directions. Management, on the other hand, refers to “an authority relationship between at least one manager and one subordinate who coordinate their activities…” (Rost, 1991). You do not need to be directly responsible for supervising staff to be a leader. Similarly, not every manager is equipped to practice and enact leadership. Management is about the hierarchy; leadership is about a shared mission—and common purpose. 

Understanding Influence and Leadership

In Leadership: Theory and Practice (2018), Peter Northouse describes followership as “an individual or individuals accept[ing] the influence of others to accomplish a goal.”

In short, influence creates a scenario in which people are happy to follow your lead. Influence can come from any level in the organizational hierarchy—or even from outside the organization entirely.

The process and effect of leadership is not just to self, but to others—referred formally in most leadership definitions as a follower, followers, or followership. Recent theory has given credit to the important and positive role followers play:

You cannot have leaders without followers” (Northouse, 2018, p. 293).

The Unique Influence of Digital Marketing Pros

Over the past several years, the world has experienced a major shift in the leadership paradigm. More than ever before, followers have more power and influence over leaders.

Social and digital media have opened up access to information and communication, regardless of an individual’s position or geographic location. In some ways, the traditional hierarchy is being flipped on its head. 

Thanks to tools like Twitter or LinkedIn, recent graduates can make direct contact with Fortune 500 CEOs. Students can bring their ideas to campus presidents, university faculty and staff, fellow students, and even prospective students.

Blogs and YouTube channels provide an outlet for anyone to share their views on any topic—and offer easy means of spreading that content far and wide. High school and college students turn to Redditt to relay the actual realities of the college application process and college life. (Make sure to check out Stephen Apps post about this in Inside Higher Ed)

Digital marketing professionals have the skills and insights necessary to turn this newly leveled playing field into a leadership goldmine. 

But beyond technical skills – you’ll need to connect your personal values with a strategic plan for influencing change.

But you may be asking, how the heck do I do that?? This is where leadership theories come in.

Learn from Leadership Theories

Leadership theories are a result of, many times, decades of research to understand how to enact leadership individually, in groups and community-wide. As a result, frameworks and philosophies guide you through self-exploration, discernment, and awareness of your leadership capabilities. 

Leadership scholars have established libraries’ worth of research on different leadership styles and the theories behind their success. Ultimately, you can choose which approach, or combination of approaches, most appeals to you. 

The following list of leadership theories and models may provide a starting point. Reply in the comments others that have impacted your leadership practices!

Embrace Your Role as Change Agent & Advocate

Professionals with in-depth knowledge of digital media and communications will certainly play an ongoing, instrumental role at colleges and universities for the foreseeable future. As technology continues to transform the way we communicate, these professionals will be at the forefront of campus outreach. Culture shifts will be needed at the institutional level, and in the coming years the rate of change will become even more rapid.

Digital marketers are uniquely positioned in these times of transition, contributing by offering training in their areas of expertise and advocating for the resources necessary to survive (and thrive!) in a challenging new higher education landscape.

Apply Your WHY

If you’ve seen this popular TED Talk from Simon Sinek, you’re familiar with his theory that great leaders always start with their “why” before moving to the “how” and the “what” of their day-to-day work. Do you know what your WHY is?

If you haven’t taken the time to define your personal mission, pause for a moment to reflect on what you want your legacy to be. What do you want to be remembered for? This is a valuable exercise for anyone, but it’s especially important for digital marketers, who work on platforms where authenticity (or lack thereof) can make or break your message.

What do you want your legacy to be?
Tweet your answer and tag me @JosieAhlquist! 

Digital marketers working in higher education can help define the institutional voice, and align their personal purpose with their college’s mission and vision. After all, a mission statement is more than a paragraph of stale text wedged between facts on your website’s “about” page. Marketing and communications professionals know how to bring those statements to life, infusing campus messaging with inspirational, intentional language that reflects the college experience.

Adopt a Learner’s Mindset

Once you have a clear idea of your “why,” keep those core values in focus as you move through your career. Jobs change. Industries change. Digital media certainly changes—and it changes fast. It’s not enough to simply be great at the job you have today. If you want to advance, you need to nurture a skill set that prepares you for the job you’ll have a decade from now. Those “soft skills” we’ve been hearing so much about—communication, critical thinking, teamwork, problem-solving, adaptability, etc.—are actually the transferable competencies that will serve you well at every stage of your career. 

It’s wonderful to specialize in a particular segment of marketing, but moving into a leadership role requires at least a general understanding of marketing as a whole, as well as institutional operations. 

Conferences.
Higher education loves a good conference, and we have a lot of ‘em! Some focus specifically on the marketing side, while others concentrate on a functional area like admissions, advancement, student affairs, or alumni relations. Here are a few favorite conferences to help you start planning travel for the year ahead!

(Which conferences do you enjoy attending? Share in the comments!)

Online Learning Opportunities. The internet is full of tools to help you dive deep into specific skills and areas of expertise! Comment with additions to the list!

You should also keep an eye out for…

  • Webinars
  • Regional & Local Conferences or Meet-Ups
  • Backchannel Hashtags (Conference attendees often share their experience on Twitter – check out recent conferences such as #AMAHigherEd & #highedweb)
  • Blogs & Articles (Use a tool like Feedly or Google Alerts to find fresh content)
  • Newsletters (Like mine or Ashley Budd’s!)
  • Podcasts – ALL the podcasts!
  • Social Media Accounts & Twitter Lists 

Educating Students & Colleagues

If you’re a digital marketer, you may not think of yourself as an educator—but I promise, you are! Moreover, I know that marketing is an all-hands-on-deck job, and you could probably benefit from training a few folks around campus to perform basic marketing activities.  

Remember, the people who work hands-on with your students, your prospective students, student families, alumni, and members of your campus community—those people are also marketers in their own way. Anyone who acts as a representative of your institution is a de facto marketer, at least every once in a while. They need to know how to do it well. Digital marketers can help them learn and implement best practices. 

Potential Leadership Training Topics for Colleagues & Students

  • Event Promotion
  • Creating a Social Media Content Calendar
  • Updating a Department Webpage
  • How to Design Simple Fliers/Posters
  • Digital Analytics, Measurement, and Assessment
  • Your Institution’s Brand Guidelines
  • Key Talking Points for an Institution or Department
  • How to Give a Quality Media Interview
  • How to Take Quality Photos with Your Smartphone
  • Web and Mobile Accessibility 
  • How to Edit and Caption Videos with the Clips App, iMovie, etc. 
  • Understanding ADA Compliance/Accessibility in Email, Social Media, etc. 
  • Understanding CAN-SPAM guidelines for email newsletters, etc. 
  • Developing Your Digital Identity and Personal Brand

These are just a few ideas! What else can digital marketers teach their campus communities? Share your thoughts in the comments!)

Build Your Community

If you want to be a leader in the field of higher education, or even just at your institution, you must be an active participant in your professional community. How, where, and when you participate depends on your individual interests and how you prefer to interact with others—but since you’re a digital media practitioner, you may be especially interested in some of the digital opportunities below.

  • LinkedIn. It’s not just a digital resume anymore! LinkedIn is an increasingly interactive platform for professionals across the board. The recent integration of hashtags in LinkedIn posts makes it easier than ever to discover content and connect with like-minded folks.
  • Twitter. Twitter is still an extremely popular space for higher education professionals. No matter your functional area, members of your professional community are there and they are using one or more hashtags to connect with one another.
  • Facebook. #HigherEdSocial Facebook Group. According to the group’s description, this Facebook community is “a collaboration space for those who work in the higher education sector in social media roles…[It is] a place to find colleagues at other institutions to ask questions and share best practices.
  • Slack. TeamHESM.slack.com is the go-to place for anyone working with social media in higher education! 

ATTN! Mentorship in digital marketing

As we researched and created this post, we quickly discovered a wide gap (and need) in the field of marketing and communications in higher education: mentorship.

Our digital communities are vibrant, but if the field is to advance beyond technical skillsets, formal and informal mentorship programs must be created and invested in – at the institutional level, but even more macro within associations, conferences and so on.

The ONLY program we could find for mentorship was part of the #HigherEdSocial Facebook group lead by Kasandrea Sereno. Join the group and apply to serve as a mentor or mentee here.

Beyond industry-wide mentorship programs, having a mentor and sponsor mindset is crucial to attract, retain and advance digital marketing professionals, especially from diverse backgrounds.

How have you benefited from mentors? Who are you currently mentoring (or should be)? Leaders must create future leaders.

Digital Professionals Who Lead

Over the summer, I featured several of my favorite higher ed digital leaders in a newsletter. And it’s already time for an update! (The communications field changes fast, y’all.) Considering the last section, take this list as a nudge to possible mentors.

Here’s a fresh new list of shout-outs, from Josie and Danielle to our favorite digital marketers! 

Tiffany B. Beker  |  Twitter @tb623   |  Director of Digital Marketing for William & Mary Alumni. Magical Powers Include: In-depth knowledge of all things website-related (and making it all sound much easier than it really is)

Ashley Budd  |  Twitter @Ashley_Budd   |  Director of Digital Marketing at Cornell University, Alumni Affairs & Development. Magical Powers Include: Curation of one of the most fabulous monthly newsletters in the industry

Lougan Bishop  |  Twitter: @Lougan Web and Digital Media Manager at Belmont University. Magical Powers Include: Co-hosting the wonderful Higher Ed Social podcast

Erika Boltz  |  Twitter: @EFBoltz   |  Social Media Coordinator at UF Health. Magical Powers Include: A masterful understanding of accessibility in the digital space, from ADA-compliant websites to social media alt-tagging

Krista Boniface  |  Twitter: @KristaBoniface   |  Senior Social Media Strategist at the University of Toronto. Magical Powers Include: Authentic messaging via Instagram Stories

Andrew Cassel  |  Twitter: @AndrewBCassel  |  Social Media Content Strategist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Magical Powers Include: Capturing GIFable moments and hosting Marketing Live on the Higher Ed Live network

Jennifer Doak-Mathewson  |  Twitter: @JPDoak  |  Director of Engagement and Acquisition at the UConn Foundation. Magical Powers Include: Incredible understanding of all things fundraising, digital communication, and the intersections between the two.

Matthew Duncan  |  Twitter: @MatthewDuncan  |  Academic Digital Engagement Strategist at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Magical Powers Include: Teaching social listening in higher education

Brendan R. Foley  |  Twitter: @brendanrfoley  |  Director of Communications at Morehead-Cain Foundation. Magical Powers Include: Staying “relentlessly positive” while being a Grade A participant in the higher education communications community

Emma Gilmartin  |  Twitter: @embrooksy8  |  Head of Social Media and Student Communications at the University of Glasgow. Magical Powers Include: This impressive collection from the UG Social Media blog!

Jens Larson  |  Twitter: @jensplarson  |  Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management at Eastern Washington University. Magical Powers Include: Being a “prospective student at 300 colleges”

Jon McBride  |  Twitter: @jMcBee84  |  Media Relations and Social Media Manager at Brigham Young University. Magical Powers Include: Finding creative ways to address tough topics on campus

Todd Sanders  |  Twitter: @tsand  |  Director of Social Media and Digital Communications at the University of Florida. Magical Powers Include: Creating the first verified higher ed account on TikTok!

Kasandrea Sereno  |  Twitter: @KasandreaSereno   |  Team Lead: Academic Advising, University of South Florida. Magical Powers Include: Founding & serving as admin for the #HigherEdSocial Facebook group—all while working, consulting, and recently earning a doctorate!

Jon-Stephen “JS” Stansel  |  Twitter: @JSStansel  |  Digital Media Specialist at the University of Central Arkansas. Magical Powers Include: Creating customized GIFs and consistently reminding everyone that flyers don’t belong on social media

Kimberly Stern  |  Twitter: @KimberlyLStern  |  Director of Social and Digital Media for Colorado State University. Magical Powers Include: Making this awesome checklist for CSU social media account managers

Erin Supinka  |  Twitter: @ErinSupinka  |  Associate Director of Digital Engagement at Dartmouth College. Magical Powers Include: Sharing insight into her day and her knowledge, using #ErinGoesToWork

Tyler Thomas  |  Twitter: @TylerAThomas  |  Senior Director of Social Media and Content Integration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Magical Powers Include: Developing goal-focused content.

Jackie Vetrano  |  Twitter: @JackieVetrano   |  Assistant Director, Prospect Management & Marketing at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. Magical Powers Include: All things podcasting! Jackie is the founder of the ConnectEDU Podcast Network, and previously a co-producer of the Higher Ed Social Podcast.

Jamila Walker  |  Twitter: @IAmJamilaWalker  |  University Social Media Manager at Old Dominion University. Magical Powers Include: Somehow managing as an “army of one” in her role at ODU! She’ll also be speaking about her experience at the upcoming Higher Ed Social Media Conference.

Marketing YOURSELF

Digital marketers are, of course, familiar with institutional branding and how to market educational programs—but what about marketing yourself? For marketers who aim for executive leadership positions, personal brand matters. That means mastering your craft, continuously expanding your portfolio of skills, and talking about it.

Look for opportunities to present at conferences, guest blog for your favorite online publication, write journal articles, speak on podcasts or video interviews, and establish yourself as a reputable source. Immerse yourself in higher education communities, on and offline. Meet people from a variety of areas in academia, foster those connections, and never be afraid to add your voice to conversations where you can make quality contributions.

Advocating for the Emerging Roles of Higher Ed Digital Marketing

Part of marketing yourself is knowing what you’re worth—and good digital communicators can be priceless. Unfortunately, the role of marketing and communications in the higher education field is often exceedingly challenging, with extremely low pay. Marketers often work long hours covering campus events, monitoring 24/7 social media channels, and managing communications crises with varying levels of severity. These pros are burning out quick.

We need leaders/campus executives who will advocate for marketing professionals, ensuring that they are properly compensated for their work and that they have the resources necessary to do their jobs effectively. 

For better or worse, the role of marketer at an institution of higher education deals as much with internal colleague-to-colleague communication as it does with external promotion and communication with students or alumni. The truth is that most people in higher education don’t understand what marketing truly is, or why it’s important to approach marketing and communications strategically.

This can lead to misaligned expectations and timetables, and unrealistic conceptions of how digital media work (How many marketers have heard “Let’s make this go viral!” or “Can you put this flyer JPEG up on Instagram?” and felt their blood pressure spike?). 

The digital leaders of the future are those who will come armed with data to support their decision-making to stakeholders.

They will be experts in relationship-building, creating social capital, and most importantly, they will have a strong sense of self and the value they bring to their institutions.

They will be storytellers of their work (and worth) and the collective efforts of their marketing/communications colleagues, almost as much as they market their college or university’s programs and services.

They will advocate for cultural shifts at the institutional level, supporting cohesive communication strategies that align with their organization’s mission. And we believe that they will start to see the respect they deserve reflected in peer interactions, executive expectations—and compensation. 

Remember—digital marketers are magicians and the campus executives of the future! 

And if you ask me, with their leadership, the future of higher education is looking pretty magical. 🦄

It’s time for leadership development specifically digital marketing pros

This post was inspired by my keynote at the #PSEweb 2019 conference in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I was honored to be invited and declare to the attendees I was their superfan. Are you part of a marketing/communications conference planning committee and want a message like this for attendees? Hurray! Let’s work together to make that happen. I create customized keynotes and workshops year-round. Contact me here to start the conversation. 

Bonus: Shoutout to my “Magician” Josie and the Podcast Guests!

What tips do you have for digital marketers looking to move into the C-suite and leadership roles across the field of higher education? Does your institution have a marketer in executive leadership? How do you support the professional development of your digital marketing staff? Let us know in the comments! 

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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