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3 MarCom Trends Shaping Higher Ed Strategies in 2021 & Beyond

By Brad Schleicher February 9, 2021

While COVID-19 has become the defacto accelerant for digital transformation, when we look specifically at higher education institutions, one function that’s seeing more focus than ever is marketing and communications (MarCom).

Despite MarCom being one of the more quickly-evolving technology categories for more than a decade, higher education has been slower to adopt these new technologies at a strategic level. Whether that’s due to higher education’s historic culture of decentralization, limited budgets, or lack of staffing and expertise, we are seeing a new urgency for MarCom transformation in higher education that is difficult to ignore.

Below are a series of trends and developments that will garner the attention of higher education leadership and shape institutional strategy through 2021 and beyond.

Marketing and communications team having a meeting

Despite MarCom being one of the more quickly-evolving technology categories for more than a decade, higher education has been slower to adopt these new technologies at a strategic level.

1. Unified Communications, Trust, and the Brand Experience

In Spring 2020, the absence of on-campus engagements shifted emphasis to digital channels. We quickly learned that students were gauging their institution’s COVID-19 response by the level of clarity and coordination in their digital communications. Institutions with a unified communications strategy (and the technology to support it) were most equipped to deliver thoughtful, consistent, and aligned messaging to their students at scale that helped increase the levels of trust. Those without a strategy and technology missed the mark and struggled to engage, which ultimately led to an erosion of confidence in their broader pandemic response. According to’s Fall 2020 Connected Student Research:

  • 75% of students said they wanted more frequent COVID communications from their institution.
  • 30% said their university could greatly improve its pandemic response with more transparent decision making.
  • 77% said that personalized messages made them feel like their institution cared about their success.
  • 25% of students that changed schools as a result of the pandemic said it was because of how the university handled the response.

These survey results are a great reminder that brands are about much more than colors and logos. They are a collection of connected experiences that are seen, heard, and felt in a variety of ways. Most importantly, brands can either be built or severely damaged in a crisis. As institutions continue to navigate their way through this pandemic, it’s clear that unified communications will evolve beyond a function of emergency preparedness and become a foundational element of the student experience.

2. MarCom Intelligence to Drive Efficiency and Growth

The tightening of MarCom budgets is another direct result of COVID-19. Institutions need to manage budgets closely, adapt to reductions in staff, and make strategic cuts based on performance. In an environment where efficiency is paramount, data (and the right platform to analyze it) can help provide insights on what constituents want and can help illustrate the best path forward.

Unfortunately, when we look at the state of analysis and optimization detailed in Salesforce’s 2020 Marketing Intelligence Report, we have found that only 16% of marketers are very confident in the accuracy of their data and the ability to analyze it. Perhaps most importantly, 42% of marketers across industries are operating in silos and measuring their engagement performance based solely on the data generated by the marketing channel they own or software they have access to.

While MarCom may understand the value of a holistic view of performance, they often suffer from a few foundational data challenges. Looking at the same 2020 Marketing Intelligence report, marketers say that those issues come down to:

  1. A lack of a unified view of all marketing data in once place
  2. A lack of real-time access to performance insights
  3. A lack of alignment across teams and departments
  4. Substantially more time spent on data preparation than analysis

So, what’s the path forward? Establishing a central marketing insights infrastructure. There are many ways to bring marketing data together from across different channels, but solutions that can easily integrate sources of data into a single view will rise above the others. The best solutions will enable teams to be agile, innovative, and efficient so they can quickly identify opportunities for improvement and take high-value actions. Additionally, solutions that limit data preparation time and provide methods for collaboration will lead to more aligned metrics and KPIs, and drive institution-wide success.

3. Unified Constituent Data for Segmentation and Personalization

It’s clear that constituents in higher education value personalized experiences. While some institutions have made the experience more connected and consistent, others have found the transformation to be difficult. Think about all of the different touchpoints, both in-person and digital, that a student or constituent can encounter.

  • Different departments, schools, and, campuses
  • Various services such as advising, human resources, financial aid, recruiting, and alumni relations.
  • Numerous digital touchpoints and systems of record like CRM, LMS, SIS, email, social, apps, etc.

All of these different touchpoints are generating different sets of data about the same students and constituents — all of which could paint a unique picture when viewed independently. Accessing a truly unified constituent profile might seem difficult. Fortunately, the CDP (Customer Data Platform) solves this problem.

Graphic showing a connected system of data

Having a single unified view of student data eliminates data silos and disparate systems that don’t offer a clear picture.

A CDP is a marketing-centric database that enables marketers to ingest disconnected data and create a fully reconciled constituent profile. Those profiles are used to generate highly segmented and targeted audiences for use across different systems of engagement (email, social, etc).

CDPs represent an evolution in how institutions can build more connected and personalized experiences. They also enable them to leverage the first-party data they are already generating from daily interactions to improve recruiting, advertising campaigns, student and alumni engagement, and consent and preference management.

Looking Forward

Despite the impacts of COVID-19, there’s a great deal of opportunity for higher education MarCom. The evolution of this department will depend on each institution’s culture, leadership, and commitment to digital transformation. If you’re interested in understanding the readiness of your institution for any of the technologies we covered today, I invite you to take a look at our higher education Digital Marketing Maturity Assessment. This is a great asset to truly map out your current and future-facing strategy. Once completed, you’ll have a better understanding of which short- and long-term steps you can take to become a more data-driven operation.

Learn more by downloading the Marketing Maturity Assessment.

About the Author

Brad Schleicher

Brad has been leading industry and product marketing initiatives in the edtech space for more than a decade. He is currently a Director of Industry Solutions for Higher Education at, where he leads marketing and communications solution strategy and oversees engagement with the higher education CMO and Marketing Leaders Council. Previous to his role at, he was a product marketing leader at Blackboard where he supported the global adoption of Moodle, the world’s most widely-used learning management platform.