Marketing ain’t Kinkos

by Keith Paul
Northern Essex Community College
Haverhill, MA


Credit for this phrase goes to my boss. Before I came on the scene, she and my predecessor at Northern Essex Community College did a lot of foundational work at our college setting the culture that marketing is strategic. Yes, we produce the shiny objects that could give a squirrel a heart attack, and we collate the campus newsletter, but we do so much more than that.


Over the past week, I witnessed countless examples of this through the stories of my fellow community college marketers. What a way to kick-off April’s Community College Month!


The first four days in Orlando were filled with camaraderie and war stories from 300 fellow community college marketing and communications professionals at the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations (NCMPR) annual conference. We had a ton of fun and learned a lot from each other. The next four days found me in Denver with some NCMPR rockstars for the annual American Association of Community Colleges conference.


In Orlando, NCMPR named Melissa Albright of the County College of Morris (NJ) their national Rising Star for 2023 (I myself got the district nod in 2021). During her acceptance speech, Melissa shared that later this month, she’s using the film “Champions” as a bonding, trust and risk-taking exercise with her team. Of course, I had to interrupt the program  share with my NCMPR friend that Northern Essex student James Day Keith stars as Benny, alongside Woody Harrelson. I share this as an example of extolling one’s brand while bonding with an amazing peer.


Attending AACC was a special treat for me as it’s the premier networking event for community college presidents and leaders. I was invited to join some of my NCMPR friends to deliver one of two presentations. The first was “Communicating During the Student Lifecycle to Improve Retention” and was expertly delivered by Maya Demishkevich of Carroll Community College (MD) along with NCMPR Executive Director James Walters and NCMPR President Jeff Ebbing.


My session, titled “How Strong is Your Brand?” opened with Mandy Heil of Arizona Western College who walked attendees through AWC’s comprehensive in-house rebranding. I followed Mandy’s presentation with a focus on the strategic value a college marketing office brings, well beyond the pretty deliverables we produce. My main message challenged the presidents in the room to include marketing at the decision-making table. Whether or not a cabinet decision requires marketing input isn’t the point. Having marketing at the table ensures we have context and first-hand information to aid us in the recommendations we are asked to make (and maybe those we just offer up). Topics may not seem related, but they very often are, and marketing typically engages with the data and the content from across campus that helps inform strategy.


Both sessions enjoyed many “wow” moments. Maya walked attendees through retention campaigns leveraging Instagram to reach and connect with her college’s students. She showed how authentic and relevant content can knock down barriers we might be blind to while helping students navigate the most byzantine of org charts to find the resources needed to thrive and persist. James detailed how his former college, Skagit Valley College (WA), leaned into Student Success Initiatives (they literally called it that!) to help faculty and staff help Skagit students leverage the tools and resources to produce the outcomes we all strive for on our campuses.


I showed how marketing can be nimble and strategic when a marcom team has a seat at the leadership table, helping tack the institutional ship in support of goals and outcomes across strategic planning, marketing operations, student recruitment, and board relations. It takes trust, collaboration, and transparency for a marcom team to leverage operational autonomy in support of those institutional goals and initiatives.


At the end of each session, questions were asked, business cards were shared, and insights given, both from the AACC attendees and the NCMPR road crew. Alongside many campus presidents sat leaders from all imaginable college functions. In both sessions, we showed the value marketing brings to an institution’s challenges, but more importantly, how every employee and student at your college is very much part of your college’s brand. I am honored to be part of what I hope is a new NCMPR tradition: putting marketing thought leaders from around the country in front of our presidents. This could prove to be transformative for our vocation.


We live it every day, from creating beautiful and impactful collateral to holding a door open for a student. Higher education is facing an evolution toward more customer service-focused interactions. Community colleges will need to (re)think how we do business. Students and their families are indeed our customers and we need to delight them with great experiences alongside the life-changing education we provide. Marketing has the data, insights and viewpoints to help strike a path forward.


Let marketing be strategic. We do so much more than slick flyers.


Keith Paul is the executive director of marketing communications at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Massachusetts. 

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