November 22, 2023 / Thought Leadership

Takeaways From AMA Higher Ed

Gene Begin, Managing Director, CP Education

I recently attended the 2023 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. It is one of my favorite higher education conferences and one that I have found is a must-attend for college and university marketing leaders. This year’s conference was its largest, with more than 1,500 attendees. While I unfortunately missed Day 1 sessions due to travel issues that I will not burden you with, there was still so much connection and content to take away from the last two days of the conference. From change management to Generations Z and Alpha to the importance of relationships, here are some insights that I gleaned from the sessions and conversations that I was a part of. 

Managing Change

It is no secret that higher education has been seeing a lot of transformation lately and change management was certainly a prevalent topic at the conference. First and foremost, it needs to be acknowledged that in addition to the industry, we as individuals have also gone through change. Secondly, many marketing teams have experienced turnover, whether from employees within the team or in connection with leadership at the institution. Presidential, executive and departmental leadership turnover has been more frequent than ever before.

To help navigate this change, two concepts really resonated with me on this topic: rugged flexibility and intentional redundancy.

Rugged flexibility was a framework discussed in Brad Stulberg’s keynote, “How to Excel when Everything is Changing.” He defines it as a gritty endurance, an anti-fragility that not only withstands change but thrives in its midst. To thrive, you need to understand the “inescapability trigger.” This thought is that once we come to the realization change is inevitable, cognitive and creative capability increases. 

While in a room of marketers, Brad shared a different set of 4 P’s to manage change: pause, process, plan, proceed. If you think about change as a conversation you are involved in, rather than something that is happening to you, you naturally become more active rather than reactive. And when practiced over time, you actually start to become proactive.

Another session that helped prepare leaders for change was “Lessons for Leadership” with two marketing leaders from Skidmore College, Julia Marco and Sara Miga. Any partners who have worked with me recently know how much I adore Skidmore College, with their institutional brand statement and shared belief that Creative Thought Matters. They communicated that belief for decades and have stuck with it. That is a brand.

While a shared belief is important for any team to rally around, this session walked through a very relatable story of MarComms departmental change, starting with multiple instances of leadership turnover over a short period of time. These two leaders grew within the organization and multiple times experienced taking on responsibilities they weren’t prepared for and weren’t originally expected to do. 

Two pieces of advice they shared that need to be amplified:

  1. If you’re taking on more work, document it. You deserve more. Capability does not equal responsibility.
  2. Intentional redundancy is crucial for succession planning.

The latter is crucially necessary not only for departures, which can sometimes be exacerbated by crises like a pandemic in their case but also for coverage when people are out of the office for any reason. Work/life balance has become life/work balance. Be intentionally redundant to accommodate for your team’s needed time away from work.

Talkin’ ‘Bout New Generations

There were multiple sessions on generations, in particular Gen Z and Generation Alpha. To level set what ages we are referring to, Gen Z is typically defined as individuals born between 1997 and 2010 (ages 13-26) and Gen Alpha being born after 2010 (i.e. 12 and younger).

In the session about Gen Z, Morning Consult shared some insights from their most recent “Most Trusted Universities survey.” As is typically the case, recommendations from family and friends were most influential in the college search process for prospective students and their families. In terms of trust, students trusted online/social influencers twice as much as their parents, who trusted guidance counselors twice as much. For both audiences, student and alumni perspectives were more important than those of academic influencers and faculty.

For both Generation Z and Generation Alpha, authenticity matters. They want to hear from students first and foremost. In the keynote panel on Generation Alpha, it was discussed how social content managers have essentially become social influencer managers. This could not be more true. When I was most recently at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, our social media lead’s management of our paid student ambassadors and organic student-first stories really WAS the content strategy. While some intentional feature and benefit promotion was always mixed in gently, shining a light on student stories and experiences was the authentic content prospective audiences engaged with.

While there are differences between both generations as well, it’s important to market these similarities, as they can shape your content strategy to appeal to a wider audience. I personally think it’s still too early to tell exactly how Gen Alpha’s beliefs, interests, and purpose are going to be defined. Yet, we can likely predict how their decision-making as consumers is going to be shaped. As has been the case for most generations, word-of-mouth will build trust, and in today’s environment, that advocacy is shaped by influencer marketing

Relationships Matter

Whether an individual session, a takeaway from an entire day, or a theme from the conference as a whole, one thing stood out above all: relationships matter. Relationships matter personally, they matter professionally, and they matter in marketing. 

Building a relationship with your consumer – no matter the industry – is the thread that links you together. It could be an emotional connection. It could be an impactful experience. It could be a referral from a trusted contact. This post’s previous section about influencer marketing and advocacy within Generations Z and Alpha certainly speaks to relationships with brands beginning with a recommendation. There is an unspoken trust living within that referral and trust is the foundation of any relationship.

This was my first AMA in five years and my first in-person conference since pre-COVID times. It had been a long time coming and despite my delayed travel in getting there, it was well worth the wait. I was able to connect with so many past colleagues, current partners and friends, while also meeting future ones. As a lifelong learner, there is an energy and momentum that comes with learning from and with colleagues.

But what matters most from a conference such as this are the relationships that are formed and furthered. The relationships I have made in higher education have been long-lasting and invaluable. They have led to personal friendships, professional partnerships, and the sharing of memorable life moments. Relationships matter.