Digital Strategist in Higher Education

Episode 10: The Digital Strategist In Higher Education – A Conversation With Andrew Hickey

Andrew HickeyAndrew Hickey is Director of Digital Marketing at eCornell, the online arm of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Andrew leads the team that is responsible for the strategy and execution that is driving the growth of online education at the Ivy League school. He joins us to discuss the role of the digital strategist in the higher education space. You can hear our conversation in the podcast in iTunesStitcher or Soundcloud or below now.

From Andrew’s perspective, the skills that have proven themselves most useful in his transition to a digital strategist are those he learned as a journalist, his career before marketing. As he says, ‘marketing is data driven; it’s driven by the questions that you ask about the numbers that you’re seeing’. In journalism it is ingrained in you to always be curious, always be asking questions and never really be satisfied with an answer. This training and sense of curiosity have proven extremely valuable. Just as transferable is the ability to write intelligently and effectively. Being a strong writer has been a great skill to have. In journalism, you have have to be a precise, almost technical writer. This skill translates well to ad copy and SEO, both of which depend on your abilities as a headline writer. The ability to write and communicate well has also helped in making presentations to stakeholders on campus, since the better you can express to them what you’re trying to do, the better the chances of the initiative happening.

All that said, it’s proven hard to find people that can look inside data and pull out strategic insights. While he has assembled a talented team, he does see that data analysis is something a lot of people struggle with. As he explains, it’s ‘one thing to look at data and see trends, but the key is to find people that can craft a story around the data’. In order to address this they have developed an extensive hiring process, within which they have people work on a project with data that is purposely riddled with incomplete data sets. The winners in this process are the ones that come back with more questions than answers, and the quality of those questions matters. As he says, it is not enough ‘just to make sense of the data but also to explain it in an easily digestible way’.

This communication of the data is a fundamental skill of the digital strategist. While knowing to ask the right questions is part of being the strategist, the key is ‘the ability to connect larger business objectives and outcomes with the work you’re doing on a day to day basis’. Andrew says that even he struggles to do that on a daily basis because it’s hard to pull yourself out of the work and connect the work back to the reason you’re doing it. This ability to connect the digital marketing to the business objectives came out of experience, namely exposure to the executive team and sitting in on meetings, and through that becoming aware of larger ideas. This focus on the need to learn through experience means the team is always learning. This is a  fairly small team with 3 people on paid media and between 4 to 5 on the content marketing side. As such, they have to be smart about the tactics they use. Andrew says their saving grace is their ability to prioritize. This forces them to focus on the thing that makes the biggest impact. This is also important since they have a foot in each of 2 rapidly changing industries, digital marketing one and higher education.

The industry eCornell operates in, higher education, is a very competitive business. This is generally characterized by a very heavy focus on lead generation. This in turn makes it extremely tactical in some ways. Where Andrew sees the opportunity to be more strategic is in the area of content marketing. As a part of Cornell University, Andrew’s team has access to a wealth of content that gives them the opportunity to tell stories very few people can tell in the space. He recognizes that their brand is very powerful and gives them an unfair advantage. But this has limitations, specifically in forcing them to back away from tactics that others use that might be regarded as potentially damaging to the brand, something Andrew and his team feel a responsibility to take care of. This means that while they have a significant amount of original content, they are always treading the line between ‘what we have, what we can do with it and what we can’t do with it’. As such, they don’t buy email lists and avoid affiliate marketing.

On the proactive side, they work hard to control the messaging of eCornell. They focus it on being as simple and close to the core value proposition as possible. They also control the entire lifecycle of the lead. Councillors work with the applicant to the extent that even if they don’t have right program, they direct them to someone that does. This vertical integration of the entire process requires close collaboration between Andrew’s team and course directors as well as admissions. He says the key is a lot of interaction with specialists in eCornell as well as with people on campus. In addition, the integration of teams starts as early as possible in the process of creating a new course. Marketing is included in the conversation right from the beginning.

Andrew characterizes the higher education industry as having entered the Post-MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) era. The idea behind MOOC was that the university would put a course online for a mass audience to take, often for free. The thought was that the classroom could open up to entire world. But challenges emerged in students actually being able to learn anything in that environment. Moving forward, Andrew sees the greatest challenge is that everyone in the industry is trying to differentiate themselves. In this regard, eCornell is lucky enough to have a great Ivy League brand. For others, it means trying to differentiate through the product, the courses or even the technology they are using to deliver the course through, for example, if it works in mobile or if it is tied to a desktop. On the marketing side everyone is focused on lowering cost per acquisition while attracting the highest quality applicants, a key reason why differentiation is so important.

Andrew sees that just as the distinction between traditional and digital marketing disappears over time, so will the distinction between online and offline learning. As technology develops, the in-class experience will take a back seat to the online experience. That said, people will want some type of tangible experience, even if it means something in the field, an apprenticeship for example. This trend is emerging even now, with blended programs becoming more and more common.

In order to compete in this space as practitioners, Andrew sees experience and familiarity with data as a necessary skill, even if it means taking finished sets of data and using them to make decisions. The ability to tell a story with that data, to articulate findings and next steps is also critical. Finally, familiarity with the major advertising platforms is necessary. Andrew recommends gaining experience with every type of marketing you can. At the very least, it is an opportunity to learn what you’re interested in. And if it is a generalist, strategic role that interests you, there will always be people that need the ‘jack-of-all-trades marketing guy with hands on experience’.

Next week on octopus, we will explore the role of the International digital strategist with our next guest. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

Listen to the podcast in iTunesStitcher or Soundcloud or listen below now.

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