What Educational Institutions Should Ignore From For-Profit Marketing

To many, marketing is anathema to the purpose of a higher educational institution. In the for-profit world, marketing is viewed as a cost center to build brand awareness and generate demand for products and services. What does that, many will ask, have to do with a college or university? In a previous Insight, we explored six advanced marketing techniques that have the potential to advance your institution’s fund-raising initiatives. This time, we’re taking a look at four common marketing practices from the for-profit sector that we recommend you totally ignore. 

  1. Don’t sell. In the for-profit business world, marketing is geared toward promoting and selling a product or service to a target customer. In the nonprofit world, marketing should first and foremost represent a tool to engender support for an organization’s mission. Good higher ed marketing promotes and amplifies the cause of the school while simultaneously encouraging alumni involvement. It’s not about selling—it’s about establishing recognition of the emotional value of philanthropy and building awareness of the many practical ways the institution can be valuable to each member of your alumni base. Indeed, in the traditional sense of the word, there’s really nothing to sell; rather, there’s much to communicate to each alumni about the benefits of being part of your community and the importance of supporting your cause. On a more tactical level, it is very important to make the act of donating as straightforward as possible, particularly in a digital world where people have increasingly limited attention spans.
  2. Don’t sacrifice the long term relationship. Driven by bonus structures and senior-level job insecurity, for-profit businesses frequently sacrifice long-term relationships for short-term sales. This dynamic often leads to a shortsightedness that can severely undermine enduring success. As a result, corporations tend to have a limited lifespan. If fact, today the average age of a corporation on the S&P 500 is only 15 years. Higher education institutions tend to be more stable and committed to long-term  community relationships, and, therefore, have much longer lifespans. Philanthropy needs to be a continual, long-sighted practice. Using marketing as a transactional fundraising tool will ultimately backfire —not only in the medium- and long-term, but in the short-term as well.
  3. Don’t hide learnings. Businesses want to eliminate competitors and grow market power. For this reason, they tend to carefully guard the information they learn about their marketplace, preferring to let their competition wither in ignorance instead of thrive in enlightenment. A more open, collaborative model is far more valuable for nonprofit educational institutions. Sharing best practices and remaining open to learning what other institutions are doing can foster a culture of cooperation, helping you make smarter decisions when deploying your time and resources. One of the best ways to stay abreast of the latest developments in the education sector is to enlist the help of a third-party to scan for and compile information about best practices and new techniques, so you can benchmark your activities and make more informed choices in the future.
  4. Don’t ignore unprofitable segments. For-profit businesses suppress audiences they don’t believe will purchase their products or services. These consumers are looked at as unworthy of marketing spend since they’re unlikely to deliver a return on investment in the immediate future. At an educational institution, your “tent” should be 100% inclusive since you are not trying to sell anything. While your development officers may pay more attention to major donors, you want every alumnus/a to buy into your institution’s purpose and become involved in any way possible. Besides, things change, including their ability and willingness to donate. By investing in a strong relationship now, you’re much more likely to benefit from their philanthropy later.


The bottom line is this: there’s much we can learn from the business world. But sometimes a best practice for them can be a terrible practice for you.