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February 12, 2024 SHARE

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Higher education marketing professionals are working harder than ever to promote their institutions in a media-saturated world as well as counter the public questioning of the value of a college degree.

This Innovating Enrollment Success episode dives into why higher ed marketing conferences like AMA’s Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education are crucial to not only building community but building confidence in a marketer’s role to champion an institution across platforms and audiences.

Show Notes

Michigan State University Health Sciences Senior Director of Marketing and Communications Nicole Szymczak, an AMA committee member, shares why the 2023 conference, held Nov. 12-15 in Chicago was its most attended in history.

This episode addresses:

  • Why higher ed conferences like AMA are needed communities
  • The evolving roles of marketers and communicators on campus
  • Ways to engage and build trust across teams and reporting structures
  • Keeping self-care in mind as a marketer in a rapidly changing ecosystem
  • The challenges of leading a centralized marketing and communications team and ways to build trust and connections
  • Keynotes and sessions that resonated long after the conference and why


Read the Transcript

Cathy Donovan [00:00:00]

Hello, and welcome to the Innovating Enrollment Success podcast, where we talk about new happenings in higher education marketing so that we can all be better connected and hopefully create better outcomes. Just last month, the American Marketing Association hosted its annual symposium for the marketing of higher education in Chicago.

It was its highest-attended conference in over 30 years with about 1,500 marketing professionals from institutions nationwide, all looking to enhance marketing strategy, build strong brands and achieve enrollment success. I’m Cathy Donovan, Agency Marketing Director at Paskill, a higher education enrollment marketing firm that sponsored and exhibited at AMA.

Part of that sponsorship included co-hosting the round table session, “Managing Up, Down and Sideways” with Nicole Szymczak, Senior Director of Communications and Marketing at Michigan State University Health Sciences. Nicole also served on the AMA planning committee and understands how the AMA community provides fresh insights and meaningful connections for so many higher ed marketers.

Processing everything you learn at AMA does take some time to unpack, so we’ll spend the next half hour or so today hearing from Nicole what key takeaways she heard from the roundtable and other conference lessons she’s brought back to her role at MSU Health Sciences, where she leads and aligns communications across multiple colleges.

Welcome, Nicole.

Nicole Szymczak:

Thank you, Cathy, for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Cathy Donovan:

Well, I loved reading your LinkedIn posts where you wrote that AMA is the largest professional development event for our industry and where new attendees can find their people. You know, please talk a little bit about why AMA is more than a conference, but a community and why that matters for higher ed marketers right now.

Nicole Szymczak:

Absolutely, Cathy. I’m so excited to be a part of this community. And I was first introduced to it maybe about 10 or 12 years ago when I went to my first conference, and I was rather new working in higher ed. I had come from a media background. I was a TV producer and co so switching to, to marketing and storytelling was, was rather new to me.

And especially in higher ed. And I really loved it. And the reason why I did accept a position in higher education is because it was great stories to tell. And it was a great product. At the time I was working with a community college, and we were selling affordable education to change the lives of many, especially at the time during the recession.

And so, I was really excited to try to grow that and grow my leadership. I’d also been catapulted into a director position. Um, I thought that perhaps I wasn’t prepared for quite yet, but some of the leaders in my organization said, you know, you can do this, and I know, I know better than to say no to a great opportunity.

So, I wanted to, to show up as my best. And I think when I, when I really was attracted to AMA was really trying to become a better leader and a better storyteller and really understand our industry and our market. And that community, um, wasn’t small back then necessarily, but it really wasn’t as large as it is now.

I think that many people are drawn to higher education and nonprofit in general, just being able to find and work with a sense of purpose. And so just to be surrounded by people who knew what I was going through at the time, we were a somewhat large organization with a pretty… We were just starting to centralize our marketing and communications, which was rather new.

We were just starting content marketing. Facebook was big, but really, we were just dipping our toes into social media. Um, higher education seems to be somewhat slow to adopting those new trends. And so being around people who were really trying to figure it out and figure out how to make that work and connect with their audiences through authentic storytelling, not just the typical university or community college billboard, um, was really exciting to me.

There’s just so many great stories on the college campus. And it was, as a journalist as well, too, looking around, I just thought, you know, these are really great stories to tell. Why? Why build some kind of an ad campaign, um, that might seem a little bit inauthentic and why not just go to the community?

And so being a part of the American Marketing Association, again, it’s such a reputable organization. And it also has ties and links to industries outside of higher education. So, you really get the best of both worlds when you’re being around your own people, but you’re also seeing, you know, what industry leaders are doing and what other industries are, we’re talking to the same people essentially, um, depending on the demographic you’re talking to.

And so, you know, what’s working for other industries and how can really we apply that to higher education. And then going to several conferences afterwards, uh, again, I was just very impressed with the quality of the speakers, the peer review that goes on, to know that there are people who are in the community who are looking at the content that’s being submitted, and it’s not necessarily, you know, one topic, it’s, it’s just a diverse group, not only of speakers, of topics, of backgrounds. There’s such a great story there.

You could really understand and see how you could replicate some of the work that’s being done, um, at your own institution. And so seeing it grow to being the largest community and the largest conference, uh, across the American Marketing Association, across all of their verticals, across all of their industries, really just tells me that more and more people are really excited about higher education and communication. We want to find our people. It’s one thing to go to a marketing conference in general. It’s another thing for higher education because we all face the same struggles. And we all, you know, really want to be valued and, and, and provide that value to our institution. I think as enrollment and demographics changes, I think our leadership, not that we already aren’t valued, but I think more and more people are really going to, to bring those communications leaders and ensure that they’re at the table and at the forefront, um, as we face some of the new challenges that, that are going forward.

Cathy Donovan:

So this was Paskill’s first time sponsoring a round table, and we were really surprised at how many people registered and attended. We were ready for the overflow. Could you share a little bit about what you heard in that session, “Managing Up, Down and Sideways” and why you think that topic had such resonance for attendees?

Nicole Szymczak:

Oh, I just get goosebumps just really thinking about that. And I wish it was just one table, but we had, remember we had six roundtables of conversation going on. It was such an important topic. And to me, it also was a, it was a somewhat of a surprise, but it was, it was really great that, that people were really drawn in to talk to others.

Like I said, higher education, like-minded opportunities and challenges as well, and to be able to come somewhere and, and talk about how to, you know, work better with your leader, how to lead your team at the same time, how to lead within your organization, wherever you are and across. Um, that’s going to be really important and I can tell that is very important for a lot of institutions and I’m not sure there’s any other group in the university as much as communications that really works across the university as a convener and there’s really not a topic that communications could not or should not be a part of.

And so hearing some of the opportunities, um, for leadership is just, to me, we, we know so many things. We know about our students. We know about our alumni and our donors, and we have deep understanding of these folks. And that’s the people that we’re really trying to reach. And so sometimes it can be a little bit frustrating being in a lot of those different conversations.

With other great leaders who also know that audience, audience well and what they want. Aside from, from, from talking about some of the great opportunities and sharing some strategies and, and working up, down, and sideways and over, um, I thought it was very interesting to me how much that really turned into an amazing therapy session.

For a lot of people to really talk about and to recognize that other people are facing the same challenges that they are in their institution, whether it’s a struggle for budget, whether it’s a struggle for voice, um, we really are the ones that are working on the benefit of the audience that we’re working to serve.

And so we come to the table. I don’t think we’re being argumentative. I think we’re being realistic and we come with data and we come with the knowledge of our audience. And so being at that table and knowing what we know causes some really great discussions. And, you know, can also really force some change in the organization and force, you know, people to, to look for, for different opportunities to connect with their audiences.

I think all the relationships that we have in our, whether our reporting lines are leading by influence, are managing up, are just so important and so key for a communications position. Because we’re really, you know, at any given day in your inbox is an email from, from all across the organization. And sometimes you see connections and sometimes, you know, you’ve got to convene and bring those connections together as well, um, so that you’re not, you’re not running ragged.

Self-care was a big topic as well, too, across, um, across the different round tables that were happening. And I think it’s, you know, we are, we have such a commitment to service and a commitment to serving others, our students, uh, the folks that we work with, our own teams. That sometimes it, you know, we come last and I think in order to bring our best selves to the table as well, too, we need to make that time and schedule that time for ourselves to be compressed because we are getting it at all angles.

And we are in all the different conversations. We might leave a conversation and that might be the number one for the person that we’re speaking with, but that could be our number 10 for the day. And so really trying to understand how to prioritize those things, and that it’s also okay to say you’re not okay, or to ask for help, or to ask for prioritization.

Um, and be a part of that process in order to determine what that prioritization is. It’s really a, you know, it can really wear you down. And so I think that, that, that, that self-care is extremely important. And so it was interesting to hear people talk a little bit about some of the coping strategies, um, to talk about how to lead their team when they’re burned down, you can’t do it.

You can’t really, you can’t do a good job with that. You can’t really serve yourself. You can’t serve others. Um, as a mother, I know that as a parent, I know that as a friend, I know that.  And it’s easy to say, but it’s definitely not easy to do, especially with communications. When you’re sitting so closely to the top, whether you’re a large organization or a small organization, you could be close to your executive director, your dean, or the president, and you feel that fire you do.

And so really kind of being able to compose yourself and understand priorities and understand who to check in with and keep everybody connected and communicated with is a challenge in its own right aside from doing the jobs. Um, so I think that those were some of the, the great conversations that were happening and, and only those kinds of conversations can happen at these kinds of conferences where you’re allowing the space and time to really be vulnerable.

Cathy Donovan:

So how about for you, how, how did the “Managing Up, Down and Sideways” ideas and conversations apply to your own role as a senior director for a large health sciences institution?

Nicole Szymczak:

Yeah, we’re undergoing some major change and it’s, it’s a scene. It’s a huge division that really was only created about five years ago. And I was brought in maybe about two or three years ago to connect our two medical schools. That’s where our MDs and our Dos… we have two medical schools here, and also a College of Nursing. We have a clinical organization and operation where it’s a faculty-led practice.

And so we’re serving our Lansing and our statewide community. We’ve also the past couple years just embarked on a 30-year partnership with the major health system, which is actually a trend that I’m seeing across other universities as well too. So, I have to partner, my, my copartner is, is working in a health system.

It’s a completely different culture there as well. And we have to lead a partnership together as well. So, um, I’m also building a centralized team to help provide resources to all of those who are within the colleges and within the clinical operation and trying to figure out how to allow our, our leaders to be grand ambassadors for what we’re working to do.

Um, so not only have I had to lead that, you have to say, okay, well, what are you leading? And so really creating the brand and the brand narrative for what health. Sciences, what for us, it’s what that, that logo, what that Spartan helmet means to everyone when you say the word health sciences. And so really getting a clear understanding is what I’ve been working at for the past year.

And I’ve made sure to include lots of people in that process because folks aren’t going to be talking about it. They’re not going to be great advocates for you if you don’t feel like they’re involved in the process. And you can’t really do a very good job without others’ perspectives because I can convene people.

So, you’re talking about the content experts and people who have been with the university for over 50 years and folks that work with students every day. Those are kinds of experiences that I can’t replicate. So, the convening part of it, uh, works very well. And when you do that. You build trust, you build openness, you, you show the agenda, you show the vision and what we’re working to do so that, that there’s no fear there.

Working together can be very fearful in a large institution, especially when we’re all fighting for resources. And so, trying to really advocate and show the benefit of what it is and what it means when we work together. Opportunities for folks individually, opportunities as a group, a collective voice.

And in a more competitive world, we need to do that right now. And so I, I live that life every day, have about four people that I, I report up to necessarily and have to keep, um, keep in the loop.  I have a great team that we’re building, and we want to be great ambassadors in, in, in the programs that we’re, we’re working to create the campaigns that we’re working to develop.  I also am leading, I always say I’m leading sometimes by influence in a dream to about 30 or 40 people who are across our health sciences team who are also searching for community. Just like the lessons I’ve learned from AMA was I don’t have to keep this at the conference.

I want to build this community here. So, I’ve, with our entire group, again, anyone with communications in their title is invited. It’s that deals with any form of communication, internal, external graphics website. So, we have a health sciences communications network that we come, that come together.

We have a virtual teams. And we use that to share information, um, to share fun things about each other. We’re a large organization that’s virtual. Many of us don’t get in the room at the same time together. So. we also host some in-person events so we can meet people as well, too. So that’s, that’s a little bit of across, uh, the organization.

And really, again, when people see you and your role as a connector, which is what I love to do. It’s a greater willingness to come together and work together and, and, and to learn. And when you’re providing great speakers, great professional development, great opportunities, that to me is just also something that’s, that strengthens.

Across my peer group, as well with other senior directors and other executive directors in our office, you know, we’re all working with the same thing. We’re working to, to bring everyone together. And so just being an active voice at the table, if I’m not at a meeting, sometimes I try to elbow my way into it just so I make sure that, that folks understand that both myself and I’m also speaking on behalf of the 30, 40 people who are working in communications across health sciences, we matter and we know a lot and we can bring a lot to the table.

And so, um, being an advocate for those audiences at that larger leadership table is important. And also with our executives wanting to make sure that they know the most up to date information about what’s happening in the community.  And the best part of it is when they can reflect that back on in their communications.

Whether it’s a speech that they’re giving, an email that they’re sending, or if they’re addressing our entire faculty senate or our university council and our leadership, wanting to make sure that, that they too, um, are making sure that health sciences is at the greater university table. And so really it’s about equipping everyone with the information that they need.

Um, and that can, that can be tricky at times. It does take a while to report out and to say, okay, stop, what am I doing? I need to tell everybody what we’re doing, um, to bring everybody along with you. But if you have patience, it’s a great process to be a part of. And it just builds trust and camaraderie and care. That’s what I like to do.

Cathy Donovan:

So how about for folks who didn’t attend AMA, you know, there’s so many great sessions and conversations that happen. What are a few that stayed with you when you got back to campus? I know I continue to be impressed with the Texas State session on brand. And also the keynote by, um, Brad Stolberg on, uh, master of change, a book that I bought, but haven’t read yet. So just curious, you know, what, what sessions continue to inspire you?

Nicole Szymczak:

Um, I think the, the one that inspired me, we had some great keynotes,  Marcus Collins, the keynote, uh, that we had, uh, he’s from the university of Michigan and really, you know, talked about brand and what that means to different generations and how other industries are connecting with audiences.

And how their job is not to communicate directly to them, if I can get this right, it’s about creating and facilitating those spaces like we do at AMA, um, where really folks can get together and share, um, a product that they love, a brand that they love, brand promise that they love and talk about that.

Um, and so I think, um, that was a great approach. We have a lot of really great keynotes.  It really put an emphasis on diversity and what that means for an institution. That’s a challenge that a lot of us are facing now, but we really take that and we break that down. Aside from just talking about the acronyms DEI, we talk about what that means.

And so there are a lot of amazing speakers who talked about the importance of that. So we, as marketers can really understand. It’s not just an acronym that we need to talk about in the box to check off. There’s a real reason here. That we’re looking to get both diversity and faculty in our students and really reach out to the communities that need us.

And how do we build that pipeline together and build that pathway together with them? It’s very important, especially for the public institutions, whose one of our main roles is really to change and impact the lives of others and to provide those opportunities. And so to do that, we have to really reach down and understand, you know, how we can best make an impact.

Other sessions that I really enjoyed as I was racing around my first year on the planning committee, which I’m not used to, I’m used to just avidly taking notes the whole entire time and having nothing else to worry about,  um, was, you know, our, our, another round table as well to, um, you know, and, and, and women leaders.

I think that that’s really important and a perspective as well, too. Um, it’s hard to find a voice sometimes in academia. It’s sometimes hard to clearly communicate, you know, what you’re after, um, in a room full of PhDs and doctors as you’re kind of sitting there trying to make a case for communications.

I once worked for a, you know, College of Communication Arts and Sciences, so I had 120 experts in the room with me any time I tried to. So it was, you know, really trying to look at that as a value, but also trying to figure out what you can bring to the conversation. Again, I think the keynotes were amazing.

I think our sessions are insightful and inspiring. We had different tracks. I think AI was huge this year and people are trying to figure out how the ethical concerns that are around AI, how to use AI for efficiency, how to specifically use it for higher education, what we need. And also how to automate some of our systems and some of our processes so we have more time to do the storytelling that we really want to do.

I think a lot of events and now that, you know, post pandemic now that we’re all kind of back together. I think events that that we’re hosting and college campuses are really important and trying to make that the best experience also. You know, Jenny Petty was, you know, was sitting on, you know, one of my, my somewhat fireside chats, which was a new format that we introduced.

And it was about the chief experience officer. Um, and she, you know, that, that is a whole new role that’s, that’s happening both in, in industry and in higher education. It’s not just necessarily about, you know, you know, just the marketing communication. It’s each interaction with the university from the website to the campus tour.

That is a communication, um, also to the experiences that you’re sharing. And so, um, the University of Montana and Jenny Petty talked a lot about sharing those student stories and really empowering students to tell that authentic storytelling that we once told and said was authentic and content marketing as it was.

But now having to figure out how to empower students to tell the story of others as well, too, uh, because their voice means a lot more, uh, than an institutional voice sometimes too. So in a TikTok generation, you know, where you really, you want to hear what everybody’s saying about something. I don’t think I’ve, I’ve eaten at a restaurant without looking on Instagram of what people say about it.

So if I was going to think about investing in higher education, I definitely want to hear firsthand what an experience is like. And so that the whole brand experience, um, ecosystem to me is really exciting and it was really great to hear how different universities and different structures really support that and how they bake communications into not just we need this communicated, we need to build our brand, we need enrollment, but also about the experience for students because it’s going to be very, very important.

It’s going to, it’s going to be what sets universities apart as a kind of experience that you’re offering. A hundred percent that actually helps lead into this last question. So, uh, Pascal’s tagline is innovating enrollment success, which is also the name of this podcast. And I just wanted to close out by asking what enrollment success means to you and what kinds of innovation you think is really needed to make that happen.

I think when it comes to future generations and we’re seeing this, we’re seeing some of the distrust in public institutions right now, or at least where I sit right now in higher education. We’re seeing some of the wondering for return on investment in, in what we need to do. And so I think when it comes to enrollment, it is about offering and showcasing what kind of experience college can offer, what kind of experience that you will get out of higher education from the classroom to the dorm room, to, to walking, to being able to, to support yourself and make critical decisions.

I still think critical thinking is going to be, you know, the number one skill that is needed. And so being able to, whether it’s, you know, working full time and attending a community college, or it’s going away to school somewhere, or it’s at a private school, public school, it really doesn’t matter. It’s just about time management.

And it’s about working with different people, learning from different people. It’s those group projects that you work on that really make you a great colleague in the future. And it’s also about, um, you know, learning the tools and skills that you need in order to succeed and push your industry forward and whatever that might be.

And so I think a key innovation, if you will, but I think it’s just a different perspective. I think starting sooner. I think we all really need to, to start having that be a culture both in, in late middle school and early high school and really allowing people to understand, you know, what can, you know, lifelong learning really means and value that as well.

We all need, you know, we all need skills and we all need people in different types of higher education. Again, I, I worked at a community college and I really loved, you know, we had a strong nursing program. We had a strong aviation maintenance program, um, utility worker program. So really in introducing kids, students, you know, to the different pathways in life, um, I think is really important.

And also when it comes to university and higher education. One thing I’m still always an avid supporter of is the liberal arts. I, I’ve not, you know, I think unlike many, I, I’ve, I read a lot of books, but I haven’t read as many as I did when I was in college. And so I think it really opens you up to different perspectives as well, too, and really talking about the overall experience that you’ll have, the perspectives that will be opened.

And also, um, the opportunities that are out there, I mean, we need to build, you know, a strong group of workforce, but that’s also critically minded and that also can, can go and solve the world’s biggest problems. They’re not going to stop and they’re always going to change. And I think with our generations that especially are coming up, they have different approaches.

Um, and they’ll be challenging the norm and they’ll be thinking differently about things and addressing problems differently. And so equipping them with the knowledge of history. Uh, coping them with the knowledge of in their specialized skill and having them really, you know, at least in, in my line of work and where, when I went to school for communication, really having them reinvigorated and creativity and creative problem solving, I think is going to be a really, really great to have, um, have this, these next generations at the table.

Cathy Donovan:

I agree. Well, AMA will host its next symposium for higher education in Las Vegas, which I know Paschal will be part of. Thanks to Nicole for joining me today and making AMA such a successful conference and an inspiring community. For more about Nicole, please see our show notes or find her on social. If you’d like to hear about ways Pascal can help you innovate enrollment success, let’s connect.

Nicole Szymczak:

The higher ed community can build good relationships and some great ideas. So thank you so much. Uh, so much for this opportunity. It’s great to talk.

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