Thought Leadership for Colleges and Universities

How to Build A College Thought Leadership Marketing Strategy

What is a thought leader? When you see this phrase, you likely think of the kind of person who delivers a keynote speech at a conference or an expert cited in a reputable publication. A thought leader is recognized as an expert authority in a specialized field. We can see thought leaders in action whenever we turn on the news or pick up a paper. They bring out Neil deGrasse Tyson to offer his thoughts on astrophysics whenever we launch a rocket or find a new comet.

Next question: do you think your school’s president can fill the role of a respected thought leader? Well, you should!

The leadership team at most universities is well-suited to assume a thought leadership role, even if they’re nervous to do it. Higher education institutions, by their job description, are at the forefront of public thought and matters of collective social intellect. Positioning a college president in the role of a thought leader can help enhance your school’s reputation and distinguish it from competing schools. It’s a growing marketing strategy that more schools are employing.

In this article, I’ll explore the benefits that thought leadership brings and outline a plan for you to build your leadership team’s reputation.


Why Should a University Care About Thought Leadership?

Scandals aside, there’s no such thing as having too much exposure. Higher education is a competitive industry, and if you want to persuade those candidates lingering on the fence, you need to get your brand featured as often as you can. Getting your college mentioned in a news source boosts brand awareness every time. By developing thought leadership content, a college can distinguish itself from its competitors, attracting new student interest while at the same time strengthening its reputation with alumni and faculty.

The marketing objectives of a university are broad. Beyond trying to attract student candidates, you’re also trying to appeal to prospective donors to help meet fundraising goals. Donors want to align their name with the school that has the best reputation or one that is making a difference in the world. Publishing thought leadership content helps show them that your school is worthy of their donation.

Thought leadership has an important marketing function besides attracting prospective students and donors. By becoming a news source worth citing, an article featuring your college president’s informed opinions attracts valuable backlinks that boost your organic search rankings. If you want to appear at the top of Google, you need to build a strong backlink portfolio, and publishing thought leadership content is one of the best ways to build links.


Challenges and Opportunities Calling for Thought Leadership

While we may be tired of hearing about the COVID-19 pandemic, the discussion will continue as it has hit the education industry in a deeply wounding way. It has changed a lot about how higher ed markets itself and operates. On top of that, the higher ed industry was already facing challenges with declining enrollment due to demographic changes, a rocky economy, and a national sociological climate that questions education more each day. Higher ed has to fight back against all of that by marketing its brand, and developing thought leadership content is an effective way to do that.

We were just about to mention how much of a problem public ignorance is when no less than Barrack Obama just said it for us. The former president (talk about a thought leader!) has spoken out in concern to say that the spread of conspiracy theories is the single biggest threat to democracy. Should a university care about democracy? Well, we’d ask the two universities in North Korea, but they seem to have trouble speaking freely to the outside world these days.

Universities in the past have taken a passive role in the media, resting on the notion that the validity of an education to the quality of life went without saying. That assumption doesn’t seem to be a given anymore. There is certainly a call for somebody to step forward and speak out against the tide of misinformation affecting our media climate. Why not a college president?

Here’s a few modern topics where an education expert’s opinion could land a few blows to combat ignorance:

  • COVID-19 denial: The sooner we convince people to take the pandemic seriously and trust the vaccines, the sooner it ends and we can get back to normal school functions. If you have a medical studies program, this is an opportunity to share their findings.
  • Fake news: Education isn’t just about sharing knowledge; it’s about teaching people how to think for themselves, by giving them the tools of skeptical thinking and fact-checking. This is an opportunity to tout courses in logic and debate. Media literacy is something that needs to be encouraged and taught.
  • Tolerance and civil rights vs. hatred and bigotry: Campuses have long been at the forefront of providing equal opportunity to all, by the necessity of their marketing. Every campus has a story to share here.
  • Student mental health: The pandemic has had a crushing impact on student well-being, even among those who are otherwise functioning within the education system. Sharing all you can do to assist with this crisis makes you a valuable resource even in the academic community.
  • Education infrastructure: This is the fall-back topic. We have many on-going concerns about adapting to remote learning, tuition and student loans, and adapting the education industry to better serve the next generation of students.

We may cringe at the notion of a college president acting like a social media influencer. But that’s becoming our reality anyway. If you don’t speak up in today’s media climate, you don’t exist in the public’s attention. Every day, somebody is going to get up on that soapbox and rant anyway. We might as well have it be somebody who actually knows something.

The important thing to do is to focus on the issues and ideas first. Otherwise, it’s just a plug for your campus. Tackle a current subject, and have something solid to say about it that’s backed by research and experience. The examples we outlined above are just some low-hanging fruit.


Steps to College President Thought Leadership

There’s a system to thought leadership, just like any kind of content marketing. “Content marketing” has, at its heart, the goal of boosting a brand’s reputation by providing insightful information to the community and potential clients. Follow this formula and you’ll have the press eating out of your hand before you know it:

  • Study other higher ed leaders who have made an impact: We will provide resources for this further down
  • Form a writer’s team: Communicators who identify hot news topics and issues worth an address, which the college president and writing team can develop in tandem
  • Keep faculty in the loop: As we pointed out above, your medical school faculty no doubt has things to say about COVID-19 right now
  • Consider co-authors: Partner with the president of a nearby community college, or have a professor assist with the message delivery
  • Stay alert: Keep on top of the news, look for continuing opportunities to lead the conversation on controversial issues
  • Be consistent: Don’t think you’ll see success after one article; keep at it and you’ll build your name in time
  • Don’t be afraid to have a strong opinion: The kinds of people you will alienate by saying “science matters” are the kinds of people who likely aren’t interested in higher education

Does the public care to hear what you have to say? According to Pew Research, there’s an audience waiting to hear from higher education. Science itself has become a partisan issue. Speaking as a non-political authority, your college president can guide the conversation back to the realm of the rational. Most tellingly, 60% of Americans want scientists to have a more active voice in the media.

The trouble with this is that scientists, by themselves, aren’t always comfortable in public performance roles. That’s where co-authoring comes in. A college president has at least a little politician in them and some public speaking experience, while the research staff can provide the research and data. When your leadership team works with your faculty, you can create the kind of content that gets noticed and referenced.


Case Studies: Thought Leaders in Higher Ed

Here are a few examples of higher ed leadership that we see making a difference and things you can learn from them:

“Mental health should be among colleges’ most urgent priorities.” —Shirley Collado, Ithaca College, New York

The president of Ithaca College, Shirley Collado, uses her vast experience in organizational development and psychology to champion programs that improve student access, expand diversity and inclusion initiatives, and enhance the residential experience for students. She’s also been a demographic ground-breaker in several ways: she’s the first Dominican American to hold a college president’s office in the US and the first person of color and the second woman to hold her post.

Ironically, her call for the importance of mental health on campus came even before the global pandemic, which has only magnified the problem.

Collado has been published in the Chronicle of Higher Education to talk about her campaign to build a diverse leadership team, among other pieces. She stays active both at her LinkedIn profile and her Instagram, showcasing many progressive causes she’s tackled. She’s accomplished much more than we have room to cover here. These publications have not only made a name for her and Ithaca College, but they’ve also helped generate positive exposure and backlinks for SEO.

Take-aways for Shirley Collado:

  • Be not just a thought leader, but an activist
  • Have an open communication policy with students
  • Be a pioneer, and let the world know it

“What I learned from an academic redesign…” —Lori Varlotta, Hiram College, Ohio

Lori Varlotta discusses her project to strengthen the financial footing of Hiram College beginning in 2017. She relates how she restructured the liberal arts college’s academic programs, evaluating what to grow, what to shrink, and what needs cutting. In our present-day with a pandemic triggering a new economic downturn, there would be even more interest in cost-saving measures in academic programs. In a fully detailed report, she covers the data-driven change process in clear steps that took into account common first-year, core, and major courses, graduation paths, and career outcomes, and then her mission of trimming the academic fat away from Hiram’s curriculum.

Varlotta has recently transitioned to California Lutheran University’s president as of 2020, which announcement also documents some more of her accomplishments, such as “sparking nationally recognized initiatives in high-impact, integrative learning, and mindful technology,” and the record-breaking fundraising campaigns she led throughout the second half of the 2010s. She’s published numerous insightful articles on her leadership innovations.


Take-aways for Lori Varlotta:

  • Be the Steve Jobs of college leadership (we make it sound so easy)
  • Don’t just share your successes, but document them in a transparent project report that any other leader could follow
  • Build funding upon your thought leadership

“How colleges can improve students’ social mobility…” —John Broderick, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia

John Broderick points out the big picture of how increasing opportunities for the underprivileged creates a more robust society in the long term. This is why he made social mobility (serving low-income, first-generation students) a focus at Old Dominican University, leading a Social Mobility Webinar series. He has also launched a Business Gateway program to serve as a business-friendly access point for the university’s intellectual capital.

ODU’s office of the president page details more of Broderick’s accomplishments, encompassing innovative initiatives in establishing a climate change study center, transferring 2.8K courses online during the Coronavirus outbreak, and constructing a Student Success Center and Learning Commons. Under his guidance, the school has seen record graduations. He has a rich blog with an archive going back ten years.

Take-aways for John Broderick:

  • Have a vision for a better future
  • Roll up your sleeves and implement it
  • Meet every challenge head-on


Any College President Can be a Thought Leader!

While it’s easy to arise to legendary status when greatness is thrust upon you, not every higher education institution is in a position to make the kind of broad strides that get you in the evening headlines. But as we outlined above, there’s plenty of problems in the world that need discussing and solving. By nature of the career, a college president would have to have some idealist in them. All you have to do is pick an issue to address, and detail some plan of how to solve the issue.

You may feel intimidated stepping into a thought leadership role, but you shouldn’t be. There are experts and thought leaders amongst your ranks. Once you decide to build a thought leadership program at your school, the next step is to bring together your team and listen to their insights. They’ll help you determine what content you can create and how to position your leadership team.

What matters is that the academic community hears your leadership loud and clear and that the crop of student candidates is attracted to your school because it’s a place where important things are happening. Nothing is more exciting to a young person than strong leadership with a vision!


Leave a Reply