CMO interview: How Curtin University’s marketing chief uses test and learn to cope with complexity

Millennial marketing leader talks about running marketing hackathons, bringing in automation and customer insights

Tyron Hayes
Tyron Hayes

CMOs that don’t adopt an entrepreneurial mindset and a measured test-and-learn approach could be missing opportunities to not only better engage customers, but to foster new product ideas, according to Curtin University’s CMO, Tyron Hayes.

“The textbook for marketing is getting thrown out of the window every six months,” Hayes told CMO. “Not being scared to try new things is therefore a big one in the CMO skillset.”

Whether it’s running a marketing hackathon, bringing startups in to talk strategy with the team, tapping into analytics or taking the plunge on new technology capabilities, Hayes is squarely focused on ways he can shake up how Curtin University engages with current and future students.

“As a CMO, I spend a lot of time with my leadership team and marketing team to build energy around new ideas and how to do things better,” he said. “Being a CMO is also about being future focused and analytics driven, not just doing what we’ve always done.”

Coping with complexity

Hayes started his career with brand and design agency, a role he said taught him the value of strong positioning and branding campaigns. He then moved to London, picking up a six-month marketing contract with a financial services firm before joining London Business School to market executive education services globally.

From there, Hayes came to Sydney and worked at UNSW in the Australian Graduate School of Management before returning to his home town of Perth and a marketing role at Curtin University in 2011. He was appointed CMO in July 2014 at the age of 35.

“I have passion for the product and its complexity,” he said of tertiary education. “It’s a high-value purchase decision, we have interesting demographics from undergrad to postgraduate and research, then there’s the brand position and reputation in what’s becoming a highly aggressive and competitive market. We need to constantly do things differently.”

Like many Australian universities faced with the possibility of privatisation, as well as the rise in digital learning and foreign competition, Curtin University responded by giving marketing a major restructure 18 months ago.

“It was an efficiency driven decision, coming into a competitive, challenging budgeting environment, but we used that as a strategic opportunity to set ourselves up for the future of marketing,” Hayes explained.

Previously, Curtin maintained a separate digital media unit, as well as a future students division and a centralised marketing services group. Faculty marketing was then decentralised, leading to poor coordination across activities and budget.

Today, future student and marketing services including digital, as well as the contact centre and face-to-face events activity, is combined. There’s also a marketing and creative services group including in-house video production, inhouse design and writing teams, as well as brand and campaign teams working with agencies. Faculty marketing now operates as a hub-and-spoke model.

“Faculty marketers are on the teams close to the product and researchers but report into our central team,” Hayes said. “That’s seen much greater collaboration and coordination around budget spend, activity and timing.”

Importantly, Curtin has been building its marketing analytics and compliance capabilities and hired a data statistician to help report on marketing activity, as well as Web and social. This has helped take insights to the next level, he said.

5 pillars of modern marketing

It’s not just structure that’s been remodelled. Hayes and his team have identified ‘five forces’ that are driving their modern marketing approach. The first is a student and customer-first operating model, while the second is being strategy and insights driven.

“We used to be very campaign analytics focused,” Hayes said. “We’d measure independently without ever getting a global view on what we did around semester one that led to enrolments in semester two or next year.

“We are building a reporting schedule and dashboard that’s much more holistic, and looks at all activities and data points to gauge what is making a difference. Within high schools for example, we have become more sophisticated around reporting to see the main feeder schools, what activities we’ve done, and what has shifted the needle. Then we’ve used geomapping to see our market share in the local, domestic space, where we have gained ground over other unis or where we have grown our market share.”

The third pillar is ‘game-changers and innovators’, and challenging teams to think differently. An example of this is Curtin’s inaugural marketing hackathon run last year, which brought together future and current students with people across the business and agency partners. The initiative resulted in the ‘PUPS’ (People Under Pressure at School) project, launched in June.

PUPS was aimed at engaging with high-performing, final-year high school students during exam time. Curtin partnered with not-for-profit, SAFE Perth, and descended on St Hilda’s School with 12 puppies to help relieve the stress of completing the HSC.

“As well as supporting a worthy cause, this created a feel-good moment for them and their peer group, and it was a fantastic opportunity for social,” Hayes said, adding Curtin chalked up more than 10,000 views of videos of the event on social organically. “But we also had tips on how to decrease stress if and when they choose to come to Curtin. That’s an idea of how we are trying new things.”

The hackathon is one way of helping build an entrepreneurial mindset internally, Hayes said. “The other way is having it in our marketing work plans – what new things have you tested and what’s failed, and asking staff what did and didn’t work,” he said.

Fourth on the priority list is taking a global perspective and ensuring better collaboration across Curtin campuses and teams globally. The fifth pillar is strategic content curation.

“The collaboration, curation and creation piece is about where content is coming from and how do we work across the business to develop the kind of content our customers want,” Hayes said. “That could be career information through to tips on our social media platforms.”

Nurturing the customer

Student recruitment isn’t where marketing stops, and Hayes is taking deliberate steps to expand marketing’s role across end-to-end customer engagement. The university is about to roll out a marketing automation platform as a way of bettering nurturing leads and current students.

In parallel, marketing has developed a content strategy and framework based on different types of personas and customer journeys that better define the target audience.

“The objective is to streamline operations, become more effective and efficient in how we communicate, but also to become more personalised by giving customers the right content at the right time that moves them along their journey,” Hayes said. “We do currently have different activities for different audience segments but not to the level of sophistication that it needs to be.

“Using the research we’ve done on our personas, we know which content to serve, and we’ll build that into a lifecycle and nurture program, from prospective students in years 9 and 10 through to mature age and post-graduate.”

Again, bringing marketing automation in to the business requires a test-and-learn approach, Hayes said. This is also vital in proving the value of such an investment to the executive team.

“We try to be agile and prove something works before we roll it out across the business,” he said. “We are going to use some test pilots that are campaign based and for a particular segment, prove it works, then report back to executives to see where else it can enhance our business.

“We know it’ll [marketing automation] have good use cases for current students as well as alumni. So we’ll get some runs on the board then share what we’re doing. If we can get in and show executives what it can do, show that it’s a real strategy and not just a shiny toy that delivers results, that gives you better traction. That’s how we’ve made room in our budgets for it.”

Likewise, segmentation is an evolving process, and Curtin has started at a high level, grouping targets into future student, undergrad, domestic and postgrad by looking at their personas, conversion triggers, who are their influencers, and what content matters.

“That has given us rich insights into categories such as parent pleasers, and science buffs,” Hayes said. “Those are simple terms we can build into our briefs and advertising and develop our content strategy around. We’ll then leave the more sophisticated stuff to the automation, CRM tagging and micro-segmentation down the track.

“It was about what we needed to know first in order to be more relevant right now and what can we really use.”

Supporting this with a more sustainable content framework was one of the early priorities identified.

“What we realised is that we produce a lot of content - hundreds of brochures, videos, for all different audiences - there just wasn’t that framework to pull that together,” Hayes said. “It was more internally demand driven. The starting point has been the framework, and using personas and the lifecycle and journey of target segments to look at what content we need to move people along that decision path.

“We have developed the framework based on that lifecycle, such as enquiries and becoming a student, and adding more structure around kinds of content, whether it be studies they need or influencer communications.”

One area of renewed emphasis, for example, is on developing content that resonates with parents of students looking to attend university.

Hayes said the team is also looking at how paid ads can amplify content. “We’d previously used paid social for ads, but now it’s what content is working and how we boost that to get a broader reach,” he said.

“We still use the full mix [of media], although less TV of late, and it’s about knowing everything still has a place. But we are leaning more towards digital and that will continue with the automation and focus on the digital behaviour of our students.”

The other loop Curtin is trying to close is between prospect and customer, something again technology will help with. Hayes said the university has been undertaking a project to integrate its current student systems with future student data, which will deliver clearer reporting and opportunities.

Disruptive product thinking

With such a hefty amount of industry disruption to cope with – from massive online open courses (Moocs) to free and cheaper courses online, global competition, and more aggressive domestic rivals - Curtin is looking at different ways to package educational content platforms, provide shorter courses and more education online.

This need for change and agility in engaging students at a product level is also giving marketing an increasingly important role in the university business, Hayes said.

“There is a prediction that 40 per cent of jobs won’t be there in the next few years, so unis have the challenge of designing degrees for jobs not created yet,” he commented. “To cope, we’re quickly testing new course ideas then rapidly generating the communications to promote that.”

An example is Curtin’s new suite of courses covering predictive analytics, which launched to market in just six weeks.

“Marketing now has seat at the table in terms of product development,” Hayes said. “Faculty marketing managers lead briefings to research agencies to test ideas, then work with stakeholders to rapidly develop communications to market to get them on board. We’re also thinking differently also getting a splash page or landing page to capture interest, rather than just launching the course later. And how do we build market intelligence in that process of what future courses might look like through working groups, rather than what it used to me, which was supply driven.

“All of this is seeing marketing input much earlier in the process. The Holy Grail down the track is for us to go to faculty with the market gap is and show where we need products. That’s the future: Being demand driven.”

Through all of this, Hayes said he’s looking forward to exploring the value of the marketing function long-term.

“As the sector changes, how do we go from communications and brand to new product development? That’s an opportunity to make sure marketing is as relevant as it can be both to customers and to the business,” he concluded.

“And that’s coming up with new ideas that continue to position us in the right way, as well as working on new product ideas that take us forward.”

Read more of our in-depth CMO profiles of leading Australian marketers:

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook:, or check us out on Google+:

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Show Comments

Latest Videos

More Videos

More Brand Posts

Blog Posts

Marketing prowess versus the enigma of the metaverse

Flash back to the classic film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Television-obsessed Mike insists on becoming the first person to be ‘sent by Wonkavision’, dematerialising on one end, pixel by pixel, and materialising in another space. His cinematic dreams are realised thanks to rash decisions as he is shrunken down to fit the digital universe, followed by a trip to the taffy puller to return to normal size.

Liz Miller

VP, Constellation Research

Why Excellent Leadership Begins with Vertical Growth

Why is it there is no shortage of leadership development materials, yet outstanding leadership is so rare? Despite having access to so many leadership principles, tools, systems and processes, why is it so hard to develop and improve as a leader?

Michael Bunting

Author, leadership expert

More than money talks in sports sponsorship

As a nation united by sport, brands are beginning to learn money alone won’t talk without aligned values and action. If recent events with major leagues and their players have shown us anything, it’s the next generation of athletes are standing by what they believe in – and they won’t let their values be superseded by money.

Simone Waugh

Managing Director, Publicis Queensland

Sign in