How Swinburne Uni’s CMO is orchestrating a digital marketing transformation

Chief marketing officer shares the steps she's taken to get a wholesale marketing and customer engagement change over the line with executives and staff

Melbourne-based Swinburne University this week became the latest Australian tertiary institution to announce it’s rolling out Adobe’s Marketing Cloud suite as part of a digital transformation aimed at better customer engagement.

The deal not only sees the full complement of solutions being used by the marketing function, it’s also going to transform the nature of digital advertising courses provided by the university.

The marketing rollout is being spearheaded by chief marketing officer, Sarah Graham, who joined Swinburne as its first dedicated marketing chief three years ago. But just how did Graham get the wider business and executive to invest in such a significant change to engaging with students? And how did the marketing team, university executives and wider stakeholders, get their heads around such a shift?

CMO caught up with Graham at the Adobe Summit in Las Vegas to discuss the triggers for investment, what the rollout of a Marketing Cloud looks like in practice, and what it takes to transform a 100-year old education provider into a digitally and customer-led powerhouse.

Build the appetite for disruption

Upon arriving at Swinburne from a private sector education company three years ago, Graham said she quickly saw the difference between being proactive about student recruitment, and traditional marketing practices.

Graham was the first CMO appointed at Swinburne with a remit to drive growth. A game-changer for the sector had been the uncapping of university places and quotas in 2012. “It changed the entire landscape significantly,” Graham said.

“We have to compete for students. There is no price differential, as fees are still regulated, so you have to compete on getting the message out. You need to show them your tuition is right for them as an individual. So that’s what I’ve been doing over the last three years – building our capability to get the message out, tell people who we are.”

Brand is an important component to achieving this, Graham said. “If you don’t really understand what you stand for and who you are trying to engage with, you’ll lose as you can’t get your message across in what is an extremely crowded market,” she claimed.

Find a quick win

Within three months of joining, Graham had installed Adobe’s Media Optimiser to support Swinburne’s search marketing efforts, along with Adobe Analytics. In her first year, the platform delivered demonstrable improvements to search conversion rates.

“You really start to see the benefit of that, and then that rolls into the conversation around what are the other opportunities,” she said.

Realign the budget around digital

Graham admitted marketing was “pretty rudimentary” when she joined Swinburne. Most capability was outsourced, there’d never been a CMO, and marketing was highly analogue.

She quickly switched the budget from majority print-based to majority digital-based spend. “That caused angst, because people didn’t see us as much in the newspaper,” Graham said.

“The first six months was switching the spend, the last two-and-a-half years has been getting platforms in place to optimise that spend, how you approach activities and ensuring we optimise what it is we’re doing. That’s been the more challenging part.”

What has helped sell digital’s worth was the significant gains Swinburne saw in prospect recruitment through digital campaigning. Within the first year, it was clear there were more inquiries and increased student enrolment.

“There were other things contributing to that too, such as product redesigns and changes to brand, which are all components - you can’t forget to do the core marketing things that are important, product being a big one,” Graham said. “You’ve also got to demonstrate that by switching your spend in a digital environment, there’s a return.

“People started to notice that it was making a significant difference, and that got people onboard.”

Educate at every opportunity

Ensuring people understand the impact of digital for Swinburne and its customers has been another key part of the process for Graham.

“For me, it’s been about educating at every opportunity about what digital looks like to the customer. I’ve had to do a lot of stakeholder education around that,” she said.

“Getting the dollars to invest [in the broader Adobe Marketing Cloud suite] was then predicated on me making the case that without an integrated platform to work from, we were never going to be able to leverage everything we have most effectively and that we wouldn’t be as competitive as we want to be in the long term as competing institutions get onboard the same technology.”

Embrace lifecycle marketing

Swinburne’s decision to take on the whole Adobe Marketing Cloud is about transforming the business not just from a marketing perspective, but a lifecycle one.

“It’s not just about student acquisition, it’s about retention in a major way,” Graham continued. “Every semester is basically a campaign as students have to re-sign. If they don’t like it, they can just go somewhere else. It’s why we freed our degree structures up.

“Again, we needed a platform that enables a student to do that easily, go online, fill in a form, have it processed and so on. If you don’t meet customer expectations, you’ll find it hard to compete.”

Get your digital house in order

Graham said she was fortunate Swinburne had already completed a project to centralise its content management system (CMS) when she joined, ensuring everything digital was in one spot.

“We have a strong domain, and a strong opportunity to optimise. If you have a million satellites all over the place run by silos, you’re not leveraging that power,” she said. “We could then focus on leveraging that, which is about building the campaigns, do the communications and manage our pipeline more effectively.”

Bring big thinking in-house

Arguably, Graham said the bigger challenge was removing an outsourcing mentality. With the technology being relatively low cost, she argued this is more feasible for brand marketers today.

“We do A/B testing, which is mostly manual, but the results speak for themselves. So imagine if we could automate that for each campaign, segment and everything you’re doing,” she said. “You don’t have to think too hard to realise there is enormous opportunity in building the capability and having the brains in the room working on other things. That’s the same for the analytical capability and strategy: The team isn’t just producing things, they’re thinking.

“Competitive advantage in the future will come from having smart people to work out what they’re seeing. The platforms are fairly standardised. Long term, how are you going to sustain that competitive advantage if your competitors are going and buying the same thing? It’s about how smart, creative and analytical you are in using the data and technology to make informed decisions.”

Invest in your people plus specialist skillsets

There was a lot of internal capability in-situ, so Graham has largely trained existing staff in order to build digital marketing capability.

“They know the product, environment, brand and process, what they needed to learn was new technology and skills,” she said. “We have had some turnaround, as some people didn’t think that was the direction they wanted to go, and it’s an ongoing process because it’s different to what we did in the past. But people by and large have embraced it.”

Graham then brought in select specialist skills, such as social advertising and advertising copywriting expertise.

“This is a long-term game and we need to build capability as effectively as possible,” she said. “With automation and more effective digital tools, you can scale up more quickly, so what were discrete parts around the organisation can be centralised. And with 1-2 people plus technology, you can do an awful lot that was done by a lot of people before. That’s not to say we let a lot of people go, we just refocused them on other work. We’re doing a lot more campaign design for example, which is where the smarts are in the whole experience.”

Another disruptive decision was to create a centralised digital office and appoint a dedicated chief digital officer. The CDO sits alongside Graham and also reports into the VP of customer, another recently created role that covers all aspects of student life.

“We start with the customer – we’re not negating the fact that other parts of our operations will benefit enormously as well, such as research – but as a starting point it’s more effective engagement with the customer, which is the majority of our revenue stream,” Graham explained.

Having digital and marketing in one portfolio ensures shared vision, and one voice at the executive table, Graham said. In addition, Swinburne has consolidated international and domestic teams.

Start with the most critical component for you

The first component of Adobe Marketing Cloud Swinburne is rolling out under the new deal is Campaign manager. Graham hoped to have the first set of campaigns for prospective and current students launched by August. A deliberate decision was made to focus on both acquisition and current students, she said.

As part of this rollout, some Adobe Experience Manager work will be done, with a broader rollout planned post-Campaign launch.

“That will build internal capability – we have a group of people seconded to that, and those roles are being backfilled at the moment. Ultimately they will be the backbone of that digital team, then our expectation is to bring in Audience Manager, Target and start to really optimise,” she said.

“Staff trained up in Campaign... will understand that part of what they’re doing so much better, then we’ll bring in those other solutions to optimise the activities they’re undertaking. That’s where I see us gaining big wins.”

Give up staff if need be

To help ensure the transition, Graham recently volunteered to hand over the digital marketing team to her CDO counterpart. She agreed some people would find willingly sacrificing staff a big call, but said it was for the good of the organisation.

“If we want to build these capabilities, that is what has to happen,” she said. “Marketing can’t hold all the resources. And we have to continue to make that work.

“It will enable us to build scale and agility faster too – the people in that team are at all levels of digital knowledge. This is their opportunity to show the rest of the uni what we can do, and it’s a great career opportunity for them.”

Utilise data

Over the past three years, Graham has been collecting data in the expectation of the capabilities now coming online. She’s also worked to provide better transparency into marketing’s activities for the rest of the organisation by reporting tracking and conversion results via Tableau’s visualisation platform.

“It’s made a huge difference in terms of how people approach things,” she said, adding that Marketing Cloud will transform how Swinburne’s marketing team now reports on engagement. “We’ll finally be able to visualise through data the people we’re talking about. The kinds of metrics we can track now are a lot more granular than perhaps in the past.

“We can see real-time change in inquiries, applications and offer. Suddenly I’m getting emails this semester about conversion rates now visible to everybody. They want us to lift them and ask how we’re going to do it. I tell them that’s what we’re working towards.”

Other softer metrics helping to sell transformation include reductions in students showing up at HQ to have their problems solved, and less calls to the call centre.

“We can also do a lot more in the background in terms of what message we push, and ask people to do when re-enrolling,” Graham said. “We know re-enrolment is usually three days before start of semester, but we could push messages earlier, and make it simple to click a button and pre-select subjects for a student based on their previous activities.

“Students don’t get as frustrated, and that’s as important to retention as what happens in the classroom.”

Again, success comes back to data utilisation. “Audience and Target will allow us to take this data we’ve been collecting for three years, bring it together with other data, and make great use of it,” Graham said.

Write the story for change

Building a sense of urgency has been vital to getting investment and work over the line. Graham said a turning point was delivering a presentation to Swinburne’s senior leadership group of 150 dean-level professors and senior administrators on what transformation could look like for a student.

“I mocked up screenshots of what the student sees on their mobile phone in terms of how we capture them as a prospect, how they search, captured what we do in terms of conversation, and what it looks like when a student enrols,” she said. “I took that up to the first day of a semester as a series of pictures. By the end I had the vice-chancellor jumping up saying why aren’t we doing this? Let’s start!

“You can draw out a lot of journeys, maps and so on, but if people don’t get the visual on what this actually means and looks like, it’s hard to get momentum.”

Talking tech wasn’t going to work either, Graham said. “There was a lot of complexity in what I showed them – there were campaigns, apps, joined up data, look-a-like audience targeting, predictive and then effective form filling, personalisation based on communication pieces and so on. If I’d shown the tech all sitting behind it their eyes would have glazed over and things would have stayed business as usual,” she said.

“That sort of presentation captured people’s imaginations and underpinned the fact that people have been more tolerant of ambiguity about where we’re going to end up.”

  • Nadia Cameron travelled to Adobe Summit in Las Vegas as a guest of Adobe.

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