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CMO50 2020 #26-50: Chaminda Ranasinghe

  • Name Chaminda Ranasinghe
  • Title Chief marketing officer
  • Company RMIT University
  • Commenced role March 2018
  • Reporting Line Chief operating officer
  • Member of the Executive Team No
  • Marketing Function 250 staff, 6 direct reports
  • Industry Sector Education
  • 2019 ranking New to CMO50
  • Related

    Brand Post

    Marketers spend a lot of time focusing on efficiency and effectiveness. So while keeping one eye on both, over the last two years RMIT’s Chaminda Ranasinghe has put his other eye on the third E, experience.

    It’s an ambition that led him to develop a CX team, embedding the practice within marketing. He points out this isn’t a common practice in the education sector, where CX is left to other parts of the organisation.

    “Placing CX at the heart of the value-creation process has fundamentally changed the way we think about everything from the purpose of our team to the behaviours of our people,” Ranasinghe says. “As marketers, we have moved from just thinking about making promises to our prospects to delivering on those promises all the way through the customer journey.”

    Customer-led thinking

    In setting up an enterprise CX capability, the aim of the game has been developing a consistent approach to product lifecycle management and delivering regular market and customer insights to improve the student experience.

    As a first step, Ranasinghe expanded the CX function to think beyond prospective student journeys and to segments such as Indigenous, regional, international, alumni, industry partners, staff and researchers. This fed into a new product lifecycle model, created in partnership with the Universities Education portfolio, which utilises internal data sources as well as external partnerships and has allowed the team to be more demand driven.  

    In addition, Ranasinghe has spearheaded a new online portal for sharing key market intelligence data, consumer insights and research projects.

    “Our insights have supported RMIT’s shift towards a new future-focused program suite that will meet the expectations of learners and industry,” he says.

    For example, insights enabled new product roadmaps for colleges and portfolio definitions of key industry segments. Learner journey CX insights have also been critical in pivoting to online-enabled learning during lockdown, which resulted in RMIT offering one of the most successful portfolios in the Government's subsidised short course offering during COVID-19.

    Innovative marketing

    Insight-led thinking, along with his experience in the travel sector, can also be seen in Ranasinghe’s work to develop a market diversification strategy at the university.

    RMIT has the highest number of international students for any Australian tertiary education provider and historically relied on key markets such as China and Singapore. The objective going forward is to develop strategies to protect existing international revenue streams while diversifying and maintaining growth targets.

    The market diversification strategy has two key parts: Developing a geography and segment-based targeted marketing and recruitment strategy; and developing data-driven segmentation models to determine the best target destination for each student.

    Work has already resulted in international acceptances increasing 15 per cent from 2019 to 2020. The Chinese student cohort has continued to grow, while Subcontinent, Indo-China regions and Vietnam regions have also increased.

    Supporting the strategy is data transformation. Ranasinghe has taken on the role of business sponsor across several data and digital programs to ensure RMIT develops an enterprise-wide CRM solution (Salesforce) and an integrated digital channel experience (Adobe). In this vein, the university has hired market leading digital and data SMEs, insourced lead nurturing and conversion capability and setup a team to manage the student experience end-to-end.

    Commercial and strategic impact include reducing manual sales processes, increasingly lead conversion rates double digits in three months, scaling personalisation to more than 200 live experiences in 12 months and more efficient targeting advertising.

    Business smarts

    Helping drive these programs of work forward are contemporary agile ways of working that propel the University’s digital transformation, Ranasinghe explains.

    “The team I joined had experienced a difficult restructure and had low engagement, were not aligned, had no clear vision and used a waterfall approach which created silos with multiple handoffs, thus making them inefficient and reliant on external partners,” he says. The University also lacked a digital function.

    RMIT marketing became the first core university function to adopt agile ways of working. To do this, Ranasinghe introduced an operating model to provide end-to-end ownership of audiences.

    “We have established empowered, cross-functional squads, making the function more effective through better alignment, prioritisation, transparency and less bureaucracy,” he continues. “Drawing on my experience from ANZ and Aviva, I have developed and delivered a model appropriate for RMIT.”

    A joint digital and experience function was also created with the support of the COO and CIO, which shifted the focus of digital transformation from delivering technical capability to become more customer and business outcomes-oriented. As a result, team engagement has shifted from below the RMIT average to a positive state, with stakeholder satisfaction improving exceptionally.

    “These positive results from the new operating model influenced the organisation to scale and advance the move to a modern, agile model to drive our strategic agenda,” Ranasinghe says.

    Adapting team skills was also top of mind for Ranasinghe at the beginning of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged globally.

    “I knew from my previous experiences that building my team and each individual’s resilience was going to be critical if we were to harness this adversity,” he continues.

    In an attempt to help the team turn obstacles into opportunities, he’s utilising the Adversity Quotient methodology (Dr Paul Stoltz), a widely adopted method for measuring and strengthening resilience.

    “As a practitioner, I have personally led workshops and introduced tools and techniques to build our individual and combined AQ,” Ranasinghe says. “As important as your IQ and EQ might be, I have found that AQ can be a more reliable predictor of success particularly given the challenges we face.”


    And speaking of adversity, 2020 has been particularly challenging for prospective year 12 and current university students.

    “From the inability to attend class during the most important schooling year of their life and the psychological impact of isolation, to the very basic need of having money to eat and pay rent, the disruption and hardship faced is immense,” Ranasinghe comments.

    In addition, international students have been disproportionately impacted due to the travel restrictions and financial hardships. Although many universities including RMIT have pivoted to teaching online, adoption rates from international students unable to return to Australia have been low. There was also a hefty increase in the number of offshore students requesting deferrals at the start of the pandemic.

    RMIT marketing has been taking a leading role in pivoting the university’s effort to support all impacted. Initiatives included pivoting early when international students in China were impacted first, changing squad missions to focus on helping our students and kicking off immediate interventions to support current students.

    The marketing team transitioned traditional activity into digital-enabled engagement, running or taking part in over 500 digital events since March at time of CMO50 judging.

    Several digital tools were also developed, such as new career search and psychrometric testing, gamified lead generation, expanded data-driven and tech-enabled advertising and servicing capability. And RMIT was one of the first to pivot to Virtual Open Day experiences.

    As a result, RMIT’s marketers were able to reverse significant deferral requests, report a 50 per cent increase in number of schools engaged utilising digital and show a double-digit rise in prospective student leads before its main open day including a 30 per cent increase in domestic Year 12 student preferences to join RMIT in 2021 (VTAC).

    Commercial acumen

    Through all of this, Ranasinghe has clearly keep a firm eye on demonstrating marketing’s commercial impact.

    “Many in the higher education sector still believe that student outcomes, the quality of teaching and fruitful research will be enough to attract future students to Universities and that marketing is a waste of funds,” he says.

    “The reality is, as universities around the world face funding cuts and an increasingly competitive recruitment environment, we need to come up with creative ways to attract students, boost our brand and play a pivotal role in driving commercial outcomes.”

    To help, Ranasinghe partnered with the CFO to bring the RMIT marketing team into regular performance reporting and planning discussions. This has ensured activities are outcome focused, he says. A pricing strategy team within marketing in collaboration with finance was also established.

    A recent example of marketing driving commercial outcomes Ranasinghe points to is mitigating a decline in Vocational Education (VE). The team set-up a successful pilot and campaign in 2019 to guarantee pathways from VE and have been able to scale this in 2020 specifically to support the current VCE cohort badly impacted by the pandemic.

    The VE pathway campaign grew some programs by up to 33 per cent while preferences decreased across the sector.

    Off the back of this, RMIT marketing has exceeded year-on-year numbers by driving a performance mindset for the past two years, including post-COVID reforecast targets, Ranasinghe concludes.

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