CMO50 2021 #21: Chaminda Ranasinghe

  • Name Chaminda Ranasinghe
  • Title Chief experience officer
  • Company RMIT University
  • Commenced role March 2018
  • Reporting Line Chief operating officer
  • Member of the Executive Team No
  • Marketing Function 350 team members including 50 marketing staff
  • Industry Sector Education
  • 2020 ranking 26-50
  • Related

    Brand Post

    It’s been a multi-year journey for Chaminda Ranasinghe to bring agile ways of working and a customer experience-led approach to RMIT University. Which is why the shift towards developing integrated, customer-centric cross functional teams based on value streams over the past year has been such a leadership achievement – not to mention a real win for the team.

    “Having marketers embedded in with student recruitment [sales], digital, data and technology team members in single agile squads that align behind a particular customer segment has delivered great results in a more efficient and effective manner,” he says. “We have achieved a lot more with less following significant cuts in 2020.”

    At the start of 2020, when RMIT set out its agenda, it was clear it was going to be a year unlike any other. Australia’s tertiary sector was one of the first to feel the brunt of Covid-19 upon its revenue streams as international students were unable to enter the country to study.

    Unfortunately, 2021 continued in the same way. What’s more, the impact the pandemic and associated lockdowns on mental health was only be exacerbated. It’s for this reason Ranasinghe knew people had to take top priority in his approach this year.

    “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 says. “As such, we have been building up our team’s ability to turn obstacles into opportunities by utilising the Adversity Quotient methodology created by Dr Paul Stoltz. I have led workshops and introduced tools and techniques to build our individual and combined resilience.

    “As challenging as the circumstances have been, the ability to harness adversity has really helped my team not just manage but deliver great outcomes through the pandemic.”

    Business smarts

    The pandemic has only accelerated the need for Ranasinghe and his team to align their activity with the enterprise-wide strategic direction, thereby eliminating short term and siloed solutions. Embedding an experience-first lens to respond to evolving audience needs was another must, as was improving decision making through use of data while expediting the University's digital transformation to drive efficiencies and improve speed of delivery.

    As the first university function to adopt agile ways of working, RMIT marketing and the wider experience team now under Ranasinghe’s remit needed to take the next step. Their model expanded with a view to shift all of the university's delivery and service functions from functional operating models to becoming audience-centric value streams. In a similar vein, the University has mirrored the marketing model into a staff service value stream across HR and finance and is in the process of designing student and researcher value streams.

    Off the back of this squad approach, the international student value stream delivered an incremental 722 additional enrolments for 2021. At the same time, RMIT reduced costs through more effective use of its platforms, creating reusable capabilities, reducing rework and adopting a more streamlined operating model with increased delivery cadence, Ranasinghe says.

    Team engagement results have also shifted from below average to a positive state and stakeholder satisfaction improved exceptionally, with 80 per cent of stakeholders indicating they were very satisfied / satisfied.

    Customer-led thinking

    The strengths of a cross-functional approach have proved vital in improving student satisfaction over the past year. As Ranasinghe notes, since the pandemic began and while borders remained closed, RMIT satisfaction scores dropped well below average. With 60 per cent of undergraduates studying online offshore, they’re unable to enjoy the full campus experience.

    “While RMIT has supported these students with many digital solutions, it was clear more had to be done,” he says. “Students studying offshore clearly required financial support and access to local facilities with some face-to-face connectivity.”

    With sponsorship from the vice-chancellor, a number of initiatives to support international students have been established. One is providing a broad 10 per cent bursary for students that study online offshore.

    Another is partnering with international universities in five countries to launch Offshore Learning Centres (OLC). These provide RMIT students access to their campus, staff and student community while continuing their online study. Ninety-two per cent of students who attended the OLC reported a positive experience and have continued their program of study.

    RMIT also became the first university to launch digital summer schools and boot camps, offering high school students from India the chance to complete the undergraduate course, Introduction to Programming, and providing credit towards a relevant undergraduate degree. Close to half of the 450 summer school graduates continued on to a full undergraduate program.

    Overall, these initiatives have led to 40 per cent above target enrolment of international students in 2021.

    Data-driven approach

    Meanwhile, data-driven decision making has truly come to life in work done by RMIT around Alumni relations.

    “While some can get by on reputation, all institutions benefit from alumni who become ambassadors,” Ranasinghe explains. “Unfortunately, RMIT had lost our way. Our alumni engagement strategy had been reduced to sending monthly newsletters and magazines via a central database. Content focused on the university with regular asks for donations and other support. We needed to better understand the needs of our alumni and offer a variety of services, benefits and professional opportunities to help them grow their careers and businesses.”

    A human-centred design approach with in-depth research got underway. Data interrogation and digital channels then helped the team develop personas, journey maps and understand the moments that matter.

    A clear Alumni strategy was realised, and a new team with industry experts was established. The Alumni segmentation model is based on their circumstances rather than a university-oriented view, plus a reciprocal benefits framework. According to Ranasinghe, this has shifted the mindsets of RMIT “from taking to giving back”.

    “We changed our engagement strategy from a few exclusive face-to-face interactions to creating a vibrant digital affinity group with engagement at scale on the platform of their choice [LinkedIn], to leverage our Alumni audience on a global scale,” he says. “We also developed a new digital channel, personalised content strategy, streamlined CRM and marketing platforms.”

    As a result, RMIT has seen a 265 per cent increase in page views on new Alumni digital channels, a 20 per cent increase in engagement rates and an 11 per cent reduction in exit rate.

    Innovative marketing

    At the other end of the spectrum, RMIT has been working to improve engagement with school levers seeking assurances from universities due to the uncertain environment. As Ranasinghe points out, consistent behaviours started to change in 2020 due to COVID from aspirational to more conservative.

    “School levers are abandoning extra-curricular activities, causing further mental strain. Our students are seeking entry opportunities that recognise both academic and non-academic achievements to show that they are more than just a score,” he comments. “Our objective is to increase first preference share, increase leads, improve student quality, support under-represented groups and further differentiate the RMIT brand with students and schools.”

    Ranasinghe and the experience team developed an early entry scheme and expanded guaranteed pathways to help students secure a place in their dream course before their exams. The offer is based on recognising non-academic skills and experiences across leadership, communication, teamwork, creative and analytics thinking.

    “Changing admissions processes at a university is extremely difficult due to the criticality of the task, the regulatory and academic policies and the number of stakeholders involved. I lead RMIT student recruitment and admissions but as CMO I need to ensure that we strike the delicate balance between the student’s needs, university’s integrity and commercial needs,” Ranasinghe says.

    “As sponsor, I developed the vision and led the initiative from gaining executive support through to supporting my team develop the model with a cross-functional team and then taking it to market. We have developed a number of digital tools and marketing collateral to support students identify the right pathway.”

    Off the back of this work, RMIT vocational education first preferences increased 21 per cent, while associate degrees grew 37 per cent year-on-year. The Pathways Finder tool has also become the most utilised on RMIT’s website and won the Digital Design - Web category in Australia’s Good Design Awards. Thousands of leads have been captured to date.


    There’s no doubt COVID restrictions are having a disproportionate effect on the city of Melbourne itself, where RMIT is located. As a consequence of shifting activities online, students are not getting the vibrancy of the city campus experience.

    So when it came to Open Day for 2021 student recruitment, RMIT opted for a riskier hybrid approach. “We had to reimagine what an Open Day was about and give our audiences a reason to visit the city,” Ranasinghe says.

    “RMIT has one of the largest Open Days in Victoria, attracting 30,000 visitors to Melbourne. It is our civic duty to help the city and our business partners recover. As such, the 'Next Fest’ concept was developed as a festival of ideas, conversation and inspiration. A hybrid event designed to showcase our city, RMIT and our partners. An invitation for students to explore their own future with RMIT and over 30 future employers.”

    The campaign saw a return of RMIT marketing back to prime-time TV advertising after five years. “I have led this initiative from defining the strategy, gaining executive and institution wide support, securing additional budget, connecting with partners through to being hands-on with campaign design and hosting events,” Ranasinghe says.

    Early results saw registrations up 268 per cent compared to the same time point last year.

    People and culture

    It’s clear Ranasinghe is building a leading CX, market insight and product lifecycle management capability to base RMIT’s decision making on outside-in thinking and a student/customer led institution.

    One of the more recent outcomes has been establishing a new product lifecycle management model and capability. The product team use internal data on the health of programs and external data from partners such as LinkedIn, Burning Glass and Faethm to understand market opportunities resulting in the University becoming more demand driven.

    This initiative has led to new-look Bachelor of Business programs aligned with industry needs and the future of work, specifically designed to give students transferable skills and a sound business technology understanding, that will help prepare them for the roles of the future.

    “CX research and insights are now a critical part of how the organisation prioritises the strategic program of work,” Ranasinghe concludes. “And CX insights continue be critical in pivoting to online enabled learning during lockdowns and border closures.”

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