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CMO50 2022 #26-50: Chaminda Ranasinghe

  • Name Chaminda Ranasinghe
  • Title Chief experience officer
  • Company RMIT University
  • Commenced role March 2018
  • Reporting Line Senior VP strategy and operations
  • Member of the Executive Team No
  • Marketing Function 350 staff including 50 marketers
  • Industry Sector Education
  • 2021 ranking 21
  • Related

    Brand Post

    For the past five years, Chaminda Ranasinghe has been leading the push towards contemporary ways of working and agile marketing at RMIT. It has been challenging at times, and never more so when Covid-19 and subsequent financial difficulties struck.

    “We were forced to cut support resources required to drive this transformation, which led to a choice of shifting back to the old model,” Ranasinghe explains. “We had the choice of stopping or pausing progress we had been making in changing the organisation culture.

    “Despite pressure from many parts of the organisation to abandon the model, I chose to trust my team to manage the difficult circumstances and continue with the transformation. This decision has paid significant dividends and we are now reaping the rewards of having a more aligned, nimble and customer-focussed marketing function.”

    RMIT’s marketing team is known as the Experience team and was the first function at RMIT to adopt agile ways of working. The ambition was to provide end-to-end ownership of audiences, establish empowered, cross-functional squads, and improve effectiveness through better alignment, prioritisation, transparency and less bureaucracy.

    “We’re now expanding the shift from functional operating models to becoming audience centric value streams,” Ranasinghe says. “I also setup an Experience function working group to develop a mental wellbeing and engagement strategy to ensure the team are able to perform at their best.”

    Team engagement results show this is working, with a shift from 12 points below the RMIT average to +2 above average. Stakeholder satisfaction improved too, with 80 per cent indicating they were very satisfied with the Experience function. It’s also seen a reduction in costs against increased delivery cadences. And importantly, it’s built a prospective student value stream delivering millions in incremental revenue in 2022.

    A simple but effective supporting habit Ranasinghe uses to instill boldness in the team is always asking: “What is the worst thing that can happen?”.

    “Imagining the worst that could happen before any major undertaking allows you to prepare yourself for it and even prevent it,’ he comments. “Taking a moment to think about the worst-case scenario can be liberating and helps me both personally and my teams to take the right risks and push for the best possible outcomes.”

    Customer-led thinking

    A big area of focus for Ranasinghe and his team in this past year has been RMIT’s Alumni. Ranasinghe describe this cohort as the tertiary education provider’s best ambassadors and living proof of its brand.

    “Unfortunately, like most universities, RMIT’s Alumni engagement was focused on the university’s needs, leading to low engagement and retention,” he says. “We needed to better understand the needs of our alumni and develop a mutually beneficial value proposition to help achieve their career and business goals.”

    A human-centred design approach with in-depth market research helped build better understanding of RMIT’s alumni. Thorough interrogation of data and digital channels helped the team develop personas, journey maps and understand the moments that matter. In turn, this led to a clear alumni strategy. RMIT then developed a new alumni segmentation model based on circumstances and a reciprocal benefits framework.

    “We changed our engagement strategy from a few exclusive interactions to creating a vibrant digital affinity group with engagement, leveraging our alumni audience on a global scale,” Ranasinghe says.

    Personalised content, streamlined CRM and marketing platforms and complementary third-party data to better understand and serve alumni leads also came into play. Commercial and strategic impact has been significant, including a 44 per cent increase in Web traffic and 20 per cent increase in Alumni engagement rates.

    Innovative marketing

    Another experience-led example Ranasinghe points to in his CMO50 submission is RMIT’s 2022 Open Day. After two years of disruption, the 2022 event was more important than ever. With the city of Melbourne slower to recover due to the greater awareness of health risks and the ability to work/study remotely RMIT’s city location had lost its lustre as students continue to choose institutions closer to home.

    “An unintended consequence of shifting activities online is our students are not getting the vibrancy of our city campus experience,” Ranasinghe says. “The need for a truly hybrid Open Day was a must in 2022 given the successful digital events in 2020/2021 and the need to have a best-in-class physical event to showcase the vibrancy of our campuses.”

    The 'Next Fest’ concept developed in 2021 as a festival of discovery, conversation and inspiration and was designed to showcase Melbourne as a city, plus RMIT and its 30 industry partners. A new digital platform was designed to mirror the physical event in 2022, and a marketing campaign with a return to prime-time TV after five years was devised.

    RMIT saw a record number of attendees to its 2022 Open Day, 20 per cent higher than pre-Covid numbers, with registered attendees 33 per cent higher than the previous record set in 2018.

    Data-driven maturity

    Then there’s the work done to improve RMIT’s reach into the Vocational Education (VE) segment. As Ranasinghe points out, this sector has been in decline due to a lack of employers hiring apprentices, interstate declines following Victorian lockdowns, and the strong job market, leading to a reduced interest in study.

    “The government and industry urged the education sector to support the current skill shortage. RMIT needed to shift our focus to the VE job seeker market, the non-school lever up-skiller and re-skiller market to meet this need,” he says.

    The strategic shift was controversial, and Ranasinghe worked with executives and council to prioritise a suitable strategy and invest during difficult financial circumstances. CX insights, market research and internal data paved the path forward.

    From there, Ranasinghe’s developed a new RMIT - VE Brand campaign and value proposition: ‘Why RMIT’. Digital experiences were designed to help students find the right pathway to a job. 'Tasters' introduced prospects to the uni via workshops, tours and VET teacher enrichment activities. Another requirement was new VE intake processes to break into non-University cycles.

    Off the back of these efforts, RMIT VE share grew and achieved above 2022 targets – even as the wider sector declined.

    Commercial acumen

    With international travel now returning and border closures removed, universities like RMIT are turning attention back to supporting international students finally relocating in-person to Australian shores. Yet aggressive competition as well as geo-political forces have changed the goal posts.

    Ranasinghe and his team have responded by defining a revenue diversification and international student recovery strategy, including new propositions focusing on a wider set of student benefits. Marketing campaigns targeted to each geography have a focus on content seeding on local social media, while a B2B marketing strategy covers agent and partner incentives, events and campaigns. A CRM strategy with personalised targeting and credit mapping via RMIT’s first automated nurture program using its Salesforce and Adobe Marketo platforms are also underway.

    The work has seen RMIT’s 2022 international student commencements increase and outpacing market growth. The international diversification strategy is delivering strong annual growth while reducing the risk from China, and the marketing campaign, ‘Your passport to what’s next…’ delivered thousands of new international prospects across Asia.

    Business smarts

    At a broader institutional level, Ranasinghe is RMIT’s executive sponsor for accessibility and disability, a role he’s incredibly proud to play. As chair of RMIT’s Accessibility Working Group, he supports the team providing informed advice and direction in provisioning inclusive facilities and services.

    Over the past year, Ranasinghe’s initiatives and leadership contribution have seen him consulting with students, staff and partners to inform the university’s accessibility strategy, and launch RMIT’s Disability Employee Network. RMIT has been reaccredited with Disability Confident Recruiter Status and internal programs sponsoring staff to participate are well underway.

    “I’ve taken a leading role in promoting International Day of People with Disability and Global Accessibility Awareness Day with a week of events, communications and resources for students and staff to improve capability re digital accessibility, including on-campus demonstrations by partners and hosting a national conversation with other practitioners,” Ranasinghe continues.

    He’s additionally sponsoring a program of capital works and digital improvements for enhanced accessibility, including publishing updated campus mobility maps. RMIT is recognised as a Top Performer in the 2021 Access and Inclusion Index with AND.

    “We continue to lead the education sector and have been one of the top five performers from 2019-2021, showing continued focus on making RMIT an accessible place to work and study,” he says. “We are the only University with Web homepage with no accessibility errors.”


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