7 Questions with Marcom Veteran Rachel Reuben

March 11, 2020
A sideways question mark

OHO is pleased — and super excited — to announce that higher education marketing and communication veteran Rachel Reuben has joined the OHO Interactive team in a new role as Vice President, Account Strategy. Rachel will expand OHO’s higher education practice and bring new perspectives to our clients on long-term strategy, organizational design, and enrollment marketing.

Rachel brings over 20 years of marketing and leadership experience in higher education at SUNY New Paltz, Ithaca College, and Colgate University. For the past four years, she has been working as a senior marketing leadership consultant to higher education often filling the role of interim Vice President for Marketing and Communications, and working alongside CMOs to help them with their marketing operations. Rachel is a well-respected speaker and commentator within higher education.

We sat down with Rachel to learn more about her and her thoughts on a number of higher education marketing topics.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the last 20 years?

An obvious answer is technology and digital teams. Twenty years ago, I was two years into my first higher education job as the first Web Editor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. 

Back then, my main tasks were trying to convince departments to be on the web, repurposing print publications, trying to keep departments on the centralized website — rather than starting their own site — and working with IT to provide us with the technical support resources we desperately needed.

Today, schools have a much more mature ecosystem overall: a web CMS is a given and we have hosting in the cloud — a far cry from the on-campus hosting from a server buried in a machine room in a secret basement on campus. Plus, schools are investing in building out more robust web teams with expertise beyond a technical skill set — user experience, digital marketing, analytics, and content strategy.

What are some big lessons higher ed has learned since then?

The critical importance of integrating marketing initiatives — to quote Aristotle, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The strength of a university’s brand should lift all units, and individual departments and functions are learning how to work together to market the whole institution. This approach also means integrating teams. Silos continually need to be broken down between departments and projects need to have an integrated approach regardless of the media in which they will live. Maintaining fiefdoms throughout the college typically doesn’t help raise the college’s overall profile or enrollment.

You co-founded HighEdWeb? What was the motivation there?

Yes! In 1998 I was hired at SUNY New Paltz and was desperate to find other colleagues in the SUNY system that were also full-time web staff members. There were only a few of us at the time, so we started a listserv to be able to talk to each other, learn together, and frankly have someone to commiserate with as we tried to lead web development and convincing senior leadership the importance of building a solid web presence for our institutions. 

Since SUNY wasn’t adding many full-time web staff members, we decided to branch out to further extend our networks within New York State. I got together with a few other web folks from SUNY Plattsburg, RPI, SUNY Orange, and others to form a New York state-wide alliance for web staffers. In 1999 we held our first gathering at RPI in Troy, NY and formed as the Higher Education Web Professionals of New York, HighEdWeb for short. We held annual conferences that continued to grow and then in 2004 HighEdWeb joined forces with WebDevShare, a successful international conference based out of Bloomington, IN. I was on the board in the early years, but passed on leadership to the next generation as my role continued to expand in marketing outside of just the website focus it once had.

What are the challenges in the next 5 years? How should higher ed marketing and enrollment be preparing?

The big challenge on the horizon is the “higher education cliff.” Demographic experts point out that enrollment at colleges and universities has steadily declined over the last decade and enrollments are projected to dramatically decline starting in 2025. 

With this in mind, it’s more important than ever to understand a college’s niche and not try to be all things to all people. The more colleges can differentiate and offer programs that they can deliver stronger and more effectively than their competitors, the more likely they will be to ride out this demographic storm. 

How is the role of the VP/CMO changing?

I’m seeing more Enrollment and Marketing VPs merge into one VP-level role, which is indicating the growing importance of linking these two functions — especially with the enrollment cliff coming. 

CMO’s are expected to have a wide variety of experience — PR, communications, media relations, digital marketing, print, enrollment, advancement, and more. While it’s great to find someone who has come up the ranks and has been able to develop experience in most of these areas, it’s important that CMOs have strong second tier leaders in areas in which they may not have as deep of a background. 

Strong leadership skills are also critical to keep the team’s motivation and morale high when pay often isn’t what they could potentially be making outside higher education. 

There are also President’s that still haven’t come around to the importance of having the CMO/CCO at the senior leadership table. Communications around race relations and more recently COVID-19 are more than enough to prove the critical link between senior leadership and communications.

If you had a magic wand and could change one thing in higher education marketing and communications, what would it be? 

The fear of “what if this doesn’t work” paralyzes many teams from trying new strategies and tactics. Risk-taking and innovation are critical when trying to recruit a declining demographic. There is often resistance to investing in various kinds of research to provide better guidance on marketing initiatives. Be smart and don’t let fear hold you back. 

What excites you about joining OHO?

The team and culture at OHO are so amazing. OHO’s core values line up with my own, and I’m excited to be able to work with more higher education clients than ever before to help them with their digital marketing strategies. I get to do what I love — helping other marketing teams and VPs/CMOs think differently about how to more effectively reach more students to continue to create a better future for our children.

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