The Higher Education Marketing and Recruitment Periodic Table, Explained

by sduncan

The Higher Education Marketing and Recruitment Periodic Table, Explained

by sduncan

by sduncan

The Higher Education Marketing and Recruitment Periodic Table emerged from my personal efforts to stay abreast of the changing higher ed marketing landscape and to put it into some kind of order that would help me be a better marketer. Digital marketing for higher ed is a complex and rapidly changing landscape to work in and stay on top of these days. The rules of the game are constantly changing with updates to your go-to tools and ever-changing channels while you try to keep up with the latest and greatest marketing strategy and tactics. Factoring in “for higher education marketing and recruitment”, with the covid-driven business reality, the explosion of remote learning, and the impending enrolment cliff, and it is doubly challenging.

My work on the “Table” began, some time ago, quite simply by keeping what I then called my “Know About List”: an inventory of SEMM and digital marketing topics that I felt any respectable higher ed marketer should have mastery over. Over time, by sorting with McCarthy’s 7 Ps, and layering in more marketing theory, (i.e., the Three Product Levels Model, the PESO Media Model, etc.), more structure evolved. Many marketing academics today argue that the 4Ps and the 7Ps models are too dated to apply to today’s digital marketing environment but I believe they still work well enough to be helpful and I choose to apply them in this model. Then, after reading a Seth Godin blog about how innovative Mendeleev’s 1869 invention of the periodic table of elements truly was, another penny dropped and its current structure was developed.

Most importantly, it has matured to a point where I feel it really does put higher ed marketing and recruitment into a well-organized and useful landscape. Assuming I’m correct, it also makes it time to share it with others, who might benefit from it. I am quite sure it is by no means perfect, or for that matter complete. I humbly propose this version of the Periodic Table, knowing it still has gaps, and is at least incomplete on a few elements. But that too was the real beauty of Mendeleev’s invention of the periodic table; he left empty spaces for things he knew were yet to come. Let’s all just agree, it is a work in progress that will continue to improve. I look forward to getting alot of your feedback to help me accomplish that.

But enough of the backstory, let’s look at the Table.

The Higher Education Marketing and Recruitment Periodic TableThe Higher Education Marketig and Recruitment Periodic Table is a tool for marketing planning and analysis

(Click to download a pdf of the Periodic Table.)

So, let’s start with the table’s main organizing principle, the 7 Ps of Marketing. So why are we talking the 7 Ps and not just the original 4 Ps ? When first developed in 1981 by McCarthy, the original 4 Ps, Product, Promotion, Price, and Place, were proposed to explain the four main elements of the marketing mix for what was then the priority, product marketing. Shortly thereafter, Bose and Bitner extended the 4 Ps model into 7ps, adding People, Processes, and Physical evidence, making it more relevant and applicable to the expanding world of services marketing.

The 7 Ps of Marketing

This discussion may lead you to ask, which category does the business of higher education fall into, product or service? We’ll leave the serious debating about this to the academics and settle, for the purposes of this Periodic Table, that in its present form, it is a bit of both. I’d argue that as higher ed’s newer offerings become more and more niche, compartmentalized and self-contained, (i.e. computer-based, self-paced, micro-credentials), that they look much more like products than ever. But let’s leave that subject and debate for another day.

The 7 Ps is a model used for marketing decision-making. Each of the 7 P categories includes various marketing elements, that you may, or may not incorporate into your marketing mix for whatever you are marketing, be it a new community initiative, a new cybersecurity program, or rebranding your school  You determine which elements you will use in your mix, based on your marketing objectives, marketing strategy, your strengths and weaknesses, your competition, your budget, and timeline, etc.

A school’s high-level marketing objectives are typically derived from your academic plan, or your SEMM plan, or your divisional/departmental marketing plan. Depending on your level in your school’s management structure, you may or may not have input into these plans. As a VP, Marketing, you likely work with your school’s president to create your academic or SEMM plan. As say, a social media community manager, you are more likely involved at a lower, more hands-on level in the overall marketing planning effort. The good news is that the Periodic Table works quite well at all levels of your higher ed organizations. We will look at specific examples of both, in a soon to be published blog.

A Quick Comment on the Place of Strategy

The Higher Education Marketing and Recruitment Periodic Table presents the main elements of the higher ed marketing mix. It captures the broad landscape of marketing-related activities but it does not tell you directly what to “build” on the landscape. Your academic plan, SEMM plan, or departmental marketing objectives and marketing strategy ultimately determine how you shape your marketing mix.

Good marketing strategy includes:

    1. A clear diagnosis or definition of the challenge you are facing.
    2. A description of how you will solve the problem, based on leveraging your strengths, your competition, your budget, and your schedule.
    3. The key steps and resources needed to implement the approach

The Periodic Table can help you complete each of these steps by:

    1. Generating a clearer diagnosis of the challenge, opportunity, or threat
    2. Designing an effective marketing strategy to tackle the challenge or problem
    3. Build an optimal marketing mix, (steps, tools, and tactics), with which to implement your strategy.

Let’s move on from the marketing strategy side and look at each of the 7 Ps and the elements within each.

1. Products/Services

As mentioned earlier we will regard this category as including both Products and Services. In the Periodic Table, I have broken out Product/Service into three categories which are described in more detail with Kotler’s Three Product Levels Model.

Kotler’s Three Product Levels Model is the foundation of the Product category in the Higher Education Marketing and Recruitment Periodic Table

This model includes,

1. Core Product/Service – (What’s at the very core of what higher ed offers?) – At its core, higher education offers three things including, learning experience (learn how to learn, personal development), academics, (specific knowledge), and vocational relevance (getting a job). For example, you might enroll in a training program to get a related, specific job within 6 months.

2. Actual Product/Service –(What are the actual product/services that higher ed offers?) – the actual product/service in higher ed includes courses, programs, diplomas, degrees, and credentials, teaching, academic quality, brand. For example, You might study accounting, graduate, and fast track to getting a CA designation.

3. Augmented Product/Service  (What are the important things beyond the actual product/service itself that higher ed offers?) – the extended campus environment, student services, the student experience, the reputation, brand extensions. For example, you might study business at Harvard, graduate, and get an almost guaranteed job interview with a top 10 consulting firm.

Different institutions deliberately offer products/services with very different value propositions, for different target audiences. Understanding the nature of your product/service’s positioning on the Three Product Levels spectrum is important to enabling their marketers to develop the appropriate and optimal value propositions and marketing mix for their target audience.

2. Price

Pricing elements of the Higher Education Marketing and Recruitment Periodic TablePrice is a critically important element of your marketing mix. At its heart, is the complicated element of your institution’s pricing models and strategies. Pricing does not usually get too much discussion in the marketing department because institutional pricing/policy often gets handed down from a higher authority. That’s changing in today’s competitive marketplace, (i.e. Covid-driven changes to value proposition), and is very much coming into the purview of the marketing department. Innovative pricing strategy has become a required element to compete in today’s fast-changing higher ed marketplace. Even if you don’t ultimately control the element of pricing at your institution, you need to understand its complexities, so you can recommend/apply new pricing levers for your school’s best advantage. For example,

  • increases of tuition to cover online learning costs
  • decreases of tuition due to a less robust student experience
  • canceling of ancillary costs not incurred because of remote learning
  • expanded categories of financial aid, (lowering student net costs)
  • temporarily dropped “margins” intended to bridge tough economic times
  • dropped net tuition by institution due to the adoption of open-source textbooks
  • programs with free tuition leveraged by government or community-based funding

3. Place

Place is defined as “where your products and services are seen and where you engage with your audience”. The dimension of Place in the higher ed marketing mix has been dramatically impacted in the last year due to Covid-19, with shuttered campuses and the mass migration of higher ed to online delivery. It looks like campus life should return to some semblance of “normal” by 2022, but Place in higher ed marketing has been forever changed. Also recognize, that to be complete, you must generalize your thinking about Place beyond the three dominant elements of online, campus, and high schools, to also include locations where your product/services are active across your larger community, including alumni, business partners, government and with international agents in other countries.

4. People

The People category of the 7Ps is defined as that group of people who engage with your audience on your behalf. Similar to the Place category this dimension seems on the surface, rather straightforward but don’t fall into lazy thinking about this. Particularly important in the context of a service-based industry, your people do not only participate in the delivery of the service of higher education, they actually are the service, creating its culture, shaping your brand in the marketplace, and acting as its voice. Students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and employers all become significant inside players in the delivery of the higher ed marketing mix. Outside of the inner circle, business partners, suppliers, agents, consultants, and governments operate on many levels, in many complex ways, to assist the higher ed institution pursues its objectives through engagement with its many constituencies. Your larger community, partners, services providers, and agencies of government all play a critical role in solving your marketing challenges and should be seen as a potential marketing mix resource to do so.

5. Processes

Processes are defined as series of actions or steps that an institution takes to deliver its products/services to its audiences. Looking at the customer journey is a helpful way to imagine and capture these processes from recruitment to student services to alumni fundraising. “Customer or audience” should be defined in its’ broadest terms to capture all of your higher ed constituencies. The quality and convenience of your processes and related supporting systems are key drivers of your relationships with your audience, their resulting perceptions of you, and ultimately the shaping and reinforcement of your brand. In higher education, your People managing your Process ultimately defines your Product/Service.

6. Physical Evidence

Tangible evidence, like your campus facilities, printed branded marketing collateral, or a big blue bus driving cross-country delivering diplomas, all fit the traditional definition of physical evidence within the marketing mix. To maintain relevancy in today’s evolving online world, I would argue we need to bend the definition of “physical evidence of brand and mix” to also include some non-tangible elements. Some examples I’d add would include things like online blockchain credentials, accreditation statements, and trust icons, as well documented testimonials and reviews.

Given its importance in the customer journey, I also include websites as physical evidence. The irony of both on- and off-line consumer behaviour today is that generally, consumers don’t trust most of the evidence that brands provide of their quality. What they generally do trust is the advice of family, trusted friends, and online reviews. With this in mind, I have added testimonials and reviews to the physical evidence section of the table. Third-party advocacy for your brand, and evidence of it on your site and social channels is critical today. And given the high level of interaction, I have included user experience as the ultimate evidence of brand and culture in the marketing mix. You will also see it as an element in Promotion, as an important means of delivering a message and strategy.

7. Promotion

The Promotions section of the Table captures the main tools and tactics that you employ every day in your marketing department through traditional offline and digitally online. The top half of the Promotion section is all about the tactics and the bottom half collects a mix of marketing management, strategy, and specializations. The top row (3, 13-20) includes traditional offline marketing activities. 21 PR (Earned Media) is included there as well, not because it is traditional in its practices, but because there was an available spot for it.

The PESO Model - paid, earned, shared and owned media, is the organizing principle of the Promotion category of the HEMRPT

The three rows of media below Traditional are organized by the PESO ( Paid, Earned, Shared, Owned) media model. Content and Events topics are listed within Owned media. Although not a perfect fit, these categories work reasonably well. Shared incorporates the organic aspect of social channels, and Paid includes all online advertising activities. Any Paid social advertising elements fall under 66 Pay-per-Click.

The bottom half of the Promotions sections (76 -101) is a summary of Strategy, Planning, and Management topics. Note that my number system goes vertical at this point, with each of its elements being included under a main Strategy, Planning, and Management topic. These elements form the main foundation of a strong digital marketing program. It’s also in this section where rapid change is most dramatically altering the strategy and execution of higher ed marketing and recruitment today.

You may have noticed that the Periodic Table is also loosely organized on a vertical scale of complexity, with top-of-the-table elements being more basic and as you drop deeper into the table the elements generally become more complex. This is certainly the case in the bottom half of the Promotions section which contains the Strategy Planning and Management topics that are broken down in more detail on the vertical groupings.

You won’t see a cell for every strategy, tactic, or channel that you believe should appear in the The other social category on the table collect other social media channels in the Higher Education Marketing and Recruitment Periodic TablePeriodic Table. I clearly had to prioritize and place many items under other elements, that do appear. For example 50 Other Social incorporates many less prominent channels and platforms. These details are currently unavailable and not seen in the PDF, but they will be made available in the Table in a future version, where the cells will be interactive. I am still working on the technical details of the best way to do that.

So that is my overview of the rationale and structure of the Higher Education Marketing and Recruitment Periodic Table. It provides a canvas upon which you can audit, analyze, document, and plan the marketing mix for your higher ed marketing plans, campaigns, or promotions. Having said all that, I think statistician George Box was on to something when he said “ All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

My hope is that this model falls into the “useful” subset

.George E. P. Box quote - "All models are wrong, but some are useful"

In the end, the Higher Education Marketing and Recruitment Periodic Table provides a one-page summary of the important elements of the higher education marketing mix, roughly organized by category of elements and levels of complexity. It is very subjective and definitely a work in progress. Every time I sit down and work on it, I am inspired by something new and the Table changes a bit. I’m sure that receiving your feedback will cause the same result. I can guarantee that I will continue to add to, subtract from, and reorganize its content, as we learn more together about how it can be applied and as the dynamic business of higher ed marketing, recruitment, and digital marketing evolves.

Stay tuned!

Please add yourself to my email newsletter list to receive updates and notifications of new releases of the Higher Education Marketing and Recruitment Periodic Table.

In an upcoming blog here, I’ll discuss more specific examples of how I apply the Table.


  1. This is fantastic. A truly useful model indeed. Will be keeping this posted right above my desk for easy access and daily inspiration. When can I buy the t-shirt?

Comments are closed.