CEDAR FALLS — High expectations, shoestring budgets and massive to-do lists seem to be the nature of marketing in higher education.
In addition to the creativity required of such work, marketing directors also must be innovative when it comes to resource management, said Sara Kies of the University of Northern Iowa.
“The university as a whole has had a need for assistance with its social media management strategy and development,” said Kies, marketing and communications manager for UNI College of Business Administration (UNIBusiness).
At UNI, each college is responsible for expressing its own brand, she explained. She appreciates the freedom even as she understands its challenges: What’s the best way to set the right tone? How can the college balance its messaging to appeal to its multiple audiences?
“Higher education in general has struggled with modern marketing tactics and techniques for a lot of reasons — lack of funding, personnel, resources in general,” Kies said. “As we explored ways to boost our digital effort, we began to realize we needed a partner with the expertise and infrastructure to enhance our resources.”
She sought suggestions and guidance from the college’s Marketing Advisory Board. Her goal was to obtain feedback from the alumni professionals willing to lend expertise and guidance to UNIBusiness.
Through consultation with the board, Kies developed a request for proposals for digital marketing services.
“We knew we were asking a lot, and we took a risk in committing the resources,” said Kies. “It’s also something we had to find some way to do. To attract students and engage alumni, social media management is essentially required.”
The college’s RFP caught the interest of Marc Reifenrath, a member of its Marketing Advisory Board.
Reifenrath is a 2001 UNI graduate who majored in marketing and is now CEO of Spinutech, a local digital media company.
In 2000, Reifenrath and co-founders Adam Lewis and Cory Schmidt started the company from their apartments while they were attending UNI. Today, Spinutech has employees in Cedar Falls, Des Moines and Chicago. The business has clients in all 50 states and nine additional countries.
In addition to his service on the board, Reifenrath is a regular guest speaker for UNIBusiness Professional Readiness Program classes.
“Of our 65 team members at Spinutech, close to half come from UNI,” he explained. “The digital landscape changes rapidly; that has a huge impact on these students who want to get into digital marketing. We want them to know we’re out here — for future hires and future clients to know who we are.”
These interactions expose students to vital necessary “soft skills” like collaboration and business networking, said Julie Van Ee, a UNI senior majoring in marketing and sales management.
As a peer mentor in the UNIBusiness Professional Readiness Program, Van Ee has helped students prepare for their post-college careers.
“The people I work with are great,” she said. “We have different speakers who talk about their experiences and businesses. PRP also exposes students to professional recruiters, which really separates us from (other programs).”
Participation in the PRP is a win-win for businesses, said Reifenrath.
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“We’re constantly striving to keep our company on the digital edge, and that’s a level of performance we want to provide UNI, too,” he explained. “We want to help the university; more exposure and awareness for our name is secondary.”
However, the business leaders do stand out, said Van Ee. She learned about Spinutech through PRP and started an internship there earlier this year. She will join the company as a full-time employee after she graduates in May.
“We’re excited to work with students like Julie,” said Reifenrath. “The talent pool is so competitive right now, so filled with young and bright students.”
These experiences reinforce the business-college relationship, he added. As a result, he was excited when Spinutech’s digital marketing proposal was selected.
The strategic partnership aligns UNIBusiness with one of the nation’s premier web design and digital marketing companies. In 2018, Inc. magazine named Spinutech among its 5,000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies.
From the outset, the plan emphasized organic growth of the UNIBusiness marketing strategy, said Kies.
“We focused on sharing someone’s status, highlighting specific alumni accomplishments, and so on,” she explained. “It set the strategy for targeted posts and the types of things we’re sharing to really emphasize our brand of ‘Getting Ready for Business.’ Anything we share or say needs to have that focus, from an organic standpoint.”
Efforts contributed to increased attendance at Fall Business Day, Kies added.
“At the 2018 event, we had to cap attendance because it was too high, which was the first time that had ever happened,” she said.
Kies attributes the growth to the Spinutech partnership. She used peer engagement to measure success of the project.
“We’ve had a 21 percent increase in Instagram followers since we partnered with Spinutech,” she explained. “Admission account creations are up. We’re up in Facebook followers and Twitter followers, too.”
In a bold move at the outset of the project, Spinutech expanded the scope and reach of the arrangement by donating its set-up fees, said Kies.
“We have been able to do this in a much more impactful way because of Spinutech and do a lot more than we would have been able to do,” said Kies.
It wasn’t simply a gesture, said Reifenrath. Spinutech employees took genuine interest in the UNIBusiness partnership.
“Because we have a lot of UNI alumni at Spinutech, there is a lot of engagement around this project,” he said. “We take our work very seriously, and with this one, it’s deeper. There’s a pride factor; people specifically ask to work on this.”
The commitment showed in the work, said Kies. Spinutech put in extra effort, providing additional, pro bono services outside the scope of the contract. For example, the company augmented Kies’ small staff by providing a staffer to take photos and tweet during Fall Business Day.
“We have had a very long partnership with Spinutech,” said Leslie Wilson, dean of the College of Business Administration. “As a member of our Marketing Advisory Board, Marc has helped us grow the digital media focus in our curriculum. This initiative takes that partnership to the next level, helping us reach our digital marketing goals while introducing our advertising and digital media students to local internship and career opportunities. Success is mutual beneficial with this partnership.”