Making a successful business case for a bigger digital marketing budget

After a turbulent year, we have really seen how it is digitals time to shine. With the monumental move of education to online platforms, it is important to know you have your institution's buy-in. We have seen this trend throughout our annual survey results. Prior to Covid-19 budgets, digital marketing and web budgets were stagnating in higher education. So with this being one of the biggest challenges that marketers face in any business, getting the buy-in and budget to execute their digital objectives, we have compiled some top tips to help.

Prior to COVID-19, did the size of your institution’s digital marketing budget change in size in the previous 12 months?

So, in a year of more clouds than silver linings, one good thing about 2020 has been the opportunity – and financial backing – for digital marketing to shine.

From the redeployment of events budget to deliver virtual open days, to the social media managers valiantly holding the frontline of reputation management, digital activity has helped universities survive and pivot in a challenging landscape.

So how can digital marketers maximize on this showcase to secure a longer-term increase to their departmental budget?

If you're one of those universities where your digital team can only dream of a budget on par with a printed prospectus or view book, we're here to help with ten ways to build a better business case for digital.


1. Know your audience

As marketers, you're the masters of tailoring messaging to suit your audience, so use that superpower to speak the same language as the people in charge of the purse strings and link the messaging to your institutional objectives (student recruitment numbers etc.).

Whilst you're all likely to be digital evangelists, other colleagues and senior leaders might not be so well informed.

So when you write your business case avoid jargon, explain acronyms – outside of marketing, most people don't know their CTR from their CRO – and keep things clear and easy to understand. It's very important that your case also links in with organizational goals and objectives.

2. Pick your moment

Timing is everything. Your institution will likely have an annual budget planning process, so make sure you plan early and are ready to submit a well-made business case at the right time in that cycle.

Also, take note of internal priorities and external factors that might impact your chance of success. For example, an internal focus on continuing education student recruitment, or an external assessment looking at research outputs, might make marketing transformation a lower priority this year.

Despite (or because of) a turbulent year, it seems that satisfaction with web and digital investment has grown

3. Base it on the bottom line

Marketers know their activity needs to translate directly to bottom-line results. The people making decisions about your budget allocation will have two ultimate considerations in mind. Can it make us money? Can it save us money? So make sure your business case communicates the financial benefits that investing in digital can deliver.

However, don't forget to reference cross-departmental objectives to which your team can make a relevant contribution. For example:

  • information security; protecting your campus from hackers can help increase investments in new marketing technologies
  • green initiatives; by reducing physical visits to campus events or the use of paper in printed materials
  • financial transparency and accountability; through the measurable impact of spending
  • accessibility; by providing information in formats that is inherently more inclusive by design

4. Prove your worth

Budget is a finite resource and you should be ready to prove your worth if you want to secure the faith and finances of senior leaders.

One of the major benefits of digital marketing over traditional media is the fact it delivers data to a granular level, providing seemingly endless opportunities to measure progress against goals and demonstrate ROI.

Try to present data across your full digital ecosystem, from CRM and PPC to website and social media performance. Talk results, showing the flow of data from people expressing interest to enrollment numbers.

graph of most collaborative regions

5. Make it clear, digital is no longer just a 'nice to have'

Over the past decade, digital has proven its place in most institutions' promotional mix. Far from being something 'new' and untested, it is actually one of the most measurable and accountable forms of communication. Not only that, but it is where audiences increasingly expect to engage, meaning it is no longer just a ‘nice to have', it is essential.

Take social media, for example. How many beleaguered universities' feeds have been the battleground where complaints about COVID have been fought in public? Failing to adequately resource social media is not a case of potential students missing out on the latest memes, it is a key element of reputation management in the modern era.


6. Highlight agility

If this year has taught us anything, it's that anything can happen. Even the most extreme scenarios recorded in our collective SWOT analyses couldn't have predicted what 2020 had in store. In the face of unpredictable global forces, agility, and the ability to pivot quickly have translated into a significant competitive advantage.

Digital activity – such as virtual open days and rapid dissemination of information through online channels – has only been made possible by allocation/reallocation of the appropriate budget for staff resource, software, and content development.

7. Provide a variety of options

This isn't crowdfunding. You don't need to secure all the funding or anything. Provide a range of options to show what you can achieve with different budgets.

You might not get gold but silver could still be a step up from where you are now.

8. Clarify responsibilities

Marketers are increasingly stretched to deliver not only marketing and communications, but research, customer service, IT projects, and more. If there's been mission creep in your marketing team, make sure it is noted and ask for it to be reflected in the budget. If not, make it clear those additional responsibilities will need to be reallocated.

9. Show you run a tight ship

Highlight savings you've made in the past and your commitment to making the company buck stretch as far as possible. Demonstrate your diligence and show how data-driven insights help you optimize results and maximize ROI.

Not in a position to prove progress against goals or strong ROI? Now might not be the time for a budget increase. Consider looking for ways to improve your use of what you've got before asking for more. 

Teams are growing less this year, with only 21% experiencing a growth in team size compared to 2019, 52% of teams remained the same size in 2020 compared to 39% in 2019

10. If you're not ready yet, prepare the ground

Digital isn't going away, so if you're not in a position to make an effective business case yet, don't worry. Now is the best time to start laying the foundations for a future budget request.

If you haven't already:

  • plan meaningful, measurable goals for your digital marketing and collect data that proves efficacy and ROI
  • begin a program of senior education, to communicate the benefits of digital marketing up the decision-making chain and create digital allies
  • develop your team by equipping them with the relevant digital skills they need to succeed, even in an increasingly MarTech-driven environment, your people remain your greatest asset

Ready to start writing your business case? We'd love to know how you get on.