Teaming Up for Success: Why Strategic Partnerships With Vendors Make Dollars & Sense


When I transitioned from working in the private sector to higher education, I noticed something new and surprising: a skepticism around outsourcing marketing and enrollment work to vendors, and a hesitance to do so. I wasn’t alone in recognizing this trend among academic institutions.

In a recent Inside Higher Ed blog post authored by Donna Lehmann, Assistant Vice President for Marketing at Fordham University, I was excited to see an insider’s perspective on outsourcing. She expertly described how to approach vendor relationships, build strong partnerships, and ultimately have successful engagements.

While in the private sector, using vendors is a commonplace practice and good vendors are cherished resources, I worry about the colleges and universities doing marketing and growing enrollment all on their own. With small teams, big jobs, a finite amount of time, and a talent pool limited to their immediate geography, they must be exhausted at best, and, at worst, missing a huge opportunity to improve their operations and achieve better business results.

Sure, they could get it all done — and some were doing a great job at it — but what was the real price of this type of professional isolation?

That’s why I want to share with you how Blackboard has seen universities find success through vendor engagement, and show you the impact a strong partnership can have.

Here are a few best practices I have observed:

Select a Good Set of Vendors

It’s important to have the right mix of people working to achieve a goal. Most likely, the team you have in house has general skills and deep institutional knowledge which are both critical. But specialists and vendors can add value and provide support at a reasonable price, only—and exactly—when you need it.

A great example of where to leverage a specialist is student recruiting, something we do for our clients every day.

Bringing in a vendor partner with deep experience growing enrollment means you don’t have to spend time figuring out how reach prospective students — we do the research and share our knowledge gained from working with every kind of student and institution. You don’t have to worry about how to tell students what makes you unique — we come with fresh perspective and an unbiased view of the market. You don’t have to follow them over the 18 months it typically takes for a prospective student to enroll — we do it for you.

And when you hit your goals, we love nothing more than to celebrate with you because we’re all on the same team.

Hold Your Partners Accountable & Set Clear Expectations Around Success

Your goals are likely clear: hit your enrollment goals, manage student relationships, and retain students until graduation.

As a vendor, we’re only successful if you’re successful so it’s critical that we work together to define success right from the start. As a newly formed team, we should set goals, expectations, and agreements on how we’ll reach the finish line together.

Because enrollment is a 6-18 month decision making process from interest to enrollment, and not a sprint, it’s important that you resist the urge to micromanage your vendor or micro-analyze results. Set up regular check-ins where all concerns and questions can be discussed.

In short: Follow the plan, trust the process, respectfully address concerns, then reap the rewards!

Own Your Role in the Relationship

If there are challenges in the relationship or the particular engagement, ask yourself some questions: Was the timeline too tight? Were you as responsive as you could have been? Did you give them everything they asked for in a timely manner?

And as hard as it is to take some of the blame (I know, I’ve been there!), if you’ve already been through a number of vendors and see each as a failed engagement or are disappointed every time, it may be time to look at the common denominator. It may also be time for a tough but important conversation with your vendor partner in service of ultimate success.

Instead of running away from them, talk to them. I bet that if they are doing something that displeases or disappoints you, they’ll want to change to make things right. Success for the vendor, after all, is achieved when you, the client, are successful.

Partnerships Pay Off

When you build a strong team mixing vendors and staff members, set the team up for success with clear and achievable goals, and participate fully and enthusiastically in the partnership. You will see the difference in the bottom line, our clients sure have.

Blackboard’s most successful clients are the ones who are actively involved, treat us with respect, and hold us to a high standard of excellence. Here’s a few that have reaped the rewards:

  • Wichita State University: 130% growth in online enrollment
  • Texas Tech University: 17% increase in eLearning applications
  • Georgetown University: 16% increase in continuing studies enrollment

Positive relationships yield good outcomes. Success in the relationship is success in the business. We’ve made it work, you can too.