Marketing Montana

"Customer" is one of academia's dirty words. Mario Schulzke knows this—he calls the issue "complicated"—but as the University of Montana's marketing guru, he doesn't care. He's here to shake things up.

"There's probably people who prefer I use the word 'user' or 'stakeholder,'" he says, "but I'm the one marketing guy, and if I don't use the word, who will?"

Treating students as customers isn't exactly in UM's genes, he acknowledges, as evidenced by the university's relatively small investment in marketing efforts. But there's a reason for that.

"We never needed to," he says. "Now we do."

Schulzke, 35, works in Brantly Hall from an electric-powered standing desk, whose surface he fashioned from a recycled wooden door. There's a quote typed on printer paper and pinned to his wall that reads, "True disruption means threatening your existing product line and your past investments." He has to look up its author's name, but the message might as well be Schulzke's creed.

Schulzke's disruption isn't exactly new: He has been retooling the university's marketing efforts since 2013. But with the May 10 announcement that President Royce Engstrom will again restructure the Office for Integrated Communications, Schulzke gets a bit of a promotion. Once outgoing Vice President Peggy Kuhr and Alumni Association Director Bill Johnston depart in July, Schulzke will become an associate vice president and chief marketing officer. The change gives his customer-focused mindset a seat in Engstrom's cabinet.

Public universities weren't Schulzke's specialty when Engstrom first tapped him in 2013. He spent a decade in corporate marketing up and down the West Coast, with a client list that included Alaska Airlines, Philips and Chase Bank.

It was Schulzke's ties to Missoula and UM that attracted him to the role. A native-born German, he found himself on a cattle ranch in the Bitterroot as an exchange student and never returned to Europe. He graduated from UM with a business degree shortly after turning 21.

Schulzke says UM has become "fairly innovative communicators" over the past few years, pointing to strides in social media outreach in particular, while emphasizing the need to constantly improve.

Promotion in the strict sense is Schulzke's lowest priority, in part because he says "consumer behavior really isn't inspired by advertising anymore." Instead, he says, the university needs to continue building a strong digital and social media presence.

"Promotion is important, but I also think about what we offer our students," he says. "I think it's about listening to our customers."

This spring the department began working with a vendor to create a UM mobile app geared toward current students initially, which he hopes will launch this fall. Schulzke also notes plans to offer "livechat" assistance on the university's website and describes an ongoing "customer service initiative" across campus to improve students' experience.

Schulzke uses a baseball analogy to describe what he sees as UM's lean and forward-thinking approach.

"This is an organization that is more interested in building its farm system than bringing on big, expensive free agents," he says.

"Has that hurt us? Absolutely," Schulzke adds. "Will we benefit in the long-term? One-hundred percent."

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