Monday, September 28, 2009

Got no respect? Get research!

One of the pleasures of working in a university is the intellectual atmosphere, knowledgeable professors and talented administrators. Education is valued (obviously), and experts abound. Communication professionals without terminal degrees can face a challenge in getting their voices heard, even when it comes to our own areas of expertise.

While it's widely accepted that research is a marketing best practice, research takes a special place in higher education. Just as research informs teaching, it also informs good marketing—and academics respect it. Relevant research will instantly add credibility to any recommendation. Many people, academics or not, think that marketing is just good common sense, so research is particularly important if you're going against the prevailing opinion of someone with more academic credentials (even if those credentials aren't related to marketing).

Here are some low-cost ways to do your own marketing research:
  • Online surveys: Gone are the days of expensive paper mailings with time-intensive data entry. There are a number of free and low-cost online survey programs (SurveyMonkey is my tool of choice) that make survey research a cinch. For quick questions, Twtpoll is another helpful resource that you can post on Twitter or forward to e-mail lists.
  • In-house focus groups: For more in-depth information on a topic, focus groups are the way to go. There are many resources online about how to conduct them, and aside from staff time and refreshments, they're pretty inexpensive to conduct if you're not outsourcing it. (Not knocking professional research firms, who provide a great independent service if your institution can afford it.) The key is to have someone who is not invested in the project leading the group, so that your results aren't biased.
  • Peer research/consultation: Discussion forums or professional e-mail lists can provide a great place to poll your peers about their experiences and best practices in a given situation. CASE coordinates lists for a number of higher ed specialties (my favorites are the College/University Editors group University Web Developer groups).
  • Award competition Web sites: Check these out to get a quick overview of best practices in a variety of communications categories. While it's helpful to see examples of the best tactics out there, the real gold can be found in judges reports. These reports can provide an overview of the best—and sometimes worst—strategies.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What distinguishes grad/professional school marketing?

So far as I can tell, there aren't many higher ed marketing resources out there that specifically target graduate and professional schools. Which led me to ask, what really distinguishes us from colleges or university-wide operations?
  • Prospective student base. This seems obvious, but the point must be made. Even though there are many breeds of graduate-level students, they are—by definition—older and more educated than the competitive teen market that undergraduate IHEs target. Simply put, the same rules don't apply.
  • Organizational structure. Whereas general higher ed communicators often report to another communications professional or someone with related experience, graduate/professional school specialists often work more closely with academic deans who may have their own ideas about marketing. Some of us dual-report to university-wide PR operations, and others play a liaison role between academics and marketing firms.
  • More focused alumni interests. Beyond their alma mater, our alumni usually share a common profession. This creates the potential for more in-depth discussion of professional topics in alumni magazine articles, social media sites, etc.
  • The end goal. Most graduate/professional students have a defined reason for continuing their study. Sure, there are those who are stalling for time while they figure out what they want to be when they grow up, but I would suspect that isn't the norm. For professional schools, alumni achievements and employment stats take on greater meaning than our undergraduate counterparts.
What other aspects of higher ed marketing differ for those who work past the undergraduate level?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Twitter for Fun and Professional Development

Twitter has a bad rap as a wasteland of useless babble, where individuals broadcast the bland minutiae of their daily lives.

I beg to differ.

Perhaps it's because my interest in social media began for professional—rather than personal— reasons, but this has not been my experience. Sure, there are people who post only updates a stalker could love, but then I don't follow them.

I have found Twitter to be a great resource for finding topical updates on a variety of professional issues (not the least of which is social media), networking with peers, and gaining an interesting perspective on the lives of community leaders (be it my dean, political representatives or megachurch pastor). The updates of those you follow are posted to your Twitter home page, making it easy to scan a variety of information at a glance.

And with a 140-character limit, who doesn't love a medium that forces writers to get right to the point?

Here are my tips on how to make the most of Twitter for professional development:
  • Good news sources: Start by searching for professional organizations, publications, consulting firms and bloggers (find me @davinagould) in your field.
  • Find leading personalities: Look for your boss, your boss' boss, and on up the chain. If someone has locked their updates, only ask for access if you're a personal friend or if they're following you first.
  • Curious what other IHEs are doing on Twitter? Follow them, too.
  • Follow people who follow you. Unless they keep tweeting about waiting in line for coffee, or don't tweet at all.
  • Check out who your favorite Twitterers are also following—it's another great way to find interesting feeds.
  • Network by retweeting updates you like (giving credit to the source) and by commenting on updates by others.
  • Attending a conference...or wish you could? Many conferences use hashtags (#) to develop a conversation through Twitter's live search function. (If hashtags aren't showing up as clickable links, make sure you're following username "hashtag.")
  • Monitor the buzz on your organization, industry and favorite subjects by saving relevant terms (including those with hashtags) to visit again.

Friday, September 11, 2009

It's that time of year again...

It's law school caring and sharing season! That wonderful time of year when all of the law schools tell all of the other law schools how wonderful they are. The smell of freshly printed publications, the gifts of faculty appointment postcards from across the country, the anticipation of what exciting announcements might come from your peer institutions...

Many of the deans and professors at my institution forward this assorted marketing collateral to my desk, and over the years I have gathered quite the collection. Most of the publications are quite reserved (as is expected when marketing one's academic prestige to an audience of professional academics), but there is always one or two unusual tactics that strive to distinguish themselves in the volume of mail.

From a design perspective, my favorite mailpiece of all time came last year:

This clever piece featured a hospital gown on the cover. Recipients were invited to untie the lace in the center to "peek" at what was inside: a list of health law lectures and programs. A bit risky considering the audience, but if the goal was to stand out from the pack, they succeeded. (However if their goal was to break into the Health Law category rankings in U.S. News, it didn't work.)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Low-cost creative productivity tool #1: Google Docs

Problem: Collaborative editing and file access.
Solution: Google Docs
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Tired of tracking versions of Word files when working with multiple editors? Hate transferring Office files via jump drive or e-mail so you can access them from another computer? Then it's time to discover cloud computing via Google Docs. Requiring only a free Google account and a working internet browser, users can save and share a variety of file types: word processing, spreadsheets, presentations and forms that can be exported into Office (.doc, .xls, .ppt), PDF, RTF, HTML and other formats. Files can be shared with other Google account holders, and version tracking makes this an ideal environment for collaboration. I have also found it to be any extremely handy place to keep my contacts...especially in the rare occasion that work servers are down.
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