Thursday, December 2, 2010

Higher ed marketing lessons from my Disney vacation

Note: Sorry for the temporary hiatus in blogging. I'll be catching up on some posts over the next few weeks and returning to my weekly schedule in the new year.

After surviving an intense blitz of fall publication production, I spent a week in November with my family at Walt Disney World in Orlando. While I did manage to set aside all things internet, it was hard to turn off the marketer inside—especially when you're immersed in an experience designed by some of the most creative minds in a generation. Here are a few tidbits:
  • Have you hugged your physical plant today? If you're charging a premium for your services (private universities, I'm talking to you), your visitors expect your campus to be attractive and well-maintained. A dedicated grounds/maintenance staff, with the funds to do their job well, can make an important difference in recruitment during the all-important campus visit.
  • Every employee represents the brand. From the first security officer to the switchboard operator to your campus CEO, each employee plays an important role in representing your brand. How each staffer treats others is immediately noticed by those who visit. It doesn't matter what your marketing materials say about being a friendly, accessible campus if your front-line staff don't live it out through their daily interactions.
  • Measure for continuous improvement. Even if you're at the top of your game, how do you stay there? Research. Disney systematically places researchers at their entrance/exit to survey visitors. While it's tough to afford high-end professional research on a regular basis, there are low-cost options for measuring opinions if we make it a priority.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Has social media killed empathy?

Last week, a colleague sent me a USA today article that raised the question of whether social media has killed empathy. My answer: it hasn't.

Through online discussion forums and social networks, I have made new friends, connected with our profession's thought leaders, and kept in touch with classmates, neighbors and family with more frequency than my schedule would otherwise allow. Sure, there are those who live online to the exclusion of connecting with people in real life, but that's hardly a new phenomenon. (Raise your hand if know any video game addicts or workaholics.)

I view social media as an amazing means for enriching real-life relationships, particularly in higher education. Our audiences invest some of the best years of their lives on our campuses, and social networks now make it easier to maintain those relationships—both with the institution and among classmates—for a lifetime. And for those who are preparing to join our community, accepted student groups and networks can engage students long before the official orientation process begins.

The blurring of professional and personal spheres online can also increase empathy in ways we could never expect. Over the past two months, I have watched a colleague's story unfold on Twitter as her two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer and started experimental treatments. I have been deeply touched by her tale, and I know many others have as well. Our higher ed marketing peers have supported her through prayer and fundraising. Ironic how one can feel such empathy for someone only known through social media. (Read Andrew Careaga's blog post to read little Sydney's story and find out how you can help.)

Speaking of Andrew, the Educational Marketing Group is looking for his replacement as International Brand Master. If you want to nominate a current higher educational branding professional, EMG is accepting nominations through Dec. 15, 2010.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Got water?

In honor of Blog Action Day's theme of water* today, I thought I'd share a (barely) relevant anecdote. My employer gave up its bottled water contract a few months ago for both financial and environmental reasons. While I completely agree with this in principal (and have switched my home water consumption from bottled to filtered), the tap water in my building tastes awful.

But thankfully, I work with creative problem solvers.

Thanks to the miracle of the interwebs (pump courtesy of eBay) and Sam's Club, my Web developer assembled the contraption pictured here so that we can all now drink filtered water from his house.

Now, we can go green without the water tasting green.

*Disclaimer: Blog Action Day is really focusing on global access to clean, potable water. Since I have no real insights on that issue (and certainly nothing related to marketing or working in higher ed), this post would probably be more appropriate for the 2009 Action Day theme of environmental protection. If you can think of a good way that higher ed communicators can help get clean water to remote areas of developing countries, please include your suggestions in the comment section below.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Everyday adventures in managing Facebook pages

Much has been written on how to set up university Facebook pages, how to handle crises (both literal and virtual) on Facebook, and why we should have all have a presence on Facebook in the first place. However on most days, the management of an institutional Facebook page is much less dramatic.

Here are a few tips about the more routine issues that have come across my desk(top) in the past week:
  • Plan for the grey area. Decide in advance, if possible, where you want to draw the lines for spam, negative posts and other related issues, then post guidelines in your Notes section to inform your fan community. You might want to allow local businesses to offer special discounts to your students, or you might choose to bar all advertising. Some negative comments are inevitable in social media, but when will you stop someone who is hijacking your page? Posting guidelines can set ground rules for the entire community and make future decisions much easier. Take a look at other higher ed Fan pages for examples; we really liked the University of Kansas comments policy when developing ours. If possible, get your legal counsel's buy-in before you post.
  • Differentiate your voice from your institution's. While the common wisdom is to use a personal tone on institutional social media channels, never forget that you're still representing the institution. When our parent university asked a question about a legal term, I first feared that my answer would appear as the Voice of The Law School speaking on The Law. Since I'm not a lawyer, this could have been a dangerous role for me to fill. Thankfully, answering this question on the university's Facebook page with my regular profile identity worked out well—I could explain the answer, my source, and my role in an appropriate context.
  • Be clever. While I wouldn't advise posting jokes when speaking for your institution, showing a little wit every now and then can be fun. A news item about a best-selling author lecturing on how lawyers could pursue writing careers prompted another recent speaker (Craig, also an author and journalist, but not a lawyer) to respond with the following exchange:

    I would have let the first statement go had it been from any random fan. But since this person's identity wasn't clear to the other fans, I chose to help the conversation along. In this instance, speaking as a straight-laced institution (with a dose of marketing language) showed some personality in a way that shouldn't offend even the most nervous college administrator. (Note: I don't advise using a marketing tone in most social media interactions.)
  • Monitor others' use of Facebook in crisis communications. God-willing, none of us will never have to use our social media channels to communicate the threat of an active shooter on our campuses. But it's always wise to follow the Boy Scouts mantra and be prepared. Following the actions of other institutions in crisis via Facebook or Twitter can be valuable training. Check out Jessica Krywosa's .eduGuru post on "Does Your Campus Security Have a Place in Social Media?" about how the University of Texas at Austin handled their emergency communications on Facebook last week.
  • Added 10/5: Keep your eyes open for opportunities in unexpected places. Thanks to Andrew Careaga's post on a Facebook fundraising effort to help one of his staff (Mary Helen Stoltz, whose two-year-old daughter is fighting brain cancer), I discovered FundRazr, a low-cost fundraising app on Facebook that processes PayPal donations. At a glance, it looks like it should work well for individuals as well as universities and other nonprofits. (And if you want to support a fellow higher ed communicator and her beautiful kid through a rough time, donate and test out via FundRazr here.)

Monday, September 27, 2010

How NOT to target your marketing messages

A lot has been said about the Drake University's "D+ advantage" marketing campaign. Stamats offers a good explanation of its recommended strategy (the classic three-option conservative/edgy/"courageous" approach) on its blog, and I applaud the creativity and research that went into investigating on how the message would resonate with its target audience: college-bound teens.

Drake administrators learned a hard lesson when its other audiences (faculty, alumni and the news media) picked up on this unusual theme. According to the Associated Press, Drake has scaled back the prominence of the "D+" symbol and in doing so its president noted that "we learn from our experiences."

Drake is far from being the only university to struggle with the balance between appealing to younger audiences while not alienating other important groups. I've witnessed many battles of this kind over my career. Most IHEs are critically dependent on undergraduate tuition, and it's easy to forget the interests of others when targeting this all-important teen audience.

As fun as it is to develop a campaign that's outside the box, good communicators need to always think of how their messages will be received by peripheral audiences. What works for college-bound teens could have a much worse effect on the potential applicant pool for graduate and professional schools. The negative waves among academics might even be reflected in the U.S. News peer reputation surveys (and the graduate school ones are expected to be out shortly).

So how can university marketing departments successfully navigate these murky waters?
  • Never forget your overall brand. No advertising trend or campaign should ever contradict your institution's bigger brand strategy. Some universities have a culture that value being on the creative edge of society, while others are steeped in tradition. Most have a complex blend of diverse perspectives.
  • Consider the worst case scenario, then decide if it matters. Changing the tone of your copy or the style of your layout on communication vehicles that are specific to your audience are unlikely to affect other audiences greatly. Building an entire marketing campaign around a joke is a bit more risky. Determine how much risk you can assume with negative reactions from others, and mitigate those risks if necessary.
  • When in doubt, ask around. If you're not sure about how others might perceive your concept, just ask. Take advantage of the good relationships you've built with your counterparts around campus to get their candid feedback before you launch your new campaign. One of my favorite ad concepts for an NFL program (pictured) was rejected because my university has been investigating bringing back non-scholarship football after a nearly 60-year hiatus. One could argue that the ad would still work and draw attention, but it didn't pass the "is it worth it?" test.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Developing a brand strategy: In-house or outsource?

A colleague at another law school asked a good question in a LinkedIn group last week: "What is the best way to (re)discover or redefine your core values? Did you use a consultant or handle it in-house, and would you do it that way again?"

Great question, and since I've been short on extra time for blogging, I thought I'd share part of my answer here:

The starting point for assessing your brand identity is research with your key audiences (students, faculty, staff and alumni) to get a broader understanding than your own to help define the values. The research component is often why many places outsource this process, as independence (and sometimes investment, unfortunately) can add credibility to the results. If you anticipate that tough decisions will need to be made, an external group might be advisable as well (so that if the messenger gets shot, at least it won't be you). Research is now much easier to do in-house with online surveys and focus groups if you have someone who understands research methods well.

By analyzing your research along with your school's mission and values statements and the market environment, you can then move onto the more tangible pieces (logo, tagline, colors, ads/publications/website). Those pieces should also be tested with your key audiences along the way.

If you've got the talent in-house to accomplish the above, the top-down buy-in for your ultimate strategy, and (perhaps most importantly) ample time to devote to the project, then internal brand development may be an option for you.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

DOs and DON'Ts of building a great virtual tour

My office just launched our first multimedia virtual tour, complete with 360-degree photos, audio and video clips from our beautiful campuses. My web editor did a fantastic job of managing the project, and I'm thrilled with the results.

In a tight economy where fewer prospective students can afford to travel to potential graduate schools, a good online tour can improve your recruiting efforts with long-distance prospects. Multimedia features can provide a rich glimpse of life at your institution and transport students into your campus experience. Here are my tips on developing a great virtual tour:
  • DO start with great photography. Any online tour, multimedia or not, requires great photography. You can have all the technical bells and whistles in the world, but if the photography is weak, you might be better off not having a tour at all. Our 2008 redesign of our website included a photo tour with large, striking images of campus, and such tours can usually be designed in-house with the same images you use for other marketing materials.
  • DON'T just consider higher ed vendors. Even though we found our vendor has done some work for a few higher ed institutions, most of their work had been for hospitals and travel destinations. The quality of their work was very competitive with the major higher ed tour firms, but the prices were within our budget.
  • DO plan your photoshoot carefully. In addition to following the typical rules for photoshoot planning, consider the implications of working in a different format. A traditional photo that showcases an entire building and expansive horizon might not work in a 360-degree format, which may make the building look small in proportion to the sky and other natural features.
  • DON'T add technical bling for its own sake. A talking cartoon tour guide or student voiceover might seem cool at first, but such features can get annoying very, very quickly. If multimedia features don't add meaning to the experience, don't add them.
  • DO consider off-campus locations. As I already mentioned, virtual tours can be very important for prospective students outside your geographic area. By definition, those students will need to know more about life outside your campus. Highlight attractive areas in your local community, and include hotspots that show more details about professional, cultural or recreational opportunities.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Favorite concepts from the cutting-room floor

It's always easier to poke fun at the mishaps of others than it is to notice the faults in your own work. Instead of jumping on the #ugafail bandwagon, I thought I'd take this opportunity to share a few of my own less-than-perfect moments. Thanks to my trusty supervisors, none of these ideas were ever publicly consumed (until now):

Oh, the horror. This online ad was meant to grab the reader's attention and suggest some of the fun places they could study through our summer abroad programs. Unfortunately, the copy reminded my boss of the title of a 1990s-thriller movie:

Bad cluck. I was looking for a new stylized icon that I could use as a background accent in my designs or to close magazine feature articles. After speaking with a designer friend, we decided to make something out of the capitals that top the many columns that form our campus architecture. Not only could this element be found in many of our Mediterranean-style campus buildings, but they are also commonly used in the columns that frame courthouses everywhere. We chose to simplify the capital design to the icon below, which was rejected by our dean due to its bird-like resemblance:

Unsportsmanlike behavior? It has long been the tradition of law schools to announce their new faculty members to other schools each new academic year. It's a great way to show-off introduce new hires to the academy by highlighting their achievements. One of our administrators suggested using a "trading card" motif to help these announcements stand out from the rest. Though I can't take credit for the original idea, it is certainly one of my favorite projects ever. Sadly, it was rejected as too edgy for our target audience.

So now that I've put some of my (few) weaker moments out there, I'd love to hear some of your tales of cutting-room floor concepts in the comments section!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Social media and the hype cycle

I've long been an advocate for thinking practically about social media. While it's always interesting to follow the latest trends and how leading consultants apply them to higher education, the bottom line is that we all have limited resources, and we have to use them judiciously.

Enter the Gartner life cycle, a (pretty accurate) model developed by an IT research firm of the same name:

Social media is still seen by many as a trend, and some skeptics go so far to argue that it's a fad. The hype cycle helps provide some context for how new technologies are often perceived, as well as hints on when organizations should adopt them. Here are my takeaways from this model:
  • Don't get caught up in the hype. It's tempting to ride the hype wave, only to suffer some damage to your credibility when disillusionment sets in. Manage your client's expectations (as well as your own) when working in new media environments.
  • Be prepared to address the uncertainties. Do your homework before recommending new tools, and think of how you might deal with potential pitfalls. If you don't know what those pitfalls might be, hold back.
  • Watch the adoption rates. As technologies become more mainstream, time will tell if they are worth adopting. Not every technology will coast through the enlightenment/productivity curve, but as more people in your audiences adopt them you'll have a better idea of which ones will fit into your media mix.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tips for managing branded trinkets

Few tasks drive me more crazy than trinket orders. Those doggone, end-of-fiscal-year-and-we-still-have-money-left, let's-fit-30-words-and-a-logo-on-a-pen trinket orders from departments across campus.

Here are some things to consider when managing marketing giveaways:
  • First and foremost, remember your big-picture brand. The same rules that apply in any other medium also apply here. Unless you're recruiting for a master's program in adult entertainment, you probably shouldn't be imprinting your logo onto shot glasses or garters. (Yes, I've seen both.) Consider the quality of the products as well: placing your logo onto something that's dollar-store quality might not reflect well on your institution either.
  • As always, think about your audience. When possible, ask members of your target audience what they like. Prospective or admitted students will like different tchotchkes than alumni or employers. Make sure the giveaway has some practical value. Save the stuffed animals for alumni-baby gifts. Depending on the audience, there may be special ethical obligations to consider (i.e., reporters or judges).
  • Decide on your objective. Are you looking to remind the recipient of your institution? To thank them for their service? To grab their attention, or someone else's? Make sure that whatever giveaways you order help accomplish that objective.
  • Last but not least, carefully consider the imprint. Only once you've answered the above questions should you start the design work. Your imprinted message should be clear and brief. Never cut corners on your institution's brand standards, and don't try to pack too much information. If the imprint space available is insufficient for advancing your goals, pick something else. Be aware of the limitations of each medium: engraved, embroidered or silkscreened graphics will appear quite differently from how they look on your monitor or printout.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fun with emergency contact info

Looking for a creative way to get more emergency contact info on your students? The Medical College of Georgia has developed a fun video for its ICE (In Case of Emergency) campaign, available at

It's a great use of humor to drive home a serious point on a topic many choose not to think about. Kudos to the communications team and administration at MCG!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Creative gone wrong

My crazy-busy streak has continued, and I've decided that a silly post is now in order. Here are some recent discoveries for creative amusement:
  • Photoshop Disasters: The blog all about awful, commercial photo editing.
  • The Bad Pitch Blog: Not just bad news media pitches, but good PR advice as well.
  • Tales from Redesignland: I first discovered this higher ed blog during our own redesign in 2008. This week's post: really bad quotations from real Web redesign consulting proposals.
And if you're considering the lighter side of font selection, check out this handy "How to pick a typeface" flowchart or the CollegeHumor video, "Font Conference."

Note: If you haven't noticed, I'm cutting back my blog frequency to every other week for the summer. I'll return to weekly posts once school is back in session!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I want a new website for my department. Now what?

It's an increasingly rare request: to start a new website from scratch for a department. Redesigns, yes. Website expansions, all the time. New landing pages for marketing, of course. But creating a new site for a department or program that has lived without one for the past 15 years since the World Wide Web went mainstream? Not so much.

Yet as I've recently began the thought process for educating a program director on how to build a good website, it has become a good refresher on the foundational concepts that we all should be considering when working on any Web project:
  1. What do you want your website to do, and who do you want it to serve? Go no further until you can answer these questions. Every other decision streams from knowing what goals you want your site to accomplish and for whom.
  2. What content should the site include? Since most websites serve first as informational resources to outside audiences, it's good to assess what you're already publishing for these groups. Do you have print brochures, news releases, advertisements or information on other websites about your program? For example, an academic program might not already have its own stand-alone site, but the program's faculty may already have their own biographical sites. If there are frequently asked questions that your program receives via phone, that information may also help guide the content of the site. Do remember to include a description of what the department/program does, the main contact information, and the physical location.
  3. What information or functions are most important? Use the answers to #1 and #2 to develop the information architecture of the page. A good website sets priorities and communicates them to the user. Trying to clutter too many links on a program's home page confuses users and ultimately will make your entire site less effective.
  4. Once you build it, who will maintain it? Building a website creates the responsibility for keeping its information current and accurate. Who will handle that responsibility? Will they be trained in maintaining the information themselves, or will they need to work with someone who already has that knowledge? How often should the site's information be reviewed and updated? A department that has survived this long without a website may not appreciate the long-term commitment they represent. Websites are not one-time projects that season as they age; their owners must preserve their content lest they rot.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Has Facebook jumped the shark?

It's sad when something great, popular and wildly successful hits its moment of downturn—when it tries a little too hard, goes a little to far, or forgets the roots of what made it successful in the first place. It's hard to watch something after it has jumped the shark.

By now, most have heard about the dramatic changes that Facebook has made to its privacy settings and automated community pages. For a good overview, check out Andrew Careaga's blog post for summary with links to some scathing reviews of these changes.

Facebook became a mainstream social networking platform by providing a private portal for connecting friends and family. Its users became comfortable sharing the details of their lives on the internet by trusting a certain degree of privacy. It expanded its reach to organizations through fan pages, paving the way for affordable, targeted advertising opportunities for institutions of all sizes.

The changes Facebook has made in the past few weeks has frustrated users, developers and marketers alike. Protests advocating Facebook deactivation or abdication have proliferated in the blogosphere and in Facebook itself. So how are we to move forward from here?
  • When it comes to privacy: Remember the basics. For any personal profile connected to your name, remember that anything you post online has the potential to become public. Test your Facebook profile at or better yet, don't post anything that you don't want your employer, grandmother or a stalker to find out.
  • When it comes to "community" pages: Follow them and don't panic (at least not yet). I "liked" my institution's community page just to monitor its activity, and they're nowhere near as powerful as real organizational fan pages at this point. The updates don't post to my news feed, and the content is obviously automatically generated. I tried to submit the link to our official site a few weeks ago, but nothing has happened yet. These pages don't remotely resemble a community, they're clearly not authentic, and they work more as a search function for public Facebook updates. They have wreaked havoc for finding organization pages, but beyond that, I don't think they'll compete with real fan pages in the near future. 
  • When it comes to Facebook in general: Watch out for other options. These recent actions strongly indicate that Facebook has indeed jumped the shark. According to Information Week, Google searches on "how to quit Facebook" have spiked and many high-profile users have deleted their accounts. The Diaspora project promises to deliver a "privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed open source social network" by September 2010. The Noel-Levitz 2009 E-Expectation survey found that college-bound seniors have strong interest in private social communities for universities.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Survivor's guide for the short-staffed

It's a good thing that my institution's mascot is the Hatter, as I'm wearing many, many hats this week. The boss is out on a family emergency, our Web editor is on a much-deserved vacation, and our office manager is out with a sick child. All this, and we have one of our biggest annual events this weekend, plus a board meeting, plus graduation in two weeks, plus the thousand other tasks that make up our regular job descriptions.

Here's how I'm keeping sane*:
  • Prioritizing early and often. On days like this, a to-do list with true deadlines is essential.
  • Cut off the distractions. No Twitter. No e-mail notification sounds. Check e-mail a few times daily so that the limited hours you have are more productive.
  • Delegate what you can. Spread the urgent priorities among the remaining staff, and request help from other departments if necessary.
  • Postpone the less important tasks. When you're short-staffed for reasons beyond your control, the relationships you've built with other department heads and campus colleagues will pay off by way of understanding.
  • Make sure the missing staff turned on the out-of-office messages. There's no bending on this rule in my office. Regardless of the reason for being out, this is the one thing that will guarantee a call on personal time.
  • Call in your clone, if you have one. Unfortunately, my Web developer is way behind deadline on building our cloning machine. If those of you at research institutions have access to one, let me know!
* For the moment.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Law school video shoot trivia

I'm pretty spent from two full days of a campus video shoot, so I'll return to my campus photography series next week. But I did learn a few interesting things I thought I'd share...
  • Law students like to participate in video shoots more than still photo shoots. When I typically ask students to feature them in our marketing efforts through interviews and still portraits, I'll get a 50-60% positive response rate. With that in mind, I asked about twice as many students to participate in our video interviews. Response rate: 95%. Enough said.

  • The traditional movie clapboard (pictured above) is called a slate. We didn't actually use the one that our cinematographer had with him, but he explained that the slate helps for synchronizing video and audio, as the sound of the clap can be matched to the visual of the slate hitting.

  • Not counting broadcast talent, law students and lawyers are the second-most natural group of professionals on camera. The most natural group according to our seasoned cinematographer: funeral home directors.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Maximizing Your Photo Budget, Part 2: Avoiding the Cover Photo Curse

You have found the perfect cover picture. It has interesting composition, beautiful lighting, and blends nicely with your approved design. The publication is on its way to the printer, and then it happens.

The student quits school, and your dean wants the photo replaced.

You've just been struck by the cover photo curse. It happens to the best of publications (see also Sports Illustrated), and can wreak havoc on the nerves of editors and designers alike. There are often reasonable arguments for keeping the cursed photos, as most external audiences would never know the stories of the photo subjects in our stock images. Depending on the stage of production, changing the photo can be costly as well. However if it's not too late to replace such photos, we'll usually be expected to do so.

So how can higher ed communicators avoid the photo jinx?
  • For featured students, get high-level approvals before getting their portrait. I love to get recommendations for "poster students" from faculty and administrators, as many of the professors who are hesitant about responding to other marketing/media inquiries will go out of their way to promote their favorite students. But before I move forward, I always run the names past our dean, student life director, registrar and honor court adviser. The e-mail typically goes like this: "If there is any reason—and I don't need to know why—this student shouldn't be prominently featured in our marketing, let me know."

  • For favorite candid shots, share them early with your dean. If you're using a photojournalistic style of photography, by definition you're not staging the shots in advance. Instead, share your favorite new shots with the leadership before you get too attached.

  • Plan your shots with high-achieving students, if you can. Certain groups of students, such as competitive teams, honors classes or admissions/alumni ambassadors, go through a screening process to become a part of the group. While this approach is far from foolproof, your chances of photographing someone who might get into trouble are decreased.

  • Aim for more seasoned students. Students in their first semester or first year of classes (depending on the duration of the degree program) may still be learning the ropes of graduate school and may choose another path. I once featured a first-year law student who was at the top of his class on a full-tuition scholarship, but left to pursue a career in film production.
In the end, there is sometimes nothing you can do to avoid the photo curse. Superstitions aside, life happens to all of us, and the graduate school years are often a time of transition. But with a little planning, we can mitigate our risks.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Maximizing Your Photo Budget, Part 1: Selecting Your Photographer

The old adage is true: in higher ed marketing, a picture is worth a thousand words. There are few things that can impact your design and brand messaging more than the photography you use, and without a good selection of photography, your ability to communicate is severely limited.

But in an age of shrinking budgets, how can you get the most bang for your photography buck? By being resourceful and planning well, there are many things university communicators can do to maximize their dollars in this important area.
  • Consider your style. When I started working for my law school eight years ago, a corporate photographer was hired annually to do a two-day shoot with staged, perfectly lit shots. He and his assistant would spend an hour lighting a small area, then we would fill in a few students and a professor to interact. The result? About 15-20 of the most beautiful, phony marketing images that made our prospective student focus groups cringe.
    Ever since that discovery, we have used a more journalistic style of photography to show a truer, more authentic view of our campus life. But the rewards of this change extend far beyond messaging and impact; we also get a much higher yield of shots. Instead of getting 8-10 different images in a day, we can get dozens (if not hundreds), so the cost per shot is drastically reduced.

  • Finding the photographer (assuming you don't have a professional on staff). Professional photographer rates can vary widely, ranging from less than $100 an hour to $4,800 for a day. The key is to know what you're looking for and do your homework. Local newspaper editors can refer freelance photographers in your area, or you can also check with marketing peers at other institutions or agencies. The CASE College/University Editors Photographers List is also a good resource for photographer recommendations from around the United States. Once you have a few names, be sure to look at their portfolios and check references with their other clients. Rates do not necessarily correlate with ability, and you don't want to waste time, effort and budget on work that doesn't fit your needs. Ask the photographer about your project, including their expectations for setup needs, whether they use an assistant, their approach to photo editing, and other issues.
    Also, don't automatically dismiss photographers who are outside your area. Some who specialize in higher education may coordinate shoots with several universities in a geographic area for reduced rates, and others may charge an affordable rate with limited travel costs. If you can offer on-campus accommodations and cafeteria vouchers, you may even be able to negotiate on the travel fees.
Check back next week for part two of this series: Avoiding the Curse of the Cover Photo.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Recognizing your bias in social media

As university communicators, we're paid to love and promote our institutions. We not only read our own press; we write it. Even though we all know that our colleges and universities aren't perfect, we wouldn't thrive in our positions if we didn't believe in the mission and leadership of our organizations.

This professional bias leads us to tread a difficult line when it comes to social media. If we're doing a good job of monitoring our brand online, we will inevitably see something negative at some point. Jessica Krywosa at the .eduGuru blog authored a post on her recent experience with negative Facebook comments, which also includes helpful comments on handling such issues.

But beyond our official social media channels also lies a wide range of forums, blogs and other social resources in which our institutions have no voice. Yes, we could respond as individuals to negative attacks when we see them on discussion forums or blogs, but we need to resist the urge to do so lightheartedly or in the heat of the moment. Most readers will immediately discredit comments that smell like they've been authored by a company representative. Some social media sources specifically ban biased responses (i.e., Wikipedia). At bare minimum, PR-sounding responses will be unwelcome in most any online community.

Most professional communicators know to pause and think before responding publicly to negative press. But while marketing professionals may know these protocols, we must remember that everyone in our organizations has the same publishing access to social media that we do. Not only do we need to be disciplined and not act prematurely, we must educate our internal audiences about these issues as well.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Have you hugged your university PR office today?

I *heart* my university marketing and advancement colleagues.

This weekend, we celebrated the inauguration of our ninth president at the main university campus. A month ago, we met up at the CASE III regional conference. Both events provided a great opportunity to reunite in person, to catch up on office happenings and each others' lives.

My law school campus resides across the state from our main university campus. It's a 2-3 hour drive to see colleagues who do our same jobs, for our same institution. We may e-mail each other periodically, we may virtually collaborate on projects, and we may even follow each other on Twitter. But it's no replacement for seeing your counterparts in person, especially if you've never met in the physical world.

When working in a decentralized environment, it's easy for some to adopt an "us" and "them" mentality, even if the feeling is not adversarial. An over-dependence on online communications doesn't help, removing the context and personality required to build interpersonal relationships. While I have a long history with my parent university, other colleagues haven't had the benefit of studying and working on our main campus or on university-wide committees.

These relationships are important not only for project collaboration, but also for less tangible reasons: cameraderie, shared perspectives and institutional knowledge, to name a few. We have great things to learn from each other. Find opportunities to meet in person, whether you work across a campus, city or state. It's one of your most important networks, and it's always worth developing.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Have you heard about the census?

In case you missed the billboards, television, radio, print, online or direct mail advertising, there's a census going on! Many are growing tired of the $133-million campaign designed to increase survey return rates. It's a consistently branded message with high saturation, and for heavy media consumers, those messages can be hard to escape.

Those of us who work in higher ed, particularly in marketing communications, can experience similar saturation with our own brand messages. The same color palettes, the same typeface families, the same look on brochures and print collateral, the same Web design. Even if there is latitude in the brand's application among different audiences and demographics, the consistency of a well-managed brand can feel boring for those who live it every day.

For some, the temptation to revamp brand guidelines every 2-3 years can be great. But right around the time we want to abandon the design ship, that's when our outside audiences are just beginning to identify and recognize our look. This impact is magnified in Web site designs, where it takes time for users to grow accustomed to the placement and organization of links and content.

No, we shouldn't let our designs to become dull and dated. The key is to take a balanced approach in adding fresh elements while staying true to the core brand imagery. Sophisticated designers and strong creative directors can maintain this balance; we just need to keep reminding ourselves and our internal counterparts that we are not our own target audience.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Looking for easy ROI? Keep in touch with the front lines

Everyone is looking for ways to increase their returns on investment, to find the next big thing in cost-effective communications tools to achieve institutional goals. As marketers, we're usually (and rightfully) looking to the revenue side, giving top priority our admissions, fundraising or continuing education offices.

But beyond the income-generating areas of our institutions are important service-providing offices as well, and sometimes our smallest efforts can support another aspect of ROI: cost savings. Keeping in touch with front-line staff, be it the registrar's office, admissions support staff, or other service departments can yield results that not only saves trouble for them, but also better serves our students and other audiences.

What questions do they get the most calls or e-mails about? What information is hard for their audiences to find? What can be done to streamline communications? Often the tools that we take for granted can provide greater service to many, if only we knew where the support is needed. Sometimes the solutions can be as simple as adding frequently asked questions to a Web page, increasing the profile of important facts, or posting a "did you know" update on one of your social media sites.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Alumni class notes: print or online?

In January, I sent a quick-and-dirty, unscientific survey on alumni class notes to college and university editors to find out more about their use online. Thanks to the 32 editors who responded. Here are the results:
  • Do you post your alumni class notes online?
    • 71.9% Yes
    • 28.1% No

  • If you post your notes online, how do you post them?
    • 43.5% PDF of entire print magazine
    • 30.4% Special Web page devoted to notes
    • 17.4% Magazine Web site
    • 13.0% Searchable database of class notes
    • 4.3% News section of online alumni community/network

  • For those who post their notes online, have you reduced or removed them from your printed magazines or newsletters?
    • 66.7% No, we post complete class notes in print and online
    • 13.3% Removed from print publications entirely
    • 13.3% Other
    • 6.7% Yes, we have reduced the number of class notes published in print

  • Are your class notes publicly accessible online?
    • 45.5% Yes, anyone can view and search our class notes
    • 36.4% Yes, but the class notes can't be easily searched
    • 18.2% No, they are in a password-protected site for alumni

  • How often do you update your class notes online?
    • 52.2% Every time magazine is published
    • 4.3% Twice annually
    • 17.4% Quarterly
    • 4.3% Every two months
    • 21.7% As submitted

  • What are the sources of your notes? (Check all that apply.)
    • 90.3% Alumni submissions
    • 74.2% News clippings
    • 25.8% Class representatives
    • 16.1% Other: development office research, campus sources, obits only from news clippings, other alumni (but double-checked)

  • For how long do you post individual class notes online?
    • 86.4% Permanently, as part of the magazine issue
    • 9.1% Six months
    • 4.5% Two years

  • Who updates the online notes?
    • 28.6% Alumni relations staff
    • 38.1% Alumni magazine staff
    • 33.3% Communications/PR staff
    • 23.8% Other (student workers/interns, magazine designers)
As educational institutions everywhere try to find ways to save costs, many are choosing to move their class notes online from print publications. Pros: the move lowers printing costs and can drive traffic to your alumni Web sites. Cons: security concerns from alumni, potentially reduced interest in the print publications, and issues of information permanence.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Are your headlines #Twitter-friendly?

News-style writing values brevity and clarity, and no where is that more important than on Twitter. With its 140-character limit and heavy concentration of journalist users, effective headline writing is critical for getting the biggest bang for news releases or blog posts on Twitter.
  • Be concise. VERY concise. Yes, you may have 140 characters on Twitter, but that doesn't mean you should use all of them. First, you'll need to include a shortened URL to the full news release (minimum length: 20 characters if you use Second, you'll want Twitterers to "retweet" your release, so subtract another 20 characters "RT @username" and a brief comment. In other words, headlines should be shorter than 100 characters.

  • Be clear. If you're lucky enough for your blog post or news release to go viral, you'll want your headline to be clear without additional context. Tweets that are serially retweeted will often lose the original Twitter handle, so the source may not be identifiable before users click on your link.

  • Be relevant. If you're wanting your message to reach an audience outside of your normal followers, use hashtags (or "#" pound-signs) to reach those groups. Of course, that means that the topic needs to be a part of your headline and match the appropriate hashtag. For example, if I want to reach bankruptcy lawyers on Twitter about a new seminar, I should add #bankruptcy #law hashtags to the tweet.
Happy tweeting!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Need another reason to take Facebook seriously?

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Facebook is now beginning to direct more Web traffic than Google in several categories. Likewise, our law school Web stats have seen a dramatic increase in traffic from Facebook in the 12 months. We didn't release of our official Facebook fan page until April 2009, but still, the change is fascinating.

A few details:
  • Facebook has become the #1 referral source to our site, after organic searches on Google, Bing and Yahoo.
  • Our main university's .edu site is the #2 referral source (after Facebook).
  • From Jan. 15–Feb. 15, 2010, we received nearly 27 times the number of Facebook visits than the same timeframe in 2009.
  • Our Facebook page has just over 1,050 fans. Not too shabby when compared to most law schools.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Protect Your Brand From Yourself

Google. Apple. Toyota. These strong brands have suffered some powerful blows in the past few months. Business and marketing pundits much smarter than I have offered explanations of what went wrong, but here are a few thoughts I've taken away:
  • Don't forget who brought you to the party (aka don't forget the strengths that differentiate you). Google grew into the giant it is by creating powerful tools with simple, user-friendly interfaces. Then came the confusing Wave, and the jury's still out on Buzz. Both applications seemed to have great potential in Google's introductory presentations. However once you start using these tools, filling them with content and conversation, they become cluttered and complicated. Simplicity is what differentiated Google from its competitors in the beginning, and I can't help but be disappointed that this trait hasn't carried over into its newer products.
    Higher ed takeaway: Don't get so caught up in new trends and ideas that you forget your core strengths.
  • Don't forget the power of a name. The hype over Apple's newest device included speculation over names: iTablet, iSlate, etc. So what were they thinking when they developed the unfortunate name, iPad? No one needed to be reminded of that bad MadTV sketch. (You would think that Apple's research could have at least caught that tidbit, even if their focus groups were too embarrassed to say so.)
    Higher ed takeaway: Try to find fault with advertising taglines and brand messages before someone else does. Take them out of context, and don't be afraid to look them up in the Urban Dictionary.
  • Don't get caught up in your own press. Toyota's reputation for reliable cars was a hallmark of its brand, but two major recalls have required them to shut down production to address the problem. Did Toyota get complacent? No one is immune from mistakes, no matter how good they are.
    Higher ed takeaway: Be humble, and like Toyota, don't be afraid to apologize when necessary.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Social Media in Higher Ed: Questions?

Later this month, I will be moderating a panel discussion on social media for the CASE III regional conference in Tampa, Florida. Here is the program description:
Community, Conversation and Control: A Panel Discussion on Social Media
It’s no secret that sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are changing the landscape of higher education communications at a rapid pace. What are the best (and worst) practices for building and engaging online communities? How can communications professionals help bridge the gap in educating colleagues and university leaders who aren’t using these tools yet? (Yes, there are a few of those out there.) This panel of proven social media practitioners will feature various perspectives on these questions and more.
What questions would you recommend (or like to see answered)?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Embracing the early majority

This is my phone. It is not smart. It does not come with a data plan. I cannot buy apps, use Foursquare, or listen to music on it. There is nothing cool about it, but it suits my lifestyle (and budget) just fine.

I realize that mobile marketing is predicted to become the next big thing. I know that one day, I will need to have a better phone to keep up with my target audiences. But not just yet.

I am a proud member of the early majority. Diffusion of innovations theory, which examines the acceptance of new ideas and technology in a population, describes five major categories of consumers: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.

In a world where devices are getting smaller and social media channels are getting bigger, it's easy to get caught up in the desire to innovate. To focus more on the tools, and less on how they can help achieve specific goals. At the same time, most everyone in higher ed is being asked to do more with less.

The key is to find the intersection where technology and effectiveness meet.

Take the cell phone example. My school's Web stats indicate that less than 2 percent of our visits come from mobile devices. Should we ignore this growing group of users? No. At bare minimum, we should watch these numbers and examine our sites on mobile devices. But does that mean that we should also develop a parallel mobile Web site, iPhone apps, and mobile fundraising campaigns?

With with limited resources, a smart PR office must set priorities. It's easy to get caught up in the hype of new tools, or to feel like you're behind the curve if you're not using them. Yes, many can improve your communications toolbox at an individual or institutional level, but only if you know what you're doing and why. Too often, people talk about creating social media accounts or building applications because everyone else is.

It's wise to watch trends in higher ed marketing, to know your audiences, and to modestly invest time into experimenting with new tools. Follow the innovators and early adopters, and learn from their successes and mistakes. Do your homework, think strategically, and adopt new technologies when they will best address your institution's needs.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Fantasy ad buying

My husband loves playing fantasy sports. He bids for players, monitors their stats, makes changes to his rosters, and follows their games, even if they don't play for his regular favorite teams.

This past year, I've had the chance to experiment with online advertising. Not traditional banner advertising (though we've done those, too), but targeted text advertising through Google Adwords and Facebook. Like fantasy sports, this kind of advertising allows you to also bid for keyword placement, monitor stats, and make changes throughout your campaign.

While I'm far from an expert in these channels, here are a few of my takeaways from the experience:
  • Check out your competition. And by competition, I mean the other organizations who are advertising for your keywords. Are they groups you want to be associated with from a branding standpoint? For example, a Google search on "law schools" yields paid advertising from unaccredited online institutions, which an ABA-accredited school wouldn't want to be mistaken for. However a search for "online masters library science" yields a combination of universities from the for-profit, public and private-nonprofit sectors. Related conclusion: Niche degree programs seem to have a better balance of programs with decent reputations.
  • Remember why users are in that channel. Why do people use Facebook? To connect with others. Why do people use Google? To find information. If you're trying to build your social networking communities, then Facebook may be a natural fit. If you're hoping to drive people to your Web site to learn about your programs, Google would be a more logical choice. Last year's study by Noel-Levitz on prospective student use of social media indicated that students generally don't use Facebook to research schools, so save yourself some trouble and find a more appropriate advertising medium.
  • Prepare to be vigilant. Unlike traditional advertising, Facebook and Google ads are prioritized based on a pay-per-click bid amount. Your bid rate is compared with what other advertisers are willing to pay and has a direct correlation to the number of impressions your ad will get. This amount can fluctuate daily, but there are other reasons to pay close attention to your campaign's analytics. In Facebook, you can run similar messages and compare the click-through rates on them. These results can help not only to inform your decisions on which ads to run in Facebook, but also to let you know what messages resonate more with your target audiences. In combination with my other research, these details have helped me develop more relevant messages for our other marketing efforts.
When done strategically, online advertising can be an exciting addition for your marketing mix. Few other media can provide such tangible details about the effectiveness of your work. Plus, because the ads are paid on a pay-per-click basis, the online providers provide ample resources to help you improve your campaigns.

Who knew that ad buying could be so much fun?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The High School Musical generation goes to college

Have you caught the latest trend in higher ed marketing? The kids who grew up loving High School Musical are now in college, and undergraduate institutions have taken notice. It seemed to start with the international "University LipDub" project, whose most famous one-take, student-produced video came from the University of Quebec at Montreal (more than 4 million views on YouTube):

Students and PR offices at other universities have followed suit with their own lipdubs of varying quality. Last month, John Hopkins offered their own twist by producing a musical video to thank its donors:

The award for most overproduced university video goes to "That's Why I Chose Yale," released on YouTube last week. You'll need to block out 16 minutes to watch the complete musical, which includes a cameo by Brian Williams:

While I can't ever imagine this happening at my law school, I also never would have predicted the Ivy Leagues getting in on this trend. So will graduate and professional schools (or our students) be joining this bandwagon in the next few years? Is this a phase that students will outgrow, or is it a permanent element of pop culture?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Free ways to monitor your brand online

Composite sites that search several sources in one swoop:
Search your institution's names on these sites and use the RSS feed on the results page to create your own alerts:
Some of these may seem repetitive, but I find that by monitoring them on a personal portal (such as MyYahoo or iGoogle) makes them fairly easy to scan through for differences. It's also good to incorporate a saved Twitter Search through your preferred Twitter posting tool (mine is TweetDeck).

If you truly want to become the "Big Brother" for your institution, you can research prospective student forums or sites where students can rate your faculty or other aspects of campus life. Just try to keep things in perspective—the Air Force Blog Assessment chart is a handy tool for deciding if, when and how to respond.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Favorite free online resources for higher ed marketing

Need to hire a photographer in another geographic area? Check out the College/University Editors directory of recommended photographers or another from the University and College Designers Association.

Want to check out other schools' style guides? Check out the UCDA style guide index.

Wondering what your Web site looks like in other browsers? Visit or find out which ones you can test or emulate on your own machine at the

Can't keep up with the acronyms that frequent texters or retired military colleagues are using? Go to to see every possibility.