I love storytelling, and helping organizations share their truth with the world. From non-profit media outlets to for-profit boutique agencies to one of Canada's great universities, I've been connecting institutions and stakeholders for a while, and enjoying both the journey and seeing great ideas find great audiences.
Any higher education marketing & communications shop combines two vital mandates: being a strategic unit, and being a service unit. Running optimally, you’re both making decisions about how to plan and shape a long-term marketing and communications mandate, but also handling requests, triaging emergencies, and helping other units who need expertise or support.
Somewhere in the mix lies decision-making: occasionally proactive, when you can sit down and take a breath and look at what’s coming and plan appropriately. Usually, though, reactive — you’re getting a lot of requests for coverage or support, you’ve got finite resources to provide it, and you’re making allocation choices about where to put your resources. You need to get as much attention as you can muster, using as few resources as possible.
It’s time to use the F-BOMB.
No, not that f-bomb, and you knew that already. It’s a goofy acronym*:
F-BOMB isn’t perfect, but it’s a good rule of thumb for juggling ideas and priorities. Breaking it down a bit more… let’s look at these, and also talk about burritos, because I like burritos.
Essentially “new”, but “N-BOMB” doesn’t work. Is this something you’re doing ahead of everyone else? Breaking new ground, blazing new trails? Newness is great! It’s a chance to display innovation and novel thought while distinguishing yourself in a crowded world. Are you the first burrito joint in town? Fly that flag!
Where are you superior? Ideally in an area where people are genuinely interested in your superiority. Any time you can make an honest claim that you’re ahead in your field, that’s a good place to go. If your burritos are quantitatively the best, or even qualitatively, tell people why you have the superior burrito.
This, and “most,” get deeper into the areas where you really need to do some research and make sure you’re “only” in an area where people want what only you do. I could be the only person in town who sells burritos made from ground beef and bell pepper stuffed into used gym socks, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.
See above. It’s a good claim, if you’ve got the most of something people want. “Most” doesn’t have to be tangible, but if you move into non-physical spaces “most” and “best” get kind of interchangeable. “Most” also risks moving you into vanity metrics that don’t actually mean anything at all… when your correlation to “most” isn’t an absolute, but a qualifier like “per capita” or “per square foot,” watch out: you might be effectively saying nothing at all: a two-house, one-business town where the sole business sells burritos might offer the most burrito restaurants per capita of any town in the world, but it still shouldn’t be a tourist destination for burrito fans.
Got nothin’? The Hail Mary pass is to look for things that other people do but nobody talks about and hurl the ball in that direction. Every burrito restaurant in town provides free guac, but if you’re the only burrito restaurant advertising free guac, for a little while, at least, you might as well be the only one doing it.
The F-BOMB is also combinatorial
If you have more than one first, you can take the F and work your way back down the list: FBe is better than FO, FM, or FBl. If you’re the best in several areas, BO is better than BM (yes, I see it too) or BBl. And so on.
This is not a replacement for an actual marketing and communications plan! It’s just a fun thing to look at when you’ve got a lot of options in front of you and have to make a command decision. There are a lot of factors that go into your decisions, but F-BOMB is a tried and true starting point for fairly reasonable decisions.
*as distinguished from an initialism: you can pronounce an acronym. “FBI” is an initialism, “NASA” is an acronym. “CIA” is an initialism, and somehow “CSIS” is an acronym. And so on.
Wrapping it up, it struck me that we’re dealing with bidirectional symbolism. On the brand stewardship front, I think this is a fairly straightforward proposition. A university or college’s brand boils down to just a few highly charged representations: a crest, a school name, a set of colours, the name of their sports teams. What people think and feel when they see the crest or hear the name is the essence of brand stewardship.
MarComms and the Journey to Symbol
I want to break down the marketing and communications journey from the thing to the symbol a bit more, however. If you asked me what marketing and communications was all about, I’d say something along the lines of getting the right information to the right people at the right time, in a way that attracts and keeps their attention.
Re-parsing that sentence in the context of symbol generation, though:
getting the right information to the right people at the right time, in a way that attracts and keeps their attention
This applies to pretty much every aspect of the thing, but taking research promotion as a f’rinstance, let’s walk through the path from The Thing Itself to the symbol of the thing.
Let’s talk about cows.
There are about a billion cows on Earth right now. That’s… that’s a lot of cows. It’s a mind-boggling amount of cows. It’s an abstraction of cows; if I try to think of a number of distinct cows that I can hold in my mind at one moment, I could probably get to 40 or 50 concurrent cows that I can maintain, mentally. A billion cows is a lot more cows than that.
So what happens if you’re promoting the research of somebody who is researching cows?
Before you even get to marketing and communications, you’re forcing the Reality of Cows through a number of abstractions.
Start with one billion cows, and the totality of what those cows represent. Height, weight, feeding habits, milk and meat production, environmental impact, religious and cultural importance, cow subtypes, evolutionary history of cows, ethical considerations around cows and cow farming, cow behaviour and social structures, domestic v. wild cows… there is so much to cows.
But, we’re going to take the vast totality of one billion cows, and push it through the lens of a single field. What area of endeavour is approaching the totality of cows? Anthropology? Engineering? Socioeconomics? Philosophy and ethics?
From there, we’re going to pick an area of focus within that area of endeavour. A researcher looking at the environmental impact of cows’ methane production based on feed type.
It’s an impossibility for a researcher to research all billion cows individually. So we have to have a set of cows that the researcher can reasonably find or gather data on.
Then, we’re confined to the data that is actually collected.
The researcher — subject to the limits of funding, capacity, and the strength of data — will write and present findings that condense the totality of gathered data into some sort of paper or report. This may, or may not, make it into an academic journal.
Crossing the MarComms Line
Assuming something about the paper is noteworthy (and really, all papers are noteworthy, if you look at them hard and can take a creative view of talking about research), a news piece or press release further condenses the research into a short, public- or specialist-facing piece of content that abbreviates the paper into a digestible short read.
The story is, of course, accompanied by a dazzling visual, or short video, which represents a key concept or very high-level points as presented in the research.
But we have to get people to the story, so a social media post that takes the most powerful idea in the story is pushed out onto the fast-paced worlds of Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, etc. Maybe somebody makes a rad TikTok about cow research!
The key element of the social post isn’t the text — sorry, writers — it’s the image or an even-shorter video that can get somebody to stop scrolling and listen up. This is often a reworked, condensed, or cropped version of the arresting image mentioned above that was developed for the story.
And the above points are forced through their own concurrent lenses of social media best practices — algorithmically, you’re rewarded or punished based on post engagement, so the juggling act is a constant tension (there’s that word again) between trying to maintain loyalty with the upstream complexity, and the need to push out something that’s gonna get hella likes or watch your social platforms collapse.
Good social media presence — which is one of the pillars of responsibility in this role — means using language, images and approaches that drive social media engagement, and doing that without compromising the integrity of what you’re speaking about is an exercise in compromise as much as creativity.
So — through a series of steps — we have reduced one billion cows, and the totality and vastness and complexity of cowness, to an animated cow GIF on TikTok over that “Oh No” audio snippet. Or, in a tortuously tall image (sorry, phone-scrollers):
Each step moves you from the total reality toward symbolism. The tension, obviously, is in finding the symbol that best preserves integrity of the original idea but also functions as an arresting symbol that can engage attention and curiosity.
But each step also invites higher levels of interpretation, and demands more of the audience to move them from symbol to each escalating step of reality, culminating most often in my world with the news piece, and sometimes — ideally — with people checking out the actual research.
This is a good time to shout out my Ryerson English professor, Roberta Imboden (RIP), who largely abdicated most of a Canadian Literature course one semester to talk to us a lot about Jacques Derrida.I still don’t really get Derrida profoundly (sorry, Roberta), but having even a baseline understanding of deconstruction and what it means for work to exist in a dynamic and collaborative relationship with the reader, rather than simply being in a constant “push” state, is maybe one of the most important things I learned in university. Lives of the Saints was also a real good book.
Symbolism isn’t front of mind for me in the daily, but maybe it should be more — the nature of representation, reduction, and the steps of complex compromise that go into knowledge translation. It’s a vital part of the job. I think I might look up some sort of Derrida refresher this week.
Something I think about a lot is the fact that higher education marketing exists in a space between two overlapping and seemingly contradictory sets of needs. It’s a tightrope (which is admittedly an overly dramatic image; it’s more like a line on the ground, but that’s no fun to draw). You’re balancing two things: marketing, and brand stewardship, which exist in tension with each other in some important ways.
Thing 1: it’s marketing.
Marketing is inherently disruptive. There are as many ways to describe marketing as there are grains of sand on a beach. One of them is that it’s about making sure the right people know the right things at the right time.
That means you have to get the right people’s attention at the right time.
1a: Content with stopping power
Standing out means doing things that aren’t expected. To break expectations and halt somebody mid-Instagram scroll to force them to take notice.
That’s inherently risky. Because when something is new, it’s different. And when something is different, it requires interpretation. Interpretation means you’re inviting gaps in understanding, and the gaps are where the danger is.
1b: Simplifying the complex
It also means condensing things. I can write 10,000 words about how our school is the best school, in excruciating and accurate detail. I can’t drop that on Facebook and compete with a cute puppy or political outrage for stopping power. What’s the one thing people must know? How do I express it with as much impact as possible?
So you need to condense. Condensing moves you from the thing to a symbol of a thing… and we’re back to interpretation, and the hazard that people won’t interpret things in the spirit you intended them.
Thing 2: it’s brand stewardship.
This is inherently opposite to marketing. You need small-c conservative, hundred-year thinking. Ensure that you’re taking as few risks as possible that may damage your brand in the eye of your stakeholders.
I articulated this a bit in the risk ladder note a few weeks ago. But while the brand ladder shows where risk resides and where it should be tolerated, it doesn’t really capture the fact that the whole ladder lives in dynamic tension from rung to rung.
Brand stewardship overlaps marketing
The obligation to safeguard the brand actually has primacy over the marketing mission. So while the initial Venn diagram has marketing and brand stewardship overlapping, the marketing thought actually more accurately happens inside the brand stewardship circle:
Getting back to the ladder metaphor, brand stewardship tilts the ladder downward, if not lying it down flat. The appetite for risk to achieve the best possible marketing is subsumed by the need for caution in the brand space.
There’s some flex here — imagine the external circle growing and shrinking according to the mandate. A newer institution, without the benefit (and weight) of a lot of venerable history behind it, can take more risks. A new program at a venerable institution is in a middle ground where the program hasn’t accrued an identity that needs to be maintained, but it still exists in that larger context.
So what initially seems like an overlapping Venn diagram is really a contained one. It grows, it shrinks, and in vanishingly rare circumstances the “marketing” circle might eclipse the brand stewardship one.
Interestingly, and something I don’t quite have the brainwidth to unpack right now: both are really about symbols. Marketing reduces complex sets of information to compact communication units, moving them closer and closer to symbolism. Brand stewardship is about ensuring the smallest unit of information: a logo, a name — carries as much power and weight as a symbol possibly can. So one need drives you to symbolism. The other need is about preserving and adding value to an existing symbol. Hmm.
Obviously, this is not impossible to reconcile. It’s actually kind of fun to work through these challenges. This is where having a strategy is key. You need to figure out the marketing who/what/when/how, but you also need to figure in a creative approach that is disruptive inside a larger brand context.
It’s a tightrope, but people walk tightropes. They do it because it’s challenging, and fun. When you pull it off you’re doing something kind of amazing and dazzling the crowd. You get on the tightrope because you want that challenge. And while it’s scary while you’re walking it, it’s profoundly rewarding every time you get to the other side.
I’m working on my LLM — a Master’s in Law — at the moment. It’s… well, it’s a lot, to be honest, even at one course a semester on top of a pretty consuming day job. But I’m learning a considerable amount, and leaning into it as something that overlaps with work.
LLM apparently stands for “Legum Magister”, meaning Master of Laws, and if you, like me, are very bothered by the fact that there is an extra “L” in there, apparently in Latin you indicate plurals in contractions by doubling the letter, which doesn’t seem right but I guess we’re learning Latin now too.
The LLM “flavour” I’m pursuing is five advanced law courses and a mini-thesis; as somebody without a law degree (JD or LLB — there’s that double L again), it’s been a bit of frantic dog-paddling to grasp some of the context and premises of the courses, but I’m getting there. After a couple of false starts (an interest in puffery, notionally, which kind of turned out to be an academic dead end, an initial paper topic in the legal incongruity of legislation on video game loot boxes, which turned out to be a bit more tangential than where I wanted to take this degree) I feel like I’m on strong footing taking courses that overlap with my professional space: privacy, copyright, hopefully trademarks soon, and/or patent law.
The course formula, more or less, rotates around a major paper (25 pages, ~8K words); it’s a lot of work, but I definitely get the pedagogy; it forces me to really dig into one aspect of the topic, and do a tremendous amount of research and writing on it. To date, I’ve completed a paper on last term’s course — privacy — and am currently whacking away at the paper on copyright.
In the interest of professional overlap, I’ve been looking at things that dovetail with what I do for a living. Last term’s paper, on privacy law and photo consent, actually turned out to be darned interesting, if I do say so myself — the notional idea of privacy in public, and how we seek and manage consent in photography and video at the day-to-day level in higher ed marketing.
I’m not going to share the paper here — my professor wants me to work on it a bit more, and submit it for publication in legal journals, and I gather that the making available of drafts is frowned upon in the circles that I’d be submitting it to.
But — spoiler! — we marketing people are not that good at law stuff.
There are a bunch of reasons for that:
First, there’s a lot of law to wrap your head around. PIPEDA, in Canada, is the most critical piece of legislation, but it’s under review right now with a major overhaul tabled last November. It’s federal, so applies to the entire country. But there are also provincial schemes, in Alberta and B.C., which have their own nuances and spins on legal privacy. Ontario is considering its own provincial privacy scheme as well. Quebec, as a civil law jurisdiction (the rest of the country is common law), has its own approach to laws and even its own charter of human rights (where a lot of privacy stuff resides), and is also currently looking at a bill to overhaul its provincial privacy statutes.
Second, there’s not that much action in the courts, or even in tribunals. One of the long, slow discoveries about the law for me is that it’s generally pretty elevated and really moves from abstract to tangible when something hits the courts — public or private. So what we understand of privacy legislation, PIPEDA, etc. is statutory, vague, and in many cases actually untested or not well-tested in the system. When the law is clear, it’s clear, but in one of the many areas where it’s kind of vague, clarity will only be achieved when somebody tests that vagueness, which means (a) somebody has to do something questionable, (b) somebody has to object strenuously enough to take it to the Privacy Commissioner or a similar provincial body, and (c) the Privacy Commissioner has to do something about it.
So while we’re not talking Mad Max levels of anarchy here, things are a lot… fuzzier… when you start poking at the law than I ever expected before I started studying it.
As for privacy last term, so for copyright this term… as a quick f’rinstance, I’m working on a paper on copyright assignment, and trying to figure out how students on placement from a college fit into the schema of “contract of service / contract for services” in terms of automatic copyright assignment to the employer. The intuitive stance is that they’re “employed,” but there’s actually more ambiguity than one might think.
If they’re on the kind of placement where they partially set their own hours, and especially if they use their own equipment (more common in this, the era of pandemic-related remote work), and if for some reason their placement duties overlap with something else they’re doing as a side hustle (say, a student who is working on photo assignments as a placement, but also setting up their own professional photography business on the side)… suddenly there’s the Sagaz test, and the status of their copyright assignments becomes a bit more dubious.
“But aren’t they apprentices, as defined in s13(3)” of the Copyright Act?”, you ask. “Show me the legal definition of ‘apprentice’ in the context of the Act,” I reply. And then you’re down a rabbit hole of “how has the term apprentice been defined in law in the past in Canada?” Is it strictly reserved for government-recognized, trades-related training programs? Or has the colloquial understanding of the word found meaning in the courts?
And until somebody takes it to the mat, pointing at a placement student in front of a judge and saying “this should be considered equivalent to an apprentice in the context of X,” and a judge decides, and any appeals on that decision are quashed, we don’t really know where a “placement student = apprentice, in the context of the Copyright Act” argument will land. It could be as simple as a judge saying “no, dummy, we’re defining ‘apprentice’ according to the Income Tax Act, and what a dumb thing to bring up”, but there’s a non-zero chance that a judge could read a broader interpretation of ‘apprenticeship’ into the drafting intent of the Act.
Which is what makes the law a pretty fun thing to study, but also a pretty frustrating thing to try to figure out. If you like absolutes, this is not a great space to be spending a lot of time in.
So — in the interest of keeping this reasonably brief (and getting back to writing that copyright paper, and the other Business of Sunday), I can park this at “law is hard.”
But! Writing this, I realize there’s a lot of space (and work) in the privacy/consent area I could and should be unpacking, so you can expect more of that in this space. I can’t run my paper here, but I can certainly revisit the themes and ideas — and law — that it unpacks. More on that! Soon!
Here’s a terrible truth: outside of the 40-ish hours I work every week, and the morning I spend writing/drawing this thing… I don’t think much about marketing.
Yet another terrible truth: I find “24/7/365” marketing culture kind of unnerving.
I’m legitimately a bit jealous of anyone who has found their jam to the point that it’s all they want to do or think about. Since about the age of 12 and my first paper route, I’ve never gone more than a week without some sort of job… and I’ve never found a “love what you do” profession to the point that I’m ardently chasing or thinking about work in my free time.
Other people have written more, and better, about the constructed realities of online life and social media, exacerbated by a pandemic pushing us all a little more toward digital over the last 12(!) months.
I’ve certainly noticed that my feelings of constant guilt over not being marketing-minded every minute of every day have been exacerbated by Facebook and LinkedIn. The steady drip of Type-A high-performers continually broadcasting triumphs, sharing articles, pushing white papers. It feels like if you’re not on the treadmill, you’re getting left behind.
I definitely feel like I’m being left behind.
I scroll through social media with a lurching dread rising in my gorge that everyone else is working harder, being more brilliant, doing more.
But… countervailing that fear, and outweighing it… I also don’t feel like making my life about just one thing.
It’s a consequence of having a magpie mind, and more interests and ideas than I can pursue in three lifetimes. I’ve made some furniture and designed some t-shirts; I’m pursuing a Masters in Law. I cook a lot, practice the banjo, obsessively tag a ridiculous music collection, canoe, build hobby websites. I’ve done radio shows and podcasts. I’ve written bad drafts of books I never finished. I own and operate the world’s smallest art gallery.
Point being: when I’m off the clock, I’m off the clock. I don’t read about marketing. I don’t watch documentaries about marketing. I don’t listen to podcasts about marketing.
I avoid the marketers writing for marketers who read about marketing and then talk about marketing with other marketers.
It’s a Moebius strip: it connects to itself. It’s a closed ecosystem.
And I suspect people like me are the ones injecting new ideas into that space when they return to it.
In other words: I think studiously avoiding thinking about marketing when I’m not being paid to think about marketing… makes me much better at marketing.
What am I doing today, after this? I’m not sure: possibly re-reading Dan Slott and the Allreds’ exemplary 2014-16 run on Silver Surfer. Maybe trying to do some make-up cooking after a disastrous curried-tofu-couscous experiment from the other night. Possibly shopping for a frame for some amazing artwork from a friend. Probably working on a paper for a copyright law course I’m taking this semester. Tonight, Sunday night movie with my wife — her turn to pick, I have no idea what’s going to happen there.
But… not marketing.
And what am I going to bring back with me on Monday? I don’t know. But I’m getting new inputs. From time with my family and friends. From nature. From all sorts of media — music, books, comics, video games. I think the lateral connections bring something that the direct connections don’t. And — ergo — not doing marketing is good for marketing.
So — a bit of self-reflection and self-therapizing here, but also a permission slip for anyone else who feels a sense of lurching dread when they look at all the 24/7 marketing minds whirring away out there, and wonder why they’re not wired that way, or feel like they’re being outpaced.
It’s okay. It’s better than okay, it’s good. We need people to forage out into the wide world and bring the new things back.
As much as some goofball on the Internet with a blog can sanction you to think about and do other things, I sanction you. I’m waving my hand in a weird way and saying something vaguely Latin. You have my blessing and best wishes.
Go forth and do not think about this stuff for a while.
Risk management is a tricky business. Heck, risk is a tricky business — I bought and read a book on the subject a few years ago (The Science of Fear, but titled Risk when I bought it).
It was an eye-opener — a lot of things I’d intuited but never really understood laid out plain, with the general takeaway that as story-driven people, we perceive risk on a very different level than risk exists at.
It’s important, initially, to understand that there’s a massive tension at the heart of marketing for any great institution.
Marketing is by its nature disruptive. It’s meant to get and hold attention, and doing things in exactly the expected way, as safely as possible, is not a good way of doing that. You capture attention through innovative and different ways of doing things.
Innovation, and difference — are risky.
This makes marketing and communications in higher ed a perpetual engine of contradiction: you succeed by being innovative and disruptive, but are beholden to steward a brand and story that can be hundreds of years old, with stakeholders spanning older alumni, major donors, government, the worlds of science and the arts, the local community, prospective students, current students… and more besides.
In higher ed, I’ve been coming to realize that part of the risk aversion is due to the breadth of the stakeholder base, and also that marketing and communications means a lot in this context.
It’s a very broad idea that gathers a lot of types of thinking, and they sometimes get bundled as a single understanding of risk — and consequent processes — than separated out into constituent parts with their own risk profile.
I’m thinking about that, and thinking about ladders.
Ladders are risky; the higher you climb, the worse you can fall.
But the higher you climb, the more you’re laddering. You can reach more, see further… every rung up the ladder makes it more ladder and less… tiptoes or stepstool.
What if we were to look at the range of activity like a ladder? Some things mean climbing higher and chancing more to do them well. Others — stay close to the ground.
Awards / events
The funny thing about the ladder is that I keep trying to conflate activity types with channel types, to the point that I think there’s a whole separate question here to look at: must certain channels be riskier than others? It feels like social media has to be more daring to cut through the noise / clutter / amazingly entertaining things out there, while web-based or print journalism can be a bit more stoic.
I’ve carved it up as story promotion and storytelling above, which at a glance might seem incoherent. But I think there’s a less-risky, more-staid “story” on the site, or in print, but what drives eyes to that story — on social media, or elsewhere — needs to be a bit more marketing-ish to succeed.
This is a bit of a bolt from the blue moment for me, as I realize I’ve actually settled into a pretty static view of storytelling myself; I’ve been thinking of the full-story-to-social-media spectrum as a continuity of the same thing, not that the social media component is actually advertising for the story it’s sharing… it’s a subtle difference, but it feels profound the more I think about it.
There’s also an audience ladder that I think lives next to the activity ladders, organized roughly and unscientifically according to how much moxie I think goes into reaching them across the board:
Prospective grad students
Prospective undergrad students? How are you going to tell them you have the best theatre program in the country in a way that competes with Twitch livestreams and TikTok?
And so on down the chain, in frankly a slightly ageist way (sorry); alumni squarely in the middle because they encompass such a broad range of ages and interests; The Concerned being that specific set of people that are agitated about a very specific issue that crisis communications needs to manage. They may be all over the map demographically, but the crisis at hand is not the right time to get innovative in how you’re addressing it.
The central point being — I think risk is ill-understood everywhere, but there’s a conflated sense of risk in higher ed, and people outside the marcomms sphere will assume that when you’re stewarding a mighty, generations-old brand, the risk aversion mentality of the lower rungs of the ladder should be applied to everything.
Which is — well, safe, which is I guess the point, but it means you never get to climb.
One tactic I’ve used to have risk conversations in the past is a causal chain approach: acknowledging that there’s a level of risk in what you’re doing, but asking the other party to unpack with you where the risk actually resides. Is there a high probability of a negative outcome, or is a negative outcome the result of a series of increasingly improbable events?
What’s the negative outcome they’re worried about… and, step by step, how does one arrive there? Sometimes there’s a probable risk — and change is needed — but sometimes you find that the path to the actual problem is so long, and so unlikely, that the benefit of a more readable piece, or more functional marketing, is worth accepting a very slight chance of a bad outcome.
It comes up when people conflate audiences — what if somebody on a lower rung sees something intended for an audience on a higher rung? It’s a legitimate concern, but in an increasingly crowded media world, are we evaluating that risk effectively and well? And what benefits are we losing by gearing higher-rung needs down to lower rungs?
An understanding of the ladder, though — that different things, for different audiences, may ask us to look at risk differently — that feels like a narrative I should try to advance in my conversations.
Getting back to the ladder metaphor, there’s a lot left there to unpack as well. There are safe and unsafe ways to use a ladder (I am, in the context of my organization, a certified ladder user, I have taken a specific ladder safety course and am now allowed to use ladders). There’s how you situate the ladder, what you lean it against, what it’s resting on… man, you can just ladder-metaphor all day. But I’m happy with the height/view/fall element for now.
…starting with the problem as I see it, poking at how putting internal messages on external challenges isn’t a great solution, making a case for how it adds value across the board, and here we are at the “how”.
I don’t think there is a single “how.” Saying there’s a right way to do it is like saying there’s only one kind of sandwich. There are all kinds of sandwiches for different times and different purposes, from crust-off PB&J to triangle-cut church-basement egg salad to six-foot party hoagies.
I like sandwiches as a metaphor: they’re a delivery system for content, but the method of conveyance is also vital. The bread is part of the package and part of the experience. Jamming tuna salad into a wrap is very different than putting it in between two slices of toasted rye; in the same way, a photo essay on Instagram is a different experience than the same set of photos in an email. The sandwich is the message! It’s Marshall McLuhan, but tasty.
I’ve gotten a lot of interesting and useful feedback since I started this; email, messages from colleagues on various platforms, LinkedIn comments — and it’s clear that there’s an appetite for this, and a general understanding of the value and need. Interesting questions like “are students an ‘internal’ audience in higher ed, or ‘clients’?” Also a lot of compassion for the people who need to be communicated with — students, staff, faculty.
As somebody who wants to spend time in this space, figuring it out at the faculty (academic unit, not professors) level and in a way that coheres with both broader (university) and narrower (department/school) plans, I’ve been using the last month to try to get some principles to cohere. These are truths for me, and not universal ideas.
For reasons detailed below, I wind up leaning in a certain direction for channel, format and content… but my answer may not be your answer.
I’m also focusing on students — the largest audience, and also the one with the widest array of frequently conflicting needs. But I think it all adapts/scales to other audiences as well.
Every single thing below is contentious. If I’d been smarter about this, I could have gotten months of content by breaking out each item in a bit more detail for a zillion short entries instead of this marathon.
Sidebar: It’s hard to know what’s true about Generation Z audiences.
The fun thing about investigating marketing is that the people who tell you what channels to use are usually marketers. So I can easily find data that proves Gen Z is gaga for email… from a company that provides email marketing services. Gen Z mainly just watches videos… says a company that captions videos. And so on.
The bread: what conveys your content?
It can’t be social media.
This is pretty obvious for me — social media can enhance a communications strategy, but it can’t be the communications strategy for internal audiences. First, there are equity issues: you can’t force a student to be part of a third-party, for-profit system with privacy and security practices you don’t control. It’s a minefield ethically, and from a security/privacy standpoint. Second, there’s that internal/external divide again. Can you set up channels specifically for internal audiences on social? Sure! It’s done often, and effectively: there’s no reason the campus’ physical plant team can’t set up a Twitter account to broadcast where they’re at with ploughing after heavy snowfalls, or the wellness team can’t try to spread positivity on Instagram. But outside of narrowcasting, I have a hard time seeing myself counseling, say, our faculty setting up a parallel set of social feeds for our internal audiences without the chance of mass confusion with our external channels.
Also: social media is work. It can look fun, and tends to get discounted as a zero-work bolt-on in plans, but it takes time and care to write content and craft graphics — to increasingly distinctive specs — for the four or five “must-have” channels to bat the circuit.
Being in-flow is the challenge…
Social media has a lot of momentum on its side. It’s where people are already, and it’s much easier to push something into somebody’s flow where they are than to try to pull them into taking an action they normally wouldn’t. Our student society is hugely successful at reaching our current students on social — far more than the faculty’s social channels — because they have a single, clear, isolate purpose for social media: to communicate with current students. So not being on social feels like we’re missing a step, and not fishing where the fish are.
…but being on social doesn’t mean being in-flow.
That said, social media presence doesn’t ensure social media attention. Just cutting and pasting a paragraph and tossing it into Insta with a stock photo of a duck won’t get you seen / liked / etc. And, see above, social media is work. And not just one-off effort. If you’re not maintaining a constant presence with high engagement, the key channels will disfavour you algorithmically, putting you into a “death spiral” where you’re being delivered to fewer people, which means less chance of engagement, which means you get delivered to even fewer people…
I’m not saying social media as part of an internal comms strategy is a bad idea — but it’s not a light idea, and it can’t (for equity reasons) be your sole method. You can lean in and do it well, consistently, and with commitment, committing a lot of capacity and effort. But it’s a serious investment, for specific services. I don’t think it’s a mass-comms tool.
I like apps, but not as a sole delivery vehicle.
Our faculty has a great bespoke app for our students. I really like it — and I’ve invested time and effort in driving attention and use. I’m all in on making it work — but it’s been a challenge, to date, to get the kind of mass adoption we’d like to see in the faculty.
This is partly a flow issue — the app is, at the end of the day, an out-of-flow push proposition. We’re asking students to open an app of their own volition, in competition with everything else they could be doing on their phone in that moment.
Its killer function is — for me — the fact that it ties into our learning platform, so once you’re logged in, the home screen shows your class schedule and assignments for the day. This is where I think we could reach flow with our students — it’s more intuitive and navigable than the mobile view of the learning software’s web presence. So there’s a possible future where it becomes the natural place for our students to go periodically through the day to check in — and while they’re there, see announcements, chat in various discussion groups, and use other offerings like the ability to communicate directly with course advisors, the student services team, etc.
While we’ve put some time and effort into it, I think it will take a concerted commitment of money/capacity/brainpower to really surge use, and push us past that 50% critical mass of students where we can truly see a step change in adoption and use. It’s not capacity we have at the moment — but the summer is coming.
The above all applies to “portal” sites as well — essentially, offering the same consolidation service as an app, but over time training people to skip directly to the content they need instead of truly engaging with the collateral you’re scattering on other places on the page.
There’s also an equity issue I have some issues with here: not all students have modern phones, and not all students will have top-notch service with loads of data to play with.
Ultimately, I think it’s email.
I know, I know. Boo! Email! Nobody likes email. Very few people wake up in the morning aching to check the email. But… everybody checks their email anyway. It’s the closest thing to a dependable in-flow tool that we have; it’s effectively mandatory, completely controllable, and segments amazingly.
It also doesn’t have to be a slog. If you commit to it, you can create email content that’s essential, enjoyable and compelling. That’s — again — work. But it’s not out of the question.
And I think it’s newsletters.
Boo again! But having lived in newsletter systems and non-newsletter systems, I think your odds of being read are about equal either way, and newsletters have the following benefits:
It makes content wrangling systemizable: the person running this system can set up processes for sending content in, and managing content on deadlines.
It removes the Darwinian aspect of more attention going to the better e-mail senders
It institutes flow control and diminishes overall email volume
It can provide a consistency and reliability in format and expectations
If it is your ‘essential’ channel, readership will stabilize over time
You can create and manage expectations around newsletters. “You will get one of these a week and you’re expected to read it” is a simple message, and easier to absorb/digest than “we’re going to be sending dozens of emails a week on various subjects at various times, and also posting in other places, so watch out.”
But I never read newsletters!
“_____ sends newsletters, and I never read them” does come up a lot. I hear that. I am also a newsletter-deleter. But I am also a newsletter reader, when I know that the newsletter contains information that’s pertinent, time-sensitive, and appealing.
I also think it’s online.
Note that I’m saying online, not web. I’m a quiet advocate of getting inside-baseball material off websites and onto well maintained internal systems (unless there’s a clear external marketing purpose to the material, but even then, I’d argue for adapting rather than repeating…).
Essential dates and deadlines
Policies, processes, and forms
Archives of prior newsletters
Ultimately, most of your stuff (see “Content/COPE” below)
I’m a big fan of portal-type pages: put things where it makes sense, then have a consolidated index where things are organized and graphically easy to find and get to. A topic for another time.
Event calendars are hard to build and hard to evaluate.
They feel essential in theory. There’s so much to organize it’s so hard to get a view of everything in one place! Surely a calendar…
But a good calendar is a bearcat. You need something that allows multiple parties to enter information, categorization, a way of managing multi-day events as well as short-duration events, and ideally a way of exporting feeds that can repopulate specific calendars in specific places (see “Content/COPE” below, again).
And then you have to get people to use it. Or not? I’d argue that a contemporary calendar is more of a repository than a destination. It’s a place to put your events, but trying to get people to spontaneously drop by an events calendar on a regular basis isn’t going to get a lot of traction.
Again, a topic that deserves more time, in time.
The Stuff: what goes in the bread?
This is a needs-based exercise, not a branding exercise
We’re squarely in the communications camp here. I think this is an area where brand and values can sing, but as a background context that drips — it’s ultimately about serving an audience. Start with them: poll/focus group your students and ask them what they need. Keep an open line with your boots-on-the-ground, student-facing staff: where are the current points of confusion and stresses? What can you help with now?
Ask the people what they want is a good start, beginning with your target audience but also the people they serve most often. If somebody is getting a dozen calls a week asking them to explain ____, this is a good sign that some communication needs to happen on that point.
Brand infuses all of this, but doesn’t outshine it. Graphics, text, all of it can lean into an overall harmony of message and conveying in institutional mission and purpose (and should), but the information comes first, and the infusion afterwards.
You need a permanent home base for vital content.
Email is where I lean as a vehicle, but email is also ephemeral. The vital information needs a home online: bookmarkable, 24/7 references to key dates and deadlines, administrative policies, etc. But also for your past emails — even just exporting to PDF and maintaining an archive list — and…well, everything, as we get into below. Portals, and finding not-your-main-website places to store information, is a long-term must.
Nobody sees anything that isn’t meant for them.
If there’s one cardinal rule in all of this: don’t waste people’s time and attention. That’s one of the reasons I’m fond of email — it segments beautifully. You can send email to all students, or just upper-years, or all staff, or only faculty, or just early-career faculty… if you’re willing to put the time in, you can create a dizzying array of segments to make sure the essentials are being shared.
Theory again collides with work here — these lists have to be conceived, created, and also maintained. This is effort, and while it’s easy to envision a coat-of-a-thousand-colours approach where you have newsletters for every segment imaginable, the practical component of making and maintaining those lists — to say nothing of curating the content for each — is nothing to sneeze at. And updating it is a double bearcat.
There’s a sweet spot where things are targetable without being too burdensome to maintain, though. The more people feel like you’re delivering material that matters to them, the more attention you’ll hold and retain.
Balancing the essential and the ephemeral
There’s a natural and eternal tension here; the age-old battle of the urgent vs. the important. Students should know when their application to graduate is due, but should that be a top item for two months leading up to the application due date?
Or should a late-developing talk happening tomorrow be the vital information, and the essential information have its own “key reminders” section further down?
There’s no easy answer here — see below — but my tendency is to put the fast-expiring items close to the top, and the long-term reminders further down.
Everyone’s stuff is important to them.
This is the toughest pill to ask people to swallow — nobody thinks their thing is unimportant, so asking them to put their thing into a pool with all the other things is galling. The corollary, though, is that everyone shouting at increasing volumes, constantly, is not tenable either. So organizing things into a set approach — stable, coherent — is the most community-minded way to go about this.
I think there’s a huge ancillary benefit here: de-siloing and contextualizing units that might normally be charging ahead with an exclusive focus on their KPIs.
COPE is dope.
Create once, publish everywhere. It’s a key philosophy in web design and management, and the central case for an email/web strategy: if content has an authoritative, editable home, it can be maintained in one place and reflected in others. This leads to the big content idea for newsletters…
Index and point…
On the COPE front: everything should have a home that isn’t an email. You don’t need all six points for a student to follow for their application to graduate — just that your application to graduate is due _____, and to follow the process here: ______.
This, for pretty much everything: events to an events calendar, funding and scholarship announcements to a list of them and their criteria, and so on.
…while being engaging and entertaining.
This seems like an impossible balance, until you bring framing into the picture. Not extravagant, elaborate mechanisms, but a lead-in graphic and paragraph. Peppering a few contests or swag giveaways throughout the thing. I ran a “Pets Of…” series, with student-submitted photos, in a prior newsletter for ages, with an amazing uptick in use.
You need a sandwich artist.
Jumping back a couple weeks, and a bit further up here: the work gets shortchanged and will always get shortchanged. “It’s just a newsletter” will be the default position of… well, everybody. The natural pull will be to put top talent on outward-facing things; the graphic designer and the writer and etc. will be back on the Viewbook and campaigns and this will just become somebody’s side-desk job. Fight this.It’s harder to make routine things interesting than it is to make… interesting things interesting.
Investing in something that sings, initially, will go a long way to helping encourage an institutional commitment to the resource. The people with the knowledge may not be the people best suited to craft the content in a compelling way (nor should they be expected to be! Different people are good at different things). Those resources need to be there, and reliably.
What do I need to know now > what must I know in general > other information
We get down to “what’s essential right now” pretty quickly. This is why processes should begin with the audience themselves and the front-line staff: they know what’s critical, where there’s urgency and confusion, and how to rectify it. What problem am I solving? is a good question for construction every week, or at whatever interval you’re releasing.
Remember that most people won’t see your pictures.
Most mail clients now do not load images by default, which means you can either come up with text that lives without visual support (recommended), or find slightly cheaty ways to try to encourage people to load the images (see the “Pets” idea above).
The ol’ retail switcheroo
Periodically, when I go into Peak Capitalism Paradise to buy a 40-lb. tub of mayo, I notice that stuff’s been moved. I’m forced to change aisles, look in different places for things, and break the mental conditioning that drives me to exactly the same spots every time I visit. This doesn’t turn me off to the point that I stop going — but it shakes me out of patterns and makes me notice things I haven’t noticed before.
So I’m intrigued by the idea of periodic format swaps — now events are at the top, but soon it’s key reminders, then student club notices — but not having tried it, I’m not sure what the result would be. It’s a way of breaking the “skim to X” pattern issue, though.
And we have only just begun to sandwich
Believe it or not, I think the above represents… maybe a quarter of what I have rattling around in my head about internal comms channels and content. But I’m clocking 1500+ words at this point, and I think the best I can do — preserving my own sanity, and at least part of my Sunday — is to park it here for now.
I guess it’s pretty obvious at this point that I think internal communications is a big deal. I think it’s undervalued and under-recognized. It’s a behemoth of a challenge. It’s a boulder that you have to roll up the hill, and like Sisyphus, you gotta keep rolling it.
I’m also in the awkward position at this moment about writing about something I’m currently working on, and haven’t actually done to my own satisfaction yet. I’ve had the boulder slide down on me a few times, and am slapping chalk on my hands for the next attempt.
And — man, this is a lot of qualifiers, sorry — I’ve got a faculty lens on this. That’s where I’m at. I think the below ideas scale both up and down, but want to be clear about my context.
It’s hard to make a case for it.
And without asserting the need, you’re not gonna. External, measurable drivers — recruitment numbers, fundraising numbers, reputation drivers, rankings — are all happening in the context of a constantly changing landscape, so you have to reinvent those wheels every year, on tight deadlines, in an increasingly complex media landscape. There are also other institutional needs, like a long overdue drive toward meaningful equity in higher ed, that are priorities.
The churn of the job — news reporting, social campaigns, design and video-making — grows to fit whatever space it’s in. There’s no end to recruitment tactics, fundraising needs or research promotion; if capacity increases, there are always more to do.
Internal comms, though — barring a tangible and recognized crisis, this subject doesn’t generate urgency the way the external drivers do.
Internal communications resourcing competes with other priorities.
At some point, somebody’s gotta count the beans. The beans should be counted. We’re stewards of public funds, and accountability’s important. But when the number of beans are limited, and there are no more beans to be found, every piece of new work has to be seen not just as an opportunity, but presenting an opportunity cost. Allocating to one thing means not allocating to another thing.
Can you honestly make a case that buttressing internal communications is more important than recruitment? Than research promotion? Than fundraising?
Because that’s the lens that other people will take. It’s a valid lens!
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to this. It’s a matter of looking at other recognized priorities, and seeing how internal comms — as a tier of communications — supports your overall objectives.
It’s not one tool to solve one problem.
I have made this mistake myself. I’m not casting aspersions except on my past self here. But prior attempts at internal comms strategies have been instigated because of a specific problem. So I approached internal communications as a specific way to solve Problem A.
This made the resource allocation part easy — I was handed a problem to solve, and came up with a solution — but ultimately, it was narrow, and while it did the one thing (reduced overall email traffic to students), I think framing it in that narrow way was reductive and ultimately harmful.
People didn’t come out of it seeing benefit other than the immediate solution to the problem, and subsequently, expanding and improving meant going back to square one — even square minus-one, because now there’s a kind of “didn’t we already do that?” mentality that makes it harder to scrap for resources.
It’s not an emergency address system.
Similar to the above — I hesitate to present these things as an emergency-service kind of approach. I’m not manning the ramparts for the death of listservs and email, but I think there’s an argument that something that consolidates and organizes internal messages actually improves the institution’s power to communicate urgently — because it’s now an exception, not the rule.
Brand starts in-house.
If you’re going to take a holistic approach to this, you need to start with a Big Idea. That’s my Big Idea. Feel free to borrow it!
My business case for internal comms begins with that simple statement that plays out across a number of areas. It’s also a jazzy l’il slogan that gets people excited about internal comms, which helps!
From there, I want to come up with some arguments that support the “brand starts in-house” premise, or come up with other positioning of internal communications as essential to the general priority areas: recruitment, giving, equity, research, reputation/rankings.
Having staff, students and faculty aligned on an institutional vision and mandate makes achieving that mandate far easier.
Your school, and possibly your faculty and department, have their own strategic plan and vision for the future. But how do you radiate those values internally? When something has to be done to support Objective A, your chance of that being well understood and well received improves exponentially if people know what Objective A is in the first place.
One of the early lessons I learned in marketing is that sometimes, if you want people to know something, just tell them. If your store is having a sale on mittens, a very large sign in the window that says “MITTEN SALE” is sometimes exactly what you need.
But you need a vehicle to tell people, consistently, directly and indirectly, what the vision is.
Canada is not that big a country at the end of the day. And people talk. A happy, engaged student body is your greatest recruitment tool — even the best messaging in the world, packaged in the most gorgeous viewbook, hosted on the most elegant website, will only get you so far. At some point, somebody’s going to know several somebodies, and if the universal feeling from current students is dissatisfaction, that’s going to make an impact.
I’m not advocating wallpapering — this isn’t about Mandatory Cheer, and it’s all fruitless if the right infrastructure and tools aren’t in place to address the root causes of satisfaction — but internal communications should be viewed as part of that infrastructure, not an externality applied after the fact.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talking to Person A and in the course of the conversation discovered they’re doing something astonishingly similar to Person X, and if the two of them had just known they’d have saved probably a few days of work by letting one person do the heavy lifting and hand off to the other to adapt at the end of the day.
Even knowing who’s good at what is immeasurably helpful. Over time, I’ve cultivated a sense of expertise among my peers on campus — if I need some advice, I know I can reach out to somebody and say “how would you do ____?” and get some good guidance. That starts with knowing what people do — and are good at. How much more will you get out of people with, say, casual web duties if they have seen a colleague recently praised for some good work in that space, and can expand their resource pool for simple questions?
One of my early asks when I was at the law faculty was from a faculty member who asked if I, in my then newly minted role, could make a priority of telling people what other people do. He could walk down a hall past a number of offices and see people in them doing things, but had no idea what their jobs were or why they were important.
It’s not great to work in a place where you fundamentally don’t feel like you know what’s going on. Very few people need granular knowledge of what the exam administrator is doing to resolve a problem with remote proctoring in the moment. But knowing that there is an exam administrator, and what the functions of that role are? Super cool.
And — how much worse is it to work in a place where you suspect nobody knows or values what you do? I got sad just typing that! How do you recognize people whose jobs don’t put them in the spotlight — and show how they’re vital contributors to the overall mission?
Still on the ‘“making people aware of what other people are doing” front: unit cross-talk leads to priority smoothing. Silloed units charging forward toward their own KPIs are productive, but without a view of what’s happening in other units, can’t self-modulate to provide room for other units with other needs. The beans are finite, and giving people the opportunity to self-throttle via greater institutional awareness relieves a lot of pressure from the people who would otherwise have to have resourcing conversations with them.
Research motivation and collaboration:
Well-informed researchers that are aware of what their colleagues are doing and excited for institutional success are motivated to succeed — and internal collaboration starts with a general awareness of what’s happening across the institution.
Equity touches every aspect of the university experience, from recruitment that strives toward representation across students, staff and faculty; to alumni engagement; to pervasive impacts on research. The emphasis often tends to be to get people in, but making sure they’re supported and seen once they are at the institution is just as important.
On the flip side, if you’re bringing in several thousand students a year, and have thousands of staff and faculty working with them, you can’t expect them to all be in the same place at the same time on understanding EDII and its importance. How are we continually radiating a culture of equity to people who might be less aware of these issues?
Just the act of doing the work generates outward-facing content. When people see each other and feel aligned toward a common vision and set of goals, ideas spark. Somebody has an idea for an internal newsletter that’s actually the first step toward a major insight for the whole institution. Internal comms content starts to drive ideas for external communication.
It also sparks the kind of spontaneous, organic, genuine social media presence that you literally cannot pay for or fake.
Rankings and reputation:
Having tucked into this a bit over the last six months, I’m told by much smarter people working harder in these areas that a lot of these things are driven by both internal-satisfaction surveys, but also research across the board about top-of-mind presence at other institutions. It’s an unproveable, but I can’t help but think, in a confined sector in a country that’s not that big, internal alignment and vision radiates. Can I prove that a faculty member at one university will be influenced to name another university as a top-of-mind top research institute because their colleagues there seem motivated and collaborative? I cannot. Can I provide ironclad assurances that a satisfied student will speak more freely about their university experience with their friends and relations and improve our national awareness footprint by 0.001% in doing so? I can’t do that. But it’s a strong intuition.
You don’t have to do it all at once.
That’s… a lot. It’s an intimidating amount of stuff, to be honest. I’m intimidated, and I wrote it. I think one thing to remember — before we launch into tools and possible strategies next week — is that it doesn’t all have to be one thing at one time. While it’s a Big Idea, it segments neatly into smaller units, and piloting a staff or faculty approach while thinking about how to resource the bigger picture is a proposition worth considering.
The boulder never stops rolling.
Another mistake from my past — thinking you can set this up and then it’s just an easy-to-maintain project, to be handed off. Why would I think that? The inside of the institution is a huge, complex entity — the size and scope of a small city — so the idea you can just kind of set it and forget it is goofy. Part of the Big Idea framing is that you’re not “solving a problem”, as mentioned above, but setting up an evergreen structure that will need to be fed and watered in perpetuity.
Next week: How to Build a Boulder
I’m anxious about this, but I think I’m going to drill down into a few key areas:
focus on input from boots-on-the-ground staff
ask people what they want
start with redundancies
…and go from there. I’m looking forward to it and scared of it all at the same time.
*if you remember me saying this was three parts, you’re right, but this part wound up so sprawling that I wanted to push the tools piece to next week. I have a job and I’m working on an LLM and have lots on the go! I can only do this on Sundays! Sorry not sorry!
Last week I was talking about how internal communications is hard in higher ed. A college or university is a massively complex and internally competitive system, with students, staff and faculty operating on multiple layers at once, and with concerns and needs that bridge from “professional” — i.e. studies, to personal — i.e. mental/physical wellness, and everything in between.
This is a four-part series on internal comms in higher ed:
Putting internal messages on external channels is a delicious trap.
It’s not uncommon for me to get something in my inbox and somebody asking me “can we advertise this to students on social media?” And — absent a clear sense of who is following us where — that’s a hard request to say no to, on its face. Some students are following us on social media. I’m certain of that. We can put things on social media. That’s an absolute. So why not put a wonderful thing on social media for our current students? After all…
We have amazing-stuff-for-students peanut butter.
We have channels-followed-by-students chocolate.
Why in the world wouldn’t you combine the two?
Because while it’s an amazing idea for a snack, if you are handling both internal and external messages, it’s not a great approach to either internal communications or outward-facing media.
Appealing as it is, you gotta keep the peanut butter and chocolate apart.
I’m going to lean into ‘“student recruitment” as the lens I look at a lot of this through. It’s a pretty common thread through higher ed, on the minds of most marcomms folks, and frankly a pretty big deal for me.
This all seems a bit overblown at first, especially to somebody that just wants to tell students about something they feel the students should know.
We’re trying to give prospective students a positive impression of campus, the argument goes, so showing them the breadth of our supports and services is good. Why not remind students to update emergency contact information via Instagram? Where’s the harm?
I do it myself — we ran a 14-day self-isolation-supporting contest series through social recently, to encourage good COVID practices and also student use of our faculty’s app. We just promoted our “Discipline Nights”, where first-year engineers choose an education stream. I did this partly because I have don’t have other strong alternatives to reach our students. But it felt wrong. Here’s why.
The internal-on-external argument
There’s a rationale that, on its face, supports internal messaging on outward channels, in the absence of a strong stated purpose for the channel, or even if the purpose includes recruitment.
A student considering our school…
may see posts directed at internal students about an interesting service or feature;
will be impressed with the breadth of services and our community spirit;
this might make a difference when they choose a school.
It makes sense.
It’s also wrong.
The wrongness of it comes down to the need for channel focus, what the purpose of a channel is, and whether or not what you’re doing on that channel supports that exact purpose.
Social media is bananas, and channel focus is critical
Social media delivers posts haphazardly, through an algorithm that evolves constantly. There’s no guarantee that anyone will see anything you post. The algorithm, that shadowy and terrible master, waves its inscrutable hand and a post lives or dies.
That fact brings the need for focus into focus.
If I want to recruit a student using Instagram, and it’s a dice roll about what they’ll see, I need to ask myself whether I:
want to guarantee what they see will reflect what prospective students look for in our program
want to roll the dice and accept that they might see something about a candle-making workshop instead
Wait, though — where’s the harm in sharing a candle-making workshop? Doesn’t that just show breadth, foster the idea that this an interesting place where candle-making happens, and reinforce how lovely our school is, overall?
But social media isn’t the place to show breadth. It’s the time to pique interest, spark imagination, and get audiences to where the breadth is, but it’s not the right venue to dig into the layers of what your school offers — even if those offerings are truly great.
University choice is based on high-tier decisions.
Students, at the recruitment phase, don’t know what they don’t know.
And social media, moving at 10,000 posts a minute, delivering things according to an opaque algorithm, isn’t the venue to educate them.
To use an example from my own life: I’m a proud graduate of Ryerson’s Radio and Television Arts program, class of ‘95. It is a tremendous program, and I don’t think anyone knew how poorly its name would age (it’s the “RTA School of Media Arts” now — good call, Ryerson).
When I was a fresh-faced young lad circa 1991, I wanted:
to learn cool media stuff
to work with cool equipment
get a job in TV or radio or something
at a place with a really great reputation
That was my chocolate. I wanted chocolate.
What I didn’t know, when I chose Ryerson, was that RTA was a lot more than that. I learned an amazing amount about story structure and writing. Mandatory voice training gave me an amazingly versatile skill that’s served me well since. The most valuable classes for me — which I at the time thought were a monumental waste of time — were Jerry Good’s management courses. Jerry, if you are reading this for some reason now, I am sorry.
There were also stellar services — a great gym, amazing faculty delivering electives to students resenting the “breadth requirement”, student wellness staff — all things that I didn’t know about when I chose Ryerson. That was the peanut butter, and I didn’t know how amazing the peanut butter was when I was picking a school.
But I only wanted chocolate when I chose Ryerson. I was a dumb kid who wanted to learn cool media stuff, work with neat gear, etc.
Had social media existed at the time, and the only messaging from Ryerson that crossed my path had been about their English electives or management seminars or their gym equipment, my life might have turned out very differently.
If I wanted chocolate, but I saw peanut butter, zooming past with a million other factors and things to consider, and messages zipping along at a mile a minute, the idea of combining the two wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. Another school — providing chocolate — would have pulled me in.
If you have a fact-based understanding of what your prospective students want from a school, and you know how to reach them, you’re doing yourself (and them) a disservice by muddying the waters with things that not only won’t resonate, but will likely just be forgotten as they scroll past 10,000 things that don’t catch their eyes or imagination.*
There are definitely times and places to hip prospective students to what you offer that might not be on their radar: student information sessions, tours (real or virtual), the second- and third-tier pages of your website.
But social media’s not the place to do that.
Which brings me back around to one of the primary reasons that a good, planned, robust internal communications system is vital.
I’ll get into more reasons next week, but from a strictly operational perspective, and especially with limited time and resources, it’s crucial to keep those streams apart. Your best chance of success on social media is with a clear, research-backed vision and purpose, and strict adherence to that vision. This isn’t to say it can’t be fun, or interesting, or enlightening, but the job is to drive an interest to learn more — which leads to the breadth — rather than trying to front-load the breadth.
I’ve just spent 1200 words explaining why social media needs to be to the point; the irony’s not lost on me. This hopefully unpacks the internal/external trap well, though.
Next week: why I think internal comms is worth the effort, and how to approach an impossible task with limited resources.
*there’s a lot of complexity to this as well, especially since received wisdom of “what students want” plays into what a traditional plurality of students want; a colonial education system can’t self-correct without self-reflection and efforts toward EDII, which means thinking past received wisdom and what the traditional plurality is looking for. I think this leads to a nuanced conversation about how to reach students with EDII messaging through systems that still deliver high-resonance messages in ways that creatively capture EDII needs — but that’s not really what today is about, and I’d be doing that whole topic a disservice by trying to cram it into a footnote here.
To begin: higher education isn’t great at internal communication.
There are exceptions to this rule, I’m sure. But as somebody who works at one of Canada’s great universities, directly in two faculties and in close collaboration with other on-campus units, who has studied at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and with a partner who has also studied at a variety of schools — if there’s a university out there that’s really top-notch at keeping students, faculty and staff in the loop, I’d like to see it.
Why are we so bad at this?
First, it’s huge. It’s really, really huge.
I’m not saying “crushing wave” accidentally.
A student — I’ve been one, and I am one, currently pursuing an LLM — needs information on the following things:
current courses, assignments, grades (per course), delivered at the class level
direct correspondence with professors on the above
department-level messaging for students in a specific areas
faculty updates on faculty-wide issues, including visiting speakers, special talks, etc.
notes from the dean on matters of import, like COVID
university updates on university-wide issues, including university-wide events
notes from the Principal and Provost on matters of import
official university communications vehicles — school papers/reporting
That’s… a lot. I’m a grown-up man with a family and pets, and I don’t think I have to deal with nearly as much on a daily basis as a 19-year-old thrust onto campus has to contend with.
Second: the fight for student attention is constant and eternal.
All of the above are run by units (and units within units). These are usually staffed by highly intelligent, highly accomplished people. Their KPIs are monitored by other highly intelligent, highly accomplished people. There are a huge variety of silos. Even if competition isn’t the intent, it’s the outcome.
A student who thinks their future career prospects depend on growing the club they started through a series of huge events isn’t going to doff their cap and give way to a visiting talk by an academic in an area they have no interest in.
If Career Services’ success is measured by the number of students who take their online course on CV-writing, they’re not going to park that program for a year to provide more space for a mental wellness program unrolling concurrently.
The MBAification of higher ed has resulted in measurable outcomes as the sole criterion of success in a lot of cases — and while at first flush it’s a laudable approach to resource allocation, it results in a “unit KPIs first, everything else after” approach across the board that pits us against each other in unforeseen ways.
Nobody wakes up in the morning intending to fight, but it’s a low-key battle for minds and time unrolling in real time, all the time. Academia, red in tooth and claw.
Further complicating that is a passion for specialization — or redundancy, if you want to take a more cynical view.
The university offers career services for all students, but faculties and departments also have their own individual career service units, offering either overlapping or complementary resources. Individual units take on their own mental wellness projects because there’s a distinct spin they want to put on it that the university-level wellness services don’t provide.
Competition scales not only laterally, but fractally — you’re not only getting concurrent messages that pit a cupcake sale against a bookstore promotion and a talk on the Visgoths, you have sessions on how to do well in an in-person interview battling against each other for primacy.
And — and! — to succeed, we not only have to win the internal fight, but beat out the entire universe. We have to eclipse Netflix enticing students to binge the latest show, AAA video games pitching themselves on Twitch, live events at the local bar, and every other thing that highly aggressive, highly mobile, and often less ethical for-profit marketers are cooking up to compete for these eyes and minds.
Third: there’s no consolidated venue for a solution.
The above takes place over…
Email (itself on various platforms)
Web sites, posts / blogs
Event calendars, online and off
Handouts and flyers
Standalone university apps
When I was at the law faculty, students were reporting getting 25+ “official’ emails a day from various quarters. They’re also compelled to check in on four or five courses via a learning platform (and each course has its own discussion forums and/or mailing lists).
Also to stay on top of social media; most student clubs and societies default to Facebook as their platform of choice, because it’s in-flow for the bulk of students. (This in turn presents equity issues; compelling students to join for-profit social media platforms with dubious security practices to participate fully in the life of the school is bad policy).
Conversations are happening on Slack / Teams / etc. for group projects, design teams, and clubs. Schools and faculties can attempt to consolidate this on official app platforms — this is something I’m supporting right now in my work — but unless you get overwhelming buy-in, it’s yet another channel as opposed to a narrowing of channels.
As a man in his 40s, email is still my default. It’s still a perfectly valid tool. I’m less certain, though, that it’s an answer to the post-2000 cohort.
It’s hard to research this — it’s hard to research anything in the marketing space, because the research is generally done by marketers to support something they are marketing, so the answer can be “email works wonders,” but you dig deeper and find that it’s research from an email solutions provider — or the research can prove that you absolutely, positively need a bespoke app — and underneath that is a bespoke app company. This is why academia is important. Making a note to dig more into peer-reviewed studies of communication channels and generational cohorts…
The net result, though, is that it’s a mishmash. No one channel is appropriate: handling internal communications right is a multi-channel solution, and is as robust and expansive as an external marketing and communications program. The challenge is just as large, but the challenge is calling from inside the house.
And on that note…
Fourth: nobody’s staffed for it.
Marketing teams run small and lean, and are almost always mandated to be externally focused. Marshalling even two or three of these stacks into a coherent plan and format(s) would be daunting for a full-time staff member. Side-desking it when you’re already managing external marketing and communications, or — even worse — dumping it on a beleaguered admin assistant to side-desk without meaningful support? Cold sweat.
This speaks to the competitive issues above: even with the absolute best intentions of good citizenry, it’s literally impossible for somebody communicating with students as a side-desk task, without training or a meaningful loops into institutional teams, to know that their appeal to students to submit their timesheets on Thursday instead of Friday this week is colliding with a dozen other emails that are flying into their inboxes at that same moment.
I have been and am part of partial solutions in the past — piloting a newsletter project in the law faculty when I was there, and working on a second phase of app implementation at the engineering school that will help. But in both of these cases, the projects were a product of a senior admin out of the marketing sphere seeing something they thought would help and pulling the trigger on implementing, then looping marketing/communications in to make it work. This isn’t a dig on either scenario: in both situations, it helped immensely, or is on track to help immensely.
But in neither circumstance was it a holistic, integrated plan to address internal communications robustly — these were and are pressure valves to leverage a technology (email management tools in the first case, bespoke community app development in the other) to tackle the sliver of a massive internal comms challenge that happened to be in the administrators’ views at the time.
The net result is that marketing and communications teams are cut into some of these communications, and not others, in haphazard ways. One program might ask for help communicating a special event to the entire faculty, while other programs self-actualize on that. A faculty member doing a great job at remote learning might ask if we can share those successes in a news story / social media, while others toil in silence. Units within the central university can fire off five or six unrelated requests per week to share valuable information directly with students — mental wellness, security (physical and/or digital), prominent academic visitors, special food events from the third-party food service providers, reminders to return library books…). One professor welcoming a distinguished visitor wants to throw their classroom doors open to the whole school for this visit. The beat goes on, and on.
The above illustrates the apparent problem, which is, well, chaos. A tremendous amount of unprioritized comms needs that, when they flow in our direction, have to be subjected to instantaneous gut-checks from the marcomms team according to
passthrough (can you just forward a message without editing, or does it need repackaging?)
potential consolidation (can this be combined with other things to reduce load?)
sometimes just saying “no” to things
If you get any of the above wrong, you’re in trouble. But if you get it right… the old axiom “the reward for good work is more work” comes into play, as more people wake up to the fact that you’re offering a resource to help them get their lost-in-the-shuffle messages in front of students, which creates further demand — and more shuffle for things to get lost in.
But there’s another problem.
A more insidious problem: that in the absence of meaningful internal channels, we conflate our external channels for inward-facing messaging. While at first blush it doesn’t seem like a big deal, it actually kind of is — and I suspect might be a hidden Achilles heel in a lot of higher ed marketing. Next week!