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.
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.
As stated, I don’t think it should be a marketing exercise. There’s a significant gap between sponsorship and patronage, and over time, forcing sponsorship through a marketing lens serves both sides of the equation poorly. Marketers are forced to make decisions that shouldn’t have to reside with them. More problematic: sponsors may over time warp their mission and services to attract marketing-driven sponsors.
At its heart, sponsorship is ultimately not a great spend, from a bloodless, calculated marketing perspective. There are times that it works well:
Huge buys that integrate your organization in an indelible way, turning what you’re sponsoring into a marketing platform for your brand;
Mega-budgeted presence strategies, where you can afford ubiquity by buying placement in the plurality of places your audience might look.
It slots into the top tiers of our Marketing Layer Cake — strategy through tactics, with measurement on the back end.
Discussing this with colleagues, I find there are two views on sponsorship. One is well-trod, the other not thought about as often.
The first is the positive benefit. What does being there do for you? This is the mental calculus behind the two winning strategies above: the big splash, and constant presence.
Headlining a conference — the platinum sponsor, logo at the top of the website and letterhead, maybe even naming privileges for the entire shebang — that’s the pinnacle of positive presence. The big splash puts you in front of an audience, in a way that not only gets you eyeballs but also confers credibility as experts (professional conferences, technical symposia, etc.) or solid citizens (charitable endeavours, benefits).
Similarly, constant placement at a bronze-tier kind of level might give you a persistence that is noted — unconsciously — among your key audiences. Maybe. I’m not sure I believe it. It’s the kind of thing I could see myself making a case for, if given a considerable budget and a very specific mandate to grow a reputation with a particular audience. A consistent drumbeat of low-level awareness over time.
Less thought about, in my experience, is the FOMO cost.
Fear of missing out come up a lot when we’re talking about social media adherence, event marketing, and CPG trends — but it’s also a recurring factor in internal conversations. “What if we’re not there? What will people think?” This is the tug for cause-driven sponsorships more than professional ones — if all your competitors are in the mix supporting Cause X, what will you be signalling by not being present?
Having spent some time kicking it around, I keep landing on the “fear” part of “fear of missing out,” and — like most fears — when confronted, I find it’s not as scary as I first assumed.
The mental exercise I’ve been going through is a personal one. I’ve been trying my best to recall various charitable efforts I’ve been a part of. Conferences I’ve attended (and spoken at), conferences I’ve sponsored, and conferences I’ve helped organize.
When I run that inventory, I find I can speak to limited positive presence — usually because I’ve had an impression that affected me above and beyond the sponsorship. A mind-changing keynote can have me remembering a top-tier sponsor. But I’m remembering the keynote in this case — not the logo on the roll-up banner.
This — again — speaks to the “big splash” strategy. Pick one or two things a year and lean in. But this isn’t a financial transaction: it’s a multi-resource commitment, a productive partnership with the organization where you’re committing creativity, thought, human capacity and a lot of time into making their cause your cause and effectively co-opting what you’re sponsoring to serve both purposes equally.
I can’t say, in retrospect, I have any idea of who wasn’t present. This isn’t professional. This is also personal — I am and have been involved with charitable and non-profit organizations. I’ve been on boards of directors, I’ve put together funding drives and events, I’ve organized cross-Canadian conferences, promoted others, and attended others still.
Gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you whether or not Organization X was in the logo soup at the bottom of a roll-up banner in the lobby, or on the back cover of the official program.
I haven’t an inkling.
My absolute best would be “it seems like the sort of thing they might do,” but that speaks to their work in reputation and brand management, not whether or not they ponied up several grand to appear somewhere in the mix. Even for conferences and charitable events I’ve helped organize — I can fuzzily recall top-tier sponsors, but I’m recalling negotiations and the labour of moving logo files around and negotiating placements and various rounds of distro and proofreading.
And this is a challenge I’d extend to you as well — think back to not the last conference you attended, but maybe two or three back. What did you do in 2018? Pull up an event or a cause from 2-3 years ago.
When you think of an organization that might have sponsored that event — not one you presently recall — can you say whether or not they were a bronze-tier sponsor? That they had their logo dutifully slotted into the wash of logos on the bottom quarter of the “Partners” tab of the WordPress microsite that was spun up for the event?
Maybe you can. I move in circles where people are crazy smart and have terrifying superpowers, including incredible recall. I’d venture, however, that you can’t.
And once you remove that FOMO fear — the notion that your not being present will have a meaningful, lasting, negative impact on the brand — the sponsorship drive suddenly abates. It abates tremendously.
The other question — at that bronze-tier, logo-soup level — is what else that money could have done for you. It’s not an expense, it’s also an opportunity cost: hours of time signing up, reviewing the benefits, opting in, signing contracts, submitting invoices, transferring graphics, confirming placement, and so on. One of the reasons I chose higher ed over a fun, creative, highly challenging career in for-profit marketing is that I feel good about higher ed. Educating people and doing research is good. So I don’t have a ton of moral qualms about saying that spending money to ultimately advance educating people and doing research, rather than diverting it into other causes, is a net harm.
Sponsorship is, again, important. But if your motivation is to be seen, the winning plays are to approach it from a top-tier, partnership level — which, with higher ed budgets and staffing, means one or possibly two big pushes a year, factoring in not only financial but capacity impact to make the most of the investment.
If your motivation is the fear of not being seen, I’d encourage you to examine that. Ask yourself when in your life you’ve noticed an absence in a program schedule and it’s had a meaningful and lasting effect on your view of an organization. My gut says the chain of consequence leading from a bronze-tier absence to an actual, broad, negative income is a very long chain indeed.
Both of these things: the desire to be seen, the fear of not being seen… these are marketing concerns. They are mercantile equations. They should be, in my ideal world, secondary to the ethical considerations of sponsorship: what do we believe, who is doing good work to support what we believe, and do we have the resources to support them.
Those ethical decisions are based on belief and values, which are positive forces. Ultimately, this is one of the compelling forces that push me away from affiliating sponsorship and marketing: more often than not, the decision is based on fear, and fear is not a compelling place to make decisions from.
January 17, 2021
Lice (Aesop Rock / Homeboy Sandman), “Ask Anyone” (Single)
A throwaway comment last week has stuck with me, and I’ve been thinking about a layered approach to marketing since then. It’s not a new idea (to me, or the world), but I’ve been mulling it over. There are lots of layer analogies out there — geological strata, atmospheric bands, the ocean — but everyone loves cake.
Branding is the frosting. It’s what the world sees first, and organizationally, what most people think of when they think of marketing & communications. Look and feel, conveyed through design, photos, videos, text. It’s the delicious outer layer of the whole thing.
(It’ll also ultimately make you sick if it’s the only thing you’ve got going on. Eating icing straight from the a tub is not a great idea — yes, I know you’ve done it. We’ve all done it. Anyway, there has to be more than just throwing a brand around if you’re going to be healthy and thrive.)
A good cake, though — the cakes I love — the frosting isn’t just on the outside. It’s also between every layer of the cake. It’s not only an outer shell, it permeates the structure. You can’t cut into another layer without getting a bit of frosting in the mix. “Branding” has to be more than bit the world sees. It has to be something that informs all the layer, and drives decisions all the way up the stack.
A good cake — as I bake them — has three layers. More than three, and you’re either preparing for a wedding or you’re going to have something unwieldy on your hands. Fewer than three, and what are you even doing? That’s not a cake. Make brownies or something. C’mon.
(at this point, I got caught up with how you write a layer cake analogy. My instinct is to organize things like a process chart: upper-order functions on top, execution on the bottom. But as somebody who has baked his fair share of cakes, I don’t think that’s good cake-baking: you build from the bottom up. So for the sake of the analogy, we’re going bottom-up. This upsets my natural visualization of processes. I just want you to know what I’m sacrificing in bringing this analogy to you. I deserve cake.)
The lower layer is marble cake: research and alignment, together. Research is something I talked about recently, and goes way past “what do people want” or “what do people like about me”. It’s a really rich, introspective process that sets you up for the next stage. Following research — or, dangerously (but sometimes necessarily) concurrent with it, alignment. What does your senior leadership believe in? What are they willing to sign off on in terms of goals and objectives?
You can theoretically move forward without the research (but you’re accepting a lot of risk if you do). Conversely, proceeding without alignment among your senior leadership is also risky, but good research gives you a fundamental basis for action if your senior leadership can’t dedicate time to reviewing or approving marketing work (they may be distracted, by, say, a global pandemic that has completely forced everyone to rewrite how education is done from scratch). It’s something you can reliably point to if asked down the line.
It’s a marble layer because the two things complement each other. You shouldn’t do without either at all, but if you have no market research funding, focus on institutional alignment, and speckle in what you can (existing research in your area, best practices, etc.).
Both — again — have a thin spread of frosting across them before you move on to the second layer. Brand is part of the research; it’s also part of the internal alignment process.
If the bottom layer of your cake isn’t super solid, it risks collapse. More importantly, if you try to change the lower layer of the cake once it’s made and frosted, it’s a total disaster. You can’t just hack out the bottom layer of a cake, and swap in another layer, without some sort of baking calamity.
The next layer up is strategy. You know what the goal is, but how do you get from now to a desired future state? The first layer — itself a set of goals and objectives — gets operationalized.
You (hopefully) have researched and know your audience, their wants and needs, what your strongest offerings that meet those are, and where / how your audience looks for information. This should be enough for you to build out the actual plan; a primary set of strategies and a contingency plan. Without research, your upper two layers become research in retrofit — which comes into play in the next and final layer (with, of course, brand spread between, gluing the layers together and seeping into both).
The top layer is actually another marble layer — it’s execution and analysis. Like the bottom layer, you can get by without one of the two (analysis), but it’s… not a good idea. Given the option between the two, though, execution always wins. And if you didn’t conduct research down at the bottom layer, analysis becomes much more crucial on the top layer.
Why not two layers? First, because cakes that are more than three layers tall start to get a bit goofy. Second, because we’re well past the age where execution and analysis are really discrete steps. We live in the age of the rolling campaign, where we learn as we go and adjust on the fly. I’m not going to wait until a long period of paid social tanks weeks after week after week on a given platform to pull budget and reinvest in what works — if there’s a dogged strategic reason to pursue an experiment to its bitter and expensive end, of course, that’s one thing, but I don’t have the budget (or time) to entertain that kind of thing very often.
And this is why I like the cake analogy, rather than a three-course meal with the brand as, i dunno, the plate or something. It’s all happening inside the same cake. This is important, because a deficiency in one layer can be compensated for on the other layers. If you have rock-solid research in the lower layer, and strong institutional alignment, this buttresses any deficiencies in your other two layers. Excellent research, and a deeply informed set of goals built by experienced and knowledgeable people, will push you through strategic deficiencies. You can’t build strategy or execution with nothing underneath them, but excellence at either the strategic or tactical level can backfill some issues with the opposing layer. If market research at the outset turns out to be flawed, or institutional alignment was weak, then analysis at the top of the chain can turn a project into its own exercise in both. It’s a lot more agony, because you’re learning as you go. It’s more expensive, and more work, and ultimately not really the best approach, but it’s doable.
Cake! It’s delicious, and if done well, deeply satisfying. As somebody’s who is trying to slash baked desserts for a while (happy 2021, everybody!), I feel a bit weird writing about something this fundamentally bad for you, but not every analogy is perfect.
We bake a lot of cakes in this work. There are internal communication cakes, student recruitment cakes, research promotion cakes, sponsorship cakes — the list goes on. The bakery can be overwhelming, and sometimes we have to let some cakes fail to let the larger cakes succeed. To further torture the metaphor, we’re ideally applying the same icing to all of them… or are we? Is a consistent brand something that is absolutely mandatory, or — heresy!! — are we living in a world where brands themselves need to change to contextualize to different audiences and purposes?
I’m far from the first person to think of layer cake as an analogy for marketing. There’s a marketing company in California NAMED “Layer Cake.” It’s been used to describe other marketing processes, content strategy, and data-based marketing. It’s a good metaphor!
Other layer cake/marketing analogies I found, and found interesting:
I’ve been expressing a desire/need for more market research at work recently.
As always, I’ve sketched it out as a graphing project; what seemed easy/evident at first flush actually got tricky. It seems obvious when you look at it now, but sussing out the axes was a bit of a journey.
I work at an engineering school; one of the best in Canada; in some areas the very best in Canada and arguably the world. The key areas of focus in my role are:
Student recruitment (undergraduate and graduate)
Research promotion (which also drives faculty recruitment, and grad student recruitment)
Reputational and rankings improvements
For the purposes of graphing why market research is desirable, we’re making a huge, and possibly dangerous, assertion: that we know who our “key people” are. There are four to seven “key people” sets in the above list, depending on how you look at it (arguably even more).
Let’s set up a graph. Hypothetically, we’re a small gum company; fun flavours and stylish packaging, great taste, not in every grocery store but well known thanks to some celebrities chewing our gum in public. Our key person in this case is an adult professional, not a 10-year-old child, which explains how some of these things plot:
This exercise will land you in four quadrants, each with their own vital question:
Highly desired, not recognized for — this is a marketing problem. Your key people want it, you’re not telling them you have it.
Not desired, not recognized for — this is a resource allocation problem. If people don’t want it, and they don’t care that we do it, why do it at all?
Highly desired, highly recognized — have we succeeded to the point that sustained marketing is needed? What’s the competitive profile — can we afford to slack on this and focus on other areas, or do we need to maintain superiority?
Not desired, but recognized for — do we want to stop working on talking about this (easy), or try to create desire for it among our key people (hard)?
But it’s exponentially more valuable if paired with externally sourced and neutral evaluations of the same criteria. So once you’ve plotted your graph with market research, you also need (ideally concurrently) a Z-axis:
Of all the things you are evaluating, where are you offering something superior (or unique)? Where are you just on par, and where are you lagging?
We can then re-graph, using circle colour to denote one of three quality options…
This is where we move up from lower-tier marketing/communications (are we telling people what we want them to know?) and into the higher end of marketing: gauging true strengths and weaknesses, and making institutional, and frankly existential decisions about who we are and what we do.
This exercises moves us from four quadrants to twelve (superior, par, inferior), and three possible actions per quadrant. And some really rich, really challenging, questions.
IT’S TIME FOR A TABLE! Apologies for those of you on mobile.
Do we invest in improvement in this area, and further in becoming known for that investment and improvement?
Is this being marketed by other institutions — if not, do we want to try to seize that notional space and occupy the gap?
How do we improve our recognition in this key, high-quality area?
Are we investing resources here — and if so, why?
If we are investing resources here, do we fish or cut bait? What rationale is there for improvement?
What value are we missing here? Should we be trying to drive more interest and recognition in this area?
How do we shift recognition in this area to a more important area that needs support?
Would improving quality in this recognized area put us in a position to create demand?
Do we want to investigate opportunities to create desire in an area we excel at, and are known for?
How do we improve the quality of this area, and avoid a worst-case scenario of disappointed and upset users?
Do we need to invest in improving this area, or is our current level of quality competitive for the market?
Do we want to invest in this as a marketing exercise, or is it tapped out as a reputation driver? Does the competitive space allow us to slacken and reallocate resources?
And now we’re into deep marketing work — digging into mission and values, looking hard at the actual markets you serve, and asking what, institutionally, you need to do to serve your interests but also best serve that market.
It’s worth reiterating that the wheels fall of this bus entirely if you don’t have a good and accurate idea of who “key people” are — once again, this takes you all the way back to mission and values, and your ultimate purpose in the market. Something as simple on its face as “student recruitment” begins to fragment quickly: do you only care about students with great GPAs? Students who demonstrate innovation and creativity? Students who might be a strong cultural fit in an institution with a strong cultural presences? Are EDII initiatives encouraging you to broaden your idea of an “ideal” student and market to different populations in new ways? And this for academics and researchers, for grad students, for alumni, for the general public… “key people” is a simplification, and itself a trap, if not approached prudently.
Both axes are also unpackable as their own research exercise. The “recognition” axis in particular demands its own approach: one that asks where your key people look for information, how they want that information presented to them, and whether you’re doing a good job at both of those things (and avoiding the places and formats they don’t care about). More graphs for another day…
When I started my Best Job Ever in July, I took over a marcomms shop run by somebody who had done it for 11+ years, and the circumstances of their leaving were less than ideal. There wasn’t a lot of leftover explanation of processes and systems; given that vacuum, there was also some reshuffling to move things into the marketing and communications shop that didn’t reside there before I started.
One of those things has been sponsorship. It’s going to be part of my budget; I’ve got a medium priority (i.e., back half of 2021) to come up with a comprehensive strategy around sponsorships.
There’s a natural fit there: one of the outputs of sponsorship is recognition. So why not put the people most in charge of our public-facing presence in charge of sponsorship?
My office is best positioned to analyze the optics and media value of a sponsorship. I know how much an ad costs in a national newspaper; I know how much it costs to produce a video; I know the rates for advertorial space in specialty magazines. Sponsorship, with “your logo goes here” and “we’ll mention you in our press releases thusly,” fits right into that matrix.
The difference between the former things and the latter things, though, is that media impact is the sole point of conventional paid media placement.
Even that’s not precisely true. There’s an optics and support component as well, in terms of what you chose to affiliate with in a media buy. I wouldn’t counsel us buying ads on a white-nationalist website, for instance; in fact, we have specific exclusion protocols set up ourselves and with media companies for this reason, so that when Google (for instance) is automatically placing ads, they don’t wind up anywhere nefarious. Social media channels are also on their way to their own kinds of polarization, where presence in one channel sends a message about the nature of your organization as well as the content in the message itself (Marshall McLuhan, I can’t quit you). A video on TikTok sends an inherently different message about who you’re speaking to and why than the same video on Twitter (and I’d argue that they shouldn’t be the same video anyway).
Fuzzily diagrammed — I’m still working through this, mentally, so don’t pay too much attention to it. Back of the napkin chicken scratch as I work through this.
Paid placement (print and social)
Editorial and organic content (web, print, social)
And the outputs:
Optics: do we look good through our presence here? This is very high for sponsorships (the appearance is generosity), lower for editorial (we’re obviously self-motivated to be telling these stories), quite low for paid (it’s transparent that we’re spending money to say this thing).
Story: how much fidelity is there to an overall narrative? Do we control it? Pretty much a three-way tie at the top here, but sponsorship fares worse: we’re telling our story through the sponsor’s lens, and that carries more inherent risk.
Value: if you came in and plunked a stack of cash on my desk, how would I spend it? This is something we could spend a lot of time on, but my approach to structuring and building a shop that creates and sustains narrative is (obviously) that capacity to create and disseminate editorial/organic content is far and away the best bang for your buck. Then social’s better than print for specific targeting reasons, then print, and sponsorship justifiably at the bottom — you’re not paying for marketing, you’re paying for the organization to do what they do. A key part of this in the sponsor relationship is that getting value out of the sponsorship often requires the same capacity load as just running editorial and organic content.
Placement: how precisely do you control where your message ultimately appears? Print offers total control, social offers targeting but more fuzziness in exchange for spread, editorial/organic is at the mercy of those who share it, and sponsorship is largely ultimately out of your hands.
Message: Do you control the precise message you’re sending? Again, a three-way tie for paid / editorial / organic, and sponsorship fares worse.
Persistence: what endures over time? Only editorial, through SEO and ongoing web presence, really endures. Print advertising, paid social, sponsorships — all pretty ephemeral, social the fastest to vanish.
Caveat: I literally came up with this in 15 minutes on a Sunday morning, so don’t lose too much sleep over it. I can poke a bunch of holes in this myself on quick review, but I think it holds together in broad strokes.
So what’s the point?
“I believe in what you’re doing and want to give you money to support it” is the heart of a sponsor relationship. The more you drive sponsorship decisions into the marketing sphere, the more transactional the relationship will become, and — I’d argue — the higher the risk that the organization you’re sponsoring will become worse at what they do because their efforts turn more and more toward generating ROI opportunities for sponsors than pursuing their core mandate.
There’s no shortage of voices trying to encourage — or force — the relationship. Articles like this one present sponsorship as a marketing activity.
When you put that decision in my hands, however, you’re asking me for a professional evaluation based broadly on three things:
Optics — how does it look for us to be supporting this?
FOMO — who else is in? How does it look for us not to be present?
Storytelling — what value can we generate by talking about this ourselves?
Does that story mesh with a strategic, overaching goal of ours?
Value adds — what will the organization do to promote our brand and story?
Will this be a resource the organization can generate, or will it take capacity and collateral on my end for them to fulfil that part of their mandate?
This is all well and good — it’s a reasonable matrix for evaluation of a spend — but you’ll notice that nowhere in there do we see “are they doing work that is good and of value, and that we want to support”. It’s kinda in the “optics” category, but optics is just as much about the organization’s media presence and recognizability, how readily understandable their work is, and so on.
It’s sponsorship as fast carbs: an approach that prioritizes looking at short-term or immediate gain and not at ideals or long-term prospects.
As much as it removes things from my control, I am, on balance, a bigger fan of the other approach: the Dean or other senior admin make values-based judgments on what we want to sponsor and support, and there’s a hand-off that says “make the most of this from an optics and marketing perspective.”
I’m pro-sponsorship. Avidly so. I just think it’s best supported for reasons that start with mission and values, and not originating through the marketing lens.
This tail-wags-dog approach doesn’t align well with my ideals and ideas around what sponsorship could and should be. It can work, and I’ll make it work, because that’s what I do, but the aforementioned report on sponsorship planning will be a solid matrix of what we get from sponsorships, in terms of optics, marketing, communications and partnerships… and a full-throated defense of doing things that other way, where the institution supports and aligns with organizations that meet its mission and goals first, and marketing becomes a byproduct of sponsorship, instead of the primary driver.
In the interim, if you’re doing great things in the engineering space and want sponsorship, hit me up! I can’t promise much — the budget is small! — but the more data points I can get into the “mercantile” matrix, the better it’ll be when I make the case for sponsorship to be a function of ideology, not direct benefit.