Categories
Marketing & Communications

The Crushing Wave of Internal Communications

I’m going to be writing about internal comms in higher ed in three parts over the coming weeks. Sophisticated, right? This week/next week are going to be problem / more problem, because I am dark. The third week is less “solution” than various flailing attempts at ideas, but ultimately making a case for why we should care at all, and not just throw our hands up.

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
  • student government
  • internet security
  • physical and mental wellness
  • student clubs and student events
  • student communications vehicles — student papers/reporting
  • career resources and development
  • study groups and team assignments
  • and probably more stuff

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, with KPIs being monitored by other highly intelligent, highly accomplished people. While we are all friends in higher ed, the net here is a huge variety of silos, and 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)
  • Learning platforms/software
  • Web sites, posts / blogs
  • Event calendars, online and off
  • Social media
  • In-building screens
  • Posters
  • Handouts and flyers
  • Signage
  • 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

  • relevance
  • urgency
  • overall importance
  • channels
  • 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!

Categories
Higher Ed Marketing & Communications Sponsorship Theory

Sponsorship: positive presence v. FOMO

Sponsorship has been on my mind lately.

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.

There is no editorial reason to put this here, I just think it’s fun.

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.

Categories
Higher Ed Marketing & Communications Theory

Marketing Layer Cake

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?

That’s something we’ll be unpacking fairly soon.

January 10, 2021

Soundtrack: Kruder & Dorfmister, “1995”; The Kleptones, “OV,” “LO” and “ER”

Addendum:

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:

Another “marketing cake” analogy:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20140820035553-2108776-the-layer-cake-of-awesome

Cake as content development:

https://www.superdeluxemarketing.com/blog/building-a-content-strategy-three-layer-cake-style

Cake as marketing data analysis processes:

https://www.demandgenreport.com/features/demanding-views/bad-data-driven-marketing-fix-your-layer-cake

Cake and influencer marketing:

https://studio.whalar.com/why-influencer-marketing-should-be-a-piece-of-cake/

Categories
Higher Ed Marketing & Communications Theory

Deep Research: Desire, Recognition and Quality

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)
  • Alumni relations
  • Reputational and rankings improvements
  • Internal communications

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:

Admittedly a bit silly.

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)?

Valuable stuff!

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.

DesirabilityRecognitionQuality
HighLowInferiorDo we invest in improvement in this area, and further in becoming known for that investment and improvement?
HighLowParIs this being marketed by other institutions — if not, do we want to try to seize that notional space and occupy the gap?
HighLowSuperiorHow do we improve our recognition in this key, high-quality area?
LowLowInferiorAre we investing resources here — and if so, why?
LowLowParIf we are investing resources here, do we fish or cut bait? What rationale is there for improvement?
LowLowSuperiorWhat value are we missing here? Should we be trying to drive more interest and recognition in this area?
LowHighInferiorHow do we shift recognition in this area to a more important area that needs support?
LowHighParWould improving quality in this recognized area put us in a position to create demand?
LowHighSuperiorDo we want to investigate opportunities to create desire in an area we excel at, and are known for?
HighHighInferiorHow do we improve the quality of this area, and avoid a worst-case scenario of disappointed and upset users?
HighHighParDo we need to invest in improving this area, or is our current level of quality competitive for the market?
HighHighSuperiorDo 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…

January 3, 2021

Soundtrack: MF DOOM & Czarface, “Czarface Meets Metal Face”; Laurel Aitken, “Skinhead Train: The Complete Singles Collection 1969-70”; The Avalanches, “We Will Always Love You”.

Categories
Higher Ed Marketing & Communications Sponsorship Theory

Sponsorship should not be a function of marketing

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.

Graph describing relative value of paid print, paid social media, editorial and sponsorship content. Sponsorship does not fare well in most categories.

We’ve got:

  • Paid placement (print and social)
  • Editorial and organic content (web, print, social)
  • Sponsorships

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:

  1. 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?
  2. Storytelling — what value can we generate by talking about this ourselves?
    • Does that story mesh with a strategic, overaching goal of ours?
  3. 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.

Categories
Higher Ed Marketing & Communications Theory Workplace

You can’t flip every turtle when the turtle farm’s on fire

Helpful’s in my genes.

I can’t, er, help it — it’s a combination of positive attributes, like being somebody who cares about people and wants them to be happy, and negative attributes, like being an inveterate people-pleaser. It’s also in the professional DNA; marketing is a combination of being creative and being productive, where the desire to do and make interesting things intertwines with the desire to get stuff done and move projects forward.

It’s generally all good. Broadly speaking, wanting to get things done, and to help people, is a good way to be. Being a self-starter whose first instinct when I see a problem is to solve a problem has gotten me to pretty good places careerwise. It’s also won me a lot of friends.

So no problem, right?

Wrong.

The problem with being helpful is that it’s driven by an emotional state. Somebody’s in distress — external emotional state — or something isn’t right and it bugs me — internal emotional state.

Emotional states don’t necessarily lend themselves to super great decision making. I can get pulled down into a micro-focused area of detail while neglecting a broader, bigger priority. It’s the whole urgent vs. important issue, writ small, and writ constantly.

Being a manager — and managing good people who similarly want to help — has really helped me come to grips with this, and develop better strategies to make sure I’ve got my eyes on the big issues while still moving things forward on the micro level.

The analogy I’ve been using lately, which I’ve gotten quite fond of, is flipping turtles.

I watched Blade Runner a few times in university, I guess. For those who haven’t seen it, this is essentially the Blade Runner Turing test for replicants — androids passing as people.

“The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can’t. Not without your help. But you’re not helping.” Why aren’t you helping? Are you a human, or a replicant?

The whole tortoise analogy sticks with me: it’s a great illustration for helping, especially the kind of minor-effort, costs-nothing help that people in creative roles can exercise a dozen times a day. It’s just another 15 minutes to make the web page look a bit better; it’s just five minutes to proofread something for somebody; it’ll only take an hour or so to fix this, or do that. Going the extra mile, bailing somebody out of a jam, taking care of something nobody’s even noticed is wrong (yet). Walking down the road, flipping turtles over. It feels great! Happy turtles all over the place.

And while I switch it to turtles (I like turtles! Plus, flipping a tortoise seems like it’d be a recipe for back strain.), it also conveys that pervasive guilt I feel for not helping. Every email unanswered in my inbox is a pang. Letting copy go out the door without making sure it’s absolutely deathless prose feels like shirking. Saying “no” to people is unsettling. I feel like I’m letting turtles bake in the hot sun. What’s wrong with me? Am I a replicant? Why am I not helping?

Because, as I’m now very fond of saying:

You can’t flip every turtle when the turtle farm’s on fire.

Me, July 2020 and constantly thereafter

And in roles like mine, the turtle farm is quite frequently on fire. COVID hasn’t made things easier, of course. Even outside of a COVID context, however, higher ed marketing and communications is in a continual state of expansion: the expectation is best-in-class websites running seamlessly on constantly varying and upgrading platforms; seamless adoption on new and evolving social media platforms with ever-changing algorithms; mastery of storytelling among wildly diverse audiences ranging from high-school students (and parents) to 75-year-old alumni to Nobel-prize-winning academics to industry leaders and government wonks; quality analytics and reporting on all channels to show value; broad strategic branding and positioning work; institutions are reckoning with their colonial pasts, and under constant scrutiny for past and current misdeeds on the diversity and inclusion front… and the beat goes on.

Which is the job. It’s a thrilling, evolving, breakneck process of continual evolution and refinement and I’m there for it.

But it does mean that various parts of the turtle farm are continuously and spontaneously bursting into flame. Plunging in and reprogramming how a page template renders images on a phone screen represents an hour you’re not spending on a plan to change CMSes and move your antiquated site to a whole new web platform. Re-reviewing a set of social posts for an upcoming speaker event is time you’re not spending on the annual budget. Helping proofread the annual report is time you’re not spending reviewing recruitment trends and making sure your tools and messages are on point for the latest iteration of messaging.

There are a lot of turtles to flip, and not flipping them can make you feel like a negligent monster.

But the turtle farm’s on fire. If the ten turtles flip today keep you from saving a hundred tomorrow, you’ve made a bad choice.

This isn’t a solve-the-problem post. It’s an articulate-the-problem post. Managing the work — figuring out what constitutes a turtle to flip, and what constitutes a turtle-farm-fire (and sometimes a flipped turtle is an indicator of a fire — maybe they’re flipping over in their hurry to flee the flaming turtle farm, and maybe I am investing too much thought in working this metaphor to death) is going to be something I unpack and look at a lot.

For now, though, the analogy stands. I like it. You have to stop flipping turtles when the turtle farm is on fire.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some turtles to save.

Addendum: I solicited some friends for a name for a fictitious turtle sanctuary, thinking it’d play into the above somehow, but the name just didn’t seem to play out well in the context of the piece, and I wound up liking a farm more than a sanctuary because it sounds snappier (no pun intended) in a pithy phrase. Sorry, friends! Special shout out to Nathalie Noël for “Shellter,” the best turtle sanctuary name of them all.

And here is a list of more turtle sanctuary names, if anyone wants to start a turtle sanctuary. My gift to you.

  • Turtville
  • Slowpokes Ranch
  • The Turt Yurt
  • As The World Turts
  • Turt Around, Bright Eyes
  • She Shells Sanctuary
  • Sancturtary
  • Snap Judgments
  • Sanctum Sancturtum
  • Reptile Resort
  • Turtal Recall
Categories
Higher Ed Marketing & Communications Theory

Confidence, Internal Comms and the Fall 2020 Semester

I think internal communications is about to have A Moment in higher ed.

Actually, I think it’s about to be the hero — or villain — of the entire 2020-21 school year.

I did a dumb drawing to illustrate why, up top.

We’re about to embark on the Most Online Semester of All Time. COVID’s made things weird; more than weird, it’s made them scary.

Scary for us in the institution — we have a duty to deliver the best education we can. That’s been called into question by this drive to (mostly) entirely online classes for at least the fall semester of the 20-21 school year; even the best of us (and the place I work is very, very good — best in Canada, if not North America) are anxious.

Students, though.

Fresh or recently outta high school, worried about the future, jobs, their actual grades, the fact that we’re melting the planet. We’re in a pandemic that if it had slightly more visually appalling symptoms would be a global horror movie. They’ve made the largest investment of their lives so far — some of them ever, if they don’t buy a house — in this whole higher education thing.

And we’re throwing a whole new playbook at them. Kids entering university for the first time, with preconceptions built on a lifetime of TV and movies and books about it, are off the map. We’re all off the map.

I actually feel pretty good about the coming semester. Where I’m at, anyway, the administration and the faculty have an appetite to improvise and excel. We’ve got a great senior admin team, dedicated faculty, and a top-notch digital teaching and learning team thanks to earlier online course development.

But how do you convey that?

Hence the sketch above. We need to instill confidence in the incoming students. So I’ve been thinking about confidence, and how it flows.

It doesn’t flow equally in all directions.

The ability to instill confidence isn’t equal. I think you can have a strong flow from the institution to faculty to students. Faculty, similarly, have the power to instill confidence in students.

But the transfer weakens on the inverse. Students can to an extent help faculty feel more confident — being attentive, participating, clearly demonstrating they’re learning. That’s got some value in confidence-building for faculty. The flow is weaker in the student -> faculty direction, though. It’s relatively easy for a confident teacher to build class confidence.  It’s harder for students to rebuild a faculty member’s confidence.

Similarly, faculty can increase institutional confidence by radiating preparedness. But it’s more of a positive feedback loop than a process of confidence that starts with the faculty and makes the whole institution confident.

So internal comms is about to have A Moment. It’s a vehicle for both building and conveying confidence, from the institutional level to both the faculty and students.

You can have the best plan in the world for the fall, but if you’re not sharing it clearly, you’re not building confidence. You can have the world’s greatest digital lesson plan and all the tools in the world, but if you’re not showing students that’s on the way, you’re not building confidence.

And confidence starts at the institutional level. Students and faculty both need to know the institution has their backs.

There are very valid conventional-marketing approaches to this — make a public-facing campaign, target it at your students (geography, age, interests) and benefit from the reputational splash-out into adjacent audiences. And that’s a great idea. Do something excellent and big.

Big is general, though, and you need to back up the big and general with the specific. I can tell you it’s going to be great, and that’s a good thing to do, but without the undernarrative of what _exactly_ is making it great, that supernarrative risks collapse.

Which takes us back to internal comms, and faculty or department-level messaging.

Internal comms is about to have A Moment.

It has to.

Because if we’re not on point with our newsletter game and our student-facing web game and our app game and our outreach game, we’re not going to have students hitting the ground confident and eager for the Most Online Semester Ever.

Having to unpack and unravel anxiety after the start of term is doubling the load. Then we’re downloading a stack of not only teaching duties and student-management duties to our faculty and staff… we’re compressing a pile of anxiety into the mix as well.

I’m actually confident right now, because I’ve got the inside-baseball view of the preparation, innovation and energy that’s gone into this semester. Now it’s incumbent on me, in my job, to make sure I’m helping the institution tell stories that radiate that confidence to our faculty and students.

It’s going to be a good semester, despite (and in some ways because of) this pandemic. I’ve got the keys to make it even better. Internal communications, the tousle-headed little brother of marketing, is about to have its day in the sun. It’s not the area of marketing and communications that usually gets the glory.

But this is its time to shine.

Categories
Higher Ed Marketing & Communications

Best. Jobs. Ever.

What does it mean when every job you’ve ever had is the best job you’ve ever had?

Because that’s the deal. I think I’m just an incredibly fortunate dude.

In high school I had the usual slate of jobs — gas station, washing dishes at a restaurant, busboy, hardware clerk at Canadian Tire (if a teenager working at the Tire ever tells you he knows what he’s talking about, believe me he does not).

The first ‘real’ job, though — like actual responsibility, opening and closing, managing a float, dealing with customers solo — was at a used book / comic book / trading card shop called Twice Told Tales. The owner, Ron, was a great guy and pretty much the ideal boss for a 15- or 16-year-old. He was probably in his early thirties then, but was an adult to me, in that way everyone over 25 is “generic adult”. He had another store in Markham he spent a lot of time at, so I kind of semi-managed it after a year — buying books, taking stock, putting in orders, running inventory, managing the cash and the float. I loved books and comic books and in my last year there, Magic the Gathering cards. I discovered Richard Brautigan and alternative ‘comix’ there.

It was the best job I ever had.

Graduating from Ryerson and the Radio & Television Arts program, I somehow lucked into being the editor in chief of the school paper, the Eyeopener — one of only a handful of non-journalism grads to do it. I drank a lot of coffee and smoked cigarettes and had yelling fights with the news editors and the photo editors sometimes. We ran me for office in the provincial election in the Fort York riding as a publicity stunt (positioning ourselves as the Spider-Sense Revolution, in opposition to Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution, with a general mandate to do all-candidates meetings and talk about how education matters) and I got 140 votes, which wasn’t great but still beat the Natural Law party and the Marxist-Leninists. Production nights — this was in the era of pasteup, where we would lay out the paper on Macs but still had to print everything and paste it up on waxed board, making edits with blue pencils and cutting out and replacing individual words and letters with Xacto knives — would go on till about two in the morning, and a few of us would crash on the office couches to get up and deliver the paper at 5 a.m. the same day. We ate bad Chinese food and terrible pizza. When the stars aligned, we’d get ads from both the local Caribbean restaurant Mr. Jerk and for a sperm donor clinic which we would dutifully place next to each other on the back page of the paper. Mike, one of our news editors, once stole three bags of shredded papers from the Principal’s trash after a closed-door budget meeting and spent a whole night trying to tape them back together. Somebody sent us a Sega Saturn for the entertainment section and we stayed up all night playing Virtua Fighter. We launched a whole new section of the paper, championed and edited by Brian Daly, called Roots & Culture because even in 1995 it was sadly obvious that everything was too white and marginalized people needed voices. I worked with brilliant people who later became luminaries in journalism and graphic design — Ed Keenan, Doug Cudmore, Stefan Woronko.

It was the best job I ever had.

As my time at the Eyeopener was drawing to a close, I got a call from my friend Mark who told me that the radio station at the 2000-student English-language university he went to in Quebec — Bishop’s — had just gotten its FM license. But the CFRC said they had to have a full-time station manager and their total budget was around $14,000 a year so they needed somebody who would work for about the equivalent of $5 an hour to run a radio station. I leapt at the chance and they hired me. I was the only full-time employee of a station that at its peak was broadcasting in four languages, with over two hundred volunteers manning shows from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week. The volunteers were all dedicated and a bit crazy; some of them formed a record label later, which among other things was the first to sign Canadian indie rock darlings The Dears. We hosted cheap concerts for bands who just wanted a place to crash and a share of the door on runs from the East Coast to Montreal. I made spaghetti and meatballs for The Planet Smashers and Itch crashed on my sofa once. The station went from 25 watts to 500, broke from the student union and became an independent non-profit, and did some ridiculously innovative things in radio programming that I’m proud of today.

It was the best job I ever had.

After some time kicking around cleaning apartments and helping run a B&B, I was hired to be the editor for a truly brilliant guy who was doing French-to-English translation but needed an editor to turn his translated English back into “English English.” It was a great idea and one I generally don’t see many translators use. I started with him part-time, then full-time, and after a few years it was a standalone office and four full-time staff. We did tons of work for ad agencies, government work, tourism, all kinds of things. We translated a liquor catalogue for the SAQ and that’s how I learned “cat piss” is a legit tasting note for wine. Also that deaths in pharmaceutical studies are “serious adverse events.” My love for language deepened and my boss, Scott, patiently and insistently drilled into me a rock-solid attention to detail that was not part of my DNA but now reverberates in my bones.

It was the best job I ever had.

One of our clients was an ad agency that was doing boutique work out of Sherbrooke, and needed a lot of help with English-language content because they’d started doing original creative for national brands — Bayer, Johnson & Johnson — that wanted standalone Quebec marketing, but that in turn needed to be translated into English for the Quebec English market. Also loads and loads of translation for pharma studies, because the Université de Sherbrooke was a hospital school and there were drug trials stacked a mile deep there. I was the “creative guy” and they eventually crunched the numbers and realized it was cheaper to hire me than to keep hiring the company, so they offered and I accepted. I was the twelfth hire at the agency. Eight years later it was 52 people, and doing national campaigns for international brands, instead of the Quebec versions; holding down marketing for major pharmaceutical companies and making a name in the burgeoning area of animal health. The graphic designers – Dan, Charles, Charlie, Val, Élizabeth – were (and are) stone cold brilliant, and working with them was pure alchemy. Living in an environment where we transitioned from French to English and back seamlessly according to which word felt the most right at the moment was a joy. The account directors were driven but compassionate, and the owner had a rock-solid dedication to quality of life that was the envy of every other agency we ever met. I got to sit down with clients at the outset of mandates, pitch our work, and carry it to execution with our creative team. It was fits of boundless brilliance punctuated with camaraderie and discovery. I could spend three weeks immersed in swine vaccines, come up for air, and find myself learning every intricacy of the paperboard industry to launch a company, and then leap into developing patient adherence materials for a novel chemotherapy regimen. 

It was the best job I ever had.

For a variety of reasons, Quebec stopped feeling like home, and when I looked for work, I was lucky enough to find Queen’s Law. I wasn’t going to apply but Mike — from the Eyeopener, and the shredded papers, remember? — was working there and said I totally should. So I did. I became the first director of marketing & communications at the school’s law faculty, despite not knowing a thing about law. From there, I got to grow a team that included alumni and advancement staff to turn it from a modest law school with no digital presence to arguably the most online law school in Canada. I got to expand from marketing and communications to alumni and advancement (university fundraising, for the uninitiated) work. Rare for higher ed, I got to see the full scope of our lifecycle, from the first outreach to high school students to alumni 50+ years out. We built a wildly successful national online undergraduate program in law, reinvented alumni communications, rebuilt our entire web presence, and became polyvalent storytellers on almost every channel we could get our hands on. I delved into research promotion with Canada’s finest legal scholars, and could spend a day rocketing from working on brand development for our pro bono clinics to structuring a Constitutional Law book launch, and develop a fundraising proposal for a new chair in business law over lunch. I learned that law is the secret lever that moves the world: that no matter what you do and where you go, if you live in society, law is the steady thrum that holds all of civilization together. The faculty are staggeringly brilliant, but so were the staff — and the students, who I admittedly had a lot of “law student” stereotypes about, were and are the most considerate, thoughtful, passionate and driven people I’ve ever met.

It was the best job I ever had.

Until four hours ago.

I’ve just put a pin in Queen’s Law, and starting tomorrow I’m officially the Director of Marketing and Communications at Queen’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. On paper it’s a lateral move, but as somebody who’s never made a choice based on titles or money, it’s a creative step into a thrilling unknown. It’s going to broaden my scope from law (which is itself a cosmos) to a dizzying array of sciences I can barely wrap my head around. I’m working with the people who build, and rebuild, the world. It’s the crackling excitement of students testing the frontiers of what they’re capable of, in Tony Stark labs with genius mentors urging them on. It’s reactors and robots and biomechanics and chemistry.  It’s the technology that’s going to improve our lives, and possibly save them all. It’s literally the gosh-darn future sitting there waiting for stories to be told about it.

It’s going to be the best job I ever have.

Categories
Marketing & Communications

The “Tax Ratio” fallacy

(this is an extension of the Kingston Tax Rates page)

Tax-ratio fallacies are the first and greatest refuge of the Tax Whiner.

But what’s wrong with tax-ratio arguments?

TLDR: they’re vanity metrics.

We get jiggy with the logic below.

Why tax-ratio arguments are fallacies

So you’re chatting with somebody who has a compelling statistic. The city has higher taxes per person than another place, for instance, or a higher average amount paid per income, or… well, it could be anything, really. Taxes versus square kilometre of territory. Taxes per number of dwellings. Taxes per total number of daschunds. Taxes per average height of a citizen.

Ultimately, tax ratio arguments, “our taxes are the highest or lowest per ______________”, are kind of like IQ tests. If you have a great score, you can feel really good about it, and it’s fun to brag about at parties, but for any practical purposes, it’s trivia.

Explaining why it’s trivia takes a bit of math and a bit of civics and a certain amount of “if A, then B” logical thought. Oh, and just a smidge of Greek mythology. Buckle up!

Let’s start with a question of control.

There’s one element under municipal control, as far as taxes go: what they charge. Their rate.

Where does that rate come from?

Here’s the math part; it’s a pretty simple two-part formula, but worth repeating:

Part one:

municipal servicesxcost=revenue required

Part two:

revenue required/taxable assets in your territory=tax rate

This is grossly oversimplified and doesn’t take into account a lot of things, but it’s a napkin sketch of how taxes happen.

So why is this important to know?

The key thing is to look at this using common sense.

To manage a situation and to effect change, you have to look at what is under your control.

In the municipal case, it’s “services”.

The outcome of the two-step equation is “tax rate.”

You can truncate this relationship to

servicestax rate1

What isn’t in this equation?

Everything else.

It doesn’t account for population size*, or local income, or the number of weiner dogs in the territory.

*except to determine the scope of services it needs to provide above, but you knew that.

Why can’t it?

The better question is “how could it?”

It can’t, for a number of pretty common-sense reasons, chief among them this valuable bit of context:

Large municipalities require planning.

Municipal organizations are complex networks in charge of life-sustaining services, and planning happens (or should happen) on a scale of years to decades, not days to weeks.

Major infrastructure like water, roads, and waste needs to be planned and maintained. Large numbers of service groups like police, fire, garbage, and utilities need to be hired, trained, and managed. Parks and sporting infrastructure needs to be maintained. Finances have to be meticulously kept. Public transit needs to run. Tourists need to be attracted.

These aren’t “snap decision” kinds of areas, and when cities see disaster, it’s usually because somebody with a “runs like a business”2 mentality has tried to apply what is perfectly sound thinking for running a bait shack to running a municipality. The systems aren’t compatible.

So what happens when you try to apply “taxes as a percentage of average income” or other ratio-based arguments to a discussion about municipal taxes?

You’re introducing trivia to the conversation in the form of non-actionable information.

We’ll use “average tax paid, as a percentage of income” as a f’rinstance, but this applies to any ratio model, including square km, number of people who own ducks, total count of refrigerators – any datum that can provide a number to put on the right side while taxes are on the left.

So you’re talking to somebody that says “this town’s taxes are out of control! We have one of the highest average taxes paid, compared against income! Why, 5% of a citizen’s average income goes to taxes, and the average across the province is only 4.8%!”

To be fair, that legitimately sounds outrageous if you don’t think about it very much.

But let’s invest some thinkin’ time.

First assume good faith, and that the person in question is actually trying to have a helpful conversation and not just kvetching.

The key question becomes:

What, in this scenario, is in the municipality’s power to directly change?

They can’t increase local revenue (well, not directly*). Unlike the above equation, which starts with “services,” this is the ratio argument equation:

average income/taxes paid=taxes paid per average income

In the first equation, we started with “services”, which municipalities control. “Municipal services” is the starting point in a linear path to “tax rate.”

But here, there’s no municipal-adjustable equivalent. Even with the very best wishes and a spectacular wizard hat, municipal government can’t magically increase local revenue.*

They can adjust tax rates, but as we’ve shown above, tax rates are a direct derivative of services, and as the clear-eyed have noted, “services” represent a vast range of things that are more like a cruise ship than a unicycle – they take forethought, vision, and long-range planning to manage effectively. Radical changes to services to immediately slash tax rates generally read as “panic” and don’t end well, as a rule. “Income has fallen 0.5% so let’s not have police for three months” is not a great way to run things.

In the “average income” flavour of this argument, a good question to ask is “does the municipality charge income tax?” and if the answer is “no,” the follow-up question “so what does income have to do with our tax rate, exactly?” will usually flip the light switch.

*”Municipal government can’t increase local revenue” is actually not entirely true.

Municipalities make a huge difference in local revenue by making themselves attractive to new citizens, tourism, and employers. How do they do that?

By having great communities where people and businesses want to be, which requires fun things like good water, functioning sewers, police and fire, etc. These are “services,” and they’re what drive taxes. So if you want your tax-to-revenue ratio to improve – even though it’s a vanity metric – you should actually want to pay taxes for world-class services, to attract people and businesses, and improve revenue.

But they can’t directly affect total revenue, which is kind of the whole point.

Anyway, the above applies to any argument that relies on the forumula

tax rate/[VARIABLE]=tax rate per [VARIABLE]

whether it be average income, counting women named Barbara, total km of city streets, number of babies born per year, etc.

All right, sooooo…

So when you stake your whole argument on one of these ratios, you’re not actually complaining about taxes any more. You’re complaining about [VARIABLE].

And it’s all well and good to think that there aren’t enough daschunds in the city, or homes cost too much, or homes cost too little, or people don’t make enough money, but at that point you’re essentially saying [VARIABLE] is a problem, but you still think you’re upset about taxes, because you don’t understand how taxes work.

To put it another way…

The tax ratio fan can’t argue that the taxes aren’t fair (in Kingston’s case), because they are. That’s just math n’ geography. They’re upset about [VARIABLE], but they don’t really understand that [VARIABLE] is the problem… not the taxes.

So what’s the problem with these ratio arguments? They’re silly, but harmless. It’s just trivia, right?

Meh. One problem is that they get people who don’t have a firm grasp on math or civics all ginned up about something that doesn’t ultimately mean anything, which is a huge waste of energy and helps propagate a pervasive I-read-half-an-Ayn-Rand-novel “taxation is bad” fallacy that erodes a general understanding of civics. Shutting these things down helps foster a nuanced understanding of how society functions.

More practically, the ratio arguments also passively promote a model where municipalities should, say, continually adjust rates according to chicken count or total number of Dairy Queens or average income or people’s heights; they have the gloss of facts, but when you think about the facts of civics and the math underlying taxation, it’s a bonkers worldview to put forward.

Consider the kind of government you’d need to run to index crucial long-term service decisions based on the number of people named “Dave” in your catchment, which changes weekly (Daves come and go). But then somebody complains about the daschund ratio, and then the average height, and then, and then, and then…

If you don’t pay much attention, the ratio arguments are compelling, and next thing you know you’ve got a mayor who wants to “run things like a business” and ten years later you’re wondering how everything went to hell and why you’re on a boil water advisory.

So it’s worth time and energy to shut tax ratio arguments down as meaningless. Hey, I wrote this whole thing! Clearly I think it’s worthwhile.

So ratio presentations of taxation are useless?

No! They’re fun trivia, as mentioned above. If you’ve got, say, the lowest taxes paid per total number of swans in the city’s pond, you can put that on your website and the easily gulled will think you have low tax rates, regardless of what your tax rates actually are. You may have the highest tax rates and also the highest number of swans, but a sucker is born every minute.

The results can also derive some interesting ways to look at [VARIABLE], as long as it’s clear you’re on an investigation of [VARIABLE].

If you find Greek gods named “Zeus” are taxed more than anywhere else in the country, for instance, you may want to see if the Greek goddess Hera is working in your tax office.*

*That’s the Greek mythology, folks! Don’t forget to tip your waiter.

But tax rate is still the only rational metric of whether a city’s taxation is fair?

Yes. It’s pretty straightforward. Again, it takes a bit of math, some civics, and… well, honestly, you didn’t really need the Greek mythology. But it’s fairly linear after all.

Back to the Kingston Tax Rates page!


1. A good test of “is my municipal government doing okay?” is to inverse this relationship. If the tax rate is fair, relative to comparable other places, and the services are adequate, the city’s doing a good job. If the tax rate is out of step with other municipalities, or the services are dismal, the city’s doing a bad job. In Kingston’s case, the services seem good and the tax rate is fair (see previous page), so I deem the City do be doing okay. There are always things to improve, but taking to the ramparts about taxation is a non-starter and a waste of everyone’s time.

2. One more time… If somebody’s answer to “should government be run like a business?” is anything other than “no, that is insane, a business’ ideal model is to maximize benefits for a tiny number of owners or shareholders, and a government’s ideal model is to maximize benefit for everyone, which is literally the exact opposite, so while it’s fine to say governments should pursue efficiency or not be wasteful, business is a ludicrous model, governments should be run like very good governments, and you should feel bad for even asking that question”, you can safely ignore anything they have to say about government, civics, economics and politics. Send them to this page and if they call you a “snowflake” or a “Neo-Marxist,” tell them I said they owe you a quarter.