Here’s a terrible truth: outside of the 40-ish hours I work every week, and the morning I spend writing/drawing this thing… I don’t think much about marketing.
Yet another terrible truth: I find “24/7/365” marketing culture kind of unnerving.
I’m legitimately a bit jealous of anyone who has found their jam to the point that it’s all they want to do or think about. Since about the age of 12 and my first paper route, I’ve never gone more than a week without some sort of job… and I’ve never found a “love what you do” profession to the point that I’m ardently chasing or thinking about work in my free time.
Other people have written more, and better, about the constructed realities of online life and social media, exacerbated by a pandemic pushing us all a little more toward digital over the last 12(!) months.
I’ve certainly noticed that my feelings of constant guilt over not being marketing-minded every minute of every day have been exacerbated by Facebook and LinkedIn. The steady drip of Type-A high-performers continually broadcasting triumphs, sharing articles, pushing white papers. It feels like if you’re not on the treadmill, you’re getting left behind.
I definitely feel like I’m being left behind.
I scroll through social media with a lurching dread rising in my gorge that everyone else is working harder, being more brilliant, doing more.
But… countervailing that fear, and outweighing it… I also don’t feel like making my life about just one thing.
It’s a consequence of having a magpie mind, and more interests and ideas than I can pursue in three lifetimes. I’ve made some furniture and designed some t-shirts; I’m pursuing a Masters in Law. I cook a lot, practice the banjo, obsessively tag a ridiculous music collection, canoe, build hobby websites. I’ve done radio shows and podcasts. I’ve written bad drafts of books I never finished. I own and operate the world’s smallest art gallery.
Point being: when I’m off the clock, I’m off the clock. I don’t read about marketing. I don’t watch documentaries about marketing. I don’t listen to podcasts about marketing.
I avoid the marketers writing for marketers who read about marketing and then talk about marketing with other marketers.
It’s a Moebius strip: it connects to itself. It’s a closed ecosystem.
And I suspect people like me are the ones injecting new ideas into that space when they return to it.
In other words: I think studiously avoiding thinking about marketing when I’m not being paid to think about marketing… makes me much better at marketing.
What am I doing today, after this? I’m not sure: possibly re-reading Dan Slott and the Allreds’ exemplary 2014-16 run on Silver Surfer. Maybe trying to do some make-up cooking after a disastrous curried-tofu-couscous experiment from the other night. Possibly shopping for a frame for some amazing artwork from a friend. Probably working on a paper for a copyright law course I’m taking this semester. Tonight, Sunday night movie with my wife — her turn to pick, I have no idea what’s going to happen there.
But… not marketing.
And what am I going to bring back with me on Monday? I don’t know. But I’m getting new inputs. From time with my family and friends. From nature. From all sorts of media — music, books, comics, video games. I think the lateral connections bring something that the direct connections don’t. And — ergo — not doing marketing is good for marketing.
So — a bit of self-reflection and self-therapizing here, but also a permission slip for anyone else who feels a sense of lurching dread when they look at all the 24/7 marketing minds whirring away out there, and wonder why they’re not wired that way, or feel like they’re being outpaced.
It’s okay. It’s better than okay, it’s good. We need people to forage out into the wide world and bring the new things back.
As much as some goofball on the Internet with a blog can sanction you to think about and do other things, I sanction you. I’m waving my hand in a weird way and saying something vaguely Latin. You have my blessing and best wishes.
Go forth and do not think about this stuff for a while.
Risk management is a tricky business. Heck, risk is a tricky business — I bought and read a book on the subject a few years ago (The Science of Fear, but titled Risk when I bought it).
It was an eye-opener — a lot of things I’d intuited but never really understood laid out plain, with the general takeaway that as story-driven people, we perceive risk on a very different level than risk exists at.
It’s important, initially, to understand that there’s a massive tension at the heart of marketing for any great institution.
Marketing is by its nature disruptive. It’s meant to get and hold attention, and doing things in exactly the expected way, as safely as possible, is not a good way of doing that. You capture attention through innovative and different ways of doing things.
Innovation, and difference — are risky.
This makes marketing and communications in higher ed a perpetual engine of contradiction: you succeed by being innovative and disruptive, but are beholden to steward a brand and story that can be hundreds of years old, with stakeholders spanning older alumni, major donors, government, the worlds of science and the arts, the local community, prospective students, current students… and more besides.
In higher ed, I’ve been coming to realize that part of the risk aversion is due to the breadth of the stakeholder base, and also that marketing and communications means a lot in this context.
It’s a very broad idea that gathers a lot of types of thinking, and they sometimes get bundled as a single understanding of risk — and consequent processes — than separated out into constituent parts with their own risk profile.
I’m thinking about that, and thinking about ladders.
Ladders are risky; the higher you climb, the worse you can fall.
But the higher you climb, the more you’re laddering. You can reach more, see further… every rung up the ladder makes it more ladder and less… tiptoes or stepstool.
What if we were to look at the range of activity like a ladder? Some things mean climbing higher and chancing more to do them well. Others — stay close to the ground.
Awards / events
The funny thing about the ladder is that I keep trying to conflate activity types with channel types, to the point that I think there’s a whole separate question here to look at: must certain channels be riskier than others? It feels like social media has to be more daring to cut through the noise / clutter / amazingly entertaining things out there, while web-based or print journalism can be a bit more stoic.
I’ve carved it up as story promotion and storytelling above, which at a glance might seem incoherent. But I think there’s a less-risky, more-staid “story” on the site, or in print, but what drives eyes to that story — on social media, or elsewhere — needs to be a bit more marketing-ish to succeed.
This is a bit of a bolt from the blue moment for me, as I realize I’ve actually settled into a pretty static view of storytelling myself; I’ve been thinking of the full-story-to-social-media spectrum as a continuity of the same thing, not that the social media component is actually advertising for the story it’s sharing… it’s a subtle difference, but it feels profound the more I think about it.
There’s also an audience ladder that I think lives next to the activity ladders, organized roughly and unscientifically according to how much moxie I think goes into reaching them across the board:
Prospective grad students
Prospective undergrad students? How are you going to tell them you have the best theatre program in the country in a way that competes with Twitch livestreams and TikTok?
And so on down the chain, in frankly a slightly ageist way (sorry); alumni squarely in the middle because they encompass such a broad range of ages and interests; The Concerned being that specific set of people that are agitated about a very specific issue that crisis communications needs to manage. They may be all over the map demographically, but the crisis at hand is not the right time to get innovative in how you’re addressing it.
The central point being — I think risk is ill-understood everywhere, but there’s a conflated sense of risk in higher ed, and people outside the marcomms sphere will assume that when you’re stewarding a mighty, generations-old brand, the risk aversion mentality of the lower rungs of the ladder should be applied to everything.
Which is — well, safe, which is I guess the point, but it means you never get to climb.
One tactic I’ve used to have risk conversations in the past is a causal chain approach: acknowledging that there’s a level of risk in what you’re doing, but asking the other party to unpack with you where the risk actually resides. Is there a high probability of a negative outcome, or is a negative outcome the result of a series of increasingly improbable events?
What’s the negative outcome they’re worried about… and, step by step, how does one arrive there? Sometimes there’s a probable risk — and change is needed — but sometimes you find that the path to the actual problem is so long, and so unlikely, that the benefit of a more readable piece, or more functional marketing, is worth accepting a very slight chance of a bad outcome.
It comes up when people conflate audiences — what if somebody on a lower rung sees something intended for an audience on a higher rung? It’s a legitimate concern, but in an increasingly crowded media world, are we evaluating that risk effectively and well? And what benefits are we losing by gearing higher-rung needs down to lower rungs?
An understanding of the ladder, though — that different things, for different audiences, may ask us to look at risk differently — that feels like a narrative I should try to advance in my conversations.
Getting back to the ladder metaphor, there’s a lot left there to unpack as well. There are safe and unsafe ways to use a ladder (I am, in the context of my organization, a certified ladder user, I have taken a specific ladder safety course and am now allowed to use ladders). There’s how you situate the ladder, what you lean it against, what it’s resting on… man, you can just ladder-metaphor all day. But I’m happy with the height/view/fall element for now.
I guess it’s pretty obvious at this point that I think internal communications is a big deal. I think it’s undervalued and under-recognized. It’s a behemoth of a challenge. It’s a boulder that you have to roll up the hill, and like Sisyphus, you gotta keep rolling it.
I’m also in the awkward position at this moment about writing about something I’m currently working on, and haven’t actually done to my own satisfaction yet. I’ve had the boulder slide down on me a few times, and am slapping chalk on my hands for the next attempt.
And — man, this is a lot of qualifiers, sorry — I’ve got a faculty lens on this. That’s where I’m at. I think the below ideas scale both up and down, but want to be clear about my context.
It’s hard to make a case for it.
And without asserting the need, you’re not gonna. External, measurable drivers — recruitment numbers, fundraising numbers, reputation drivers, rankings — are all happening in the context of a constantly changing landscape, so you have to reinvent those wheels every year, on tight deadlines, in an increasingly complex media landscape. There are also other institutional needs, like a long overdue drive toward meaningful equity in higher ed, that are priorities.
The churn of the job — news reporting, social campaigns, design and video-making — grows to fit whatever space it’s in. There’s no end to recruitment tactics, fundraising needs or research promotion; if capacity increases, there are always more to do.
Internal comms, though — barring a tangible and recognized crisis, this subject doesn’t generate urgency the way the external drivers do.
Internal communications resourcing competes with other priorities.
At some point, somebody’s gotta count the beans. The beans should be counted. We’re stewards of public funds, and accountability’s important. But when the number of beans are limited, and there are no more beans to be found, every piece of new work has to be seen not just as an opportunity, but presenting an opportunity cost. Allocating to one thing means not allocating to another thing.
Can you honestly make a case that buttressing internal communications is more important than recruitment? Than research promotion? Than fundraising?
Because that’s the lens that other people will take. It’s a valid lens!
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to this. It’s a matter of looking at other recognized priorities, and seeing how internal comms — as a tier of communications — supports your overall objectives.
It’s not one tool to solve one problem.
I have made this mistake myself. I’m not casting aspersions except on my past self here. But prior attempts at internal comms strategies have been instigated because of a specific problem. So I approached internal communications as a specific way to solve Problem A.
This made the resource allocation part easy — I was handed a problem to solve, and came up with a solution — but ultimately, it was narrow, and while it did the one thing (reduced overall email traffic to students), I think framing it in that narrow way was reductive and ultimately harmful.
People didn’t come out of it seeing benefit other than the immediate solution to the problem, and subsequently, expanding and improving meant going back to square one — even square minus-one, because now there’s a kind of “didn’t we already do that?” mentality that makes it harder to scrap for resources.
It’s not an emergency address system.
Similar to the above — I hesitate to present these things as an emergency-service kind of approach. I’m not manning the ramparts for the death of listservs and email, but I think there’s an argument that something that consolidates and organizes internal messages actually improves the institution’s power to communicate urgently — because it’s now an exception, not the rule.
Brand starts in-house.
If you’re going to take a holistic approach to this, you need to start with a Big Idea. That’s my Big Idea. Feel free to borrow it!
My business case for internal comms begins with that simple statement that plays out across a number of areas. It’s also a jazzy l’il slogan that gets people excited about internal comms, which helps!
From there, I want to come up with some arguments that support the “brand starts in-house” premise, or come up with other positioning of internal communications as essential to the general priority areas: recruitment, giving, equity, research, reputation/rankings.
Having staff, students and faculty aligned on an institutional vision and mandate makes achieving that mandate far easier.
Your school, and possibly your faculty and department, have their own strategic plan and vision for the future. But how do you radiate those values internally? When something has to be done to support Objective A, your chance of that being well understood and well received improves exponentially if people know what Objective A is in the first place.
One of the early lessons I learned in marketing is that sometimes, if you want people to know something, just tell them. If your store is having a sale on mittens, a very large sign in the window that says “MITTEN SALE” is sometimes exactly what you need.
But you need a vehicle to tell people, consistently, directly and indirectly, what the vision is.
Canada is not that big a country at the end of the day. And people talk. A happy, engaged student body is your greatest recruitment tool — even the best messaging in the world, packaged in the most gorgeous viewbook, hosted on the most elegant website, will only get you so far. At some point, somebody’s going to know several somebodies, and if the universal feeling from current students is dissatisfaction, that’s going to make an impact.
I’m not advocating wallpapering — this isn’t about Mandatory Cheer, and it’s all fruitless if the right infrastructure and tools aren’t in place to address the root causes of satisfaction — but internal communications should be viewed as part of that infrastructure, not an externality applied after the fact.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talking to Person A and in the course of the conversation discovered they’re doing something astonishingly similar to Person X, and if the two of them had just known they’d have saved probably a few days of work by letting one person do the heavy lifting and hand off to the other to adapt at the end of the day.
Even knowing who’s good at what is immeasurably helpful. Over time, I’ve cultivated a sense of expertise among my peers on campus — if I need some advice, I know I can reach out to somebody and say “how would you do ____?” and get some good guidance. That starts with knowing what people do — and are good at. How much more will you get out of people with, say, casual web duties if they have seen a colleague recently praised for some good work in that space, and can expand their resource pool for simple questions?
One of my early asks when I was at the law faculty was from a faculty member who asked if I, in my then newly minted role, could make a priority of telling people what other people do. He could walk down a hall past a number of offices and see people in them doing things, but had no idea what their jobs were or why they were important.
It’s not great to work in a place where you fundamentally don’t feel like you know what’s going on. Very few people need granular knowledge of what the exam administrator is doing to resolve a problem with remote proctoring in the moment. But knowing that there is an exam administrator, and what the functions of that role are? Super cool.
And — how much worse is it to work in a place where you suspect nobody knows or values what you do? I got sad just typing that! How do you recognize people whose jobs don’t put them in the spotlight — and show how they’re vital contributors to the overall mission?
Still on the ‘“making people aware of what other people are doing” front: unit cross-talk leads to priority smoothing. Silloed units charging forward toward their own KPIs are productive, but without a view of what’s happening in other units, can’t self-modulate to provide room for other units with other needs. The beans are finite, and giving people the opportunity to self-throttle via greater institutional awareness relieves a lot of pressure from the people who would otherwise have to have resourcing conversations with them.
Research motivation and collaboration:
Well-informed researchers that are aware of what their colleagues are doing and excited for institutional success are motivated to succeed — and internal collaboration starts with a general awareness of what’s happening across the institution.
Equity touches every aspect of the university experience, from recruitment that strives toward representation across students, staff and faculty; to alumni engagement; to pervasive impacts on research. The emphasis often tends to be to get people in, but making sure they’re supported and seen once they are at the institution is just as important.
On the flip side, if you’re bringing in several thousand students a year, and have thousands of staff and faculty working with them, you can’t expect them to all be in the same place at the same time on understanding EDII and its importance. How are we continually radiating a culture of equity to people who might be less aware of these issues?
Just the act of doing the work generates outward-facing content. When people see each other and feel aligned toward a common vision and set of goals, ideas spark. Somebody has an idea for an internal newsletter that’s actually the first step toward a major insight for the whole institution. Internal comms content starts to drive ideas for external communication.
It also sparks the kind of spontaneous, organic, genuine social media presence that you literally cannot pay for or fake.
Rankings and reputation:
Having tucked into this a bit over the last six months, I’m told by much smarter people working harder in these areas that a lot of these things are driven by both internal-satisfaction surveys, but also research across the board about top-of-mind presence at other institutions. It’s an unproveable, but I can’t help but think, in a confined sector in a country that’s not that big, internal alignment and vision radiates. Can I prove that a faculty member at one university will be influenced to name another university as a top-of-mind top research institute because their colleagues there seem motivated and collaborative? I cannot. Can I provide ironclad assurances that a satisfied student will speak more freely about their university experience with their friends and relations and improve our national awareness footprint by 0.001% in doing so? I can’t do that. But it’s a strong intuition.
You don’t have to do it all at once.
That’s… a lot. It’s an intimidating amount of stuff, to be honest. I’m intimidated, and I wrote it. I think one thing to remember — before we launch into tools and possible strategies next week — is that it doesn’t all have to be one thing at one time. While it’s a Big Idea, it segments neatly into smaller units, and piloting a staff or faculty approach while thinking about how to resource the bigger picture is a proposition worth considering.
The boulder never stops rolling.
Another mistake from my past — thinking you can set this up and then it’s just an easy-to-maintain project, to be handed off. Why would I think that? The inside of the institution is a huge, complex entity — the size and scope of a small city — so the idea you can just kind of set it and forget it is goofy. Part of the Big Idea framing is that you’re not “solving a problem”, as mentioned above, but setting up an evergreen structure that will need to be fed and watered in perpetuity.
Next week: How to Build a Boulder
I’m anxious about this, but I think I’m going to drill down into a few key areas:
focus on input from boots-on-the-ground staff
ask people what they want
start with redundancies
…and go from there. I’m looking forward to it and scared of it all at the same time.
*if you remember me saying this was three parts, you’re right, but this part wound up so sprawling that I wanted to push the tools piece to next week. I have a job and I’m working on an LLM and have lots on the go! I can only do this on Sundays! Sorry not sorry!
Last week I was talking about how internal communications is hard in higher ed. A college or university is a massively complex and internally competitive system, with students, staff and faculty operating on multiple layers at once, and with concerns and needs that bridge from “professional” — i.e. studies, to personal — i.e. mental/physical wellness, and everything in between.
This is a four-part series on internal comms in higher ed:
Putting internal messages on external channels is a delicious trap.
It’s not uncommon for me to get something in my inbox and somebody asking me “can we advertise this to students on social media?” And — absent a clear sense of who is following us where — that’s a hard request to say no to, on its face. Some students are following us on social media. I’m certain of that. We can put things on social media. That’s an absolute. So why not put a wonderful thing on social media for our current students? After all…
We have amazing-stuff-for-students peanut butter.
We have channels-followed-by-students chocolate.
Why in the world wouldn’t you combine the two?
Because while it’s an amazing idea for a snack, if you are handling both internal and external messages, it’s not a great approach to either internal communications or outward-facing media.
Appealing as it is, you gotta keep the peanut butter and chocolate apart.
I’m going to lean into ‘“student recruitment” as the lens I look at a lot of this through. It’s a pretty common thread through higher ed, on the minds of most marcomms folks, and frankly a pretty big deal for me.
This all seems a bit overblown at first, especially to somebody that just wants to tell students about something they feel the students should know.
We’re trying to give prospective students a positive impression of campus, the argument goes, so showing them the breadth of our supports and services is good. Why not remind students to update emergency contact information via Instagram? Where’s the harm?
I do it myself — we ran a 14-day self-isolation-supporting contest series through social recently, to encourage good COVID practices and also student use of our faculty’s app. We just promoted our “Discipline Nights”, where first-year engineers choose an education stream. I did this partly because I have don’t have other strong alternatives to reach our students. But it felt wrong. Here’s why.
The internal-on-external argument
There’s a rationale that, on its face, supports internal messaging on outward channels, in the absence of a strong stated purpose for the channel, or even if the purpose includes recruitment.
A student considering our school…
may see posts directed at internal students about an interesting service or feature;
will be impressed with the breadth of services and our community spirit;
this might make a difference when they choose a school.
It makes sense.
It’s also wrong.
The wrongness of it comes down to the need for channel focus, what the purpose of a channel is, and whether or not what you’re doing on that channel supports that exact purpose.
Social media is bananas, and channel focus is critical
Social media delivers posts haphazardly, through an algorithm that evolves constantly. There’s no guarantee that anyone will see anything you post. The algorithm, that shadowy and terrible master, waves its inscrutable hand and a post lives or dies.
That fact brings the need for focus into focus.
If I want to recruit a student using Instagram, and it’s a dice roll about what they’ll see, I need to ask myself whether I:
want to guarantee what they see will reflect what prospective students look for in our program
want to roll the dice and accept that they might see something about a candle-making workshop instead
Wait, though — where’s the harm in sharing a candle-making workshop? Doesn’t that just show breadth, foster the idea that this an interesting place where candle-making happens, and reinforce how lovely our school is, overall?
But social media isn’t the place to show breadth. It’s the time to pique interest, spark imagination, and get audiences to where the breadth is, but it’s not the right venue to dig into the layers of what your school offers — even if those offerings are truly great.
University choice is based on high-tier decisions.
Students, at the recruitment phase, don’t know what they don’t know.
And social media, moving at 10,000 posts a minute, delivering things according to an opaque algorithm, isn’t the venue to educate them.
To use an example from my own life: I’m a proud graduate of Ryerson’s Radio and Television Arts program, class of ‘95. It is a tremendous program, and I don’t think anyone knew how poorly its name would age (it’s the “RTA School of Media Arts” now — good call, Ryerson).
When I was a fresh-faced young lad circa 1991, I wanted:
to learn cool media stuff
to work with cool equipment
get a job in TV or radio or something
at a place with a really great reputation
That was my chocolate. I wanted chocolate.
What I didn’t know, when I chose Ryerson, was that RTA was a lot more than that. I learned an amazing amount about story structure and writing. Mandatory voice training gave me an amazingly versatile skill that’s served me well since. The most valuable classes for me — which I at the time thought were a monumental waste of time — were Jerry Good’s management courses. Jerry, if you are reading this for some reason now, I am sorry.
There were also stellar services — a great gym, amazing faculty delivering electives to students resenting the “breadth requirement”, student wellness staff — all things that I didn’t know about when I chose Ryerson. That was the peanut butter, and I didn’t know how amazing the peanut butter was when I was picking a school.
But I only wanted chocolate when I chose Ryerson. I was a dumb kid who wanted to learn cool media stuff, work with neat gear, etc.
Had social media existed at the time, and the only messaging from Ryerson that crossed my path had been about their English electives or management seminars or their gym equipment, my life might have turned out very differently.
If I wanted chocolate, but I saw peanut butter, zooming past with a million other factors and things to consider, and messages zipping along at a mile a minute, the idea of combining the two wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. Another school — providing chocolate — would have pulled me in.
If you have a fact-based understanding of what your prospective students want from a school, and you know how to reach them, you’re doing yourself (and them) a disservice by muddying the waters with things that not only won’t resonate, but will likely just be forgotten as they scroll past 10,000 things that don’t catch their eyes or imagination.*
There are definitely times and places to hip prospective students to what you offer that might not be on their radar: student information sessions, tours (real or virtual), the second- and third-tier pages of your website.
But social media’s not the place to do that.
Which brings me back around to one of the primary reasons that a good, planned, robust internal communications system is vital.
I’ll get into more reasons next week, but from a strictly operational perspective, and especially with limited time and resources, it’s crucial to keep those streams apart. Your best chance of success on social media is with a clear, research-backed vision and purpose, and strict adherence to that vision. This isn’t to say it can’t be fun, or interesting, or enlightening, but the job is to drive an interest to learn more — which leads to the breadth — rather than trying to front-load the breadth.
I’ve just spent 1200 words explaining why social media needs to be to the point; the irony’s not lost on me. This hopefully unpacks the internal/external trap well, though.
Next week: why I think internal comms is worth the effort, and how to approach an impossible task with limited resources.
*there’s a lot of complexity to this as well, especially since received wisdom of “what students want” plays into what a traditional plurality of students want; a colonial education system can’t self-correct without self-reflection and efforts toward EDII, which means thinking past received wisdom and what the traditional plurality is looking for. I think this leads to a nuanced conversation about how to reach students with EDII messaging through systems that still deliver high-resonance messages in ways that creatively capture EDII needs — but that’s not really what today is about, and I’d be doing that whole topic a disservice by trying to cram it into a footnote here.
To begin: higher education isn’t great at internal communication.
There are exceptions to this rule, I’m sure. But as somebody who works at one of Canada’s great universities, directly in two faculties and in close collaboration with other on-campus units, who has studied at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and with a partner who has also studied at a variety of schools — if there’s a university out there that’s really top-notch at keeping students, faculty and staff in the loop, I’d like to see it.
Why are we so bad at this?
First, it’s huge. It’s really, really huge.
I’m not saying “crushing wave” accidentally.
A student — I’ve been one, and I am one, currently pursuing an LLM — needs information on the following things:
current courses, assignments, grades (per course), delivered at the class level
direct correspondence with professors on the above
department-level messaging for students in a specific areas
faculty updates on faculty-wide issues, including visiting speakers, special talks, etc.
notes from the dean on matters of import, like COVID
university updates on university-wide issues, including university-wide events
notes from the Principal and Provost on matters of import
official university communications vehicles — school papers/reporting
That’s… a lot. I’m a grown-up man with a family and pets, and I don’t think I have to deal with nearly as much on a daily basis as a 19-year-old thrust onto campus has to contend with.
Second: the fight for student attention is constant and eternal.
All of the above are run by units (and units within units). These are usually staffed by highly intelligent, highly accomplished people. Their KPIs are monitored by other highly intelligent, highly accomplished people. There are a huge variety of silos. Even if competition isn’t the intent, it’s the outcome.
A student who thinks their future career prospects depend on growing the club they started through a series of huge events isn’t going to doff their cap and give way to a visiting talk by an academic in an area they have no interest in.
If Career Services’ success is measured by the number of students who take their online course on CV-writing, they’re not going to park that program for a year to provide more space for a mental wellness program unrolling concurrently.
The MBAification of higher ed has resulted in measurable outcomes as the sole criterion of success in a lot of cases — and while at first flush it’s a laudable approach to resource allocation, it results in a “unit KPIs first, everything else after” approach across the board that pits us against each other in unforeseen ways.
Nobody wakes up in the morning intending to fight, but it’s a low-key battle for minds and time unrolling in real time, all the time. Academia, red in tooth and claw.
Further complicating that is a passion for specialization — or redundancy, if you want to take a more cynical view.
The university offers career services for all students, but faculties and departments also have their own individual career service units, offering either overlapping or complementary resources. Individual units take on their own mental wellness projects because there’s a distinct spin they want to put on it that the university-level wellness services don’t provide.
Competition scales not only laterally, but fractally — you’re not only getting concurrent messages that pit a cupcake sale against a bookstore promotion and a talk on the Visgoths, you have sessions on how to do well in an in-person interview battling against each other for primacy.
And — and! — to succeed, we not only have to win the internal fight, but beat out the entire universe. We have to eclipse Netflix enticing students to binge the latest show, AAA video games pitching themselves on Twitch, live events at the local bar, and every other thing that highly aggressive, highly mobile, and often less ethical for-profit marketers are cooking up to compete for these eyes and minds.
Third: there’s no consolidated venue for a solution.
The above takes place over…
Email (itself on various platforms)
Web sites, posts / blogs
Event calendars, online and off
Handouts and flyers
Standalone university apps
When I was at the law faculty, students were reporting getting 25+ “official’ emails a day from various quarters. They’re also compelled to check in on four or five courses via a learning platform (and each course has its own discussion forums and/or mailing lists).
Also to stay on top of social media; most student clubs and societies default to Facebook as their platform of choice, because it’s in-flow for the bulk of students. (This in turn presents equity issues; compelling students to join for-profit social media platforms with dubious security practices to participate fully in the life of the school is bad policy).
Conversations are happening on Slack / Teams / etc. for group projects, design teams, and clubs. Schools and faculties can attempt to consolidate this on official app platforms — this is something I’m supporting right now in my work — but unless you get overwhelming buy-in, it’s yet another channel as opposed to a narrowing of channels.
As a man in his 40s, email is still my default. It’s still a perfectly valid tool. I’m less certain, though, that it’s an answer to the post-2000 cohort.
It’s hard to research this — it’s hard to research anything in the marketing space, because the research is generally done by marketers to support something they are marketing, so the answer can be “email works wonders,” but you dig deeper and find that it’s research from an email solutions provider — or the research can prove that you absolutely, positively need a bespoke app — and underneath that is a bespoke app company. This is why academia is important. Making a note to dig more into peer-reviewed studies of communication channels and generational cohorts…
The net result, though, is that it’s a mishmash. No one channel is appropriate: handling internal communications right is a multi-channel solution, and is as robust and expansive as an external marketing and communications program. The challenge is just as large, but the challenge is calling from inside the house.
And on that note…
Fourth: nobody’s staffed for it.
Marketing teams run small and lean, and are almost always mandated to be externally focused. Marshalling even two or three of these stacks into a coherent plan and format(s) would be daunting for a full-time staff member. Side-desking it when you’re already managing external marketing and communications, or — even worse — dumping it on a beleaguered admin assistant to side-desk without meaningful support? Cold sweat.
This speaks to the competitive issues above: even with the absolute best intentions of good citizenry, it’s literally impossible for somebody communicating with students as a side-desk task, without training or a meaningful loops into institutional teams, to know that their appeal to students to submit their timesheets on Thursday instead of Friday this week is colliding with a dozen other emails that are flying into their inboxes at that same moment.
I have been and am part of partial solutions in the past — piloting a newsletter project in the law faculty when I was there, and working on a second phase of app implementation at the engineering school that will help. But in both of these cases, the projects were a product of a senior admin out of the marketing sphere seeing something they thought would help and pulling the trigger on implementing, then looping marketing/communications in to make it work. This isn’t a dig on either scenario: in both situations, it helped immensely, or is on track to help immensely.
But in neither circumstance was it a holistic, integrated plan to address internal communications robustly — these were and are pressure valves to leverage a technology (email management tools in the first case, bespoke community app development in the other) to tackle the sliver of a massive internal comms challenge that happened to be in the administrators’ views at the time.
The net result is that marketing and communications teams are cut into some of these communications, and not others, in haphazard ways. One program might ask for help communicating a special event to the entire faculty, while other programs self-actualize on that. A faculty member doing a great job at remote learning might ask if we can share those successes in a news story / social media, while others toil in silence. Units within the central university can fire off five or six unrelated requests per week to share valuable information directly with students — mental wellness, security (physical and/or digital), prominent academic visitors, special food events from the third-party food service providers, reminders to return library books…). One professor welcoming a distinguished visitor wants to throw their classroom doors open to the whole school for this visit. The beat goes on, and on.
The above illustrates the apparent problem, which is, well, chaos. A tremendous amount of unprioritized comms needs that, when they flow in our direction, have to be subjected to instantaneous gut-checks from the marcomms team according to
passthrough (can you just forward a message without editing, or does it need repackaging?)
potential consolidation (can this be combined with other things to reduce load?)
sometimes just saying “no” to things
If you get any of the above wrong, you’re in trouble. But if you get it right… the old axiom “the reward for good work is more work” comes into play, as more people wake up to the fact that you’re offering a resource to help them get their lost-in-the-shuffle messages in front of students, which creates further demand — and more shuffle for things to get lost in.
But there’s another problem.
A more insidious problem: that in the absence of meaningful internal channels, we conflate our external channels for inward-facing messaging. While at first blush it doesn’t seem like a big deal, it actually kind of is — and I suspect might be a hidden Achilles heel in a lot of higher ed marketing. Next week!
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.
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?
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.