Launched! Please look under the hood.

On launch day for any mStoner client, the big reveal is the new look and feel of a redesigned .edu website. Capturing the essence of the institutional brand, the new design “feels like us.” But visual design is just one aspect of our work with clients. I’ll use mStoner’s recent work with SUNY as evidence for the equally important — but under the hood — aspects of a relaunch.

My earlier post about the new SUNY website described the process and decision-making through the lens of the SUNY project lead, David Belsky. There’s more! Our partnership with this complex and fascinating educational system also included:

Governance for mitigating risk.
There are always challenges and risks within a website relaunch project of this magnitude and complexity. Early on, we worked with SUNY to identify ways to mitigate risks and to plan for a new governance model.

How content is managed and published was a consideration and, of course, the right content management system was key. Choosing and deploying a content management system is never for the faint of heart. The work is filled with choices about features and requirements and cost and technical architecture. With more than 175 CMS implementations under our belt, mStoner helped SUNY identify best-fit systems based on their needs. (The SUNY project team chose TERMINALFOUR for the new site.)

It also was important for the SUNY team to understand that relaunching the website within a new content management system was just the beginning. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes in web strategy is continuing to think about your website as a project. In fact, the day you launch the new website isn’t the end of a project, it’s the start of an ongoing process of assessment, adjustment, content creation, and enhancement.

Building a strong core team always belongs in the governance model. We helped the SUNY team think about roles, responsibilities, and oversight. Proper staffing for your website is needed and here’s where we all have something to learn from the newspaper industry: the web needs content, every day. All .edu websites need a “managing editor” who will implement the strategic vision and provide the editorial approach for developing content, integrating social media, and keeping it all on message.

Creative thinking about a range of content needs.
From the start, content was at the core of the SUNY project. A two homepage solution was a blended and effective response to SUNY’s unique communication challenges and opportunities; but it was also a response to the range of content types within the site. Because marketing and transactional content can be at odds, we wanted to balance the storytelling that appeals to larger audience groups with the transactional needs of 100,000+ faculty and staff stakeholders on SUNY’s 64 campuses.

We used the SUNY wireframes as a launchpoint for conversation about content! With a content-first focus, the wires showed not only the types of content but the relative importance and prioritization of that content. Early content discussions helped the SUNY team scope the writing effort that would follow and also put us on the right track for brand building.

A few content elements that demonstrate the impact and reputation of SUNY:

  • The Now at SUNY drawer on the SUNY homepage introduces off-screen, sidebar content.

SUNY Content Drawer

  • The social icons in the footer include the number of followers on SUNY channels (11,000 on Twitter!).
 SUNY Social Icons
  • The map-based campus directory in the footer uses tagging and geolocation for easy access to 64 campuses.

Campus Directory

An iterative process for developing the information architecture (IA).
The IA we proposed for needed to do two things: 1) quickly make the case for SUNY and 2) quickly engage the primary audiences visiting the site. We wanted the topic-based navigation to appeal to the broadest possible set of audiences. We tested our early assumptions about labeling and navigational paths using an online tool called Treejack from Optimal Workshop. Armed with real user behavior from 594 testing participants, we adjusted, relabeled, and confirmed.

We ended up with a slim topic navigation that appeals to, and encourages action from, visitors of all kinds. Just three simple options — “Attend SUNY,” “What is SUNY?” and “Why does SUNY matter?” — allow visitors (of all sophistication levels) a limited set of choices to explore different ways of engaging the site. This mobile-first approach to the IA (read: telegraphic, clear hierarchy) gives the site app-like simplicity and makes it highly usable.

SUNY Topic Nav

OH in Higher Ed Circles: 6 things that drive us mad (and a new webinar!)

Picture this: Six people working on six different campuses are seated around a round table having lunch at a higher ed conference. Before the salad course ends, they’ve figured out how much they have in common. All are facing similar challenges — and more relevant to this blog post — all regularly experience the same frustrations.

Next imagine this: 600 people working on 600 different campuses are members of a circle in Google+. These folks are sometimes even more direct as they selectively share their frustrations and the barriers to high-quality marketing and communications programs on their campuses. It’s been know to happen.

Regardless of their institutional affiliation, when marketing and communications professionals gather they bond over similar concerns. And, when I consult with community colleges, multi-campus publics, music conservatories, or small liberal arts colleges, I observe a similar chorus. Six themes overheard in higher ed are:

  1. Committees
    Often viewed as the bane of the higher ed administrator’s existence, committees are unwieldy, slow to act, and sometimes set up to avoid a decision. Even when called by another name (task force), they present challenges; you must find ways to use them well.
  2. Feedback
    It’s exhausting when you are caught in a seemingly unending feedback loop while staring down a deadline. Worse, you find yourself responding to the personal preferences of internal stakeholders at the expense of the target audience. You need to control the fire hose.
  3. Resources
    Another week, another new task or set of expectations. Our teams regularly take on new initiatives and responsibilities but rarely stop doing the less valuable work we’ve always done. You need to make it stop.
  4. Change
    We’re pretty good at digging in within the academy. But some amount of change is needed for almost any great idea. Take off your blinders, stop pushing past the resistance, and instead use personal benefits to influence stakeholders.
  5. Turf
    Using softer language, we refer to silos when we’re really talking about turf. Regardless, we’re not farmers and we need to turn things toward a focus on business needs and the greater institutional good.
  6. Relationships
    Perhaps a surprising addition to this list, relationship building should always be a factor. Regular reflection about the approach and style you use with peers, members of your team, senior leaders, and your boss is never a waste of time.

Perhaps this post is spot on with its summary of concerns you have. Next up, let’s address those concerns. I’ll try to do just that on Thursday, March 27, at 2:00 PM ET, when I host a free webinar entitled, “OH in Higher Ed Circles: 6 things that drive us mad.” Talking through each of the six things that probably bug you every week, I’ll share tips, ideas, and advice for making your way around the barriers to excellent marketing and communications work on your campus. I hope you’ll join me for this free mStoner webinar as we discuss ways to cope and succeed!

Need research on social media?

Every day, on college and university campuses everywhere, dedicated people like you are making the case for effective communication with key audiences. On a good day, you get a brilliant idea about a new way to connect with the people you want to reach. Sometimes the idea is so gloriously brilliant you need to secure buy-in and approval. Remember, when you pitch new ideas outside the comfort zones of your leadership team, it’s good to go in with evidence.

Maybe 2014 is the year for stepping up your social media strategy. If so, consider data from the Social Media in Advancement Survey conducted by Huron Education and mStoner in partnership with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). Annually, I’ve observed Michael Stoner committing time and talent to this important project and I know he’s grateful to the many of you who participated in the most recent survey.

In late March, highlights from the fifth annual survey will be released at the CASE Social Media and Community Conference. Until then, the 2013 research comes in handy. I reacquainted myself with the top-line findings from 2013 and they are the subject of this post. For fun, I decided to highlight a few of the questions asked and make some predictions about what we might see in the 2014 results. We’ll call these Susan’s Hunches.

My hunches about the 2014 results for a few of the survey questions:

Question 9. Which types of social media do you use (for any audiences you want to reach)?

  • In 2013, 27% of survey respondents used Instagram. I predict this number will be up by at least 15% in 2014.
  • Tumblr was used by only 9% of respondents. I predict the use of Tumblr will increase by about 10%.
  • Not even on the list in 2013, I think we’ll see Snapchat responses in the 2014 results.

Question 16. In what types of campaigns have you used social media?

  • In 2013, 41% of respondents used social media for admissions campaigns. I predict an increase of 5% for 2014.

Question 30. For which types of development and fundraising activities does your institution use social media?

  • Of respondents, 14% used social media for capital campaign solicitations. I think we will be see a 15% increase to this percentage in the next survey. (I know, it’s a big jump. This is the hunch I’m least confident about.)

Question 44. How many full‐time people does your institution have working on social media that are 100 percent dedicated to it (all of their job responsibilities relate to social media)?

  • In 2013, 67% of those surveyed had no one who was 100% dedicated to social media work. My hunch is that this number will come down by 8% in the 2014 results.

Here’s a convenient summary table of Susan’s Hunches:

  • Use of Instagram: +15%
  • Use of Tumblr: +10%
  • Use of Snapchat: on the list!
  • For admissions campaigns: +5%
  • For capital campaign solicitation: +15%
  • No person 100% dedicated to social media: -8%

Check back in late March if you want to see how I did. If I’m close on a lot of these predictions, you’ll probably see another blog post. If I’m way off, I’ll quickly move on to other topics. The point is, use research for pitching your ideas. It’s out there!

More on the annual Social Media in Advancement Survey:

Ready to Roll: Expanding your team.

It’s 2014. If you have the chance to expand your team, what skill sets should you add? I address this question in Ready to Roll, a feature I wrote for CASE CURRENTS. In case you missed them, part one and part two also appeared on this blog.

Expanding the team
What one or two positions should you add, if possible, to your communications and marketing team? If it were up to me, I would find a professional writer and a person who knows how to identify metrics and measure results.

Writing is vital to almost every communications and marketing activity. Content that engages, inspires, and romances your audiences is at the core of every communications channel and platform. Whether they’re written for a 140-character tweet, a 90-second video script, or a 1,500-word article, words are the tools you use to describe your institution and its brand, communicate its value, and speak authentically to its audiences.

At the same time, measurement is important to demonstrating the value of your work and the success of the institution’s brand. We need to get deadly serious about focusing only on the work that aligns with our communications and marketing goals and achieves the necessary results.

Your team’s goals come from an overarching strategy; your metrics are defined by what your team needs to accomplish. Determining upfront the measures of success for each project or initiative your team undertakes is essential. For a video, that measurement might be the number of views or the amount of time viewers spend watching the video. For an email marketing campaign, indicators such as open rates and click-thrus will help determine your message’s reach and identify where to make adjustments.

The challenge for most communications and marketing leaders is not being overwhelmed by the seemingly endless number of possibilities, ideas, issues, and projects they need to address or want to pursue. Keeping up is always difficult—and it always will be in a rapidly evolving culture of communication. Leaders must stay focused on the options and opportunities they have to further develop and execute their strategy, while making sure their teams are consistently telling the institution’s brand story to key audiences. The people who have the potential to adjust and enhance their skill sets today and be ready for what’s on the horizon five years from now are the ones most likely to succeed in bringing value to your team.

Let’s use 2014 to concentrate on goals, messages, and audiences rather than platforms and tools. By year’s end, I hope to see many more centralized, multidisciplinary communications and marketing teams successfully engaging and leaving long-lasting impressions on their target audiences.

Hiring for potential
When I offer someone a job, it’s mostly because I think that person has potential. If you’re lucky, you’ll find someone who has the experience and the skills that match the job and the potential for whatever comes next. But when I have to choose between skills and potential, I’ll choose potential every time.

Throughout my career, which includes working in human resources, professional development, and organizational management, I have regularly hired people who did not have the prescribed educational experience or specific skills referenced in a job description. Why? Because what you really need is a team of smart, curious, talented, energized, passionate, and committed individuals. You can teach people the software programs your team uses. They will gradually come to understand the higher education environment. You can give people time to learn some of the specific tasks within a job. But they have to bring their potential.

How do I know when someone has potential? I look for people who:

  • Show interest in a variety of topics and ask a lot of questions in a conversational way.
  • Give an honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Freely admit when they’ve never done a particular type of work but tell me why they can learn it or figure it out.
  • Speak confidently about their contributions in previous jobs without seeming embarrassed.
  • Like to work alone, like to work collaboratively, and like to learn from other people on the team.
  • Want to fill their workday with a mix of duties, responsibilities, and projects.
  • Can think critically, assess situations, and present solutions to complex problems.
  • Are able to build on the ideas of others.
  • Have held a wide variety of jobs. This may include work experience gained during high school or college. A diverse employment background demonstrates knowledge of different kinds of people and professional environments.

If you’re not convinced, think of it another way. People with potential become the employees you can send anywhere. They’re the ones who can attend any meeting and always contribute productively to the discussion. Taking it a step further, these exceptional employees can go unprepared to a meeting of strangers but still discuss an unfamiliar topic or issue, ask appropriate questions, and make worthwhile suggestions. These individuals have the skills to adjust to new tools, changing platforms, and a communications and marketing environment we can’t imagine today. We need them on our teams.

Read more from Ready to Roll:

Copyright 2014 Council for Advancement and Support of Education. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Ready to Roll: Centralize wherever you can.

It’s 2014. Is your communications and marketing team prepared to succeed? I address this question in part two of Ready to Roll, a piece I wrote for CASE CURRENTS. In case you missed it, part one also appeared on my blog.

Centralize wherever you can
I understand that alumni relations is different from sports information, which is different from development communications or enrollment marketing. Still, we all know that silos on campuses make it difficult to implement an integrated approach to communications and marketing. Frequently, even our central communications teams have the magazine staff members working in one place and the web team somewhere else. Organizing the people responsible for communications and marketing into a single, cross-functional, multidisciplinary team encourages holistic work and a consistent focus on institutional goals.

Ideally, you want a centralized communications and marketing team that blends capabilities across mediums and disciplines. More specifically, you should ignore the artificial boundaries between print, web, and social media. By placing content at the root of everything you do, the perceived barriers between communications channels will disappear. Then, designers will design for print, web, and social media. Writers will do the same, creating content for everything from print publications and websites to video scripts, tweets, and Facebook posts. Technologists will understand web architecture, content management, and how to integrate content from multiple web-based tools and systems.

During my time at William & Mary, we established a creative services unit by combining the skills and talents of the web team and the publications office. Bringing these two units together broke down the silos that separated our work and helped us approach projects in a more effective, centralized manner. This approach made sense for our projects as well as employees’ professional development. For example, graphic designers who had previously done only print work began participating in web design projects. Experienced web designers mentored them throughout, which helped the print designers gain skills in this area.

I’ve seen and experienced the institutional barriers and political challenges that can hinder this kind of holistic thinking. I still observe it on campuses in my consulting work. But we should use the current crisis around shrinking budgets, fiscal accountability, and growing expectations to gain support for centralized multidisciplinary teams. Often, such teams can save money by replacing more costly outsourcing efforts and add value by bringing on staff members who understand and are more invested in the institution’s brand. They also can reduce the duplication of effort that occurs when people work separately toward similar communication goals. The work of a multidisciplinary team is generally better—both organizationally and in terms of the final product—because members have the advantage of close and consistent communication between creative, editorial, and technology specialists.

Collaborative projects often contribute to people’s professional development. When individuals from different disciplines rally around the work, the experience of acting as a team encourages people to learn from their colleagues.

Next Monday, January 27, 2014, I’ll publish more from Ready to Roll. (Read part one.)

Copyright 2014 Council for Advancement and Support of Education. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Are you ready to roll in 2014?

Last fall, I had a fascinating conversation with Theresa Walker, senior editor for CURRENTS magazine at CASE. The conversation led to an article entitled, Ready to Roll. Over the next couple of weeks, with the permission of CASE, I’ll publish the piece I wrote for CURRENTS here on my blog.

Today’s higher education communications and marketing landscape is in a constant state of change. Tools, priorities, and expectations shift rapidly. Institutions face challenging public perceptions and questions about the value of a college degree while also encountering disruption within the field of higher education itself. Audiences expect increased accountability and engagement on their terms. Social media and digital communications have altered how, when, and where conversation occurs.

This demanding and ever changing environment has led communications and marketing leaders to a new reliance on specialists. There’s pressure to add content strategists, information architects, user experience designers, brand managers, search engine optimization analysts, and social media coordinators to their teams. Having any one of them would be beneficial, but a campus’s budgetary realities and staffing limits often require communications and marketing leaders to make hard choices about what to do without.

Most of you likely lack the staff to adequately address the growing number of specializations in these areas, but you still are still responsible for producing and carrying out an effective communications and marketing strategy. So how can you be certain that your team’s skills are up to the challenge (and will continue to be five years from now)? What should a communications and marketing team look like in 2014? And what changes can you implement to help your team work more effectively?

Hallmarks of effective teams
As a higher education consultant and someone who spent two decades working for Virginia’s College of William & Mary, including as the former director of creative services, I’ve led and worked on a variety of teams. I understand that institutional goals, resources, and priorities all influence the composition of communications and marketing teams, but I believe those that are most effective ones share the following characteristics.

Leaders who takes risks. The best leaders understand the importance of taking calculated risks. They’re willing to think differently and pursue an unusual course, but they back up their decisions with data. Some risks are minor, such as replacing a 30-page print piece with a beautifully designed postcard to drive prospective students to a website. Others take more courage, like running a social media campaign to increase admissions yield during a time of declining enrollment.

Despite the mainstream acceptance of social media, many campus leaders remain skittish about using a less-controllable channel for official communication. With social media, the tools used to deliver messages become part of the message. Feedback and judgment are immediate, public, and potentially far-reaching. When I led the communications effort for William & Mary’s search for a new mascot in 2009-10, we used social media to engage and be transparent with our audiences. We established trust with audiences early on, which encouraged and increased participation. Risk is inherent in contemporary communications strategy; success will not happen without it.

Members with varying viewpoints. Filling your team with people of all ages and backgrounds ensures multiple perspectives. The broader the mosaic of talents and views, the richer the ideas and solutions the team will produce. Alumni who work in communications and marketing units at their alma maters are a valuable resource because of their deep knowledge of, commitment to, and firsthand experience with their institutions. Longtime campus employees, who often feel like alumni themselves, can help navigate teams toward incredible results while skillfully negotiating potential political land mines. Meanwhile, young professionals aren’t yet jaded by a history of stalled or failed projects; they contribute ideas, energy, and knowledge worth capitalizing on. The best way to nurture a team of people with different perspectives is to give them problems to solve. Then, bring them together regularly to brainstorm options and develop solutions.

Passion for their work. Employees who are passionate about what they do motivate the rest of us to take on challenges and work harder. Their enthusiasm usually indicates a desire for success, which pushes them to achieve results that exceed expectations. They often make the case for avoiding the safe vanilla approaches that will work for everyone )but inspire no one) in favor of choosing riskier, yet informed, options that will generate excitement. One of my current website consulting projects with a large university system is breaking the mold because the team understands both the risk of doing things differently and the potential of pairing dynamic storytelling with home page navigation that encourages audiences to take action.

A mix of general and specialized skills. All team members should be strong communicators with expertise in a particular discipline, but they should also possess at least a baseline understanding of core areas such as messaging, writing for various mediums, design, photography, videography, web technology, and project management. These core areas are essential to implementing effective strategic communications and marketing plans. Today’s writers need to understand search engine optimization just as designers must understand the mobile web. Team members should focus on creating a successful product regardless of the platform. On any given day, a talented writer may draft a blog post, update content on a web page, write a photo caption, prepare a video script, and compose a tweet.

Flexibility. By that I mean they should be:

  • Comfortable with change.
  • Able to build relationships.
  • Supportive of the convergence of media, communications channels, and platforms.
  • Enthusiastic about daily professional development opportunities.
  • Committed to collaboration and excellence.
  • Excited to experiment with new communications tools.

Next Monday, January 20, 2014, I’ll publish more from Ready to Roll.

Copyright 2014 Council for Advancement and Support of Education. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Leading a campus-wide initiative: What can go wrong?

This is a post about leadership. It’s about the responsibilities of the individual asked to lead a campus-wide initiative.

Here’s the context. You are leading something like a website relaunch, a redesign of the alumni magazine, or the deployment of an intranet. You’re a smart person so you’ve already rounded up executive support for the project and you have a strategy. You even have a project charter that clearly articulates goals, objectives, and a project plan.

What can go wrong? Plenty. Here are just a few possible scenarios:

Stakeholders are confused about the project goals.
As the project lead, YOU are the voice. It is up to you to be the regular reminder of project goals and talk about what’s included and what’s not. Don’t be afraid to, “Rinse. Repeat.” It’s also your job to help people understand the overarching strategy. Don’t be frustrated by the job of regularly informing your campus. Use the strategy you have in place as a foundation for talking about what the project entails. Expect to participate in internal communications about your project; in the long run, good communications with your campus will keep expectations in check.

The project is “growing” and now includes work you didn’t plan for.
Scope always creeps. It’s just a matter of how much. It is incredibly difficult to control the scope of a campus initiative. Frankly, internal stakeholders are looking to any new project as a way to solve a problem they have. (This is why your meeting about selecting a new CMS becomes an opportunity for people to talk about how much they hate your email software.) In order to launch or publish or go live, you have to have an endpoint. A limit to what you’re doing — a defined scope — means you’ll actually finish. Once you have a scope, you can’t be afraid to say it out loud. That’s how you enforce it. In my experience, people respond well to honesty. I’ve been known to say, “The team is working 24/7 to get done what’s already in scope. How about we add that to our list of phase two items? We understand it’s important; we just can’t make it happen in the time we have left.”

Your boss is focusing on consensus and risking the success of the project.
Sometimes, your boss is the biggest barrier to your leadership on a project. This may be because people in management positions filter every decision based on the personal risk it means for them. Sometimes, they have seen other projects fail miserably and they are trying to protect you (and themselves). Sometimes, they are good managers of the present but they are not thinking long term and they do not have vision. In my view, this is the real reason that campus-wide projects need an executive sponsor who can take the heat on the team’s behalf. Keep your boss informed but use your executive sponsor for cover and for making progress.

Meetings of your advisory committee aren’t productive.
Focus on the word “advisory” and keep in mind that YOU are the expert. Step into that role and build on the momentum from your past successes! When working with your committee:

  • Go in with the best answer. Propose a plan or solution that the committee “advises” on.
  • Avoid asking open-ended questions. Frame the way you ask for feedback and set a deadline for getting it.
  • Ground your recommendations and plans in best practice, research, and data.
  • Talk informally to members of the committee to get their support for a particular idea or recommendation before formal discussion at a meeting. Ask your supporters to speak up if needed during the meeting.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a vote. Sometimes, consensus takes too long.

Campus politics are getting in the way.
Yes, it is your job to manage the politics. Get over it and move on. Remember, leadership is about discipline. It’s about what you do and what you don’t do. It’s about having a vision for a project and understanding that not everyone will like the choices and decisions you make. When all else fails, stick with your strategy. Keep calm and follow the plan. Consult with your executive sponsor and refer back to the project goals and objectives to make your case. Sometimes, I was known to ask, “Why did we start this project and invest valuable resources if we only wanted to keep what we already have?”

More on project leadership:

Giving and Graduate Schools of Business

For the third year in a row, I’m writing a post about giving web pages. For this 2013 post, I’ll reflect on graduate business schools and how they use their websites to connect with potential donors. Here I identify best practices from four schools of business that should influence your own digital communication for fundraising.

  1. Offer a strong landing page.
    Typically, homepages include giving links. Often, “Giving” appears in the persistent topic navigation but with increasing frequency, you’ll find the “Give” link in the task-based navigation set. Regardless, make sure that those who click land on a strong web page. The Giving landing page at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business is a fine example. The photography draws you in, the design is clean, and the feature content is compelling. I also find the tagline particularly first-rate: “Because what we do endures, what you do matters.”
  2.  Explain the impact of gifts.
    It sounds obvious but giving web pages need to effectively explain the impact of private support. In attempts to convince potential donors, we sometimes overwhelm them with dense paragraphs of explanation. I think the infographic feature on the Harvard Business School site is a better approach; it provides a digestible and powerful explanation. Instead of mountains of text, this visual representation lets the facts shine. Consider the impact of Harvard’s statement that, “1/4 of the School’s operating revenue comes from donor support.” I also really like the HBS Priorities page because the language is direct and inspirational.
  3. Make your case.
    When it comes to asking for money, you need to make the case while keeping in mind that many donors are looking for specifics. Fundraising tied to particular initiatives, like the Kansas State New Business Building, create a solid theme for building communication around. The quotations from alumni business leaders on the K State site are an interesting way to make the case. The content on this page also includes details about the new space, making it very real.
  4. Inspire them with consistent communication that has nothing to do with fundraising.
    In my view, the most important thing to remember is that consistent communication, separate from your giving web pages, can make all the difference. I feel strongly that donors make gifts when they have a relationship with the institution. The Dean’s Blog at UVA’s Darden School of Business is current, thoughtful, and insightful. Readers of this blog will come to understand the mission and vision of Darden, and I think this view into the details of the Darden experience will cultivate potential donors. Note that I didn’t find any posts from Dean Bruner about private support. Instead, his posts are topical; they are a conversation about Darden and business education.

More on giving websites:

Parents in your audience gateways?

Parents typically show up in the list of audience gateway pages on most .edu websites, right alongside prospective students, current students, and faculty and staff. Before social media, an audience gateway like this one for parents at the University at Albany were the extent of communication with parents. You created a web page with convenient links to information that parents and families would need, and you called it a day. Now in a time of social media as mainstream communication, University at Albany also offers a Facebook page for parents. Meaning that in addition to the audience gateway web pages that provide categorized sets of links customized to the transactional needs of parents, colleges and universities are also devoting resources to social channels specifically for the parent audience.

Social media is not the only influencer of higher ed audience gateway pages. More and more audience gateway pages include marketing to parents about outcomes and the value proposition. And, many gateway pages introduce the idea of parents making donations to the institutions their children are attending.

My exploration of audience gateways pages for parents included a review of 19 university websites. I found that:

  • 13 (or 70 percent) have a parents gateway link from the homepage
  • Two of the six that have no link for a parents gateway from the homepage do have a parents page on Facebook
  • Five of the 13 parent gateway pages included the option for giving
  • About half (six of the 13) parent gateways included marketing language and messaging

Gems I found as I explored.

  • The additional segmenting of the parent audience is strong on the Montana State University gateway. Note “Becoming a Bobcat,” “First Year Information,” and “Final Year Information.”
  • University of Tennessee at Knoxville gateway is heavy on marketing to parents but also includes resource links. I like the attention spent on describing the top three reasons to join the parents association. Too many sites don’t make the benefits of membership apparent.

My favorite gateway for parents.
The most engaging gateway I found was on the Virginia Commonwealth University site. The site includes strong messaging about the value of the Richmond location and the copy is warm and appropriate. (“The college landscape can be difficult to navigate — all those applications to fill out, campuses to maneuver, courses to sign up for. We’d like to make it a little easier on you.”) VCU’s “Let us show you the way” page for parents is marketing-focused but includes the concrete through “How do we get started?” and the practical through “What resources does VCU offer its students?”
Generally, the parent audience gateway page creates an opportunity for more strategic communication with parents. When colleges and universities use this web real estate to its best advantage, strong messaging and content that engages families will appear alongside lists of links.

More on communication with parents:

Beware of monsters: lead with brand-based content.

I worked on a campus for many, many years and that experience combined with my work at mStoner have helped me understand the critical connection between brand strategy and content strategy. At mStoner, we define brand as what you stand for in the minds of people you’re trying to reach, influence, and move to action. We also think content is the best way to deliver on brand strategy and fuel your marketing tactics.

Back in July, Disney Pixar released a movie called Monsters University. But prior to the release, the Monsters University website and admissions video provided a lot of entertainment to those of us who work in higher ed. In several conference presentations about the importance of digital and brand strategy, I’ve referenced the sameness of higher ed marketing messages and used the Monsters University marketing strategy to illustrate my point. (There’s a very fine line between comedy and tragedy, you know.)

I think the Monster’s University website and video make it clear that our messaging to prospective students is so similar that we’ve become a stereotype. Consider the list of characteristics we all point to when we are asked what’s distinctive about our institutions. We all say:

  • We have a real sense of community on our campus.
  • We have small classes and our students build close relationships with their professors.
  • We transform the lives of our students.
  • We offer the opportunity for undergraduate students to participate in real research.
  • Our students study abroad and devote many hours to community service.
  • We have hundreds of campus organizations and leadership options for students.

Enter the important connection between your brand strategy and your content. Your marketing tactics — whether paid, owned, or earned — will be used to communicate the brand promises of your institution. Content cuts across all of these tactics and is the key to excellence across all channels.

Certainly, we all understand that brand is at the center of our marketing efforts. But there is a big gap between a well-formulated brand strategy and the implementation of that brand. I think content is the way to fill the gap between brand and marketing. Your brand can grow organically when it is supported by a strong content strategy. Content can bring your brand to life.

One concrete result from your institutional brand strategy work should be tools for writing and selecting photography. Let’s face it, on many campuses, we put admin assistants and junior faculty members in marketing roles. They are the non-marketers and non-writers who create newsletter copy and publish web pages and post on social media and write email blasts on behalf of our brand. Tools like these make it easier because they tie your content strategy to the brand platform:

  • style and editorial guides
  • audience-based brand promises and proof points
  • a database of photography
  • audience personas
  • content tables
  • brand adjectives

Oregon State University’s brand identity site is just the type of tool I’m talking about. Here in one location are all the guidelines, resources, and downloads a communicator needs to create content that supports the OSU Brand Identity Guidelines. Another stellar example is the The Bentley University Brand.

Brand is what you stand for in the minds of people you’re trying to reach, influence, and move to action. Content is the best way to deliver on brand strategy and fuel your marketing tactics. My advice to you? Beware of monsters. Connect your brand strategy to your content strategy and then, offer a set of tools to those creating content.