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