It’s Not About Print Versus Web. It’s About Reinforcing a Consistent Message.

Do conversations on your campus still revolve around print versus web? At mStoner we believe that print and web are key elements of an effective marketing strategy.

First, let’s summarize the facts:

Now, let’s talk about the part we haven’t figured out:

Consider this statement from Senior Creative Director Ben Bilow‘s recent post on Five Ways to Rock Your Brand Experience:

“You need the same group of people contributing design and stories to print, digital, environment, and customer services in order to consistently and repeatedly reinforce brand experience.”

I’m going to take a stand. The more centralized your marketing team, the more effective your marketing. Sounds obvious, right? Yet, in my consulting work, I still observe the institutional barriers and political considerations that hinder this kind of holistic thinking.

No one sets out to have wildly decentralized governance for a website. No one intended for the print designers and writers to be in a building a mile away from the team responsible for the website.

I have firsthand experience navigating the challenges of reorganizing and coordinating campuswide efforts. I know building a central team is not easy to accomplish, but the payoff is huge. A consistent and disciplined approach allows you to increase awareness about your brand through more effective marketing on what makes your institution distinctive.

Two Recommendations

  1. 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 implementing an integrated marketing strategy very difficult. Frequently, even our central marketing teams have the magazine staff members working in one place and the digital team somewhere else. Organizing the people responsible for communications and marketing into a single team encourages holistic work and a consistent focus on the institutional message.
  2. Build a multidisciplinary marketing team.
    Ideally, you want a centralized team that blends capabilities across media. In other words, the ideal is taking a multidisciplinary approach to your marketing messages and campaigns. 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 focus becomes the message, not the channels. 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 strategy, and how to integrate content from multiple web-based tools and systems.

Just a bit about your print and web channels…

When faced with decisions about your print and web channels, rely on three clichés:

  1. Use the right tool for the right job.
    Before designing that next brochure, stop and ask yourself “Is print the right choice or is web a better option?” Most often, you need both tools for the job. Try using the evocative narrative of a print piece for the romance of your message, while letting a website enhance the story and provide comprehensive information and details.
  2. Get the bang for the buck.
    When’s the last time you totaled the true cost of a print piece? Consider the design time, printing charges, and fulfillment. Can you reduce your cost by slimming down the number of pages? Do you have data to confirm that the actions you hope will happen after the print piece drops actually do? Would redirecting those funds to an investment in your website increase the reach of your message to key audiences?
  3. Timing is everything.
    Are you thinking about timing? True story from my many years on campus: I once overheard the anger of a person in the next office when he received a donation request from his alma mater on the same day his daughter received the letter informing her she was not admitted. #badtiming

More than ever, campus leaders are beginning to understand the importance of brand and marketing strategy. As marketing professionals in higher education, it’s our responsibility to remind them that the channels we use are secondary to what we want to say. It’s never been about the tools. It’s always been (and still is) about the message.


Making Your Website Memorable

With nearly 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., standing out is a very real challenge.

With marketing goals that likely center around increasing the institutional profile, it’s not surprising that every marketing pro in higher ed wants a website that is distinctive. During my nearly five years at mStoner, most higher ed communication professionals I meet with take it a step further — they want a website that is different from every other higher ed site.

Different is not synonymous with great. Different does not guarantee more applications from right-fit students. Instead, I suggest focusing on making your website memorable.

Your website is a surrogate. It makes a first impression late at night when a 16-year-old is narrowing his college choices. It reintroduces you to a Class of ’68 graduate who takes a quick trip back in time after friending her college roommate on Facebook.

Here are four suggestions for a more memorable website:

  1. Make it work for exploration.
    The marketing team at Loyola Marymount University understood that prospective students explore academic offerings. They knew that a quick and convenient review of academic program pages was more important than organizing degrees by schools and colleges.
    Degrees & Programs at LMU
  2. Offer the right amount of detail.
    The graduate school teams at Tufts University understood that prospective graduate students have different decision-making criteria than undergrads. Knowing that location was a key factor, they created content that filled in the gaps about what it would be like to live in the Boston area.
    Tufts: Boston & Medford/Somerville
  3. Participate in the conversation.
    The web communications team at Tulane University understood that parents make comparisons between institutions. They wanted parents to know that, at Tulane, research “isn’t just the province of graduate students or faculty: Undergraduate research is an important part of the experience.”
    Research at Tulane
  4. Give it authentic personality.
    The marketing team at Saint Louis University understood that relevant and interesting visuals make a lasting impression. They knew that animated line drawings of iconic buildings on the SLU campus would catch the eye of prospective students and parents.
    About SLU

Those suggestions make sense, right? If so, why are marketing and web teams fighting an almost daily battle against sameness on the website?

Memorable communication involves risk.

In an effort to appeal to everyone (and no one!), we often sound like everyone else, and we avoid staking a claim. Here’s some advice:

Not everything is a differentiator.
Nearly three years ago, I wrote about the Monster’s University website and video as demonstration that our messaging to prospective students is so similar, we’ve become a stereotype. Remember, certain things are table stakes; for higher ed, high-quality academics, committed faculty, and a welcoming community are the minimum price of entry. You have to say more, and you have to talk about your differentiators in a different way.

“Wisdom, experience, morality, critical thinking, creative problem-solving. This is what Fordham students take into the world.” (About Fordham University)

“Your pursuit of greater truth starts here. We’ll push you to be better, to think clearly on your own and to seek higher meaning in the service of others. We won’t be shy about it.” (Academics at Saint Louis University)

Generic language is boring.
We tend to avoid bold statements in higher ed. But generic, vanilla language doesn’t reveal brand personality, and it doesn’t engage the reader. The right words and phrases are tools for creating an impression; they help you stand out.

“William & Mary is an academic powerhouse.” (William & Mary Academics)

“So, you’re looking for world-changing research. So, you’re looking to make a difference through service. So, you’re looking for a really good po’ boy. You’re in the right place.” (About Tulane University)


Key Takeaway? Let’s worry less about being different and worry more about being memorable to those who land on our websites ready to be influenced by the first impression.

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.

Admissions Sites: These Caught My Eye

During the past couple of years, I’ve been a judge for CASE, UCDA and CASE District VIII. One of the benefits of serving on judging panels is you get the chance to see some incredible work from talented people on campuses around the country. Really, there’s a lot of good higher ed admissions stuff out there. For your inspiration, this post includes four student recruitment sites that caught my eye while judging.

All four of the sites I will mention here were winners. The Biola Undergraduate Admissions site was a 2011 CASE Circle of Excellence Silver Award winner. Washington State University and Pacific University won gold and silver, respectively, in the category of Websites: Student Recruitment Subsection of the 2013 CASE District VIII Communications Awards. The fourth site, Eastern Illinois University’s Admissions, won Gold in the 2012 UCDA Design Competition.

In my view, all of these sites are strong examples of what a student recruitment website needs to be. Are they perfect? No. Do they inspire? Yes. The four sites I reference here display four characteristics I think are important for admissions sites:

  1. Be who you are.
  2. Know your demographic.
  3. Feature the academic programs.
  4. Make it high impact.

Be who you are.
As soon as you land on the Biola University site it feels different. From the color palette, to the welcome to our world theme, this site is probably an immediate “Yes, I want to apply!” for some, and a “Nope, this isn’t for me.” for others. Biola understands that you get right fit students when you give prospectives an authentic view of what you are and what you are not. I think one strength of the Biola site is that prospective students immediately know this is an all-Christian community. The brand of Biola is clear and bold.
I also like:

  • The student blogs on Tumblr.
  • “Majors” and “Life at Biola” as front and center navigational elements.
  • The use of illustration and graphics to enhance photography (see the Campus Culture section of the site).
Biola University Admissions Site

Know your demographic.
The Washington State University site has an Instagram feel that is well-suited to the high school student demographic. The treatment of the photography, the choice of typography and the layout are all really appealing. With very little text, the homepage packs a punch and quickly responds to many of the interests, worries and fears of 16- to 18-year-olds looking at colleges.  (The site also looks good on a phone!) The Washington State University site connects with the demographic.
I also like:
Washington State University Admissions Site

Feature the academic programs.
Pacific University uses five landing pages — “think. see. teach. heal. lead.” — to cover academics in a compelling and meaningful way. The left-column menu on each of the landing pages is the list of majors! Pacific offers detail about the academic programs in a digestible and informative way.
I also like:

  • The short videos offering a sense of place and culture.
  • The theme lines like “Sometimes the biggest ideas come from small places.” and “Bring your imagination to the global marketplace.”
Pacific University Admissions Site

Make it high impact.
The Eastern Illinois University Admissions site is high impact. The use of color and photography is strong and the texture in the background is cool. The copy on this site is also high impact: “The deal goes like this. You give us four years, and we give you a future. You give us your best effort, and we give you devoted faculty and staff who work with you to ensure you reach your highest potential.”
I also like:

  • The simple navigation (the menu labels are super clear!).
  • The Life @ EIU section.
  • The theme lines throughout (“When overthinking is a good thing.)
Eastern Illinois University Admissions Site

More on student recruitment from the mStoner blog:

What’s been catching your eye?
Let me know about your favorite student recruitment websites. I’d like to feature more of them here.

Social Media Integration: Post-Webinar Q&A #connectSMdots

Last week, during two webinar presentations of Connect Your Own Dots, more than 132 of us mused about social media integration and best practices. There was some lively back-channel conversation on #connectSMdots and I also promised some follow-up items for webinar attendees. So, here goes…

We know that audiences experience institutional brand through an ever growing list of social media channels; but you can’t expect your audiences to connect the dots. Instead, you need to develop an institutional plan that will allow you to stay on message across multiple digital channels like social media aggregators, websites, content hubs and social media campaigns. Not to mention that when social media is isolated from your broader communication/marketing strategy it’s a risk. The webinar included specific suggestions and demonstrated best practices through case studies from several educational institutions.

For your reference, here’s my slide deck for the webinar via SlideShare.

Connect Your Own Dots Webinar


Can you talk about the merge, mashup and convergence of mobile/social/digital interaction? Meaning that the tools and the strategy are reliant on one another.
A few months back, I wrote Mobile + Social = Social + Mobile. A read of that post offers more of my thinking on this topic. To be effective during the convergence of mobile and social, the key thing to focus on is content strategy. We know that social apps are hugely popular on mobile devices. When your audience is using an app developed for Facebook or Twitter, for example, your focus does not need to be on the design or the technology. Instead, you can turn your attention to the content that you’re producing. So as you are creating content for social, here are just a few ideas that take into account that, with increasing regularity, this social content will be delivered via small screens:

  • Make it visual.
    Use photography, graphics and other visual elements; these are always popular on social and they can quickly convey a brand message.
  • Make it fun.
    Your audience is likely standing in line at the grocery store or waiting for the movie to start while using social on a smartphone. Use whit, humor, storytelling, and even the quirky and unexpected to connect with them.
  • Whenever you can, send them to mobile-friendly content.
    Social content is typically filled with links back to your .edu website and that’s good. Remember that there will be some frustration if I you get my attention on social while I’m on my mobile phone, but then you send me to content that isn’t mobile-friendly.

Should different platforms (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.) be used to communicate different aspects of an overall social media campaign?
Absolutely. The point of integrating various platforms is that your channels become mutually reinforcing. So, your marketing campaign on social might use Twitter for announcements and insider information, or Facebook for a topical timeline, or Pinterest for a photo contest. The idea is that all of the channels are featuring content that is on message and creating the buzz, actions, or egagement that you’re trying to achieve. (In case you missed the webinar, a social media campaign is a focused effort to achieve goals using a variety of channels appropriate to the results sought. (Oregon State University’s Powered by Orange is a brilliant example of a higher ed social media campaign.)

If your background is not in marketing/media, what is the best way to try to teach yourself and learn more if you’re managing social media as your job responsibility?
This is a very important question. In some ways, there’s never been a better time to be a professional communicator. However, we all need to stay current and I’m glad you’re thinking about this as it relates to social. I have two recommendations for you:

  1. Use social media and other online communities to increase your knowledge. Twitter, in particular, is a super professional development tool. When you follow skilled social media strategists and thought leaders in higher ed marketing, they’ll be sharing links and information that will be useful. EDUniverse and Higher Ed Live are two communities that are chock full of suggestions and best practices related to social media. Participate in those communities and get the most from what your peers have to offer.
  2. Personal use of social media is also an effective mode for learning more. And, the experimentation that you do on your personal channels is both rehearsal and test-driving for things you might try on your institutional channels. My favorite post on this topic comes from Todd Sanders. Todd is a thoughtful advocate about an approach that relies on personal use of a tool first. He writes, “My number one social web rule is to play with ‘the tool’ through a personal account before using it on a university account.”

Changes to Twitter’s API are coming in 2013. How might these changes affect those relying on Twitter RSS feeds on their website? See this related article from
Although Twitter will end support for RSS, and the new API will become mandatory on March 5, 2013, “More tweets across the web” describes the option to “…to embed interactive timelines of Tweets on any website.” So the short answer to this question is, yes, relying on RSS from Twitter as the integration tool for social and websites will be problematic. What we can learn from all of this is that the API of any social platform is likely to change regularly and must be regularly on the radar of higher ed web developers. In the best of circumstances, enhanced API leads to enhanced social media integration.

Are you free December 4 or 6 at 2PM? Join me for a webinar? #connectSMdots

I’ll be hosting a webinar for mStoner on Tuesday, December 4 at 2:00PM Eastern (sold out) and again on Thursday, December 6 at 2:00PM Eastern. Connect Your Own Dots: Social Media Integration as a Best Practice for Marketing and Communications will be a conversation about social media as a powerful tool within your marketing and communications toolbox. The webinar is free, but you’ll need to register. Here’s the official description:

Your audiences experience your brand and hear from you through an ever growing list of social media channels; but you can’t expect them to connect the dots. Instead, you need to develop an institutional plan that will allow you to stay on message across multiple digital channels like social media aggregators, websites, editorial calendars, and social media campaigns.

Remember, a social media strategy isolated from your broader communication/marketing strategy is a risk. This webinar will include specific suggestions and demonstrate best practices through case studies from educational institutions. If you are a marketing and communications professional, you’ll want to tune in!

Join me! You will need to register to attend; but it’s free! And, get ready for some hashtagging with #connectSMdots

Speaking of an ever growing list of social channels, do you remember the movie “He’s Just Not that Into You?” Well, in the movie, Drew Barrymore’s character, who was searching for love, reminded me of how marketing and communications professionals often feel about keeping up with all of the communication channels at our disposal.

Here’s Drew Barrymore’s line from the movie, “I had this guy leave me a voicemail at work, so I called him at home, and then he emailed me to my BlackBerry, and so I texted to his cell, and now you just have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies. It’s exhausting.”

Are you exhausted by so many communication channels? Register for the webinar; we’ll try to help.

In case you’d like it, here’s the movie trailer for He’s Just Not That Into You. Watch 2:10.

If you want the answers, you have to ask the questions.

Simply put, your website should offer what your customers need. To get answers about what customers want, you have to ask them what they want. Ta-da!! This even works in higher ed. In fact, you might say it’s easier since your customers are right there on campus with you. Go stand in your university center and ask a few students what they think of your website. Better yet, buy some pizza and host a small focus group.

When we visit campuses to begin work with mStoner clients, we ask to meet with small groups of students. We like to talk with first-year students because they can speak most immediately about the college decision-making process. Particularly during their first semester on campus, first-year students have a mindset more similar to that of a prospective student. We also like to meet with juniors and seniors because they can speak most immediately about the campus culture and opportunities. And, older students are already beginning to reflect on their undergraduate experience and evaluate how it stacked up to what they were promised.

In my first nine months working at mStoner, I’ve been a part of 14 student focus groups on seven campuses. In all, I’ve heard the wisdom of 100+ students and, frankly, I’m impressed. On every campus, they are honest and constructive. Their answers reflect a commitment to the collective good. They care about their schools and tell us they want to see more photography, detailed faculty bios, and information about financial aid that is easy to find.

Here are a list of favorites from the students I’ve met:

“Peer to peer influence is huge for us. Our generation is all about peer to peer.”

“This generation is picture-oriented—Facebook is what we use. You find out what people are doing by their pictures and that’s how you learn what’s been going on.”

“Please make the website work on my phone.”

“This is a creative place and a unique atmoshphere but the website is bland. It lacks personality. You click on a link, and then…words.”

“There are too many choices from the homepage. Too many endless lists.”

“It’s very hard to navigate and to find exactly what I’m looking for. I can rarely find the same thing twice.”

“You are trying too hard. Navigation is everywhere on the homepage. There are bars at the top, in the middle, and on the side. There are too many options, too many links. The homepage should be simple and usable. Put the bare essentials there and that’s all.”

“The website should be more about the students and less about the administration.”

“Our website has a personality disorder.”

“It would be nice for all departments to match or at least look somewhat similar. It’s weird when you go from one to the other or from the main site to a department and it’s different.”

“Because of all the different looks, I couldn’t tell the websites were connected; it was not the same college I was on two pages ago. The look would shift and make you feel like you left the site.”

Remember, to get the answers you need, you have to ask the questions. And, once you’ve asked the questions, you have to heed the responses. Do good web work, higher ed. Your customers will thank you for it.

My husband gave me a purple cow for Christmas.

As a Christmas present, Larry gave me Seth Godin’s book, Purple Cow. I’ve followed Seth Godin’s blog for years so I’m looking forward to reading this book.

In a nutshell, I think the book is about creating spectacular brands. During my first glance at the summary on the (purple!) book jacket, I was reminded of Good to Great, a book about the characteristics of organizations that move from good to great. We’ll see if the parallels continue.

Frankly, books like this one always appeal to me. For me, principles of marketing, communications, leadership and organizational development are foundational. After all, particular technologies come and go. Don’t get me wrong, I rely on technology. I’m seldom without it. But I’m grounded by ideas like those I think I’ll find in Purple Cow.

What are you reading as we begin 2012?

Code name Thunderpuppy.

For the past nine weeks, I’ve been working on a super secret project at mStoner. Under the code name Thunderpuppy, we were planning an out-of-this-world experience for higher ed professionals.

Last night, we hosted an event to celebrate 10 years in business for mStoner. We purposely planned this to coincide with the AMA Conference and we promised the invited guests that we’d have a big announcement.

Thunderpuppy = EDUniverse

EDUniverse is a website that connects higher ed marketers, social media strategists, designers and other professionals with resources —and each other. Thanks to Mallory Wood, we had a fun video introduction to show at the event.

You’ll find a lot of detail about EDUniverse on the mStoner blog. Check it out.

The EDUniverse press kit is available here.