Episode 7: Staying Alive Through Digital Strategy

Episode 7: Staying Alive Through Digital Strategy
Season 1

 
 
00:00 / 28:02
 
1X

The digital strategy decisions made by colleges and universities in 2020 will largely decide which institutions last another 50+ years and which ones quietly fade away. In episode 7, Joel Goodman and J.S. Stansel make a case for assessing and bolstering digital strategy and marketing in higher education. You can read more on this topic at insight.bravery.co.

Episode 7: Staying Alive Through Digital Strategy
Season 1

 
 
00:00 / 28:02
 
1X

The digital strategy decisions made by colleges and universities in 2020 will largely decide which institutions last another 50+ years and which ones quietly fade away. In episode 7, Joel Goodman and J.S. Stansel make a case for assessing and bolstering digital strategy and marketing in higher education.

You can read more on this topic at insight.bravery.co.

Episode 7 Transcript

Intro banter

Joel Goodman
30 minutes of ranting 

Jon-Stephen Stansel  
No, that’s perfect. That’s a good rant.

Intro music

JG  
Welcome to the Thought Feeder podcast. I’m Joel Goodman with a man that is another year older and wiser, Jon-Stephen Stansel. 

J.S. 
Forty. 

JG
Yeah, old man, J.S. today is going to help me talk through something that is near and dear to my heart. No, well, it is, but it’s something that has really come to light in the transition to universities having to do pretty much everything digitally. And that is, how lacking our digital strategies in general in higher ed are to handle this sort of a change. 

And I wanted to start off the conversation talking about how scared I have been, and I know J.S. feels the same way, to see reports of institutions cutting back on their marketing staff, on the people that actually do the primary communicating for their institutions, and are the ones that are kind of the gateway to any prospective student to donors, to anyone that comes in contact with the institution. 

J.S. 
Yeah, it seems so counterintuitive at a time like this, when you need that communication, you need the advertising to go out. And in order to for long term success, you might be able to save a little bit money in your budget for the short term. But if you want your university to be successful, three, four or five years from now, cutting that marketing budget and cutting that marketing team is really going to come back to bite you. 

JG  
And I’ve been having conversations kind of personally with friends that are in the industry and friends that are adjacent to the industry just concerning how higher ed goes through these cycles every five to eight to 10 years, and this is not much different than when the last recession hit the US. As I was, you know, kind of just getting into my higher ed career, we had the same problems. A lot of the smaller, especially the smaller institutions started laying off staff, they started cutting back on marketing, on web. on people that did the very important administrative things that need to happen. And eventually everything flattened out. 

I remember Mark Greenfield talked about this a ton at HighEdWeb conferences and other conferences way back in the day, about how Higher Ed was flattening and a lot of that was due to this perception that universities cannot afford to verticalize. And the way that this goes, from my like half-outsider perspective, being someone that owns an agency that caters to higher ed, what happens is when the economy is compressed universities start looking at how much money they’re spending on their staff, how much money they’re spending on the benefits that staff gets. And they realize, oh, wow, we’re actually spending a lot of money. Now, you know, whether or not you’re actually spending a lot of money compared to the fair market value of what these people could get if they went to public companies or startups or tech companies. That’s another issue. I would argue really not spending that much on those people. 

But the problem that happens is, you’ve gone vertical, you’ve hired all these people, because, at some point, you thought, “Oh, man, we’re spending too much money on agencies and vendors and contractors. And we, you know, we can do all that stuff in-house,” you do the stuff in-house, and then especially when the economy is good, you feel like “Yeah, man, I can hire all kinds of people and we can do all kinds of great work.” 

Whether you do great work or not is another thing that we could talk about later on other episodes, but what ends up happening is once the economy starts to tank higher ed starts dumping staff and cutting all those jobs, but eventually you’re going to realize, Oh, geez, we’ve actually got to keep doing the marketing that we have been doing. And so what do you do? Well, you don’t hire people for full-time jobs, you go out and you work with an agency because you think an agency is going to get it done better or cheaper or more cost-effectively in some way. Sometimes that’s true. But the majority of the work that I see coming out of agencies that don’t have a really good partnership with a great marketing team in-house at your institution, where it’s just not great, it’s pretty subpar. 

I would say today, like now, is the time to be spending on marketing, whether that’s your staff, well, it should be your staff, keep your staff on board, and you should be spending more to beef up what they’re able to do. Maybe that is hiring an agency or a contractor. I would say don’t hire consultants necessarily unless you really don’t have anyone in-house that can take a look at these things and tell you how to improve your operations, but you should be spending on making your marketing better.

J.S. 
Exactly. And I think every university has to weigh the option of what level of in-house versus agency work they want to do and what agencies they’re going to work with. I’ve worked, in my time in higher ed and government social media, both, I’ve worked with many agencies. Some good, some, well, I’ll be frank, absolutely terrible, and everything in between. And I agree, it requires that balance, you know, in the kind of agency you work with, there aren’t a whole lot of advertising agencies that focus exclusively on higher ed. 

So, most agencies I’ve worked with are general ad agencies. The agency that we work with right now, their other primary client is the local taco restaurant, which they do great work for them. And they do good work for us as well. But they’re not attuned to all of the needs and issues that go on in higher ed that sometimes apply to marketing. And we’ll have to kind of nudge them a little bit like, hey, like, for example, we’re advertising summer sessions. That’s coming up right now. And they wanted to market it as summer school. Well, you know, summer school kind of has a negative connotation. You didn’t do really hot during the regular school year and you’re stuck in another class or summer school. That’s not really a strong sell point for us. We need to call it summer sessions or summer semester instead? 

JG  
Yeah.

J.S. 
To avoid that.

JG  
Because those students were once in high school and they remember High School. 

J.S. 
Exactly. You don’t want to go to summer school. But you can graduate earlier if you attend a summer session. So those sort of things are really important when working with your agency and having in house people that can help and work with them. And I think for higher ed, your agency needs to be a supplement to the work your in-house team is doing and buttress that. 

JG  
Definitely. 

J.S. 
So rather than rely completely on an agency, you need an in house marketing team that understands your needs and the specific needs of a higher ed institution. 

JG  
And that’s how I’ve always thought about the work that Bravery Media does. We come in to augment, to fill in gaps that may exist, you know, with our client university staff, and hopefully to expand on ideas and capabilities that they have. Because a lot of times what does happen inside of an institution is your people are brilliant and they have great ideas, but they don’t have the capacity to pull those off because of other responsibilities, because they’re stretched too thin, because to be honest, leadership doesn’t listen to them and they’ll only listen to someone they are consciously forking over a lot of money to at the time. Remember you are paying your marketing staff to be experts and they are experts and you really should be trusting what they say. 

J.S. 
Yeah.

JG  
And then along the lines of what I was saying about this is the time to be spending on marketing, everyone in higher ed is scared. Every institution is worrying and doesn’t know what to do. The majority of them are pulling their marketing. The ones that are smart, are doubling down on their marketing. They are the ones that are expanding advertising, that are expanding the sort of communication tools that they build into their websites. They’re expanding their social media presences and they are, honestly, probably beating you. Your competitors are probably beating you if you are pulling back. 

J.S. 
And let’s be specific. They’re investing in digital marketing. 

JG  
Digital marketing. 

J.S. 
Now is not the time to be putting sinking a lot of money into billboards, especially, or airport advertising, unfortunately. But digital marketing. One thing I’m concerned about with I think where some of the marketing budget cuts come from and me working at a state-funded institution is the appearance of marketing. I think there is the feeling that either donors or folks in the state legislature are going to pass that giant billboard every day and go well obviously they’re doing all right. They have a giant expensive billboard out on the interstate over the I-30 bridge, they don’t need our money or our support when the opposite is true. That’s why we’re putting so much money into advertising, right? Digital advertising can kind of work around that a little bit. And you know, if I’m doing my targeted advertising, it’s appearing in the feeds of those people who really need to see it. And, sometimes even better, not in the feeds of those who don’t need to see it. 

JG  
Yeah, especially right now I was, I can’t remember what study I was looking at. But it was a study a few days ago that shows that usage of social media platforms is up by, you know, 130 plus percent, both Twitter and Facebook, people are spending more time on these social networks. But most everyone has — and this is not just higher ed — most people have pulled their advertising dollars because, you know, in a lot of cases it makes sense. Like some businesses are not able to go digital during the pandemic and it makes sense to necessarily not double down on advertising, but for higher education where you can teach online and you need to be beefing up your enrollment numbers for the fall, this is the time to spend because everyone is spending more time on those platforms. 

J.S. 
This is digital marketing, it’s time to shine, this is the time for us to be the cavalry and sweep in and save the day. Not to have our budgets cut. I mean this is what we’re going to need to see long term. 

JG  
So, I had a couple of contracts that were still going as we as we came into this, you know, into the COVID-19 lockdowns and everything else. And part of what Bravery Media does when we enter into a consulting contract with universities, we do this kind of general audit of a University’s website and usually of their competitors’ websites. And I was doing some work back in December that’s very similar to what I’m doing now. As I was doing competitor audits, I was looking through, you know, only like three major competitors to this institution that we were working with and it kind of sucked me into a hole of looking at, like 163 or 168, University websites, college university websites, we’re looking  at community colleges, and…

J.S. 
How are you holding up Joel?

JG  
[laughs] I mean, honestly, even just the last couple of days doing UX audits on a couple of competitors for a different client has been a little bit soul-crushing just because I think the stakes are so much higher right now for universities to do really good digital marketing. And that includes user experience design, which we’ll talk about in a bit. I, yeah. 

So even today, I’m feeling a little bit better because I took a break last night, but going through 160 sites and seeing that, I guess they kind of like fit into three buckets. So one of the buckets is, “Oh, we haven’t done anything with our website since the early 2000s or, or the mid-aughts, somewhere around there.” Then there are the people that did do a redesign kind of in the early 10s. And maybe have kept it up a little bit, but a lot of times that group of people, their websites look, you know, they’re usually all regionally very close to each other. It looks like they all hired the same agency that just kind of repurpose a WordPress theme for their website without really updating anything with it. And what the institution has done since that happened is dropped an aerial drone video of their campus into the hero area. And I will say there are more than dozens of universities that do this. And you know, I remember when it was really hot. That was the thing everyone wanted to do for their website. 

J.S. 
We’re pretty lucky we don’t have one for us. And the biggest reason for that is probably because our roofs look really bad. From an aerial shot of our unit, we have a beautiful campus but bird’s eye view is not that great. So yeah, we got out of it. That

JG  
You know, and I get it. Like, there was a time when drones were getting really popular and drone videos were everywhere. Like, sure it makes sense. But there’s a level of bandwagoning that happens in higher ed consistently. You know, the old trope of “girls under trees.” And even just like back in the day when everyone did homepage hero sliders, and those are still around and they maybe have gotten better, but they haven’t gotten more useful. They definitely don’t perform well, they never performed and they still don’t perform in terms of like getting people to actually look past your second slide. And yeah, so aerial drone videos are, they look great if you don’t have ugly roofs. But otherwise, everyone has one. And if you have a typical looking campus, like typical collegiate buildings with green trees, you don’t look that much different to your neighbors who have done the exact same thing. And so it’s it’s fine, but you should reconsider that, I think. Figure out what the next thing is, and maybe not by looking at other universities and copying them, but we’ll get into that.

J.S. 
Yeah, we could spend a whole podcast on that. 

JG  
We probably will at some point. 

J.S. 
I mean looking… let’s not get too deep into it. But like looking at the COVID-19 content that’s going out right now, it’s one school posts a “stand six foot away with your mascot in the middle” graphic, and now every single school does the same exact thing. And I think it’s because somebody sees it and goes, Hey, School A has this, why don’t we do that? And the person making it doesn’t have the authority to say no, 

JG  
And just like we were talking about with our friend Erika Boltz on the last episode, you know, leadership sees something that someone else did and thinks that’s the thing to do. And they go and do it. And it’s, it just is it’s kind of systemic to how higher ed does its marketing, for better or worse, unfortunately. 

So the third bucket of these universities are the ones that actually have like, they’ve actually thought about it and they have pretty decent websites. They’re a very small bucket. But, you know, one of the biggest issues besides just the, you know, homogeneity and blandness, of these websites is the broken user experiences that I see across large, large swaths of higher ed. And at this point in time, especially when you don’t have admissions counselors that can go out to college fairs or meet people in person when you don’t have campus tours operating because your campus is shut down when you don’t have student ambassadors that can give those tours on campus because it’s shut down, your website is kind of the only path people have to get into your admissions flow. 

And, you know, we talk a lot about like admissions funnels and things like that and rolling marketing. A funnel on a website is a little bit different but similar, follow the same path. We’ve got issues where someone will hit a university website, they will have no way to directly find what programs that institution offers, or the institution gives a way, but they’re using some weird language on the buttons. So no one really knows what it is. Or they’re like driving it way down at the end of the page when that is the very first thing every prospective student is looking for. So that’s a problem. And then, if you do find out how to get to a list of majors, it literally is just a list of majors. It is like a 130 bullet point-long list of links that are the same color. 

And yeah, sure, I did the same back in what 2006, 2005 — I guess it was like 2008. So 2008 when I was redesigning a college website, like, that’s what we did. I mean, we didn’t do a giant long list. We broke it into a couple of columns, but we did do a bulleted list. Times have changed and UX practices have changed. There are better ways to present that data to people. 

But even then you have a list of links and you have no way on that page for someone to say, request information. Sometimes you just look at a giant block of text and you think, I don’t want to read any of this. Maybe I could just ask someone, they have a certain program. 

J.S. 
They’re asking your social media manager.

JG  
They are asking your social media managers. 

J.S. 
The bulk of Facebook questions I get are, do you have this sort of program? And what sort of scholarships Do you offer? Talk to your social media manager and ask what questions they’re getting a whole lot of and that might be something that you might need to make more prominent on your website? 

JG  
Yeah, definitely. Normally, it’s not just because someone’s lazy and hasn’t checked out your website. It’s because they have checked out your website and have been turned away. They’ve just lost interest because it’s so difficult to find that information that they would rather just ask a person and if you don’t have an easy way for them to ask someone through a web form or a live chat, they are going to ask your social media person because that’s the next, you know, social accounts are the easiest, the easiest way to ask a question if someone has one. So you can cut down on a lot of that and allow your social media folks to do more marketing and outreach by fixing some of the user experience design on your websites. 

J.S. 
Let me ask you this, Joel. 

JG  
Sure. 

J.S. 
So being on the inside of the higher ed world, you know, being in the belly of the beast working at a university daily… University home pages are contentious and valuable real estate. Everybody wants a piece of it. Everybody wants their thing featured there. And navigating the university politics involved in changing the website can be very difficult all the way down to the faculty who I’ve been in meetings with, where I’ve heard people say, “Well, we can’t move that because Professor so and so will be upset because he checks it. That’s how he accesses the employee portal. And he can’t find another way to do it.” And we’ll hear but no end if we move that. When really, this massive real estate is being tailored to the needs of a small handful of very vocal people. How do we speak up for the needs of our prospective students and those who we really want the homepage to be for?

JG  
Yeah, I mean, I would even go so far as to say a very vocal minority of people that have little-to-no bearing on your bottom line, at least no good bearing on your bottom line. I think, to answer your question, I think that a governance structure is crucial, even if it just comes down to one person. And if you don’t have a governance structure in place it takes, honestly, it takes a little bit of courage from whoever has control of the website to just say, you know what, no, I’m going to do what’s best for the university. And I’m going to just go behind people’s back and you know? People don’t want to do that because maybe they’re gonna get fired. Honestly, I would say during a pandemic, when everyone’s job is on the line now is probably the time to take some risks. Because if you save the day and you start generating, you know, if you increase enrollment by taking over your university homepage, and ignoring the faculty or you know, the one administrative person on the other side of campus that thinks their content is important on the homepage — you take that off and increase enrollment by 20%? You’re a hero. Honestly, you can gain ground by doing that, but it’s scary. 

J.S. 
Now that’s an interesting point. Yes, it’s scary. And it seems counterintuitive. Like I agree with your statement and I liked it a lot. During a time like this when there are jobs on the line, now’s the time to take risks. Because one, no risk, no reward. 

JG  
Yeah.

J.S. 
Two, you are the expert in your field. And you know what is best and you need to be the one that speaks with authority. 

JG  
Yeah. 

J.S. 
Every time I have acquiesced to someone’s request that I know is against my better judgment as a social media manager, but I just said “I’m going to post this because I don’t feel like having a fight today.” It’s come back to bite me later. 

JG  
Definitely. 

J.S. 
It’s either, don’t have that fight today or they’re going to come back and ask for that same thing six months later. And when you want to say no, then you get the “but you did it for me earlier.” So stand up and take the risk and say, “Hey I have the data to back it up. We don’t need to do this, or this is what we need to do.” 

JG  
It’s a chance to put governance in place if you don’t have governance, for one, and that benefits everyone. And beyond that it’s a chance for you to prove that you actually do know what you’re doing. And I mean, honestly, higher ed is kind of a meritocracy in a lot of cases, right? If you if you play into the politics game, which a lot of people have to and you just bow down to everything because you think you have to work you know, as a political pawn within it, then you’re gonna hate your job, you’re not going to be able to do the work that needs to be done. And if you’re anything like me, you’re going to be in a position where you’re looking at how your website is built, how your social media strategy is built, and just disappointed that you can’t do it the right way, because you’re beholden to some nebulous political clout above you. But if you can work your way into that political structure and gain a little bit of power by showing, hey, wait, wait, wait. I do know what I’m talking about. And I do know what I’m doing. And here’s here’s how I prove it. Not just by taking action, but by taking an action that has a measurable result that’s beneficial to your institution, it’s hard for anyone to argue against that. 

And if someone does, I mean, not everyone thinks the way that I do, but I would be I’d be severely, severely questioning whether I want to work at an institution that doesn’t value actually getting stuff done actually doing things well. Because I always want to do good work. I don’t want to do mediocre work for the rest of my life. That sucks. 

J.S. 
Exactly. And the people that do this work in higher ed are there because they believe in the mission of the university. 

JG  
Right? 

J.S. 
They could be out in the, you know, the private field and sector getting paid a lot more to do the same job. So they’re doing it because they love what they do. And, you know, if you let them go or drive them off, you’ll be paying them double a couple years later, when you’re hiring them back as consultants. 

JG  
Yeah, that’s definitely true. And that’s the thing. It goes back to there are these people that are smart and working in higher ed, which is the vast majority of the web marketers and digital marketers and content strategists and the people that work within higher ed that I have known over the last 15 years, they could get better money outside of higher ed. And I think for some of them, if you push them far enough and like, look at me, you know, you push me far enough, I’m gonna leave and I’m just gonna go do my own thing and help all of Higher Ed and places that are willing to accept help and want to be better and just don’t have the ability to have a full-time person to do the work that’s required, but can free up some money to help you come in and augment the team they do have in place or to, you know, help inject some new life into the thought process happening if that’s needed. Those are the people that we want to work with. 

Those of us that that go out and freelance or do agency work in higher ed, we want to work with institutions that actually care about staying alive, that care about bringing more students in, they care about, they care about people, honestly. Because I think a lot of times, looking at how university websites from the user experience perspective have been operating, there’s a lack of humanity at times or it feels like there hasn’t been an adaptation to how humans are and react to things these days as opposed to how they did 10 years ago or 15 years ago. And that’s not only sad, but it’s harmful to your institution. 

I think the hardest part within all of this is that I’ve come to the realization that the digital strategy decisions that are made this year, in 2020 — and by that I mean user experience design, social strategy, content strategy, you know, all the different parts that make up the complete experience that your prospective students have when they come to your website. And I’ll be clear right now, prospective students should be the only people that matter on your university homepage, and should be the only people that matter across your website. Donors know how to give money and they will give money when they’re able to, and parents are largely lumped into the prospective student category and they want to hear you talking to their kids as well as giving enough information for them. But it all comes down to the recruitment side of things. That’s what your website should be tailored for. 

What choices are made in digital strategy in 2020, and especially right now in the next couple of months, are largely going to determine which universities stay open for another 50 years or more after this pandemic has kind of subsided and this has kind of gotten under control, and which ones are going to fade away and close. And we’ve already seen small institutions closing. A neighbor to my undergrad Alma Mater recently closed, and there have been six or seven others that have come up and more are coming down the pike. And it’s sad. But to me, it’s sad because it was avoidable. They just didn’t spend the money in the right place, or put the emphasis in the right place or pay attention to the things that could make them better as institutions and kind of weather this. So I think now is the time to really reevaluate the digital strategy you were running before the lockdown happened, and before this giant all-digital shift happened. Reevaluate whether or not that actually fits into an all-digital higher ed world. And if it doesn’t modify it, change it. There’s no problem with changing it to do better and matching the climate that we’re in. 

J.S. 
I agree with that 100%. 

JG  
As always, thank you for listening to the Thought Feeder podcast. If you don’t subscribe yet, please visit thoughtfeederpod.com. If you don’t follow us on Twitter, we’re @ThoughtFeedPod. You can also follow me personally @joelgoodman and my co-host Jon-Stephen Stansel is @jsstansel on Twitter.

Thought Feeder is hosted by Joel Goodman and Jon-Stephen Stansel and edited by Joel Goodman.

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Thought Feeder is sponsored by University Insight.

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