The 3 Es

Not every institution out there has the resources or the in-house talent to develop excellent, award-winning marketing campaigns. It’s what sets schools apart among many other things; but one of the things I’ve noticed is the disparities in the way that consulting companies who purport to specialize in higher education fail to take into consideration.

After spending tons of time and money on consults, it seems time and time again the marketing campaigns end up becoming pet projects that inspire and invigorate the designers, rather than the institution. I’m not sure if this is just a function of the fundamental problem or something else. What’s that fundamental problem?

Asking an outsider to help you define who your institution is.

Schools that have a good handle on who they are and just want a company to communicate that can isolate pretty quickly what they want, but I’ve seen time and time again situations where hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on marketing companies that completely miss the boat on spreading the core message of the constituents they’re trying to reach.

I’ve boiled it down the failure to a little something I’ve come to describe as The 3 Es. They are:

Envision: If you understand what the client is telling you and can envision not just what they see their institution now, but what that means to the newcomer, you are then able to capture the essence of that fervor and passion through the concept to completion of the design process.
Enliven: I don’t care if the institution is built over a pile of dung in a cow pasture in Western Nebraska or on a shining city upon a hill in Boston. Even if the people inside the institution don’t have any energy to see what a goldmine their institution is, it’s your job to help them get there. Alter their perspective through your materials and inspire them to use that as a charge to enliven their institution.
Exceed: It doesn’t matter if they’re the biggest or the best client. Even if they are a pain in your ass sometimes and criticize too much. So long as they are holding up their end of the bargain (e.g. paying on time and showing up to meetings and making deadlines) then you have an obligation to exceed their expectations every time.

Too many institutions — especially those who lack the institutional knowledge — are failing to leverage the true power of the web to grow and revitalize their institutions. But as the career of the college web guru — and our friends in consultant land — continue to evolve, it’s our job to make sure this happens. Not only is it job security, but it continues to grow the field and give colleges and universities the confidence to invest more heavily in new media. That creates new jobs, new divisions and departments and raises the bar for all of us.

Let there be web divisions

This is an alarming, however true, point that needs to be drilled into the heads of many:

h. But in one area, preliminary data supports what anecdotal experience led us to expect: almost no one who makes websites works in their company or organization’s web division. That’s because almost no company or organization has a web division. And that void on the org chart is one reason we have so many bloated, unusable failures where we should be producing great user experiences.

Ponder. No matter how critical the web experience may be to the organization’s mission, the people who design and build those mission-critical sites work in divisions that have nothing to do with the web, and report to leaders whose expertise is unrelated to web design and development.

It’s a startling fact with profound implications—and as such has gone unnoticed by the business community and press.

You can find the rest here, but…it’s probably no big surprise that anyone in a position to do anything about it will ever read that post, let alone understand the need for web to be not just present in their organizations, but supported at the same level of other critical institutional resources.

Gnarls Barkley ~ The Odd Couple

I just love Gnarls Barkley. They’re such a fun-loving addition to the fringe world of experimental hip-hop or indie rock, depending on who you ask and on what day. Either way, they rock and they hop and this is the sophomore release from the duo, apt titled The Odd Couple.

It’s good and scatterbrained as you’d expect from them. Danger Mouse is at his best throughout and Cee-Lo proves his is a voice that is as adept as one can find in the game these days. From the Goodie Mob to his own solo career and now with Gnarls, he’s shown stellar versatility and daft skill. He understands music and clearly lives it and breathes it.

Whereas their debut LP was something of a tour-de-force in terms of its impact, The Odd Couple is a little rough around the edges. It’s not bad, it’s just a little shorter than great. The single Run, which has a video that might cause seizures was a nice starting point and is one of many standout tracks that make this album worth picking up.

The retro-feeling Surprise is probably the best track on the album because both Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo shine on it. The lead track Charity Case is also a good time. The entire album does harken back to 60s pop a bit at times, which I thought was a nice additive. If you don’t believe me, listen to Whatever and you’ll really hear it.  Cee-Lo croons on No Time Soon.

The real thing that left me wanting a bit more was the beats and the singing can sometimes can seem a bit off balance on some tracks. Plus, with this group you’re not really ever sure what to expect. I mean, what are they really? I think that ambiguity is awesome and makes them a lot of fun to look forward to. But it’s also very difficult to listen to them at times since they’re effectively a supergroup.

All in all, it’s an entertaining LP from one of the best groups on the planet these days.

[rating: 4]

The peril of dreamstorming

Dreamstorming is a term I’ve coined to describe the process where brainstorming goes south. We all know what brainstorming is — whether in an individual or group environment — and it’s potential benefits.  But dreamstormers can be a deterrent to finishing a project effectively and clearly, because they spend entirely too much time with their heads in the clouds and not enough time on the ground as nimble creatures plotting out a forward-thinking project.

How so?

Well for starters, let’s define what a dreamstormer is. We’re talking about a person who goes to meetings and asks for the pie in the sky. If you’re working for a widget company, they come to the annual widget marketing meeting and say something like, Wouldn’t it be great if we could offer an online widget tutorial where we could let potential clients build a custom widget that they can then purchase?

Answer? Of course. But does that really meet the needs of the organization? Is that going to help our target audience understand why our widgets are superior and want to purchase them? Do we really have the resources to implement and maintain something like that?

Dreamstormers want to shoot for the moon and will sometimes cite statistics as to why or quote some obscure consultant’s blog they read as more evidence for why it ought to happen. These aren’t pragmatic people who understand the needs of the institution. They are more focused on wants rather than needs. For them, it’s all about the big picture and overstating where the organization’s place in the marketplace lies.

How does one overcome dreamstormer thinking?

It’s easy. You have to know your organization. You have the clearly understand the goals of your particular project, have a plan and delegate effectively. Too often, it’s easy to plan projects the way they’ve “always been done” for fear of stepping on the toes of people who have “always had the bread in their oven” so to speak and have sliced it the way they’ve seen fit. While it might serve them best, since they are the ones who are always well fed, it might be incumbent upon those in other areas who are left to deal with this prospect to suggest that “maybe it’s time to change the way we slice bread around here.”

I recognize that there are all sorts of internal political battles that one has to negotiate in these situations. But this entire piece is focused on people who are stakeholders and in a position to say something that might make a process run better to not just complain, but to have a better idea in place of the status quo and understand why that suggestion makes sense.

How does dreamstorming start?

It starts when two people or more are talking. They something like, “Wouldn’t it be great if we…” Someone else joins into the conversation and agrees. They develop a consensus and before the end of the conversation have said the same thing in three or five different ways. They leave and one of them is uniquely frustrated with “how the process works” and “wishes things were different.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with thinking about big ideas or trying to think outside of the box to challenge an organization in some critical ways. But dreaming about it isn’t going to anyone anywhere.

So when that person leaves the group, they start dreaming about ways to change the status quo. They might propose big ideas in meetings that require a ton of institutional buy-in at levels higher than theirs and challenge fundamental ways that the place runs.

In other words, they will never work. So while folks might smile, nod and even agree privately to what they’ve said. None of it matters a lick. They might as well be asleep, because all they’re doing is dreaming.

Organizations could avoid this more by inspiring their people to think outside of the box and to embrace this thinking. You hear about its successes and what it does to invigorate companies like Google.  But people themselves need to understand their roles and how their organizations work. If they do, it’ll become easier to avoid becoming a dreamstormer and easier to affect change in small, incremental and potentially lasting ways.

Articles & Posts worth noting

The NY Times did a story on a synagogue of Black Jews in Chicago.

Dan McCarthy did a post recently called A Libertarian Syllabus. In short:

a four-year course of study that will take students from the basics of free-market economics and the Constitution into the deeper waters where theory, history, and policy meet.

He’s a smart, informed guy who I appreciated for his willingness to engage people who make well-informed arguments.

In my blog about higher ed new media and web stuff, I wrote a post today detailing the path to becoming a web content geek at a college. It’s not the only way, but it’s at least explained better than anything else out there — as it there wasn’t anything I could find about it back when I got started doing this — so I decided to put something out there.

Workaholics

I think this post from Seth Godin’s blog pretty much explains my passion for what I do and why I do it:

Workaholics

A workaholic lives on fear. It’s fear that drives him to show up all the time. The best defense, apparently, is a good attendance record.

A new class of jobs (and workers) is creating a different sort of worker, though. This is the person who works out of passion and curiosity, not fear.

The passionate worker doesn’t show up because she’s afraid of getting in trouble, she shows up because it’s a hobby that pays. The passionate worker is busy blogging on vacation… because posting that thought and seeing the feedback it generates is actually more fun than sitting on the beach for another hour. The passionate worker tweaks a site design after dinner because, hey, it’s a lot more fun than watching TV.

It was hard to imagine someone being passionate about mining coal or scrubbing dishes. But the new face of work, at least for some people, opens up the possibility that work is the thing (much of the time) that you’d most like to do. Designing jobs like that is obviously smart. Finding one is brilliant.

Planning the next big thing, Pt. 2

If you read this post where I discussed how I ‘officially’ plan an idea from the concept stage to the “ok, I think I’ll do it stage.” After that beginning stage, you transition to the “So What Now?” stage. It’s comprised of three fundamental questions:

  1. On the way there, I thought of this…I reserve this one for trying to delve into things that come to me after I’ve begun the development process. Sometimes, it’s a helpful tool when I’ve fleshed out a project far better than I anticipated or took it in a direction that I didn’t initially believe it would go. This gives me the chance to go further into where it’s headed and to redirect the deal if it needs to be done at that point.
  2. But this is a problem to keep in mind…Obviously problems will crop up at all times, but here is the opportunity to lay out a few of the things that you might not have envisioned and how you’ll deal with them maybe. 
  3. So what now? If you’ve redirected the project, a chance to lay out what’s next. Or to solidify plans and list action steps.

The three questions should help you along as you’re developing your idea to start to prod yourself into thinking of the things that you can come up with on your own. It’s obviously not the same as the collaborative process, which will yield other things, but it’s helpful for yourself as the project lead to be able to flesh out what’s going on moving forward.

The best thing about this is to be methodical and to keep yourself focused on the goal, because sometimes as you go through a project it barely resembles it original self as you get towards the end if you’re not careful. This is a chance to frame the idea from the start and then to constantly develop from the basic premise of what it is you’re trying to accomplish. It also forces you to constantly attack the idea.

If you’re an idea maven, coming with ideas is very easy to do. Executing them can be the difficult part and this process is focused on the execution and completion, rather than the dreamstorming (which is a whole ‘nother post completely) which can go on forever if you let it.

How to become a college web person

I became a “web content” person completely by accident. I saw a job posting, thought I had the skills and applied for it having no idea such jobs actually existed. I mean, we all know that there are web designers or web developers in most places. But a person solely designated just for content? No way, right? Well…it depends on where you go.

I’ve been asked more times than I can remember in recent years, how it’s possible for one to get into this field. There is no real uniform way, since every institution has their own sets of rules, requirements and desires in a potential person in a seat similar to this one. It’s also evolving faster than one can necessarily keep up with. But here are a few starting points that might help:

  1. Have a working knowledge of HTML and new media tools such as blogs, how to develop and deploy podcasts. Some places don’t require their web content person to know much about HTML, because they use content management systems with WYSIWYG interfaces, preferring someone with a journalism background who can edit and rework content, rather than hiring a full-time web geek in a PR office. But it’s still handy to know how to get yourself out of trouble in a CMS and knowing some code will help you there.
  2. Knowing how to write will get you far. It does differ at each institution, but I’ve seen working with a number of institutions — especially smaller schools where people have to wear multiple hats — that it’s handy to know how to write and edit copy. If you can’t, #1 becomes especially important. But if you have a balance of both of these, it’ll make you a marketable person. I think it’s almost more important to know how to write and edit, than it is to know web stuff. You can always learn how to hack through code when you need it. But learning how to write is a skill that doesn’t come quite as easy. Again, it depends heavily on where and what you’re apply to do. But…in most content roles I’ve seen, this is something that’s put at a premium. p.s. if you have clips, assemble them and ask if they want them.
  3. People skills are a good thing to have. Being a web content guru isn’t the same as being an IT person. You’re often put as the unofficial liaison between public relations, (new media or communications) IT, admissions and sometimes the entire campus (especially at small schools.) People will always assume you’re an IT person and get confused about what your role is. It’s critical to be able to work with lots of different kinds of people and to communicate with them about the web and to solicit their feedback and ideas.
  4. WER IZ UR PORTFOLIO? If you’re a web guru, you’ve worked on sites or have sites you current maintain. It’s pretty handy — if they’re not on your resume — to have a set of them you’ll want to provide for them. If you have a personal web site, it’s useful to include that with your resume and have a section on the site where they can find these. I don’t do this all of the time, but if I’m actively searching for jobs, I’ll take the time to rework my site for potential employers. (However, I’d never put my resume out on the web for anybody to search and download. That’s just crazy.)

It’s important to know the job description because while it’s not always accurate — expect it to diverge, as with most jobs — it’ll give you an idea of what they’re looking for. If the person you’d be replacing is on the hiring committee, asking that person questions about the job is a really good thing to do. You have to know as best you can what’s expected of you and whether your skill will be a good fit for the institution.

These ideas are just a start. In regards to looking for higher ed web content jobs, I’ve found resources such as indeed.com, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Higher Ed Jobs as good resources to knowing what’s out there. Looking at individual school sites can always be very fruitful since a lot of times searches are “national” and might not be listed in any of those publications. It just depends on where you want to work.

Another hint when searching is to look for “web content” as an open-ended query. Because every school has different nomenclature for these roles, each requiring a different set of experiences. Some other titles include “New Media” in the title. It just depends on the school. The trajectory for working “up the ladder” as I’ve seen it — though this isn’t universal — is something like this:

(from lowest to highest)

1. Specialist
2. Editor/Coordinator
3. Manager
4. Director

I’m sure there are others ideas out there, but this should be a start. I’m going to eventually write a post on negotiating your deal if you get offered the job, because I know there have to be other people out there who were like me going into this stuff and having no idea how to do that or what small tips to keep in mind.