Know your worth

There is a lot of talk about how Americans need to be more “competitive” in a global marketplace. I don’t want to write about that today, though. Instead, I’m more interested in talking about your competitiveness and how you can make sure that you don’t lose sight of your talents and what you are worth.

The longer you do something, the easier it can get to lose perspective. If you stay in the job for a long time, chances are, you’ll start to get better at it or you’ll get fired. The longer you’re working for a company, the more you start to create shortcuts to your own prosperity.

Whether these shortcuts allow you ample time to focus on things that matter to you, opportunities for advancement or access to key people who can influence your career positively; it’s natural to get into a role and start seeking out affirmation for the good you do on a daily basis.

Whether you get affirmed regularly or not, it’s very important to know how much value you provide your company. Objective measures of this can come from performance evaluations, comments from colleagues and subordinates or from management within the organization.

First off, you need to know what you’re good at. In a declining economy, no job is really safe. Everyone seems to be cutting back and so, it’s critical to understand what your raw talents are. What are your assets? What do you bring to the table and do better than anyone else in the world?

It can be really easy to attribute your success in a particular situation to “how good you are” and to leave it at that. While that might be true — you could be “that good” — you have to recognize how much your success is reliant on the conditions of your particular job. Where you might thrive in one place, going somewhere else with different conditions and the same you, could result in a very different set of outcomes.

If you don’t know what you do best, you might never reach your full potential. For some, that’s okay, because life is a series of tradeoffs and what you do in your career isn’t the defining thing for most people’s life satisfaction. But it’s important to recognize inherently what you do best, because an ability to nurture and grow those talents, can allow you to thrive and remain confident about your career options even in the most trying economic climate.

Reading, Writing and Big Ideas is a blog by Ron Bronson about starting a business, higher education, web strategy and life in the millennial workplace. Subscribe to the blog via RSS or email.

“Be All You Can Be” marketing

The military is an marketing tour de force. I mean, at their core, they have the worst product to sell of any marketer outside of funeral directors. They sell war.

Kids these days sure like playing war games on their Playstation 3, but the vast majority aren’t interested in fighting in them.

With such an unsavory product, the services have to find other ways to convince people to serve. You know all of this. What you don’t know, is how much colleges and universities can learn from these marketing tactics.

1. You don’t need a million dollar marketing campaign to be an effective recruiter.
Military recruiters create personal relationships. You’d be amazed what recruiters will do, to get a kid to join the service. Help them get drivers licenses, bank accounts, buy them food and more. It’s not about lying to kids, as they do get a bad rap for that. (And for some, there’s a reason for that tag…) But the bottom line here is creating a connection and making them feel like they belong, well before they get a uniform and rank.

The recruiting commercials, video games and web site might bring them in to talk, the power of persuasion comes once they’re at the recruiting stage and the sale begins.

2. Your key influencers are the success stories you generate.
Even if someone has no one close to them who has ever served, having people say “I was in the military and then I had [insert success here]” is a powerful message. How many folks, especially these days are able to say that about their alma mater. The ones who have such stories are probably somewhere being successful and aren’t coming into contact with the people of whom would be influenced by these stories.

For every sad story of someone who dies in the horror of war, there are dozens more who are integrated into society, able to tell the story of how serving their country meant something to them.

These days, college kids graduate and lament their ballooning student loan debt and how they learned more outside of school than they did when they were attending classes. Military veterans talk about discipline, motivation, self-respect and personal growth.

I’m not saying that college should be like the military, but it’s clear that we’re failing at something.

3. The sale doesn’t end after they’ve matriculated.
For military folks, the hard part is the beginning. As you grow in your career, you’re given opportunities to prove yourself in real world environments and your newfound confidence is tested early and often. You feel like you’re good enough, because you’re basically tested to believe it.

For college kids? It’s a mixed bag. The “you get out of it what you make it,” adage applies here, but we can do a better job of providing students with support once they’ve reached campus. I know lots of schools are thinking about this more and more, but, there is still a great sense of alienation and loneliness that sets in from being in an environment that these days, resembles high school far more than a pre-professional growth opportunity.

4. Never be afraid to change it up.
People scoffed when the Army abandoned its longtime slogan “Be All You Can Be” and went for an Army of One. Folks thought this was heresy. The Air Force has gone through strange marketing conversions over the past few years and all the while, the Marines seemed to keep chugging away with their same campaign that’s worked well for them. (The Few. The Proud.)

But one thing that’s been consistent is not a failure to adapt to modern times. The services have bigger budgets than most colleges and universities and unparalleled access, sure. But they’re not afraid to use the resources at their disposal to change their approach, to reflect a change in the times.

Meanwhile, we have a lot of colleges and universities that are still doing the same things they did recruiting in the 1980s, that they’re doing now, only with better computers and printers that aren’t dot matrix.

So, are there any other ways we can truly change the way we market in higher ed? Or am I completely off my rocker?

Four things to think about before your college redesigns its web site

I’ve been pondering what to blog about for a while, but my lack of creativity stems largely from what I’ve been doing for the past few months. As I prepare to pull the trigger on the 4th redesign I’ve been involved with (only two of these from start to finish, the others I either joined at nearly the end or joined in progress and left before it was finished) in higher ed, I can say that there are some universal themes I’ve picked up that are worth sharing:

1. Make sure you understand why you’re doing a redesign.
Everybody wants to change their look. That’s delightful, but if you splash paint on a house, is it a new house? No. You need to really look introspectively at your institution and understand what’s motivating you to make the change. If it’s as simple as “Keeping Up With the Joneses U.” then you should come up with better reasons and save your money.

No matter who works with you on the college or university web redesign, you’re going to need to make sure that you know your institution.

2. Keep your web project team small and nimble. (or Hire a chef, pick a menu and get the hell out of the kitchen and let the pros work.)

Higher education is a pretty political place. On campuses everywhere, each division, department, office or person thinks THEY are the most important component, for whom without [insert here] the school would fold up and die a horrible death. The fact lies somewhere along the margins.

So while it’s important to get buy-in, there is such a thing as giving people “too much” information. From the time I initiated my first redesign, to now, I’ve come to realize that maybe things aren’t as rigid as I thought and I’ve shed some of my former IT guy aversion for giving “end users” too much information at various stages of a project that they don’t really understand the totality of anyway. I’ve seen first hand how getting buy-in early and often is a good way to quell rancor on campus and to create allies in the process who’ll buy you room to breathe and space to do work your magic.

But the process can quickly become bogged down by letting too many people weigh in and give their “input” and this is something you need to avoid, lest your college’s web site project become bogged down by all sorts of people who aren’t ultimately responsible for its execution anyway.

Web site redesigns might need the entire community to be successful, but they’re not community projects.

3. Hire professional firms that know what they’re doing
While it might be preferable to after “all purpose” firms that have a jack of all trades knack for “doing it all,” you’re doing your redesign project a grave disservice by throwing all of your eggs in one basket that way. I’m sure there are lots of big box firms out there that do a delightful job at redesigns. I’m sure they’re endorsed by all sorts of your competitors too, which is why you went with them, lest you fall behind the pack.

Whatever the political reasons for your choice of firm, be sure to check out smaller, independent firms of good web people who know standards and employ them. These folks aren’t trying to rip you off, will relate well to your staff and the folks implementing the site and have links to the best and brightest in the field.

You’ll be glad you did.

4. Think outside of the box

Web sites need to communicate an idea and your content needs to be vibrant and full of life. If your web site is just a copy of your print materials, you’re wasting your time.

You need to have a tie-in, but more importantly, you need to be able to communicate an idea. For every prospective student that makes it to your campus for a visit, there are going to be two dozen who can’t afford to and will use your web site as the decider in where they’ll go to college.

Whether this is a fair criticism or not, I feel that we’re not pushing the envelope enough. Big schools with deep pockets are being bolder, but smaller institutions of all stripes aren’t keeping up as well. By and large, the admission process is almost exactly the same as it was twenty years ago. Think about how much has changed since then. You can’t buy records or tapes hardly, folks don’t use rotary phones and yet, we’re still driving our primary marketing through the Pony Express.

I’m not saying that mail isn’t effective or there is a replacement for it (Especially not the web…yet.) but there have to be bolder, more ambitious ways we can use the technology and social media in general to connect with people in ways we’ve never done it before.

I have some ideas about that, too. But you’ll have to get those another time.

A Night of Active Dialogue

Active Dialogue logo

First big announcement of the year is that I’ll be hosting through Synonym, an event called A Night of Active Dialogue.

The best way to describe it, is if the TED Conference and BarCamp got together and had a baby, it’d be called A Night of Active Dialogue.

The idea spawned in part because of work we’re already doing with our Active Dialogue project that will continue to be revealed in the coming weeks. This event is the first in a series of activities this year that we’re doing to bring people together, ignite conversations and initiate action.

For one night, we’ll bring together presenters and audiences that include entrepreneurs, visionaries and creative people who like big ideas. We let 3-5 presenters talk about ideas that inform, excite and energize the audiences to keep the conversations over good food and drink before and after. Or you know, make them laugh. Then we keep the conversations going before and after.

We wanted an interdisciplinary bar night that helps people interact and communicate with folks they might not otherwise meet. So we came up with the idea of an event which are parties held at bars, but instead of keg stands and beer pong, we’ll be doing intellectual magic tricks.

You should come, because it’ll be a great opportunity to branch out, meet others and learn lots of new things. The event will take place on April 4, 2009 7-10pm at The Cubby Bear, a bar which is directly across the street from Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Tickets are just $10 and that’s going to make sure we can pay for the meeting space. You’re responsible for whatever food or drink items you want and they have quite the menu apparently.

You can get in touch with me, if you have questions or want to present.

The newbie’s guide to putting yourself out there online

I was asked by a friend a few months ago, an old work colleague, about online profiles and whether there are “hard and fast” rules on mixing your profiles. I had to think about it a bit, but here’s a list of thoughts that might be helpful, especially for young people who are just leaving college and starting the world of work or folks who are moving up the ranks professionally and starting to wonder when to cut ties with their “old selves.”

1. Don’t mix business with pleasure.
I don’t care how many bloggers tell you that it’s perfectly fine to open up your social networking profiles to the masses and to aggregate your blog all around the high heavens. The general rule of thumb is, if you’re just starting out (and heck, even if you’re not), it’s probably best to keep a low profile. If you’re an entry level gal with big dreams, maybe you’ve read “The Devil Wears Prada” and think you’re going to write an awesome expose on how your corporate cubicle overload.

If you’re going to write a professional blog and you’re just starting out, I encourage folks to do everything they can not to tie it back to their “real life” persona, at least to start out.

You’ll find that the freedom to speak as yourself is an important idea. So is making sure that you’re being respectful of others. There is a balancing act in being able to speak freely, while also maintaining professional decorum. So being “unknown” isn’t really a chance to just character assassinate people willy nilly.

2. Profiles are like trading cards….
Social networking profiles are the soup de jour. We probably all have stories of an “awkward friending” or two in our day on Facebook or some other site. Who you attempt to bring into your network isn’t really a big deal, it’s more an issue of what they’re able to see. Is it really necessary for all of your friends to see every wall post? Or every photo? Facebook has security features that will let you group your ‘friends’ in different classes.

It also takes a bit of work to organize them all if you’ve got different layers of friends from different phases of life, but it can save the potential embarrassment of a bored coworker plastering drunken photos of you from your Facebook at the office, on their way out the door. (Or does that stuff only happen on TV?)

3. You won’t get rich by simply “being” online.

No matter how unique your mother says you are, you’re probably not going to become a Z-list celebrity because of your blog. You are not Gary Vaynerchuk or Penelope Trunk. These people have found success in the real world and have simply translated it to the web. No one poured water on them and turned them into internet celebrities. So don’t go out of your way to use your blog as a gateway to super-stardom. The people who end up internet famous are more often than not, people who screwed something up and had the misfortune of having it captured on YouTube. So call your agent and tell her that you’ve got a bit more work to do.

4. Meld your worlds with caution
Pigeonholing yourself can be an easy attraction. But you have to speak on what you know. If you’re an entry level PR hack, don’t create a blog purporting to know it all. You also can’t expect that all of your interests will be interesting once you’ve generated a following for your blog. If you have a personal blog, feel free to talk about whatever you want. But if you’re writing a cooking blog, don’t be upset if many of your followers stop reading the blog after you go on month-long tangents about how your girlfriend dumped you. Respect your audience, create a conversation with them and they’ll be your most fierce supporters.

Ultimately, the newbie seeking to establish themselves online need to know that it’s all about trial and error. The only way to learn the ropes is by doing it.

Good luck!

Your personal best & 10 songs (1.16.09)

Something I was once told by an experienced Master Sergeant when I was in the Air Force that stuck with me was when I’d been through a particular course and while my performance was “the best” in the group, I’d most certainly come the farthest of almost any of them. I was recognized for my performance, was put in charge of our group towards the end of the training. I must’ve looked quite surprised and he came over to me and said (paraphrasing), “You don’t think you’ve done a good job here? Do you realize where you started from to get to this point? Everyone here is judged on their own merits, has their own goals and things to get through to succeed. You’ve succeed, so don’t look surprised. But don’t stop either.”

Ok, I paraphrased that so heavily that you can attribute that quote to me now. But the point is, your personal best is where you set the bar. Only you can know why you’re motivated how you are and the only person who can truly know what’s inside your heart is you.

1. Don’t believe the hype, especially your own.
2. Never believe you’re invincible, because you’re not.
3. Check yourself at the door and understand others.
4. Challenge yourself.
5. Don’t expect to fail, PREPARE for the success you seek.

Here’s some music for the folks who come here for that on Fridays.


What solution is best for athletic web sites in higher ed?

More and more schools seem to be outsourcing their athletic web pages to third party companies because they’re either too much to handle, have too many special needs that aren’t serviced by the current content management system (CMS) or for some other reason like personal preference.

I have a pretty interesting relationship with sports sites, because as a former tennis player and would-be coach, I have a pretty good handle on the diversity of college athletics sites out there. I speak the language and understand what coaches want pretty well. I also take great care to make sure that sports information is presented and marketed well and to ensure it doesn’t fall through the cracks, because it’s an area where at some institutions, they don’t get a seat at the table when the sites are developed or planned out and that can cause major problems.

I think the real question of “outsourcing” versus “in-house” is an issue of the resources you have in-house, your ability to spend and what sorts of tools you need. I think if you’re looking at video and other needs that might degrade your on campus bandwidth, then an external host might be a good solution. This is also a good situation when you don’t have the technical staff to support all of the tools you need to update the web with sports information the way your SID, athletic director and coaches might want/need.

Recruiting is a big part of the athletic draw and it ultimately goes back to admission considerations, but integration is key. I think in an ideal world, keeping all of your content in-house is the best solution, when possible, but there can be some major advantages to third-party options that can be “made back” in the form of increased interest in athletic programs and an ability to reach out to students who would otherwise not consider your school.

How does your college or university handle its athletic web sites?

A failure to commnicate: Web strategists and the big picture

I’ve been thinking for a while now, that there has to be a way to better integrate the work of web strategists with the institution at large.

I feel like taking web people and sticking them in the little corner called “IT” and calling it quits or say, creating new departments for them that are the equivalent of interdisciplinary studies (PR + IT and a dash of marketing or admission or alumni = Chaos Soup!) are just ways to apply old thinking to a new problem.

The way I see it, the job of the web strategist in (shudders) Web 2.0 (/shudders) is to serve as really a marketer, who uses technology. Folks who know how to hack code, create awesome Flash video, make expensive and poorly developed proprietary content management systems workable should be in IT someplace. Trying to blur the lines and create these quasi-techno folks who end up strewn about campus in admission, athletics, public relations or alumni just creates confusion and makes it very difficult to know where the chips lie, whose responsibility lies where and even if you’re the most organized college or university and all of the folks get along; you’re still going to run into problems with cohesiveness and uniformity in your messaging.

My point?

The role of the web strategist is different. The web strategist is a marketer, first. Someone who understands the institution up and down, inside and out. This person can’t just be the web monkey posting things to the web that they don’t understand. Or someone who people just call to complain about spelling mistakes on their pages or to ask how to update their ancient content that HAS TO GET OUT RIGHT NOW OR ELSE THE WORLD WILL END. (emphasis theirs…)

Web people folks need to be engaged in the process. Some folks are really good at this already and have been given the freedom to create roles within their institutions that are bold and innovative. But still too many are unable to reach the wider audiences of the institution (students, parents, faculty in some cases) with bigger ideas that will push the boundaries of our thinking, because we’re still too sheltered in our approach.

I often say that today’s youth are different than the first generation of web users who were in their teens and who adopted the web as a hobby. Millennials bathe in digital media as a way of life. They’ve been texting in school to their friends and as such, have been born as digital consumers rather than producers. This changes the rules of the game a bit for people trying to reach them and I think the shift happened so fast, many colleges and universities are still scrambling to keep up with the times.

The problem is, most don’t understand what’s actually happening, they’re just using a few anecdotes to craft a vision of what’s really going on at the ground level. Many folks are still doing the same things. Now we just have a few cooler videos to show and can attempt to “create relationships” through digital tools that weren’t available 15 years ago.

But it’s not enough.

Despite the mad rush towards the corporatism that has overtaken higher education (out goes admission, in goes enrollment management and so forth…) we don’t apply entrepreneurial solutions to very common problems. There is a failure to respond rapidly, because we have dinosaurs and humans living in the same ecosystem and to the two simply cannot co-exist.