When being first doesn’t matter

You might say, “if we’re not among the first, they won’t find us.” But it’s not necessarily true.

If you offer something superior to an audience that’s receptive to it and make people happy, they’re going to spread the word. What separates top-tier institutions from those on the lower rung is approach and preparation. They’re not afraid to spend in a manner that will benefit them later and they don’t always take the conventional path to success.

Eventually though, institutions become successful, get big and change their entire approach. They forget what got them to the top and start to discover the competition that you once lapped starts to catch up.

Does it matter if you’re first if what you’re getting is a lot of noise? For everyone conversion you make on an application or a potential student, there’s ten more who have no interest who’ll get in touch anyway in an effort to extend their options. This is great for them, but bad for you and the overstretched people on your team.

If you’re not attracting the right kinds of people to your site, is showing up first really all that important? Being first to the people who are looking for you, matters more than anything. But finding those people might require different things than what you’re currently investing your resources into.

Don’t spread your message (too thin)

The Message album cover

It can be really easy to spread yourself too thin. Multiple blogs, content in lots of different places and spreading a message that you feel has power to the point where it can barely be heard anymore.

Do you do this to your key messaging? It happens you don’t have a strategy.

There’s nothing gimmicky about planning your content. You need to go into every web site launch, microsite development or even the creation of social networking profiles like Facebook and Twitter a plan for how you intend to utilize them. This plan can grow, adapt, change or anything else, but before you decide to “push the button” you need to understand some critical pieces to the puzzle:

1. Who are you trying to reach?
If you’re just creating a venue to keep up with the Joneses, that’s fine. But you might want to think more carefully about precisely who will read what you’re putting out there and if it’s providing you with the ROI you want. If not, you need to rethinking whether you should do it at all.

2. What’s your goal?
Increase enrollment? S
ell widgets? Whatever you’re trying to accomplish, there needs to be an overarching goal for what you’re doing. Once you decide, see it through. Changing horses in mid-stream when you are gaining steam (or readership or followers) can be a bad signal and can alienate those who trust your brand. At the same time, it’s a lot smarter to change your gameplan at halftime than it is to just quit or ignore the statistics. If you’re not reaching anyone, you need to do the research to find out why and doing what it takes to get back on the winning path.

3. Think your message through and communicate effectively.
It’s not always about “just saying something.” You need to think about your medium and your audience. Will it do more harm to say nothing than it does to say something that might alienate people who value you for some specific purpose? Perhaps posting less frequently, but being more effective can ensure that your message is clear, effective and is heard.

4. SEO is not enough.
Having a strong SEO strategy isn’t enough. You need to have a well-articulated plan that addresses the audiences you’re trying to reach. Because if people can find you at the top of Google, what will they find once they get there? If you’re driving tons of traffic to a site or to messaging that’s ineffective, have you really advanced your goals or hindered them by putting more eyeballs on your failures?

You need to be ready when people show up to showcase your institution, organization or program. You want people to do the work for you and that’ll happen if you have a message that’s ready to be made viral.

Who does your process benefit?

Challah (Recipe)
Image by Ruthieki via Flickr

The other morning, I stopped at a chain bagel joint to get a bit of breakfast. I’d never been to this particular place before, so immediately upon walking in, the process was a bit jarring.

How things are supposed to work are: You walk in, someone takes your order and gives you a ticket. You take this ticket to the register to pay and then you wait for them to call your name to pick up your order.

I can see what the people who designed this system were thinking.

1) The ticket ensures the person’s order is right and that the customer can see a copy of it, before the register person takes it. Minimizes error and less angry customers who complain you got their order wrong, because it’s right their hands. 2) More customers are processed quickly and then people who just order something fast, aren’t waiting for people with more elaborate orders. More happy customers processed, more money made. Cha-ching.

Except when the process fails to work.

What happens when the order taker isn’t there to take an order? And you have no signs above informing neophyte customers of “the process?” Oh right. Signs are bad. Because it then makes the customer feel like they’re being herded like cattle. Instead, don’t have signs. The regular customers will figure out the process after a few times, because even though it might be jarring at first, the food is worth it and they’ll keep coming back.

Right? Probably when you’re a chain and can afford to roll this process out in enough places that people begin to learn and it stops being a problem. But what if you’re a minnow and can’t afford to make this happen with your processes? What happens when the process breaks down?

Someone doesn’t know the rules and mucks things up? Do you penalize the customer for not knowing the process? Some processes make sense. You need a passport? There’s a process for that, steeped in some pretty logical reasoning. The stakes are high and if you can’t follow the rules, you can’t get what you want.

Does anyone test these processes before foisting them onto the world to deal with? Probably, but who’s perspective are we looking out for? The person who has to used these systems? Or the people building them? Do we align our offices or our programs aimed at a particular audience (e.g. students) with those people in mind and making the process efficient and yet, easy for people to use? (Judging by most educational forms, I’d argue the answer is no.)

Who do your processes benefit?

Fear, loathing and social media

SAN FRANCISCO - DECEMBER 29:  Cars drive by a ...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

It’s been a busy week for social media in places we’d never really expect to hear talking about it.

First, the US Marine Corps announced a one-year ban on social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and the ilk, citing security concerns.

Then, the San Diego Chargers fined player Antonio Cromartie $2,500 after he tweeted about the poor chow at the team’s summer training camp. Teams fine players for speaking out all of the time, so this isn’t exactly a precedent, except that the speaking out in this case was using a digital media like Twitter.

So what does this all mean? Someone needs to do a bit of education.

Banning technology does little to stop the problem. I mean, it’s like slapping the hand of a kid. Even if you explain why they can’t do something, they’re just going to work that much harder to try to do it. This isn’t rocket science.

The real question is, how do organizations and institutions leverage social media and learn to control their message in a world where message control no longer exists? How do you reach audiences with the information you want them to have, while ensuring the negative stuff doesn’t run amok?

Women’s sports leagues in golf, soccer and basketball have embraced these social tools as a way to reach an audience that eludes them during the season — since their attendance tends to be lower for games — while established leagues are looking to clamp down.

Other than the somehow unpractical nature of having someone using their cell phone on the sidelines and the distraction it can be from the game and mixing it up with teammates, the real problem here — that the sports leagues and Marines share — is one word.

Fear.

If you don’t understand something, you shy away from it, rather than taking the time to understand it. You create redundant technology, because you don’t understand what people are really trying to do is reach out to people they’re closed off from. There are ample opportunities for teams and organizations to learn more about these social tools, how they work and how to create policies and strategies that help them thrive in a digital world.

Sorting through the mess of information

Story today in the NY Times, talking about the digital age and how we’ve got more information than we literally know what to do with…at our fingertips.

And there is just too much information. We can have thousands of people sending us suggestions each day — some useful, some not. We have to read them, sort them and act upon them.

As we pay for them with our time, the human need for surprise presents an opportunity for new businesses. Can someone sort the information and provide the relevant thoughts to the specific person who doesn’t yet know he needs it? Facebook is providing some tools to subdivide friend lists, so posts from the cat-video coterie won’t interfere when you’re jousting with political-news fanatics.

So the question is, are we learning more? Or are we paying attention less? We’re not going back to the Dark Ages anytime soon, so it’s no longer a question of whether or not it’s acceptable. I think instead, we have to look at what we have at our disposal in terms of social tools and other mediums and recognize that there’s still much work to do be done. So much to say and yet, the lowered cost of sending a message means it can be easier for people to waste our times with useless garbage. Those little minutes start to add up.

What we’ll do with them, will determine how the next year shape up. But it’ll also determine who we talk to, how much we communicate with those individuals and how much time we’ll be able to devote to devoting our time to the things that we once found meaningful that often get swallowed up in a digital world — simple pleasures like listening to records, writing letters or :gasp: face-to-face conversations — can often be lost in a world where we need to know quick fast and in a hurry.

Every tweet, every text and even the times we call, can seem so innocuous that we hardly recognize the intrusiveness of someone interrupting things that used to be uninterrupted like grocery shopping or road trips to far flung places. It changes the way we interact with each other.

So what’ll it be? Will an entire industry crop up around information sorting? Or will we learn to get better at parsing what’s important and what’s not?