Termites, Web strategy and a plan for the future

The Blueprint is comingI have a sort of fascination with eusocial insects. (I took insect biology for giggles as an undergraduate.) One of the things I learned is some species worker termites crosstrain. They start in one job and will eventually be shifted elsewhere to do other things. They understand how to work in a team environment, towards a goal.

This project is the culmination of over three years of work.. I’ve worked with a bevy of different kinds of institutions: public, private, community college, liberal arts, university, flagship. I’ve interviewed people from literally dozens of institutions public and private too during that time, too. I’ve seen how the community works, their processes and feel like I have a good understanding of how business is being done across the country at schools of all shapes and sizes. I’ve also seen the business from the agency side of things, too. It didn’t start as a fact-finding mission. After all, I was just working. But I took notes and eventually, started to see the parallels and after filling a few dozen notebooks with scribbles, diagrams and references to stuff I’ve been reading; it became apparent I had the makings of some interesting reading.

I picture a hybrid, breathing organization within the large organization. Hybrid teams that are engaged, activated and energized. People armed with insights, data and a more entrepreneurial approach of institutional marketing and communications strategy. They’ll be armed with an authentic message of how their institution changes lives. Rather than the redundancy of people in different departments doing similar tasks towards the same goal, we bring these disparate characters together under an experimental umbrella that serves as beacon that shines across the campus.

I know what you’re thinking. “That could never work here.” “You’re ignoring all of the external factors that make x, y and z nearly impossible.” Trust me, I know that TNT and higher ed have a major thing in common. (They both do drama.) But I’m also convinced that the problems are not borne out of a lack of will for something better, but rather, a lack of a roadmap of how to get there.

While there’s no one way to do web; I’m convinced we’re moving like icebreakers, when we need to move like Coast Guard cutters across the ocean. In an effort to keep up with the Joneses, we’re not being responsive to a tsunami that’s coming and will directly affect the way we market higher education to future students.

We need to become more nimble, more adaptable and reflective of the realities of a shifting economy or else, there will be casualties in the forms of closings, mergers and more cuts. Those will happen anyway. But there are ways to stave off the barrage that’s already underway and it starts with how we communicate.

People play the game in conventional ways, because it’s always been played that way. Also, it’s very hard to agitate change from within a stagnant organization. But outsiders always seem to be able to come in and initiate the changes we need to make. I don’t expect everyone to appreciate it or to warm up to the ideas I’ll be proposing. I’m sure it’s too radical for 90% of the schools out there. To this, I say good. This isn’t a set of mass market ideas, it’s about getting ahead in a competitive environment. It’ll provide you with a platform to build an internal web strategy that works for your college or university.

I’ll spend the week posting a series of videos leading up to the release of the plan I’m calling THE BLUEPRINT a week from Monday.

Stay tuned.

What I’m Reading

Here are a series of links, books and such things I’ve read lately.

Create Your Own Economy: The path to prosperity in a disordered world (Tyler Cowen) My sense is this book could’ve been a lot shorter. And it talks way too much about stuff that I don’t suspect anyone picking the book up would’ve bargained for (read: autism) but save for that, it’s a worthwhile pickup to skip through chapters. It’s not a coherent book that gives the reader a finite message. For some, that might be frustrating. I didn’t find it annoying since it suited the way I read.

Who Rules The Social Web? (Information Is Beautiful) This is from last month. But it’s a graph showing the male/female split of popular social web sites.

Measuring Success: Qualitative and Quantitative (Adaptivate) The always insightful Elizabeth Allen talks about the ways you can measure social media campaign success.

Social Media: How Much Is A Good Thing? (The Buzz Bin) Mike Mulvihill hits a home run while batting the topic of social media campaign spending asking, “How often do we need to be reminded that social media is about engaging customers and potential customers in a meaning way.” It’s a good read.

The Internet has created a generation of great writers (Brazen Careerist) Penelope Trunk discusses the notion that people no longer know how to write. I know some college professors who’d disagree with her, though.

Social media isn’t about personal relationships

I never thought I’d reach the point where explaining the effectiveness of Twitter would become such a big part of my conversations with people on social media. But it never fails that someone on a message board or in a conversation will recite the “I don’t care what people ate for dinner” anti-Twitter meme and I feel the need to put on my strategist hat and educate them. (When really, they just feel like complaining)

Social media tools are stream of consciousness amplifiers. They do more than this, of course. But their role bringing to the surface things that were most certain lost a generation ago to the public record make them easy targets for the uninitiated. For some, it’s just the watercooler on a much larger scale.

The biggest misconception about the social is that it’s about personal relationships. This accounts for much of the outsider Twitter rage. I began to revolt when news stations started assigning “reporters” to use Twitter as a focus group (Brad J. Ward smartly began using that as a way to help the tool to the uninitiated, not me.)

Most of the rancor comes from cubicle farmers. They feel left out, because they feel a declining sense of relevance about what they do. Plus, a lot of them don’t have the time in their days to engage audiences and the ones that do, find the whole process a bit too daunting. I imagine it must be like playing the same sport and getting good at it for twenty years, then picking up a new one and feeling like an amateur. It’s the sort of humbling that a professional who’s near the top of their career can find extremely uncomfortable to deal with.

Everyone doesn’t need to use Twitter. Media buzz convinces people they need to do things everyone else is doing, because it must have some relevance to all of us. But it doesn’t. Social tools like Twitter and Facebook are about connections and trust. If the majority of your circle communicate over the phone, with you at work or in other direct ways, tweeting them is a lot of work.

Heck, for some people even texting is a hassle. Then there are the people whose lives are so consumed with other stuff, they wonder how any of us have time for this stuff at all. But that’s for another blog post.

For many of the Twitter denizens, these tools get used in three key ways:

1. You use it to extend your network
2. Connecting to people who you already know (and ones you meet later.)
3. People who get introduced to you from other people.

Not everyone has a job that really warrants this sort of constant interaction. Is that a bad thing? No. The same insights, information and education gets transferred via word of mouth channels just as quickly as it does on the social web. The reason social web tools are amplifiers, is they’re taking what already exists in the status quo and helps people put messages — gossip, news or whatever else people talk about — on a fast-track that might fade into an abyss of nothingness or might be picked up and carried many times around the globe.

For some, that’s frustrating. They see the web as a place with huge pools of people, among whom, some must be just like them. When they can’t readily connect with those likeminded folks, it feels like a character flaw, so they immediately resent the technology that made it possible. They see the conversations other people have, with the inanities of favorite television shows, sports, music, relationships and so forth and immediately begin to think “surely nothing productive is going on here. What’s the point of this waste of time anyway?” While their shortsightedness is understood, I wonder how many social media experts (heh) are willing to actively say “you don’t need this. Go fly a kite or play with your kids. This isn’t relevant to your everyday life.”

Our insights are impacted by those we interact with. This is common sense, but the further people get from folks who don’t understand the social web and what their frustrations, concerns and problems are; the less acute the awareness of their problems tend to be. Staying connected to the people who have “no use” for the social web can only help those of us who do.

By sharpening our lessons through the questions of the accidental Luddites, we can improve the tools we use now and make the ones on the horizon even better.

Going for broke: The ethics of major college athletic spending

Image by avinashkunnath via Flickr

Here’s a story in the NY Times today about major college athletics in the New York State system. The article does raise a broader question about spending on athletic budgets when colleges and universities are tightening their belts across the board.

With student debt continually rising and declining state subsidies resulting in higher tuition costs, the amounts of money spent on sports might be a veritable drop in the bucket relative to the belt tightening being done across most college campuses that participate in big time college athletics. But is it really prudent to increase spending on things like stadiums for supposed “revenue generating” sports teams during a time of financial crisis?

This issue is on the brain of a lot of folks lately:

Here’s how William E. Kirwan, chancellor of Maryland’s university system and co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics put it:

“We see a situation where athletic expenditures are rising three or four times faster than expenditures in academic programs. That’s obviously not something that can continue. We are in an environment that certainly calls for — and I would say almost demands — change.”

He’s not the only one saying it, either. When 25 percent of college presidents say they don’t believe their funding methods for college athletics are sustainable and close to half (48 percent) say they anticipate having to cut sports, there’s a real problem. And you can be assured that more people realize there’s a problem and that the teams being cut won’t be ones you see regularly on television.

That’s where I balk at the argument that college sports = opportunities for students. With the exception very few institutions, admissions standards are lowered for athletes. So that’s not a boon to the institution. Graduation rates for student-athletes are generally abysmal in major college athletics programs. If the only thing that matters to institutions is using college sports as a marketing tool; to boost enrollment and alumni donations, that’s dandy. But the ruse that it’s the pinnacle of amateurism is folly in a world with multimillion dollar television contracts is all but over.

From the first article:

Jonathan Orszag, an economist who has evaluated for the N.C.A.A. the financial impact of moving to Division I, said that if the intangible benefits were significant enough, “you should expect some of that to be reflected in the financial data.” An increase in school spirit or heightened visibility should translate to higher application rates, for example. “And during the period that we’re studying, we didn’t observe it,” he said.

When you consider most institutions charge a fee to students for the “privilege” of these athletic teams, one has to ask where the priorities are. The arms race doesn’t end at the big schools, with their TV contracts and bowl games. The arms race trickles down to even the smallest, non-scholarship institutions where the difference between a glistening field and a dingy one can attract a student or not. Most of this building, as with the larger schools is funded by donations. But other times, it’s backed by a sort of debt that’s largely unsustainable.

Bottom line is where are we headed? Will the college athletics landscape look the same a decade from now? Everyone seems to recognize the current state of things is unsustainable, but few workable solutions seem to exist and so, the status quo reigns supreme. The only solution that most administrators seem to be considering is cutting games and sports in so-called non-revenue sports, so they can continue the pursuit of reckless abandon in the major college world.

While the tennis player in me hates that idea, perhaps that’s just what the doctor ordered. Students can make more informed choices about where to go, can transfer and continue with their studies. It’s not the end of the world for institutions to set their priorities, even if the results seem to be an indictment on the sports that don’t attract the bright lights of media.

In an ideal world, students growing up dreaming of scholarships would hone their brains the same way they practice their sports, realizing that’s their ticket to an elusive degree. If college sports is about marketing, schools need to start to employ better business savvy to their dogged pursuit of elusive athletic prominence. There’s an undeniable cache to being a Division I institution, there’s little question about this. For some, just being mentioned on Sportscenter is enough to send students and alumni into a tizzy.

Mortgaging the very academic futures of thousands of students, not to mention millions upon millions of dollars and the potential for a black eye to your institution; all for the opportunity to be pummeled routinely on the national stage, in the hopes of a singular Cinderella moment for most institutions is just folly. For every “elite” kid who seeks a chance to play at a high level, there are dozens of kids from his or her same high school who’ll never see those opportunities.

That’s maybe the world we live in, but it doesn’t have to be that way and it doesn’t make it right.

On competition

When you’re part of a good team, even in an individual sport, the effect it has on your confidence cannot be understated. Watching people who excel at their craft, day in and day out for years has a real effect on your work ethic. You can’t help but learn, watch and get better like those around you. It’s not always physical, especially if you don’t have the tools. It’s mental.

I once asked a friend who coaches a different sport about the notion of being a “big fish in a small pond” and whether he thought it was detrimental to young athletes who go from high school to college. He replied, “No. Once you get used to being the best, you come to expect it. It’s not so much about the ranking of being the best though. It’s about the preparation and the work ethic it took for that person to reach that level. Some kids lose it, but the good ones never do, because they’ve experienced that success and they’re hungry for it.”

How that translates to working on the web, goes like this. For many of us, the social web provides a venue for communication that allows us to step up our game — day in and day out. Not everyone has the time or the money to attend conferences. Lots of folks simply don’t have the confidence to speak in front of a crowd and give a presentation. They might ask questions. Maybe they’ll blog or perhaps they’ll comment.

For some, it’s still a very competitive world where we look to see what the Joneses are doing and then copy them, because they’re the trend setters. But for many others, just having access to the sorts of conversations that can keep you fresh and on your game is really invaluable.

It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to create the next big thing or trying to stand out in a world where everyone wants to stack books to stand up higher than the crowd. When really, all you need to do is figure out how to employ the tactics and tools you learn and meld them with what you (and your team) bring to the table.

Being the best in the world is about believing it and running your ship with that goal in mind, everyday.

The beauty of process

The most interesting thing about music to me, is the process behind it. Watching artists work their craft is one of my favorite pastimes. Everyone has a different way of expressing themselves and the process from which they undergo their work is one part superstition and one part moxie.

The process of building web sites, especially large institutional ones seems to have lost a lot of the elements of this creative process. So much of it focused on things like metrics and measurement, politics and backroom considerations, that I feel like we lose so much of our energy that could be poured into envisioning something more transcendent or creative within itself.

A lot of this probably owes to the fact that the web creative process is a function of varying degrees of artisans crafting their vision for someone else to use. It’s a translation, rather something that comes from within the institution. But even when it’s done that way, I wonder if the desire to mimic what’s already out there trumps the desire to be creative.

I recognize I’m comparing apples to oranges. But commercial viability of a web site only goes as far as the audience it’s trying to reach, I suppose. At least, that’s the conventional wisdom. Until something happens and lots of people need to visit a particular place and the five seconds of fame that the internet affords arrives in the flash of a spotlight.

I started off writing about the process. Because I feel like so much of what we do, is revealed within the process itself. You can look at the result of a project and see the fingerprints of the process all over it, if you know what it took to get there and how they arrived at the conclusions which led to the end result.

Going forward, I suspect we would all be wise to hone and perfect our processes, rather than worrying so much about the end result.