The need for digital strategy leadership in the higher ed C-suite

Whether you care about sports or not, Thursday night was the NFL Draft. A coming out party for the newest members of pro football teams, it’s a joyous night akin to the Emmys, as top college players go from being students to newly minted millionaires.

Laremy Tunstil went from being a highly touted prospect to a victim of social media exposure that likely cost him millions in potential earnings. Someone presumably took control of his Twitter and instagram feeds and posted damaging content including him smoking marijuana from a gas mask. (You can get the background via ESPN.)

A damaging night for the brand

The NFL draft night went from being a proud night for the Ole Miss program to a damaging night for the university brand. During the press conference to address the social media posts, another hack this time to Instagram implicated an assistant athletic director at the university with paying Tunstil.

When asked about it during his post-draft interview, Tunstil admits to taking money from a coach. This story goes from being a salacious sports drama to having massive repercussions for the entire university. Because this is illegal under NCAA rules, it could investigated and cause massive damage to the institution’s football program.

I don’t really care about any of that. This isn’t a post directly about sports, it’s the need for university leaders to be savvier about the way the proliferation of digital tools has changed the way we work.

Somebody on cabinet needs to have a digital-first mindset

Most of the focus on social media as a tool in higher ed focuses on the various ways that marketers can use SEO and social media to increase traffic to slick websites meant to increase eyeballs, applications and enrollment. None of this is news. The problem is, most institutions treat digital as an asset of their marketing efforts or IT. Neither outfits is usually equipped to deal with the nimble, adaptable nature of managing a social culture. Public relations is reaction. Marketing is concerned with selling widgets. IT is about infrastructure. Digital is about disruption and modularity.

UC Davis paid a consultant to scrub an incident that damaged the university brand. I have been in many meetings over the years, where far less embarrassing things have come to light and have asked whether it was possible to “remove” them from the internet. It makes sense if you think of digital as an extension of traditional marketing. In the past, you could remove a negative ad, blackball bad press by advertising in a rival newspaper or adjust your PR strategy to reflect the changing tide. I would speculate that someone probably advised against spending public money to ‘fix’ this PR problem, but many leaders are not receptive to the word “no.”

You can count the universities and colleges on two hands that have managed to invest in a cabinet-level digital leadership. The problem is two-fold: First, consultants rule the roost with regard to digital strategy across many colleges and universities. There is a very common perception that if you want good ideas to be elevated where someone will listen, you just need to have a consultant say it. Internal voices — even competent ones — are not valued as highly. This biased extends to the corporate sector, so it’s not unique to higher education, but this doesn’t make it any better. The other barrier to C-suite digital leadership is the turf wars that involve what purview they’ll have over the various digital properties. Nobody wants to cede part of their job, even if it’s good for the organization.

I am not advocating for another highly paid person to inhabit a disruptive role only to become entrenched in the politics of the leadership class. Instead, I’m proposing that more senior leaders across the board from vice-presidents to senior directors, are trained to better understand the role of social media in our world. I think anyone in-house who manages the digital properties should be granted the ear of the people in charge, even in an ad-hoc capacity, to lend real-world perspective of the fallout of things when they’re happening.

Crisis communications can’t mitigate the damage done to the brand in a world where you can’t keep up or even see what people really think about your brand. I’m going to work on a whitepaper that proposes some solutions to this in the coming days, but I couldn’t help but reflect on these stories for the fallout yet to come.

Season 2 of #24hrsofstrategy


Season 2 of my ongoing series #24hrsofstrategy started tonight.

It won’t be 24 articles, mostly because Medium doesn’t support that. Nonetheless, I’m going to be talking about web management, the way things are and how we neglect people who manage our sites and why we need better education for ordinary web people.

Not just at expensive conferences, but in ways that people can actually get the information they need. So much of the conversations about design thinking or strategy are always high minded. They’re aimed at people who don’t work in the trenches, but are good at passing the ball to someone else to figure out how to actually get the work done. Or setting battle plans that don’t bear any resemblance to reality & hope it’ll be good enough.

We can do a better job. I’ve known this my entire career, because I’ve been at very stage of this process from the entry level guy punching above his weight to the dude in charge of an entire department of web managers across a disconnected network trying to figure out how to implement bad policy being given to me by people who don’t know what we’re actually going through; while deciding what I can do to provide actual air cover while my people on the ground get real work done.

Maybe this will resonate. Perhaps it won’t. I don’t know that I care anymore, I just needed to record the background, the struggles & my solutions for fixing what I see are problems.

Sometimes has to.

(P.S. Here’s the link to Season 1 in case you missed it. Season 2 will be a lot better though.)

The UX of restaurant websites

I wrote a brief thing on Medium, reflecting on some tweets earlier tonight about restaurant websites. My main point is the best way to understand why restaurant websites are bad, is canvassing restaurant owners to find out what their problems are with existing sites.

Just creating a tool isn’t a panacea. I can see a world where you could create a MVP that attracts lots of funding because it’s a problem that many people recognize. But if we’re talking about viability, you need an approach that takes into account an understanding of the market problems in the first place.

Too often, we want to just build for problems we perceive and iterate from there. While this works for some sectors, I think a customer experience driven area like restaurants require a research-first approach.

When a persona resonates with an audience: #NowWhat 16 recap

I spoke at Now What? Conference in Sioux Falls this week. This talk was a reprise of a talk I gave at Confab Higher Ed in 2013 (and again at Confab for Non Profits a year later) about being a “solo” or “Army of One” working as a web responsible person in a department where no one else has those responsibilities. When I originally gave the talk, it was reflective of my own experience.

This being the third time I was giving the talk, but the first time in a few years, I had an entirely different perspective. Mostly as someone whose managed web teams now, but also, lots of experience working with people who were in organizations where they felt misunderstood or believed the web could be better prioritized.

I created an amalgam persona named Liz, who was based on a variety of experiences I’d witness both in my own professional life and that of people I’ve consulted or worked with. Liz resonated in this talk well beyond what I would have anticipated.

“I do all of the things. I felt like you captured my experience”
So many people from different organizations said that Liz resonated with them. They felt the difficulties of managing a variety of tasks all at once and trying to figure out how to do it all. Here’s the thing: the talk about solos is often a difficult one because I know everyone has an individual story that diverges in terms of support and responsibilities. A supportive boss, departmental support and/or resources can be a huge boon to even the most overtaxed individual in an organization. Take away any of those components and what you’re left with, is someone who has to make a variety of difficult decisions without the internal support to achieve the goals put before them.

What Liz taught me.
In this example, I wanted to imagine a character who had various responsibilities across the organization but firmly planted in a CMS administration role. What most leaders of digital organizations fail to realize is CMS administration ends up being a lot more than just “putting things online” or “updating the websites” it becomes a job that’s part public relations, part editorial and a variety of other challenges that start to add up.

My goal was to communicate to the attendees that they’re experts, because no one else is as equipped to navigate the minefields of their organizations better than they are. Unlike situations where people are “aspiring” to inhabit certain roles, the attendees at this event were already functioning in these jobs. They’re doing the work day after day.

Speaking with dozens of people after the talk, I learned that “Liz” embodied a character who was 1) very busy and 2) didn’t feel like there was a lot of upward mobility. She’s passionate about her work or the cause her organization supports whether it’s a company, governmental or non-profit. They feel unsupported and note a lack of support from the people who they report to.

How to support Liz?
In the presentation, I talked about the need for people who felt Liz represented their story to be more communicative about their challenges, to interact with stakeholders across the organization more often rather than waiting until they needed something from someone.

I’ve written about the ways the CMS has given us more problems than we expected, namely that content platforms expect people throughout the organization in some form or fashion to contribute to the system regardless of their technical abilities, other responsibilities and so on. While it’d be easy to implement digital governance policies that indicate whose job it is to manage what and where, execution of the policies is easier said than done.

Understand the challenges your people face: I’ve run across binders full of leaders who don’t have the first idea what their web people encounter. For a long time, I advocated for a separate function for web management but I’ve gone beyond that thought now in a world where service design preaches integration. We need more people to understand what people face across the organization, but this means talking outside of just retreats or scheduled meetings.

I never expected Liz to resonate the way she did, but I’m grateful. I’ll probably revisit the story at some point, too. Thanks to the organizers of Now What Conference for inviting me, I had a great time.