Create memorable experiences

I recall back when MySpace was a popular thing, I must’ve added the band Splender to my favorites. They weren’t an all-time favorite, just a band Iiked at the time.

As bands are won’t to do, Splender broke up. A few months later, the lead singer was in a new band. The new band sent a letter from him to all listed fans essentially saying, “hey, I’m in this new band if you liked my old band check out my new one?!”

The failed premise here is this idea that someone who liked what you once did will be following what you do after, just because it’s you. I can appreciate this notion in theory.

Investing in people makes sense when you realize they posses world class skills. World class here only implies the field in which we’re playing on. It takes a different set of skills to be successful in every context. What’s world class in a rural town might not make you as successful in a large place and vice-versa. You might learn tactics or skills that make you successful but it’s not the same as being exactly the same in both contexts and expecting it to work. It takes dexterity to make different circumstances serve you best.

You have to give people a reason to care. It starts with creating a series of memorable experiences. The distinction begins with crafting a sustainable narrative that lives well beyond the time of what you’re doing. These situations vary in the minds of people differently, but I think you have to be meticulous in ensure every detail of how you cultivate an experience to ensure people leave with as good or better memories than you hoped. It can’t feel manufactured.

The thing is, creating memorable experiences takes work. It’s not something you can buy at the store because you were too busy to make it. It has to involve some semblance of deliberation and requires you to care about the end result. It’s not always easy unfortunately when other people get involved to execute these ideas perfectly or at all.

You need vision. Having made a few songs I remember a few years ago, doesn’t imply an ongoing relationship. It doesn’t hurt to ask, but if everyone does it, what makes you stand out amongst the fray?

Facebookgate, much?

I read this story last night and appreciated the ferocity with which Brad Ward and the rest of the community at large attacked it. And clearly it got the attention of the company that was the culprit.

Anyone can create a Facebook group and make it appear to be something it’s not.

Brad J. Ward reminded admissions officials about that simple fact on Thursday after examining hundreds of “Class of 2013” groups that have popped up on the popular social-networking site. Typically, students who plan to enroll at a particular college create such groups to start communicating with their future classmates. Some colleges establish the groups or encourage admitted students to do so.

But Mr. Ward, coordinator for electronic communication in Butler University’s admissions office, found that dozens of the 2013 Facebook groups had been created — or were being maintained — by the same handful of people. Who were they?

On his blog, SquaredPeg.com, Mr. Ward wrote early this morning that, with the help of other admissions officials, he had traced several of the names to College Prowler, a Pittsburgh company that publishes student-written guidebooks about colleges and universities.

From The Chronicle of Higher Ed

But is this really a scandal?

Let’s be realistic, folks. People are being scammed on Facebook by the minute and the ones being duped aren’t high school kids who could care less about your facebook groups anyway. I mean, they’ll join them, but I doubt it’s the difference maker in their decision to choose a school.

The higher ed arms race is about buildings, financial aid and scholarship bucks and other shiny things. It’s all about “what can you do for me to give me the best deal for my precious little genius.”

The bigger issue here is the fact that this company was expropriating the brand of colleges and universities to make money. That’s slimy, but surely they were just “doing it for the kids.” The real story here is that colleges need to be more proactive about not just understanding social media, but actually using it.

It’s not enough to have a Facebook page and expect it to be enough. Neither is just having a presence on social networking sites by trolling for prospective students using time tested tools like instant messaging. You need to know what you’re looking for and why.

Protecting your brand in an open environment just isn’t worth the effort or time it’s going to take to try to “stamp out” the impostors. Rather than using social networks as the panacea to your recruiting woes, finding ways to integrate it into proactive things you’re doing to keep kids engaged in what your institution has to offer.

While I can understand the fear of what might happen if someone were to induce prospective students to give up their information, it’s not Facebook’s job to police these sorts of groups, anymore than it’s their job to ensure that everyone who puts up a photo of a celebrity or who creates a fan group claiming to be the “official fan group of Twilight” or something else would need to be policed. Not to mention all of the disgruntled student groups out there, that are public and open to anyone and could be started internally by students. What if a company just paid students on your campus to create a group that looks more official to circumvent these sorts of issues?

Facebook is outside of the academic ecosystem and since its inception has had to co-exist with higher education. That was easy when it was only open to college and high school students. But now that it’s a closed network that’s open to the public, you’re just going to have these sorts of issues.

Institutions can respond by taking steps such as listing a link to their official Facebook groups on their sites. They can ensure that prospective students are being informed of what sort of social networking presence they’re maintaining and let them know that “anything else purporting to be from our school, isn’t.”

I’d go on a rant here about kids these days are pretty savvy and could figure it out, but I’ll say that’s probably only half true. That said, the onus is on the colleges and universities — not the networks themselves. Outing companies that improperly misrepresent themselves and flout trademark and copyright in the process, is an effective tactic and should deter many of them.

But for the more brazen, the only answer is for institutions — especially those who have been wary or hesitant to dip more than a toe into the social media pool — to simply roll up their sleeves and begin to come up with ways they can use them to extend their brand.

After all, this story does prove one thing. If you don’t do it, someone else is likely to do it for you.

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

Your college is different. Why not present it that way?

The operative question is: “Can students drive the institutional web strategy?”

Much like a rock band would release an experimental album, this post is experimental — as is the entire blog — but after a pretty intense conversation pieces yesterday which spurred this thought…I started to really ponder whether it was a realistic consideration.

I am fully aware of the various things to consider here and that students are transient, they come and go and we move on to new people with new ideas and the like. But what I’m proposing here isn’t really all that radical.

If you ask most people who are in charge of a college’s web strategy — at least decisionmakers at high levels — they’ll almost always tell you that the web site should primarily be a marketing and recruitment tool. So if that’s what the point is, why are we involving students at every level of the development?

I’m talking about full scale web teams comprised of student workers who research, take pictures and a bevy of other tasks that we normally outsource. Don’t talk to me about “quality” or “who will guide them” because that’s the staff leading them are there for. To give boundaries and provide practical guidance and disseminate the critical pieces of what they need to know/do versus what they don’t.

It obviously depends on the level of the expertise at your disposal and that might ebb and flow. But for institutions that cast a wide net in terms of the students they draw from, finding such talented people who have interest in such things and who can communicate — better than those of us who bathe in the various aphorisms of the college or university. I’m not suggesting that undergraduates can somehow better articulate the message developed by university bureaucrats.

But I do wonder, whether the shifting tide of message and communication will be less about controlling what we’re putting out there; hoping that what we seek to filter out will “catch” our desired audience and couple that with whatever spin we can concoct. Or if it’s really possible to provide an authentic representation of the actual experience of the incoming student in ways that will resonate with audiences, without muddying the overarching “marketing” message.

We’re talking about entire generation that’s been inundated with marketing messages. There are people out there naming their freakin’ kids after brands for goodness sakes. You think that some kid who has been twittering herself to death, who has the newest iPhone on the market before you got it and who truly believes she can have whatever she wants, cares about your cliches?

No.

So you get to mom and dad. That’s beautiful. But it doesn’t matter. There might be anecdotal facts to the contrary, there could be all sorts of reasons to do it the way you do it, without having tried it a different way. But I’m flummoxed when I travel, talk to institutions and colleagues on the ground, about the ways we just retread the same old facts, present the same old information the way we’ve always done it — and I’m mystified as to how to filter the boldness that so many of us have demonstrated through our every day work at institutions brave enough to “go there” — to people who might not be able to communicate why it’s necessary for a college or university web site to do more than “what [insert competitor institution here] does.”

I’m convinced there has to be a way that you can hand the keys over to students, who will generally have more pride in the institution. Students 100 years ago got to create mascots, make new rules and truly remake their schools. Now, people show up and pray at the altar of that tradition. I’m hardly suggesting blowing it all up.

But having worked closely with students my whole career, I learned early on that you shouldn’t doubt them and rather than treating them with kid gloves; I’ve always made it my business to challenge them with big ideas. When they ask questions about why particular things can’t happen, I try to give them nuanced answers as to why things are how they are.

Somewhere along the way, someone decided that millennials wee too fragile to handle the truth. That the realities and demands of the 21st century were somehow so significant that we needed to extend childhood well into the thirties. You have to respect people. The era of “well gee, you have to prove it to me” are over. If someone has demonstrated their talent in a manner that befits them to be admitted to an institution of higher learning then I work with them to provide a work environment to showcase their talents. It’s their task at that point to do what they need to and to step up to the plate and swing or not.

Boilerplate isn’t good for much of anything, no more than leftovers are fare worth eating every day. Putting yourself into someone else’s box simply doesn’t work. It’s no different than trying to run a baseball team using the strategy playbook of another manager. Your personnel are different. Your people are different.

Your institution is different. Why not present it that way?

College marketing via billboards

I’ve done a lot of driving cross country in recent years. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed, especially in the emergence of my higher ed career is observing college billboards. They’re still a useful resource, I think.

I haven’t done a real study on this, but I wonder how many of them are tying their billboard advertising to what they’re doing on the web. I worked at a community college before my current job and we had a clumsy web address that was hard to tell people to find. They knew how to find us and since our recruiting base was very local, it wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But for institutions that are competing in large areas, etc., I imagine to find that differentiator has to be the thing that gets to dig deeper.

Not exactly rocket science here, just an interesting topic of overall marketing strategy worth considering.

P.S. I was planning to go to eduWeb this year until I realized that my best friend was getting married the same weekend and I’m his best man. Both are in New Jersey, but nowhere near each other. I’m good, but…that’d be a stretch even for me to pull off.

Authenticity U.

Jeff Kallay talks about Inauthenticity in campus visits and admissions marketing and he couldn’t be more right.

When will folks in the field start to learn that copycatting what the big or well-heeled schools are doing isn’t going to cut it anymore. Just because you can go to someone else’s web site and steal what they’re doing, slapping your school colours and ‘brand’ on it, doesn’t make it authentically yours.

I’ve been saying this for months now, that no one cares what you think of your institution. They want to hear it from the customers themselves.

Today’s prospective students aren’t cookie cutters. They have more access to information than ever before, they communicate rapidly and one bad experience on a visit, a conversation or a guidebook could not just torpedo your chances with them, but with their friends and family too. And if that’s not enough, mess around with them and choose to ignore their needs while they’re students and they’ll stop giving you money.

Presidential candidates are making unprecedented amounts of money on the internet and we still have schools publishing bulky print materials to the oldsters, because that’s the way they’ve raised money in the past, so why change it now?

You change it now, because you want to raise money from the oldsters of tomorrow. The alumni who will run this country and who will feel less connected, less engaged and more cynical about their college years with debt rising and feeling as their prospects are grimmer than they were when they first started as wide-eyed first year students.

There are always going to be the big donors who make tons who will give to Olde U, because they want to. But what about the folks who enter jobs that don’t make them tons of money. Those liberal arts majors who seem to have a million interests and can’t settle on anything? Yeah, they might be confused now. But tomorrow, they’ll figure it out, create the next Google and old alma mater will be sitting in the dust wondering what happened.

Extreme example? Sure is. But the message remains the same. It’s not rocket science, people know it. It’s hard to institute change in settings where things thrive on remaining the same and even benefit from that familiarity. It’s communicating the simplicity of the authentic experience of your institution that will make your admissions marketing materials and especially the college web site speak to its audience.

Authenticity sells to millennials.