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.

Never stop practicing: Why I started making Vine videos

The problem with moving up the ranks is you do less and less of the hands on work. In my most recent role, this really bothered me more than it had in the past. In previous jobs, I’d always had a hand (or more than that) of doing things regardless of what my title was. But all of a sudden, my new job was to go to a lot of meetings and drone on about policy and strategy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m really good at that. I haven’t met a meeting I couldn’t cut in half and even when you can’t do that, I am perfectly fine in situations where we have to handle the business of tactics. It’s where I thrive.

I still like being connected to the work. I encourage my staff to come to me and talk about the things they’re building. I’ll often peer around in code and see how things are built. I want them to be excited about the things that are happening on the dev side and I made use of administrator rights to understand how the system worked because if everyone leaves, I felt like it was important for me to know how to keep operations managed.

That brings me to Vine.

One of the other issues with leading a digital media operation is how little time you get to actually play with the tools that we’re using. We didn’t use Vine much at my last spot, so this wasn’t the specific tool. It’s been around a while and I hadn’t had a real use for it. I don’t watch many despite friends who will often try to get me to watch them.

Sports fixed this problem for me.

As I spend my time on other things, my love of sports doesn’t abate. I just spend less time keeping up with the day-to-day of things. So that’s where a tool like Vine is really helpful. Whether it’s remembering a highlight, meme or something, I really liked how it was a way to stay connected to the action.

As a baseball fan, this was particularly frustrating because MLB teams aren’t the best at staying connected to Vine in-game as opposed to other sports (like the NBA) where you can get in-game Vines easily. It wasn’t a major league baseball game that drew me to Vine, it was this bat flip from a Korean game.

No one had made a Vine. As with many baseball highlights, I didn’t expect it would ever get made. Baseball has the 2nd oldest fanbase after golf, so the people who make Vines probably aren’t watching. Therein lies our conundrum.

Since that maiden Vine I made myself (which has looped 12k times since I posted it) I’ve dove back in a few times and have apps on my phone that make cutting Vines a lot easier. None of this is groundbreaking for those who spend their days doing this, but for someone who is social media savvy otherwise, being able to play with a tool that I didn’t use for work — just for myself — was the best way for me to get a handle on how to use it and developing tactics around it.

As more and more digital leaders elevate to the C-suite, executive boards and leadership teams, it’s critical for us not to lose sight of what got us here in the first place. Whether it was tinkering, developing, building and being brainy at 3am, maintaining your love for the tools and being willing to immerse yourself without a bottom line is the key to staying sharp.

What I’ve learned on Periscope

My record as a early adopter to most platforms is mixed. I had a twitter profile early on and then deleted it before coming back seven months later. In recent years, I’ve been on everything I can get my hands on, just to see how people are using it. Things like Posterous (RIP) actually helped me with my own desire to get words out. Tumblr I didn’t like at first, but after returning to it I found a place for it and managed to build a blog there with over 99,000 followers (albeit over 4 years.)

The problem with most tools is finding a place for them in your life. Ello had this problem. It’s fine, but without a community of people you can reach to, it gets exhausting to share without any feedback. If you’re doing it for a specific purpose — trying to write a book or just need to vent in a semi-public space — then it’s not as bad. But most people don’t have that kind of time.

So let’s talk about Periscope. For those of you who aren’t aware of Periscope or Meerkat — they are live streaming apps. You fire it up — Periscope only available if you have a Twitter account — and can begin streaming whatever you’re seeing.

I began using it in a taxi cab. It wasn’t really scientific, I just wanted to try it and dove in and did it.

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I periscoped for screenshot for this post

After three weeks of doing it, I’m at over 4,600 likes which who cares about vanity metrics. But it has given me enough experience to post some takeaways especially since there are more and more institutions asking questions about how best to use Periscope to spam connect with their audiences.

1. Remember that most of the people you’re trying to reach aren’t there yet

You try telling the taxi driver or anyone else really about Periscope and you’re likely to get blank stares. People aren’t using it yet, so you have to remember this is the Wild Wild West of the app. Maybe you can get a few savvy folks to click, but it’s not a tool that you can use religiously to get people to watch all of the time because unlike television, it’s random and it’s all about getting people when they’re doing something else. Or just bored enough to tune into Periscope to see what’s happening.

So don’t view this gold rush as the panacea to your connection issues, it’s likely not.

2. Engagement is about showing people interesting things
When we went to the Seattle Aquarium, lots of people were interested and gave me likes for showing stuff they wanted to see. It was almost a guided experience for them. This kind of uniqueness can’t be bought. So if you have something interesting on your campus you want to show off that people might not get otherwise? Have at it.

Just remember this is an engagement tool, not an app simply to live stream because live streaming tools already exist and can provide much better quality. Periscope is used best for random, ephemeral things that you might not waste the time to get a real camera out to broadcast. So your spring concert probably isn’t a great candidate to Periscope. But having a student Periscoping the student section at a rivalry basketball game? Now we’re talking.

3. When people start leaving, I end the stream
Because it’s just a random event, I don’t tend to spend a lot of time broadcasting if no one is watching. If whatever I’m showing isn’t resonating, then I just kill the stream and maybe come back later. This is just the character of my stream, in part because I’ve been traveling a lot lately so it fit what I was trying to do. I suppose if I had a different pattern, there might be a reason to do it longer, but I haven’t seen any evidence that people start streaming back in at any real number once you start losing them.

4. Showing faces + talking helps unless it’s a truly captivating event
People want to see people. So if you’re not talking or narrating what’s happening, then you need ot be showing something compelling enough to hold people’s attention. I think people just want to reach out to the universe and Periscope gives them a way to do that. So indulge.

5. Ask yourself why


I say this all the time with any platform. Understand your goals and what you’re trying to achieve. I think experimenting is totally cool, but if you’re going to invest energy and institutional resources with this, understand what you want to accomplish from it as you do it at the very minimum.

So if you’re considering Periscope, DIVE IN. The more people on the network, the more interesting it’ll be. Let your students play around with it for a day and see what they come up with. Or just test it out yourself.

While it’s not likely that anyone will initially be watching, you will find yourself trying things outside of the box that you might not on a different platform.

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On ants & web leadership

Who would you call if you had an ant infestation in your house? A plumber? Your doctor? A nationally recognized entomologist who is only available a few times a year and has only researched ants and not actually ever deal with infestations?

If your replace “ant infestation” with “university website” for many higher ed marketers, the answer would not be the obvious one — an exterminator.

The reasons for this are varied, but if we continue further with the analogy, in higher education marketing the conversation would probably involve a committee of twenty people, (none of whom are trained in insect biology, because we wouldn’t invite any of them to the meeting) and the conversations would probably go something like this:

  • “An exterminator wouldn’t understand the complexities of our household.”
  • “What if there is a value to having ants crawling all over the kids toys or our furniture?”
  • “Is there research someplace that indicates that we should let the ants stay? Should we conduct a study?”
  • “We need to have an outside consultant who only does research on ants to come in and present this to the board of directors before we hire the exterminator and when we do hire an exterminator, it should be someone external to the organization and not our own in-house solutions.”

This is an extreme example and a bit facetious, but the point remains. We have a problem that boils down to inability to trust our experts. Web problems are local, because websites and the content contained therein is made up of people.

So many of our web decisions are made incorporating lots of people who have no idea what they’re looking at. The problem isn’t always the doers, it’s the fact that people who lead the web don’t always do a great job of explaining the processes, standardizing our internal frameworks and helping the people who work on the non-technical (mostly business & marketing side) side of things to understand where they begin and where we end.

After my AMA Higher Ed talk, I asked the audience how many of them had put the web in marketing and almost everyone had. When I asked how many had implemented governance, no hands went up. Our problems are complex and require an understanding not just of technology, but a grasp of how websites work and the complexities contained therein.

We’re all using the same tools, but we use them differently.

I don’t get notifications for text messages. Like when I have a text on my work iPhone, I turned off any notifications and so the only way I know if I have a text is if I hear the little vibration on the phone or I check independently. (Note: I don’t like phone ringers, either.) There are so many ways to use the same kinds of tools that we don’t think about how people are interacting with the same tools. We talk a lot about user experience, but don’t recognize the inherent differences of our individual experiences. We trust these tools to communicate, but imagine sending a letter to someone and assuming they’ve not only received it but read it.

Governance isn’t a panacea to solving the problems that affect our websites and the experiences we have with them, but it’s a start to the conversation.

The Website is your problem

The idea that senior leaders can ignore the web and leave it to people within the organization is over. As a 21st century leader, you need to have dexterity of understanding how social platforms and websites impact your company’s bottom line.

For years, I’ve worked within highly matrices organizations and often had a direct reporting line to the President. In the early days of the web, websites often ended up in marketing shops where brand officers who didn’t understand the web would rely on the technical expert to relay the critical information to senior leaders.

Coming up on the web during the formative years of its presence in the enterprise left me with unusual opportunities for a junior person to rub elbows and learn from senior leaders. A funny thing happened in those early years, those leaders listened to me! Imagine my shock when a college President says “let’s listen to Ron.” This gave me incredible confidence in my abilities from the start. Having spent time in the military gave me respect for the executive suite, but the beauty of my time on active duty was how much people senior to me would elevate me to situations where I had to learn and lead — even if I felt like I didn’t know the answers, I learned and improved steadily.

The problem in 2015 is the web and digital space is so complicated that even small organizations are recognizing the inherent difficulties associated with how to manage and cultivate a digital presence. Senior leaders at the VP level need to be actively engaged not just in the message, but in the tools used and methods which we measure our impact in the digital space.

I’m not going to turn you into a digitally savvy leader in one article, but here are some key questions to ask of the people leading your digital & web presence:

1. What social platforms are we currently on? What was the process for choosing them? Is there an underlying strategy behind our approach? Does it align with specific strategic goals?

2. Are we measuring traffic to our website in something other than Google Analytics? Can you show me a visual comparison of traffic during key times this over the last three quarters? Are there trends we can extrapolate from that traffic to make assumptions about our customers?

3. If a person in a random office somewhere (not an executive) within our organization needed something added to the website would they know who to contact? Do we have a web governance structure? Does only one person have the keys to our web presence? Do we have a plan if that person leaves or is otherwise unavailable?

The key to these questions is, you might not always understand the answers when they’re told to you and it doesn’t really matter if you do. The exercise of being exposed to this infrastructure is what matters. If you ask your physical plant director about the HVAC system, you’re not concerned about the hows and whys of its inner workings — but you’ll know if it’s not working if people are complaining about being too hot or too cold. The digital space works the same way. You won’t notice there’s a problem until it’s not working or something goes wrong.

After years of advising college presidents and business owners on the strategy of the web, digital infrastructure is a blind spot for many unless they have experience with technology prior to their ascension to senior leadership. As a result, organizations spend millions of dollars making bad decisions about technology based on poor information, lack of leadership or failure to fully understand the complexities of how decisions made about the web impact all areas of the company.

By taking an active interest and gaining better understanding of the digital infrastructure, senior leaders can make more information decisions and trust the information provided by those entrusted with these responsibilities.

Going where nobody knows your name

This year has been one of constant change and interesting experiences. The most recent of these found me at a conference where I only knew my coworkers who also attended. It was a regional conference in the South, where until this year I’d never lived. So it wasn’t a big surprise that I only knew one other person when I showed up.

While I’m something of a conference savant now, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when I never hit the conference circuit. So I can remember pretty vividly what it was like to show up to a conference and not know anyone, have no one know anything about me and to navigate that. Being sort of introverted, I have to work myself up for these things to begin with and so, it’s been nice over the past few years to end up at things where I have a crew of folks that not only know who I am, but understand my speaking and interaction style. That sort of comfortability makes it easier to navigate the events and makes me more inclined to engage and participate.

The best part of being at an event where you don’t know anyone is an opportunity. I’ve deliberately sat at tables without my coworkers, to get to know people from other places. All seems quaint, but I’ve always remembered being that person who didn’t know anybody and feeling weird about going up to people and introducing myself.

While it’s always to see your friends — new and old — it’s also nice to step outside of your comfort zone and explore new places, new themes and new experiences.

Pre-gaming the post-conference blues

Everyone is excited about their next favorite conference, but the worst part of the conference is what I’ve taken to calling the post-conference hangover. It goes something like this:

You go to the conference and have a great time. Everyone is enjoying themselves, you fill an entire moleskine notebook with all of the learning you did, cards you collected and connections you made.

Then you get home.

The euphoria doesn’t wear off until about 24-48 hours after the conference when you realize that you don’t have lots of people at your disposal who want to talk about the sorts of topics that captivate and challenge you day in and day out. It’s a lot like getting back home after a summer at camp.

Attending a conference isn’t only about what you can learn, it’s being able to translate those learning opportunities into your daily life inside the office.

Here are three ways you can maximize the post-conference experience before you’ve left the venue:

1. Treat the conference schedule like a music festival and plan ahead.

If you’ve ever been to a huge musical festival you know how difficult it can be to choose who to see when. At larger conferences, it can be just as daunting when there are so many appealing sessions scheduled at overlapping times.

Reviewing the schedule before you arrive, from your desk or couch gives you the best chance to balance “which things would be interesting to me,” with “what sessions can I put to use in the next week (month?) post-conference?” Making those decisions ahead of time will take the guesswork out of scheduling and make you less inclined to follow whoever you’re with at the time.

2. Use the twitter backchannel (more) sparingly.

At any event of consequence these days, there is generally a hashtag and a subsequent chatter ongoing throughout the event with legions of people tweeting out facts, quotes and observations galore. If you follow a lot of the same people, it ends up being a mess of the same kinds of messages amplified across the same network.

While we all tweet for different reasons, think consciously about why you’re participating in the backchannel. Are you taking a stream of notes you’ll refer to later? Don’t want to miss out on what others are feeling about the presentation? Want to see what’s going on in a concurrent presentation you’re missing?

As a frequent conference speaker, I have accepted distracted audiences as part of the job description. I’m not offended by it, because I know how I work and someone staring at a screen isn’t necessarily an affront. But as a frequent member of the audience, have taken to putting down my phone and closing Tweetdeck during a session because it sometimes makes it harder to keep up and stay engaged in the entirety of the presentation.

All speakers have a different style and the more present you can be, the more they can (and will) feed off your attention and energy. No one will be offended on stage if you decide to show you’re paying attention more often.

2.5 Try the designated tweeter

One tactic some fellow conferencegoers and I have employed lately is the “designated tweeter,” who in our row or table is the person who pays attention and does the bulk of the tweeting during a particular session where maybe the rest of us want to be super engaged so we can ask questions and thus, might tweet less than a different session. Not every session is relevant to everybody always, so there’s more than enough opportunity to pass off the lion’s share of the “chronicling” for the backchannel and folks who couldn’t make it.

While you’re at the conference is one thing, but what about the post-conference hangover blues? How do you beat them?

3. Write a post-conference brief

Depending on where you work, coming back from a conference isn’t revered as a “great learning opportunity,” but just a few days you were out of the office and now need to get caught up. Nonetheless, the relationships and learning opportunities to be maximized are often worth their time spent away. One way to reflect on all you’ve learned is a short post-conference brief.

Don’t overthink it. No one has to see this, it can be in blog format too. Just a brief few paragraphs about sessions you attended and how what you learned could apply directly to goals you’ve set back in the office. Having your thoughts organized in this way shortly after you’ve returned home is a good way to help you communicate with others on what you’ve learned if you’re asked.

4. Stay connected with others

The post-conference woes affect all of us, especially newcomers to the conference scene. Reaching out to others you met — even if it’s a simple email saying “it was good to meet, let’s stay in touch,” is a good reminder that you didn’t dream the whole thing. Unlike those times when you say you’re going to follow up, but don’t, actually make an effort whether it’s via Twitter or LinkedIn to reach out periodically to those connections you’ve made in topical ways.

Two examples:

“Hey Matt, it was great to meet you at #ronbroncon. Have you been able to implement anything from that analytics session yet?”

“@ronbronson It was great to connect at @imaginaryconf. Would enjoy hearing more about how you all decide to implement Slack. Stay in touch!”

Don’t get sucked into the trap of believing that because you met someone once at a conference that you are now BFFs, should exchange Facebook credentials and babies pictures. People will let you know if they’re open to that, but in most cases that’s just not how it goes. Keep it professional.

Here’s the last one.

5. Being a solutions practitioner

No this isn’t like being a web ninja. Sometimes, conferences can be dispiriting for the same ways that the playground can be. The cool kids have cool tools and you might have any of those things.

But let’s face, you’re not going to be able to implement every cool thing you see or buy every awesome product that gets demoed. Don’t be discouraged by that, instead be solutions oriented by identifying small things you can fix without a ton of buy-in or forming a 1000 person committee or workgroup.

Right now there are surely hundreds of tasks in your immediate area of responsibility that could be made easier if someone wanted to make the time to fix them. I’m not suggesting you’ll fix 99 problems, but if you can fix one…you might make someone’s life easier and one dominoes can cause others to fall.

Conferences are exciting and a great opportunity for you to learn and grow with company. Bring home the smarts, put them to good use and ensure that others can benefit and pay it forward someday too.