Social media, higher ed & being on every network

Back in 2009, I wrote a post where I confronted the idea that we needed to be everywhere students are. This related to higher education social media and the notion at a lot of institutions with not super well articulated social media strategies that effectively think that every time a new social network crops up, you need to decamp on social network and figure out how to do it.

Last year at Aggregate Conference, University of Michigan Social Media director Nikki Sunstrum talked about their success with Snapchat, but then proceeded to tell the crowd why it wasn’t necessary for them to jump out there.

My position six  years ago hasn’t changed much. I said then institutions had a responsibility to invest in their own institutional web strategy if they really wanted to make an impact and reach people.

The institutional web site has fully arrived as a “marketing tool” on many campuses and the uneasy balance between trying to reach the students of the future, while connecting to their parents, alumni and pretty much anyone else with a rooting interest in the school can be a difficult task at times, especially for smaller schools and community colleges.

You don’t have to go where the students are to reach them, you need to adapt your web strategy to reach them more effectively. There’s no better place to that than on your college’s own web site.

Having managed lots of pages over the years, I can tell you there are few things that I enjoyed more than getting the instant feedback from a Facebook or Twitter. The recent SAE controversy at the University of Oklahoma shows how decisive leadership and deft use of social media by leaders can make all the difference in addressing a crisis.

The real issue here is not every college or university has the resources, team or in-house talent of a major flagship state university. While our stories don’t resonate nationally, they can resonate locally. It’s easy to look at a situation like this and think it’s more reason to double down on social media and to invest more heavily in establishing a robust presence.

After all, it’s where people are right?

You can’t publish a press release on Twitter. You can link to one, sure. But do you have people in place to respond to the legions of comments that your Twitter profile or Facebook page gets? Sure you can pay someone, but will they speak how you want?

The bottom line is there’s a price to being everywhere you want to be. Just saying FOLLOW US ON TWITTER doesn’t really mean a whole lot if you don’t understand what you’re doing there.

You still don’t have to be everywhere.

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.

The Fifth Model of Digital Teams: Chaos

— C. Daniel Chase (@cdchase) August 22, 2014

The current structure of our web organization is comprised of sixteen colleges who all have their websites housed on a single remote server, managed centrally by a team of four people. There are webmasters whose job it is to manage local users and who have control of aspects of local servers. But it was decided a number of years ago to central web operations and so, we’re dealing with the side effects of decisions made a long time ago by people who have long since disappeared.

Where does that leave us?

In seven years or so, there have been several dramatic shifts of ownership of the website. From marketing to IT and then spunoff into its own department. Then after a huge redesign, a kind of hybrid model where what used to be a department returns to IT and then after a redundant web operation sprung up in response to internal structural inefficiencies; the web was returned back to Marketing.

Then I showed up.

ncloud_Strategy Governance
(nForm Web Governance Models graphic)

Prior to this job, I was pretty sure I’d seen most of the ways that a university or college website structure could operate. I’ve inheirted static websites that needed to be migrated to a CMS. I’ve taken over redesigns in the middle of the process. I’ve seen really strong content structures where content editors and authors were supported and responsive. I’ve taken over websites where the entire structure of the site and all of the decisions surrounding it were made to accommodate whoever was in charge of the site at that time.

Arguably, there is no asset that has more political value than the website. When I started my first job in 2006, there were still institutions just evolving from having one sole university webmaster who managed the entire website. There were few best practices, no consensus and information sharing was scant across the board. Here we are eight years later and we still find in many corners of the country that nobody can agree on who owns the website, where it should live and who should manage it. We have agreed on one thing though — under no circumstances should anyone with web development or digital knowledge actually sit on the leadership team of a president. I know I know, Harvard, Columbia and a few other places have created Chief Digital Officer roles. But places like that you’d expect to lead from the front on this issue.

The real question is, why hasn’t anyone else copied them? Or asked what they’re doing and why? It’s not like they’re not out there talking. It’s just we’re not listening. I get why no one wants to talk about this. We like our jobs and it’s a bit sticky to start talking about what works and what doesn’t. But we’ve got bigger problems than just web strategy or hiring people to tell us what we should be doing online. Our problems are structural, engrained and institutional. We suffer from a crisis of confidence and it stems from the fact that the web is so new that we’re always sure somebody else should own it.

I’m not convinced of this, but I’m also not convinced that every institution should be investing all of their money in a full-time web person who lights the path. It’s not for a lack of qualified people, but rather, a lack of qualified people willing to go all of the places where they’re needed. People will sometimes ask me why I go to the far-flung corners of the country to serve in roles and I answer that everybody deserves access to good information and if they’re willing to support it, then I am willing to be part of the solution. Part of that has to do with timing and opportunity too, it’s not all altruistic. But I do get a certain sense of satisfaction from toiling in semi-obscurity and providing a kind of insight to the web that helps people realize that it’s not as confusing or distant from their everyday lives as they thought. I like being accessible and reverse the image of the web person as unapproachable or someone who says “No.”

The margin for institutions of higher learning won’t be what consultants they hire to help them light the path. It’s going to start with senior leaders — Presidents and Executives — who recognize the value of the web and empower people to chart a way forward in concert with stakeholders. While I’ve not always been Director-level, part of my success in the past has been serving as a direct report. The only other time I wasn’t a direct report was also the only other time I held a Director title, which seems strange that as a junior person I had more access, oversight & influence than I do making more money and having way more responsibility.

Having talked to colleagues around the country, I know I’m not alone.

The turf war between marketing, technology & advancement over who thinks the web belongs to them has to stop. The website doesn’t belong to anybody, it belongs to everybody. And just like you have other experts leading those areas, top brass need to have insights and perspectives from people who can provide it.

The web is grown up and chaos won’t do.

If you want to win the future, start by winning the web.

Reflecting on bigger, faster, newer in .edu web strategy

Early in my career as a web manager, projects just came to me. I’ve basically established a career going places that other don’t know exist and trying to get them to rethink how they view the web, to strategize their web presence and to better integrate the web into institutional marketing.

After spending a few years consulting, now I’m back within the trenches of institutional viewpoints. While it feels good, there are things about it that I forgot. Most notably, the fact that you can’t institute widespread change overnight and even when you can, it’s not always advisible.

When you’re on a bit of a professional island, with no one institutionally who is tasked with the same role as you it can be lonely. But what’s worse than the feeling of being Tom Hanks and talking to a volleyball is the idea that you often have a lot of weight to your words. People look to you to be the zen master of all things web. While this could be nice for one’s ego if you’re into that, it’s the sort of position that I’m glad I’m equipped to handle after six years of doing this rather than when I first began because I feel far more equipped to deal with such things today.

So what’s to think about? Lots of stuff, really. How do you help an institution visualize itself different. I’ll say that it’s first and foremost not solely about “the web” but akin to looking at yourself in the mirror and trying to honestly assess what your suitors are seeing. That might be a weird way of thinking about it, but they’re very similar. There’s a widespread penchant no matter the size of the college or university to believe almost wistfully in what you’re doing and to imagine no matter how things might be perceived that your way is indeed the best way. Usually, we rely on outsiders — consultants — to tell us those hard truths. But when the hard work needs to be done, unless you have big-time dollars, all of the advice in the world won’t mean a thing. You’ll need to tie your laces and dig deep into your own institutional muck to determine where you are, what needs to be changed and how you’re going to do it.

As I reflect on my own glacial shifts in perspective over the years, I realize there is a time and a place for ambitious agendas. For one, I’ve found that it’s easy to propose bold ideas. Realism sets in and then you have to figure out to decipher coherence out of boldness. Once that’s happened, I find it’s truly about execution. If you can sell a plan to the moon and actually get there, that’s awesome. But without the full weight of a nation behind you, some luck and good timing…you’re not going anywhere. The parallels between a bygone era in our own country and now make this all the more relevant.

A lot of the conversations going on right now — and there are lots of them — in the field of higher ed strategy are about bigger, faster, bolder, better. These are important discussions and findings that need to occur if we’re going to continue to raise the bar. What I need to remind myself often is not to be distracted by these happenings while contemplating the realities of my own sites. Not every institution is positioned to do more now for a bevy of financial, personnel and strategic reasons. It doesn’t make our triumphs or struggles less relevant, it’s just an important reality to face.

I’m fond of warily approaching social media properties, because I realize that not every school really has the infrastructure to support some 3rd party tool. But give how copycat the highered industry can be at times, it’s hard to resist creating official messaging in unofficial places to counter what others might do.

Getting buy-in: Managing content in the trenches

For some of us, content management is merely a matter of dealing with engagement content providers around campus who gleefully edit and publish their own content. There are folks who don’t have it so good. Content can become a hot potato or something that’s viewed as easy to ignore.

If you spend a good part of your day blogging, tweeting and Facebooking on behalf of Ye Olde Alma Mater, it’s easy to forget that there are people struggling daily with figuring out ways to coax people to give a damn about content creation.

Sometimes, the buy-in doesn’t exist and it’s a matter of educating before you can get to the point of knowing what you want to do and how to get there. There are a lot of moving parts and pieces to the puzzle. When you’re like me, it’s a bit different. My professional career has been akin to the baseball player who signs with a new team. While there are differences in each place, I remember the first time I switched jobs and realized how similar it felt to what I was doing at my previous school.

I don’t let this lull me into a sense of security, though. Assessing the landscape is a good starting point, but at some point, you need to decide what you’re going to tackle first and establish a plan of attack. Here are some things to keep in mind as you develop it:

1. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Your site probably won’t be revamp that quickly either: Sure there will be lots of pages to rewrite, dead copy to replace and perhaps an entire site to revamp from its current state. It’s easy to get consumed by things you want to fix, but it’s more important to prioritize your plan of attack. Be careful not to bite off more than you can chew for your entire team.

2. Content management is really about content ownership: When you’re trying to convince wary people to help you help them with content, you can encounter all kinds of resistance. Some don’t want you involved at all, others don’t want to have anything to do with it.

Add in a bunch of variables like how your CMS is setup and you can see the recipe for disasters embedded here. Ultimately, I like to remind people that they are the subject matter experts of their particular arena and that working together, we can advance their goals better than if we stay in our individual silos camped out. Giving people a sense of ownership while establishing where you come in process is usually the most helpful.

3. Don’t be defensive, it’s (usually) not about you: If you’re inheriting a situation that’s less than pretty politically, design or otherwise; it’s usually rife with the ill effects left behind from whoever you replaced. Don’t take it personal if in the early going, people are less than receptive to your overtures (or you know, demands for help.) It’s not your fault you might have been handed a bad deal, but from the perspective of the end user, none of that matters. Computers are magic machines that make all of these things easy and thus, no matter how much your sitemap may be disarray or the number of times you mutter obscenities to yourself about what someone else might have been doing before you arrived; it’s probably not anyone’s fault. Just go with it and be a rockstar.

4. Educate. Educate. Educate. I had a long conversation with a friend who isn’t even a web person, but a counselor fresh out of grad school at a college. She was asked to give presentations and to do things that she wasn’t told she’d have to do when she was hired. This initially bothered her, because the request was a bit out of her comfort zone. But now? She’s really good at it and it’s her favourite part of the job besides interacting with students. My point? It’s your job to be an advocate everyday for the work you do.

Despite the ubiquity of websites & social media everywhere, if you’re working full-time in a job on the web, you’re doing a job that didn’t exist twenty years ago. (Note: I used to write that line and put ten years ago. Time flies…) People often need to be educated, even if they don’t realize it. To them, it’s either wizardry or child’s play that you get paid for. 

We’re just scratching the surface here. I’m tentatively planning to follow up on this topic through this week, because it’s on my mind. We’ll talk in more detail about these topics in a bit more detail. Naturally if you stumble here and have questions or thoughts, chime in and I’ll attack those topics as we go along.

You’re new, let’s (not) change everything

I’ve developed a bit of a reputation for being a “change agent” if you will. People call me when they want things changed institutionally and I’m very good at helping move the barriers, breaking down the internal silos and connecting the dots to push organizational change when it comes to the web on campus.

Despite this, I’m always very reluctant to walk in the door with a slew of ideas with an agenda to change things. Not because I don’t come up with them, but rather, because there might be very established reasons for doing things how we’ve “always done them.”

When I walk in the door, I’m first concerned with assessing the landscape. It’s really important to get a strong handle on how things work. From workflow to establishing relationships, I’m adamant about being a visible presence rather than just the web guy in an office someplace that isn’t seen or heard from except when there’s a problem. This makes it easier to get buy-in when you want to do things that might veer off a beaten path, because people recognize and trust you more than they otherwise would.

The real key to any changes is that they can’t be about you. So often, changes are made to accommodate the person steering the ship at that time. I’ve encountered countless scenarios as a staffer and a consulting strategist where a redesign or a project went in a particular direction solely because the person responsible for managing it had skills in a certain programming language or were just more comfortable using something that might not have been the best solution for the school.

Change is usually good, but not for the sake of change itself. There has to be a plan, the big picture has to be part of the equation and I believe pretty strongly in advocating for policies that reflect that philosophy.

Winning isn’t easy

Everyone in the national media is buzzing about Cal Tech’s first conference win since 1985 last night, snapping a 310-game conference losing streak. It’s a feel good story, because Cal Tech is home to some of the nation’s brightest college students.

Naturally, some of the comments on news articles (still, the worst invention on the internet, ever.) say things like “why continue to fund a team if they never win? Why not leave the conference?” Not only does it reveal an increasing trend in our society that reflects a need to monetize every thing in existence, but in the constant rush to put a dollar sign on an achievement for a program that never gave up; these people forget the most important lesson of all.

Winning is not easy.

The CalTech coach spoke to this after the game.

About how hard they worked, the preparation and the talent it took for them to reach this milestone. Notice I wrote the word milestone. Should we put this into perspective? After all, it’s just one conference win in the last game of the season, right? It’s perspective that helps us arrive at this point in the first place. It’s the thing that reveals why this matters. No one would fault any student at CalTech who didn’t want to play basketball. The women’s team lost last night and finished the season without any wins, which was a footnote in a few stories about the men’s team’s victory. Yet, these students and their packed workloads show up practice after practice, game after game and put in their work to expect better results the next time than the time before.

For twenty-six years, it was the same result in conference play. Entire classes could play four years, graduate and never experienced the jubilation witnessed last night. Anyone who’s played a sport at any level knows, that no one wants to be the team to lose to a team that’s lost perpetually. Those are the sorts of games you get excited about if you’re losing, because you figure you can notch a victory. So the President’s alma mater of Occidental certainly didn’t giftwrap any one-point wins last night either.

I felt compelled to write because so much of our focus is often on wins and losses. The result is important, but life is full of scenarios that can’t be boiled down simply into wins and losses. There’s preparation that it takes to produce those results and even if they’re not reflected on the court, field or whatever else; it doesn’t negate the work that went into the other team showing up and playing until the final buzzer.

Last night’s victory wasn’t about “nerds” who play a sport that’s the province of jocks. It’s a triumph for perseverance, dedication and for doing what you love each and every day. When you do something people think is a waste of time, there are often times when it’d be easier to succumb to the pressure and move on with your life. But when you succeed — even for a moment — no one can take what happens away from you. 

CalTech as an institution afforded us an opportunity to revisit this lesson last night. So congratulations and thank you.