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The higher ed manifesto

March 6, 2014

Marketing in in the talk to business. From a 30-second TV spot, to a viewbook, brochure, website or a tour – marketing was about talking to people. For a brand, especially a university brand, we told people about our selling proposition, often next to a photo of a chapel. Small class sizes, world-renowned faculty, students going on to be CEO’s. Students publishing papers. These are all outcomes of the brand. Which is good, because it is arguably one of the most important purchase decisions people will make in their lives.

The things we tell people are carefully thought out to be the things the people want to hear. Historically though, the messages aren’t designed to get them to talk back. Marketing has always told, instructed. At their best, marketing messages with eye-catching visuals generate emotion and involvement. Marketing can compel behavioral change.

And then, along came digital media, and we’re still working through the change.

A subset of digital media, social media platforms surprised people by not just creating behavioral change, but also helping to create revolution. We marveled at the power of network to organize, and brands decided they wanted in. They wanted engagement.

The problem is: digital and social media operate on a fundamentally different level than marketing has operated for the last 50 or so years.

All of a sudden, so-called “social media marketing” is about conversations and engagement. but that doesn’t feel right. The terms “conversation” and “engagement” are loaded words: all marketing is designed to engage and generate some kind of behavior. Conversations? What are those, and why are they valuable?

So even though all the above is true, it is still new to send a prospective student an e-mail and have them go on Twitter and make a toothpaste joke @ the seal.

Change we still don’t fully understand.

The system has changed. Now the recipients of our a well thought out messages are getting their data from platforms we don’t control, and tinkling about the brand in a way that we don’t own. (As each department joins Twitter and Facebook, it further convolutes the perceived brand. Each new feed is a chink in the brand’s armor. One can reasonably argue this is a good or a bad thing, but it is a thing we don’t understand.)

The image creation industry (advertising) is almost 50 years old, whereas the higher ed institution where I work is going on 200. It didn’t need an image for the first three quarters of operation, but it needs one now because more people can and will talk about it. We aren’t in control, so it is arguably more important to be consistent, more important to put out viewbooks and brochures and e-mails, but make them all sing the same tune.

This is a think different kind of moment in higher ed. One of those transcending convergence marketing moments – like the printing press or TV. As we all get used to high-speed access in our pockets, and the ubiquitous immediacy it brings, it will demand executing in a different manner.

We need to bring more people into the “room” at the beginning regardless of the project.

We need to ask our students to help with the message. We need digital natives on our side. We need to enlist digitally savvy alumni. We need to mobilize the people who were accepted ED to become mavericks of our story.

We need to include people in the creation of more simple stories because that is how we’ll still be tellers of the message. We’ll do this through Mel Gibsonesque “are you with me speeches,” which will be tough, because faculty need to be with us.

I’m not sure what the future will bring, but I know this: the era of telling isn’t over. We still need to tell. But we have to be much more strategic about it, it must align with the mission, and it must be sharable.

In your school or brand, identify, then rally the troops.

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