Please Abandon Regularly Scheduled Email Newsletters

Most emails I get arrive on a regular schedule. Some monthly, some weekly, some daily. But I can only think of a handful that are mailed on an as needed basis. They send me mail when and if they have something of value to tell me. Otherwise, they get out of my way and help keep my inbox free of clutter. Brilliant!

This came up recently for me because of two things:

Part of an email sent to me that doesn't actually offer anything of value.First, I received a regularly scheduled newsletter that apparently decided to hit send even though they didn’t have content to fill out their mailing. The screenshot of the cse in point even admits they didn’t find enough good content to send, but send they still did. Now, in their defense, the email is typically full of good links, and this particular edition did too, just not in this particular section. So I wonder, why not wait on this mailing until there’s enough good content to justify hitting send?

Second, I’m in the process of thnking about e-newsletters on behalf of my university’s alumni relations group. They currently send an email on a bi-weekly basis. That’d be fine if the content in those emails supported such a constant stream. However, and it’s one man’s opinion of course, I don’t think it does. It’s chock full of stuff I don’t care about (I happen to be in their target audience so I can make that claim), is way too long, has no focus/theme/glue to what is included, and it doesn’t look appealing. So why not abandon the bi-weekly schedule and move to an as-needed basis? It’d be less work internally to create and become more valuable to recipients because it’s only sent when there’s something valuable worth sending.

When Audience Segmentation Turns Bad

I came across this series of blog posts from NYTimes columnists David Brooks. In his own words:

“…I asked readers over 70 to write autobiographical essays evaluating their own lives.”

I love that idea.

Higher ed could do take Brooks’ basic idea and fill some of the gaps that exist with prospects’ and students’ relative lack of life experience compared to alumni. Imagine if we offered the accumulated life experiences, lessons learned, career exposure and general worldliness of alums to the rest of our university’s community. It would create bonds of affinity (not to mention a deep well of outcome oriented stories) by tossing aside the artificial audience segmentations we’ve created as an industry- prospects, students, donors, faculty, alumni, parents, etc.

I see all audiences sitting on a continuum where boundaries only exist if you purposely create them. I’m an alum of the university I work for but I still feel I’m a student at heart. I know I’m not technically a student, but I identify myself as a life long learner which shares the same state of mind as a student who may be 20 years younger. So why put up a barrier between us and treat us separately? Our needs certainly differ in important ways and those needs to be accounted for, but at what expense and to what degree? I think any higher ed’s community shares more similarities than differences.

How Organizational Structure Impacts Brand

A university’s ability to communicate with students is contingent on its internal systems working efficiently and effectively. Otherwise, the institution risks communicating a disorganized message, misinformation and a confused brand. In this presentation, I walk through some organizational structure ideas as they apply to higher ed and how they affect institutional branding. From there, I talk about how structural barriers can be overcome to help dissipate some of the negative effects.

Social Media Fragmentation vs. Segmentation

Susan Talbert Evans wrote a great post about the difference between fragmentation and segmentation when it comes to social media.

My university (11-12,000 students) is about to enter into this discussion so this is a timely, well thought out piece. I work in a centralized comm department and my recent census of school related social media accounts turned up what I consider a whopping 240 Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr accounts (I haven’t canvassed for blogs yet). Our school largely operates under an anything goes policy when it comes to social media which has enabled this kind of growth.

Susan’s belief is that social media works better when accounts are allowed to grow organically. They’re apt to be more authentic and focused compared to more general and centrally controlled accounts. She lists four reasons why and I agree with her rationale. Her central point is that more accounts doesn’t necessarily equate to fragmentation to message and brand, but instead can be thought of as beneficial segmentation.

I’m all for segmentation as Susan describes it, but surely when there’s a ratio of 50 students for every social account as is the case for my institution, we’re seeing less segmentation and more fragmentation, right? Hard to tell given that I don’t have the time to do a systematic audit of what each account is saying and doing. However, I’m willing to accept that the overall number of accounts isn’t as important as whether each account is a vibrant community that provides value to the participants that exceeds the costs that go into making and maintaining the community. Again, that’s hard to measure though I’m willing to grade leniently on the value vs. cost comparison.

That leaves me in a position of experimentation. Our school has hundreds of outposts across third party networks which is great (go where the people are, right?). But with so many options, how does one know where to find the right community- or communities- to join? How do we ensure people aren’t being sent the same messages over and over again across different accounts (and is that even perceived as a problem by our audiences?)? These sorts of questions beg for centralized coordination which, in turn, may suggest centralized systems, processes and management. Too bureaucratic for internal staff? Maybe, probably. No one likes change nor big brother looking over their shoulder no matter how benevolent that oversight might be. But its a discussion worth having and will be one of the core concepts that our school discusses as we dive into the topic.

Research will surely bring light and objectivity to the discussion and it will take place, but for now, my belief (as always to anyone who reads this blog) is that operations should be centralized while content creation should be decentralized. To me, that strikes a balance between being too bogged down in red tape and the brand being too easily diluted. More to come on this topic…

To Centralize or Not to Centralize… That is the Question

McKinsey Quarterly takes a look at the centralize vs. decentralize decision so many organizations face and one, in my humble opinion, which higher ed should ask more often. McKinsey recommends asking three questions to frame productive debates on the subject. From the article:

Is centralization mandated? Can it add 10 percent to a corporation’s value? Can it be implemented without negative side effects? A proposal to centralize only needs a yes to one of these three questions. Yet they provide a high hurdle that helps managers avoid too much centralization. Moreover, they stimulate open and rational debate in this highly politicized area. By giving those in favor of centralization and those opposed to it a level playing field for building a case, these questions help companies strike the right balance between centralization and decentralization today and to evolve their organizations successfully as conditions change over time.

Achieve Your Strategy Through Influence

One step you can take to help achieve your communication strategies is to leverage influencers on the web. You can use tools like the ones below to help determine and judge who are good targets. Once identified, take the time to get to know each influencer and the world that swirls around them: how often do they post, what’s their angle and bias, what’s the tone of the overall conversation, how are you networked to them (if at all), etc.

So many people on the web and social media channels simply listen in on the chatter and leave lots of opportunities on the table. Your next step is to join the conversation and participate. You have thoughts, opinions and expertise to share (really!) so share them. As long as you provide good, relevant content, you’ll find that all the people who were merely listeners like yourself shift. Awareness of you grows and if your contributions are good, they begin to take notice of what you say, what you link to and who you’re with. In short, people begin to take you and your ideas seriously. This raises your credibility and standing within the circles you participate in and a snowball effect takes shape. You slowly accrue enough people and attention to become a nexus of conversation, people push your content out and seek your thoughts and ideas out. You’ve become an influencer yourself and the more you participate and the better the value you bring to the table, the more virtuous the cycle becomes.

Of course, this takes time and effort. You have to research, dig deep and stay focused. This isn’t fly by night work. Stick to your strategy. Leverage the influencers you find to help determine how to differentiate your contributions for your own benefit as well as those of the other participants. Shape your offerings to meet your strategic goals AND fit the needs, wants and context of the wider audience and market.

Where Higher Ed Sites Need To Go

The single most important thing higher ed websites can do is change the fundamental organizing principle away from the org chart (content organized via department) and toward people. This means organizing content via degree programs which represents the fundamental connection point between student and school.

User tests show that students have consistent informational needs when deciding which university to attend:

  1. Do you have a program of study that interests me?
  2. Can I afford that program?
  3. Does the school’s culture/vibe feel right (will I fit in)?
  4. Grad level students’s needs will lean more towards faculty, their interests and research opportunities away from cultural fit on a social level (grads don’t usually live on campus so the social component isn’t as important)

This basic set of questions all revolve around degree programs, not the broader departments within which they exist. Because of this level of specificity, departments should take a secondary role in how a higher ed site is structured. Degree programs should instead be the central organizing framework.

I see too many university sites where I can find a program of study through the top level pages only to be taken to a departmental site’s homepage where I have to find the same degree information I thought I was originally linking to all over again.

With a shift in how higher ed sites are organized, other pieces begin to fall into place: building communities around logical points of interest, presenting appropriate content (research, faculty, pricing, culture, etc.) within context and, importantly, filtering out a lot of stuff that’s not relevant because it has nothing to do with a student’s preferred degree program.

Calculating Social Media ROI? Is it Possible?

There’s a lot of talk about how to measure the ROI of social media. For marketing campaigns, it can be captured easily enough: track people from exposure to sign-up or purchase or whatever the final goal is and then compare that against what the campaign cost.

However, for social media interactions without any predefined parameters of success, the ROI debate needn’t happen. For example, does anyone track the dollar value of a sales clerk who answers a customer question while they’re going about their primary job duties of stocking shelves, cleaning up, etc.? No, because answering customer questions is the price of doing business and its cost is baked into the clerk’s salary and job duties (as well as everyone else’s in the store).

Does higher ed look for a dollar value in a professor who spends 15 minutes to help a student with an assignment? Again, no because interacting with students is part of a professor’s job, not a separate “engagement” function that needs to be monetarily tracked. Working with students it’s part of the job and so the cost is included in the salary expense and the positive goodwill from the interaction is captured in the price of tuition. Given this, why do we feel the need to place a value on the professor’s “engagement” if the interaction takes place online instead of offline?

What’s missing from the conversation is that social media is part of everyone’s job who interacts with customers. “Social media” is one of many aspects to the clerk’s or professor’s assigned duties. It’s perfectly rational to think that they’d get paid the same regardless of whether engaging with customers (online or offline) was a defined part of their job or not.

Life After Grad School

My MBA program ends in four weeks. In no particular order, a short list of my immediate plans:

  • Read a book of my own choosing
  • Help myself to a hell of a nice bottle of wine
  • Once again go to the gym, snowboard and rock climb
  • Nothing, absolutely nothing, just sit there and have no cares
  • Sell a few textbooks (thanks Bree!)
  • Play the guitar again (what did I do with it, come to think of it?)
  • Revamp this site- long overdue

If Steve Jobs Never Returns…

I know a few Apple haters. You probably do too. They dislike that Apple is “closed,” “elitist,” “think they know best,” or otherwise. I can appreciate those opinions and why they exist. I can also understand the thought that Steve’s recent departure (maybe forever?) is the beginning of the end for Apple. I understand and appreciate all of these ideas, I do. But I always come back to one conclusion, however subjective it may sound:

As an Apple customer, I’ve been the beneficiary of the best computer products ever made in their time- innovative, easy, elegant. Apple detractors, on the contrary and on principle, put up with all manner of utter crap for an entire decade.