3 Ideas that Shape How I Think About Higher Education Communications

TL;DR — 1. Operate first as a media company, and second as a university department. 2. Prioritize campaigns that show students who they can become after college. 3. Aggressively amplify your areas of differentiation and De-emphasize areas of similarity.

Your Department is a Media Company

Gary V. Love him or hate him. Admittedly, I’m a fanboy, and I think he’s one of the smartest marketers today. In a YouTube rant back in 2003, he proposed the idea “You are media company first and foremost, and a [your type of business] second.” In higher education, this means those who are reacting and documenting what is occurring around them (the faculty lectures, alumni mixers, graduation ceremonies) are missing out on a significant percentage of the media opportunities out there to be exploited. And, in the long run, that way of doing things will slide toward irrelevancy.

So who’s going to win in higher education? Those who are proactively and aggressively inventing, producing and experimenting with new content — content that would not otherwise exist — and exploiting the full potential of all media channels available. I’m talking video, audio, website, apps, VR, 360, SMS, print, e-books, swag, stickers, anything and everything. It costs $150 in equipment to create a podcast with a potential reach of 16 million U.S. listeners. $600 for a DSLR (+$100 for the right lens) to shoot beautiful HD video and use Youtube to reach an audience of over one billion people. Or why not publish an e-book on issuu.com? Or for free on the Amazon Kindle store? Or create a “my college experience” app to house everything in one place?

Invent a whole new way of conveying your message to prospective and current students — in a packaged medium that you fully curate and control. [Source: New York Times]

Why not livestream a Tonight Show-esque panel on Facebook Live with a student, alum and faculty member discussing current events? Why not?

Netflix is living (and profitable) proof of this philosophy. 19 years of recommending DVDs and streaming video that “you might like if you like that”. And what can you do with eight hundred gazillion data points of granular user preference data? Use that algorithm to produce a new show — a perfect frankenstein of data-driven insights — a pinch of political drama, a dash of thriller and shake it up. On February 1, 2013, Netflix released House of Cards which would go on to receive 33 Primetime Emmy Award nominations.

Filter Ideas by the Jobs-to-be-done Theory

At any given moment I have a dozen new campaign ideas swirling around in my head. Research stories, student profiles, case studies, faculty achievements — all around which I can potentially build campaigns across an array of platforms. That’s a lot of time and work. But realistically I know I will only get around to 5, maybe 6. So how do I choose? I filter them through the lens of the jobs-to-do-done theory. This helps me illuminate the 20% of the ideas that are going to give me 80% of the brand performance boost.

The idea behind jobs-to-do-done is this: Customers don’t buy products or services, they hire solutions to complete a job that needs doing.

Don’t sell the features of the Fire Flower. Sell the idea of one day shooting fireballs! [Source: Useronboard.com/features-vs-benefits/]

I don’t hire Uber to get from point A to point B. I hire Uber to give me 18 minutes of comfortable, uninterrupted time in my day — time that would otherwise be consumed by the chaos of public transportation. That’s why I use Uber.

I don’t buy a dozen cupcakes on Friday because I have a sweet tooth or appreciate new seasonal frosting flavors. I buy cupcakes on Friday because I want to be praised by co-workers when I share them in the office, and I want to create a 15 minute space for casual conversations with colleagues without the distraction of emails. That’s why I buy the cupcakes.

Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, illustrates the jobs-to-be-done theory in this article. At its core, the theory challenges you to ask “What job is my college/program/certificate/scholarship being hired to do?” Different students hire colleges to complete different jobs in their life. One student may hire a college to leverage its relationship with a specific employer, secure an internship and be laser-focused on building a meaningful, fulfilling career in a predetermined industry. Another student may hire a college to find identity within community — to dedicate themselves to Greek life or sports or music or become president of a club or launch a startup with dorm-mates. Another student is attracted to any “big brand” college and wants to feel the comfort of approval when their parents drive around displaying a license plate frame with the college brand. Every student comes to college with a different end-game in their mind and a different idea of what success and fulfillment looks like. They hire “college” as a solution for a different job to be done.

When I’m promoting a new fellowship opportunity, the actual details of the fellowship program are virtually irrelevant. I spend almost all of my time thinking “what sort of job [outcome] is a student hiring this solution [a fellowship program] for?”. Where are they envisioning themselves after the program? What does that trajectory look like? What is that narrative? And how can I use media to begin to show students now what that journey might look like in the future?

Go All-in on Blue Ocean

Every department is resource constrained. And every university has its strengths and weaknesses. It’s unrealistic to go head to head with competing universities across the same dimensions of program features and brand attributes. Whose program is most innovative? Highest ranked? Most steeped in tradition? Don’t try to fight all of those battles. It’s inefficient to even try. Enter: Blue Ocean.

The idea behind Blue Ocean Strategy is that the admissions and recruitment landscape is an ocean full of sharks — i.e. other competing universities — and they’re fighting for attention on the same features: We have the most generous scholarships. We have the most Nobel prize winning faculty. We are highest ranked on U.S. News and World Report. We have the most digitally equipped libraries on campus. This creates a Red Ocean — it’s crowded, dangerous and there’s blood in the water. Red Oceans are bad.

Blue Oceans are less crowded, have very little competition and are ripe for exploration. To find your Blue Ocean, you need to identify the attributes that make your university truly different. It’s your unique value proposition on steroids. Something a student can experience nowhere else.

Maybe you’re an Art school that happens to have alumni working at BMW who then prefer to hire recent grads because the curriculum is trusted. Exploit that. Maybe your College’s radio station has a cult following among students and is an unappreciated pillar of community. Exploit that. Maybe you have most flexible curriculum among your peers and students can blend online and in-person seamlessly. Exploit that. Find the 5% of your brand that is truly unique, and give it 95% of your brainpower and creativity.

When you go all-in on the one or two attributes that make your university unique, suddenly you’ll find yourself in a Blue Ocean and the water is clear.

Senior Director of Digital Communications & Brand Experience at NYU School of Global Public Health / Podcast Producer / Occasional Bowhunter