I recently gave a presentation at PSU entitled: “Major Trends Occurring @ the Intersection of Web Technology & Communications. A University’s Response to Those Trends.” The topic was provided for me and I believe the idea was to investigate the future of online communications and how universities should adapt those trends. The glaring problem is universities are generally so very far behind on online trends that a talk on the future of the web would be purely a thought exercise (although no better place than @ a university for such a mental workout). I chose to go through a bit of a Cliff Note’s web retrospective in order to point out where universities are today versus where the web has evolved to followed by a call to arms.

I don’t want to rehash my presentation again (although you can view the slides here) but instead want to expand on the topic because I feel universities must place much more emphasis on online communications if they are to succeed. Lest they risk falling further out of touch with their future, current, past students, alumni, and community. The undertaking is truly monumental and requires shifts in policy and forward thinking administrators across campuses to make it happen.

For those with no experience in the higher education sector let me begin with a brief summary of the difficulties faced. When I took my first higher education position I was under the impression that since universities are many times the birthplace of high-tech innovation (Facebook, Google, etc) that their online policies would also be innovative. Strike one. Universities are notoriously slow adopters of new technologies, even ones students and professors helped to create (Facebook, Google). I also assumed that since nearly 100% of incoming college students spend almost all their free time online or with some kind of connected device stuck to them that the website would be priority one for recruitment and retention. Strike two. Universities are ruled by tried and true paper communication with glossy marketing materials and the ever present mailings dominating their budgets and efforts. Finally I hoped that even if one and two were not true with the obvious case to be made for online communication it would be possible to quickly move them in the forward direction. Strike three. Even with many administrators, students, and professors crying out for better online presence the combination of extremely tight budgets, “earmarked funds,” and aged communication strategies leads to a glacial pace of progress.

So, the environment in higher education is money poor and politics rich so what is there to do? Give up and stay with the status quo? Tempting but I say that it is not an option universities can consider if they want to survive into the future. With the explosion of information online and the subsequent organization and cataloging of that information the future of education is one of self-study. I see a shying away of classical university education in favor of experiential and self driven education. Already much of the course work is available online for free via podcasts and learning websites and many startups are pushing a broader and more structured approach to self learning. If the atmosphere of college life and exploration is overshadowed by increasing tuition bills and a recession there may be little reason left to get a classical university education.

My solution to close the university online communications chasm is to first apply some duct tape and then work like crazy on getting a completely new machine up and running that can replace the sputtering duct taped wonder and get you to the other side.

The first piece of duct tape applied is to become part of the online conversation. Although this sounds easy it requires a uncomfortable shift in message and media control for many university administrators. Your students, faculty, community members, alumni, and parents are already talking about your school and just because the university administration is not part of that conversation does not make it stop. The internet of today is a place of two way communication. Between forums, blogs, chats, social discussions, review sites, and twitters people are talking about everything including your institution. Since most universities have not built their online presences as a place where this kind of conversation can or is happening you have to go out and find the forums where it is happening and join in on the conversation. Yes, it is in an uncontrolled setting and yes people may be difficult but these are the people you are currently allowing to set the identity of your institution without you! Be warned, though, this requires open and real discourse or in other words this may not a job for your marketing team. People want to hear from other people like them, students, faculty, parents, alumni so put together a varied group of informed and passionate people who can be your face, train them in what you would like to have your brand be, and send them out to be a part of the conversation.

The second piece of duct tape is to become a part of the online social networks. This follows closely behind your first piece because these places are where most of the conversations are happening. There are thousands of people who have affinity for your university and who have grouped themselves as such across the web. Facebook, mySpace, Flickr, and the Blogosphere are populated with your students, alumni, donors, and community. These groups have little barrier to entry other than taking an active role in them. Just creating your Facebook or mySpace profile is not good enough. You must seek out friends, build affinity groups, engage the current groups, and build a significant presence there. This way when someone wants to find out more about your institution you are already a visible part of their online community and are available to provide that information.

Now that you are moving forward it is time to capitalize on the momentum you have created. The beauty of the first two quick fixes is they require little money to accomplish and in the process build groups of engaged and forward moving people. In the process of accomplishing your first two goals you have also hopefully loosened some of the aforementioned inflexible and aged notions of web communication. Building this new online machine is going to take all of the support both financially and politically that you can muster along with the trust of the university administration at the highest levels so it is absolutely necessary to be building this along the way.

Your new online communication machine is going to run on innovation and participation, both very difficult to blueprint and achieve. I can offer only recommendations and past accomplishments because you need to engage your innovators to come up with a solution that fits your location, student base, alumni involvement, and environment. Start by building a group of students, faculty, staff, alumni that are engaged and passionate about your university as well as the future of the internet and start throwing out ideas. Some past successes: Some universities have had great successes creating their own social networks, thereby having control over the environment and quickly building affinity. Some universities have successfully leveraged their student projects and innovations to build positive press and capitalized on their talent to help the university move forward.

There are endless opportunities to leverage the internet to increase admission numbers, student retention, alumni involvement, donor giving, and positively increase the profile of the university. It is up to a group of dedicated, passionate, and perhaps slightly crazy online communicators to make this happen. The key to moving forward is first changing the existing environment at the highest levels of university administration to be more internet aware and proactive. This takes education, communication, information, and a bit of pleading to make happen but I believe this is what many university online professionals in the past have failed to accomplish.

I am interested to hear what other university communicators and administrators feel about their current online strategy and the necessity and success of a proactive and innovative online presence. Lets have one of those conversations here about this and see how we can put this all into practice.

UPDATE: No more than a few days after this post about managing communications online for universities, this blog post came up on my blog radar screen: Things About Portland That Suck – Portland State University. It proves my point for two reasons: First, that the conversation about your University is going on. This is a fairly popular blog with good writing and a good following and not a place you want to be mentioned (unless you want to suck I guess). Second, as the comment shows there is a group of people passionate about your University that you could engage to help you participate in the conversation.

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