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Marketing and Technology03 May 2008 08:15 pm

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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Marketing07 Feb 2007 05:38 am


The first thing I thought when I heard that Oregon Legislators are putting clips on YouTube is: Has YouTube “Jumped the Shark”? Just kidding. Really I thought if the group of people who are historically the most behind in technology and the most afraid of new mediums are adopting YouTube as a communication strategy, what does that say about those businesses who are either ignoring the site or who have made strategic decisions to stay away.

In the past year or two, YouTube has had a meteoric rise from quirky video sharing site to Google owned media monolith. YouTube brings millions of eyes daily to their site and is no longer limited to videos of kids being hit in the family jewels with various objects or pirated video clips of movies and TV (although, these are still very popular on the site). YouTube now has everything from recent Super Bowl commercials and educational videos, to self produced music videos and VLOGS (Video Blogs). If the notoriously ill tempered and slothy movie and television industries are adopting the video-sharing site as a marketing tool there must be a reason.

The recent movie hit “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” was almost entirely driven by the buzz created by Borat clips on YouTube and their subsequent viral nature pushed by social networking sites such as Digg, thousands of blogs, and good old word of mouth. “Snakes on a Plane” is another example of a potentially bomb of a movie with huge buzz created through YouTube pre-promotion and YouTube clips placed in Blogs, message boards, and social sites.

Comedy Central was initially an unwilling star of YouTube with millions of views of their popular “Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” clips. Initially Comedy Central chose to send YouTube a cease and desist, causing the removal of most of their clips. That is until their talent, producers, fans, and the blogosphere erupted in outrage and bafflement. It seems everybody but the TV execs realized the amazing marketing opportunity YouTube was offering the shows, all with almost zero advertising investment. Now CBS and NBC are regularly posting clips to YouTube.

If you are in a business and ignore YouTube you are not only wasting a potentially powerful, mostly free, marketing medium but you are giving the power of identity to your competitors and customers. Just because you ignore this video phenomena does not mean it doesn’t exist, will go away, or you are protected from its effects. If you aren’t driving the bus you might very well have abdicated that responsibility to strangers.

Driving the bus is exactly what Oregon Representative Dennis Richardson who represents Oregon House District 4 (Jackson and Josephine Counties) has decided to do. Instead of allowing the lobby machine or the press to dictate the tone and facts of the discussion he has chosen to use YouTube to get his message out. Granted the 400+ views of his two videos may not cause a groundbreaking shift in the legislation, it has other powerful implications. In the local area, this story has gotten a full day of radio and TV coverage plus write ups in various newspapers and publications. Where previously Representative Richardson couldn’t have hoped to get any coverage of his positions or invaluable face time on the news outlets; by posting a few 5-minute clips on YouTube, he has achieved both with minimal effort.

I never thought I would say this but more businesses need to be like the Oregon Legislature and pull their heads out of their ancient marketing strategies, take off the Internet blinders, and embrace the Web 2.0 market. If members of one of the nation’s most dysfunctional governing bodies are adopting new marketing strategies and leaving your business with its substantial marketing budget in the dust you have more problems than they do. If that doesn’t scare you then you are destined to continue to spend stupid amounts of money on ads in struggling newspapers or magazines while your competitors are getting that impact and more for pennies on the dollar.

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Marketing03 Oct 2006 02:30 pm

Video of a shrimp running on an underwater treadmill taken at Pacific University in Forest Grove, OR. Pacific Biology researcher David Scholnick keeps his shrimp fit with this workout routine.

10/12/2006 UPDATE: I originally published this story on Digg referencing a movie I had just posted to YouTube on October 3,2006. My Digg story (see link below) went no where really. BUT, my YouTube video started getting some pretty good play. By October 10, the Shrimp Running on a Treadmill video had gotten about 5,000 views. Not bad I thought. Then it hit and all of the sudden the little shrimp that could went viral (If you know the research this comment is WAY funnier).

What do I mean by my Shrimp on a Treadmill video went viral? In Internet slang viral means that a topic, email, video, picture reaches a kind of cult status where its growth is explosive and fueleld by word of mouth. Viral is a bit of luck and a bit of quirckyness and here is the timeline as best as I can figure:

The viral video cycle:

Oct 3 : Video Posted. The video is from one of our Pacific University researchers and I posted it to YouTube because I figured it was a good way to get some press for the University.

Oct 10 : Through word of mouth, YouTube addicts, IM’s, emails, and who knows what else, the video got enough views to place it 95 on the YouTube Science and Technology most viewed list.

Oct 11 : The video gets picked up by Flark.
Oct 11 : The video gets Dugg by another user and shoots up to the home page. Between Flark, Digg and who knows what other references, the video hits 40,000 views. Thats a 10 fold increase in views over one day.

Oct 12 : The video is still going strong and has over 57 comments on YouTube, 57,000 views, and 100 ratings. The video currently sits amoung the top 35 for the month in Science and Technology for all the categories: Most Viewed, Most Discussed, Most Favorites, and Top Rated.

Oct 13 : The video continues to buzz along. I got an email from Pacific University Biology department and it looks like Netscape picked up the story and it rose to the top 15. Netscape then contacted Dr. David Scholnick and did a short writeup on their site. The current YouTube hit count is at 75,000 and it looks like quite a few blogs have also picked up the Shrimp on a Treadmill story. Unless it hits on the main YouTube list, I am guessing it will start to loose steam over the weekend.

Oct 16: Seems like things are dying down a bit. The current YouTube hit count has climbed to 95,000. Even though I don’t see an explosion in the near future any higher, only time will tell. Still, almost 100,000 eyes on a previously unseen video and research is a huge success.

Oct 18: It looks like the little Shrimp that could has picked up some good media momentum. I just got a Google Alert today that the story was picked up by MSNBC:

Scientists put shrimp on a treadmill http://msnbc.msn.com/id/15319541/
MSNBC – USA
… such as a shrimp, where a decrease in performance may mean the difference between life and death,” said David Scholnick, a biologist from Pacific University. …

The story was also picked up by Fox News: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,222149,00.html. The copy is the same between the stories so it looks like it is a wire pickup which means HUGE momentum and coverage.

I also heard from David that he has been contacted by other news agencies such as the Discovery Channel who are interested in the story.

Oct 19: The story has filtered back to Pacific University. I originally posted this video and started the Viral Video Ball Rolling … or Running I guess but purposely did not notify anyone on campus. My strategy was to allow the video to run its own course organically. It looks like the Biology department has been so happy with the results, they have started to put out the word on campus. The current YouTube view count for the “Shrimp on a Treadmill” video sits just over 100,000.

Oct 23: The video went to YouTube’s home page, featured videos and just exploded! I got flooded with comment emails over the weekend and now has 5700 comments and 750,000 views! It is still on the home page this morning so once people get into work it could go even bigger. At this point I am not sure if there is more media coverage to come from this new level of exposure or if we are moving into an area of over exposure but we will see.

Lessons from a Shrimp on a Treadmill and the Viral Video Phenomena
As hard as you might try, if your posting does not have the requiste cool factor or is not quirky enough to be a phenomena, it is probably not going to go anywhere. It might but that just points agian to the unpredictable nature of viral marketing that I am trying to predict.

The first week of your video is critical. Don’t try to self seed it or inflate your numbers. If the people aren’t finding your video there is a reason.

There is a critical point to your video. You need to get on a page which is a subset of the greater media: IE: Digg’s front page, YouTube’s Most Viewed, Discussed, or Rated, Flark’s home page, SlashDot’s front page, etc. The issue with these sites is they are so content heavy that if your peers are not moving it to the top, it quickly falls off.

Once you have reached that critical point of viewership, the shelf life of your media, is now a guess. Some famous viral videos: Star Wars Kid, Numa Numa Guy, and Shakira Hips Don’t Lie Spoof had shelf lifes of about 6 months and millions of views.

This exposure is worth millions in good or bad press depending on how it spins and is largely unpredictable and uncontrolable. Your job now is to capitalize on any press and media coverage created by the video to build your brand or further your goals.

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