10 tips after more than 10 years as a higher ed digital pro

It’s been more than a decade since I left journalism to enter the fray of the new and wild side of a Higher Education digital (known as web back then) professional. Back then, social media was a new thing, segmented email marketing was the elixir and the iPhone didn’t exist – so neither did responsive design or even a CMS really.

Times might have changed, but the fundamentals haven’t. The goal is to recruit students, raise money, help users complete tasks and manage resources and time as best you can in a complex environment with competing and complimenting business units – usually with very limited budgets.

More than 15 years into my career, I’ve now had three institutions and more than a decade under my belt, with a few more years in newspapers and a stop in private industry for a couple more. Here’s what I’ve learned:

It’s an ultra marathon not a marathon

At ConFab Higher Ed in New Orleans a couple years ago, I pined the phrase over a few cold beverages with other digital pros, that the phrase “It’s a marathon not a sprint,” is actually “It’s a ultra-marathon not a marathon,” in Higher Education.

That’s because in Higher Ed the game is much longer on the donation side, the prospective student side and even the budget side, especially in a public institution. Complex budgets and thousands of students mean even minor changes, especially when tied back to budget or big initiatives can take time and get muddled in process. Take pride in the little wins. Things like consolidating a CMS or email tools, providing services or analysis to college communicators or aggregating content on a page to support a campaign or homepage link that elevates the page’s search value over time are BIG wins when you look back.

All of a sudden, you could look back in a few years and see how several of these little things tied together can create a big ecosystem of consistent brand and valuable user content that helps bring in the money, new job seekers or students.

Friction is futile, fun and can end with a fan

Image courtesy interactioninstitute.org

You will get shot down. Even when you are right or seem to have buy-in from “the top,” a committee or guidelines. And even with the process and results, relationships are really important in Higher Education.

I do believe results will come from the process + relationships on campus.

Accept the friction but also be ready to easily offend or sound naive, then follow up with clarification and apologies. In digital, the best ideas and solutions may be against “industry standard.” You will have to be the first to apologize. Be tough but also be understanding many of your ideas will be turned down. Value the “coalition of the willing” and get the quick wins! Some of your biggest adversaries early on will be your biggest fans later. Hang in there. Remember, it’s an ultra-marathon.

You aren’t Coke, a big bank or Google

You won’t get the credit in the end. I don’t even want it. In Higher Education, many people from the outside don’t realize you are (depending on the size of the institution) 100-300 small to medium-size businesses. Some are customer service. Some are selling. Some are teaching. Some are enforcing. Others are researching. Many are there to recruit. Some are legitimate businesses competing against other clinics, stores or retail. It seems easy to say “centralize everything” without understanding the journey to get there.

If you think you or your boss can fix everything with an edict or a hammer, good luck! I’ve gotten a lot more excited about incremental wins of late. If you keep the big picture in mind and see the little things inching toward that big thing, it will help you go home happy. I used to let the lack of big solutions like faceted search, dynamic content or information architecture mishaps deep down in the site frustrate me. Focus on what you own, can influence or in some cases promote, and partner and promote those internally who collaborate well with you and the fruits of labour will come. Again – don’t expect props. The Deans, Vice Presidents and their people deserve the accolades. They are in the limelight and on the hook. Your job is to help them look good.

Focus on what matters, kind of

Speaking of Deans and big bosses, give them a bone every now and then. If your boss wants eight carousel images, give them five and balance that need with working on something else where you have time to help users. Now – if you have great bosses like myself right now – obviously enjoy a homepage tailored toward top tasks. But don’t fight them tooth and nail if they can’t buy in. There’s other ways to spend your time fighting that still help users in the end.

Filling a carousel with a few images and texts isn’t high on the user goal, but it’s also pretty high up on some boss’ lists. So do it – manage time well as best you can – and then dive in on those high user interest, low org profile projects. We’ve made great hay in the past on a few examples like summer camps, campus policies, employee directory enhancements as well as buildings. In my first institution, we strategically had “make a donation” while registering for an event that led to $1,000s of extra dollars. At another, we wove in content from another college to promote programs between two innovative departments. Bless them!

The key is to get your team(s) out of the low org profile and low user interest. See shiny bobbles below!

Happy Deans (bosses) stir the drinks

We keep the Dean train going. A happy Dean can pay dividends down the line. Pitch in at events or be present for non-digital things where you can help them. This will help make it less transactional or confrontational down the road. So often, digital gets lumped in like a technical solution or IT. Phrases like, “Just do it” or “Just give access” or “Who can I talked to up the food chain to make this happen.” At that point it may be too late. At the same time, give where you can, and care where you must.

Little things = big strategy (vision)

The war might never be won at every institution. Sprawl of solutions and applications will happen as budgets are aligned to audiences or services. Win the battles and celebrate them together with your partners who want to work with you. Nominate your coalition of the willing for awards. Engage with faculty where you can. If you can get the right content aligned with the right channel, that’s a win.

As an example, I’ve had HR professionals request a new separate website. In meeting with them, what they really needed was a communication plan and content adjustment to their existing posts. Another example was many homepage requests that were really college communicators begging for promotion of events, musicals or other events or happenings in other channels besides the homepage. Your job can be a connector on campus as much as a doer of web content, social media or emails.

Consolidation of email tools or social media accounts – even just one. Buy-in for 90% on a common CMS or LMS. Content alignment offline. Brand consistency. The list goes on and on. These are little things that are BIG at some institutions. You as a digital pro can lament at what’s not going right, or take pride and own the the ones that are.

Tracking can be triumphant but also trivial

As a person who has worked with many teams who analyze and own the web analytics implementation, data can be gold. It can also be confusing for many and can put you in a corner on others. I once sat in a meeting presenting on many fine data points only to have the leader say, “That’s all good and well, but none of that matters to us.” That’s one way to win a meeting!

I remind people day-in and day-out data is one part of the story. It should help shape and inform but it doesn’t begin and end with it. Especially in Higher Ed with 300 small businesses, so to speak! Couple the qualitative with quantitative and build teams that can shape things for the user first – both internally and externally – across multiple channels.

Visuals are victorious

Graphs, graphics, imagery and video can not only win for users, but obviously for internal advocates. BUT – you must have a strategy and purpose. The simple things are the biggest, foundational pieces from doing great visuals and content to avoiding the shiny bobble. One of my favourite posts for Higher Ed digital pros to help them focus on projects and priorities was this one from NN Group.

It outlines the keys to foundational things such as have your logo consistently on every page, about and majors and programs pages that count. A big one that gets lost sometimes is: Use images that reflect your university’s values and priorities. Never underestimate the power of an image to win over your audience. High-quality ones or user-submitted ones. Above is one my young cousin (15 at the time) took while at the Frozen Four in Boston. There’s our “O.”

Shiny bobbles will bobble

Finally, business units or colleges have the budget and will buy. Even governance that is written is a bit of a pick and choose. Some things can take longer. Some things will fall outside. It’s all about support, admin, budget and structure.

Above is a really cool framed picture of the Toronto Blue Jays home run moments. I could have bought it. Someone else will. We all don’t necessarily need it. But it also isn’t the end of the world if a business unit or college doesn’t take our advice. Some shiny bobbles work out. Some don’t. We’re here to win where we can. More like Alomar and Carter than Edwin and Bautista.

Jason Buzzell is the director of digital communications at University of Nebraska at Omaha. He originally posted this article in LinkedIn; reprinted with permission.