2019 Conference

We’re Not Houseplants: Rethinking Community Engagement Strategies in Marketing and Communications #COM1

Companies often turn to “community engagement” as a marketing strategy to excite people to support a product. But what if—as in higher education—the community is the product?

That was the question asked by Kristin Van Dorn, user experience analyst at the University of Minnesota, during her presentation Monday at HighEdWeb in Milwaukee.

“People talk about community like it’s something simply to be watered—like house plants,” Dorn said. “But the truth is that it’s much more complicated.”

Leaders in marketing often advocate investing more time and energy in an organization’s community in order to reciprocity in the relationship. But Dorn warned that attention is not the same as engagement, and confusing the two could have consequences.

“Marketing community engagement is not the same as higher education,” she said. “We run the risk of damaging relationships with our communities if we equate them.”

Van Dorn pointed to other issues complicating the ability for colleges and universities to engage with their communities; higher education is losing its perception of value as it becomes more of a commodity, and communities are facing a loneliness epidemic.

Building a thoughtful community engagement strategy is possible as long as a few things are kept in mind, Van Dorn said. The first is determining what the organization is after—what type of community does it need to support?

Communities can be physical or digital. They can be based on maintaining something members love and want to uphold, or focused on continual transformation and growth. They can be a bridge between different groups of people or serve to bond people with similar interests.

Van Dorn said no matter the type of community, its value rests in the relationship between its members. That means communicators must remember the community owns it. That places the institution in the position of being a link between its members and the supporting infrastructure. It makes staff the administrators, cheerleaders, archivists, and coordinators.

In the end, Van Dorn said, communities are about caring for each other. She provided several other tips for engaging communities:

  • Make joining, forming, and changing communities easy
  • Promote them so that they gain visibility and traction
  • Feature community over individual achievement
  • Tout the benefits
  • Tell their stories—communities live in the imaginations of their members
  • Give your communities pathways to influence
  • Provide opportunities for more challenging projects
  • Give them chances to work together
  • Position them as valued contributors
  • Always work with them to find sources of renewal and meaning

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