Over the past two decades, the communications landscape has experienced a seismic shift thanks to the digital boom. On our campuses, the shock hasn't quite toppled the ivory tower, but it has sent it teetering a bit.
The old, reliable print-based methods of communication, which held up over decades, are now complemented (and possibly replaced in some instances) by a constant parade of new platforms and paradigms. How do we keep pace with the myriad ways in which our constituents are consuming information (and subsequently making decisions) today versus yesterday? They represent a moving target, as do the standards and methodology by which we measure success.
It's hard. With technology and standards evolving at breakneck speed, it's difficult to keep up. How can we adapt to incorporate the workflows, skillsets, roles, and processes necessary to make digital happen, let alone adopt a "digital first" approach? Our departments are in many cases structured around a specific medium (namely print), rather than around the capacity to hone a message and communicate it through any and all available channels at the appropriate times (print, social, web, media relations, and so on). We need to determine whether our copywriters are conversant in web content strategy, if our graphic designers understand the front-end development process, and if our photographer understands how to best make photos for web or social publications.
These organizational shifts and new work requirements are difficult to wrangle, and they make institutions nervous. And with so much at stake given the shifts happening elsewhere across higher ed, how do we justify substantial investment and reallocation in digital when, despite two decades of growth, it still feels new and untested in so many ways?
We can't ignore these challenges and hope they will resolve on their own. We also can't give in to the temptation to "throw content at the problem" -- create a lot of the things that seem to have value in this digital world like Twitter accounts, microsites, Instagram accounts, etc. - in a bid to "keep up." Both of these approaches are unsustainable.
Recipe for Success
The secret to weathering the digital storm is that while now it's easier than ever to create content, the true measure of success is really just how well you manage it.
With that in mind, here is a primer for managing your digital growing pains and successfully operating a digitally fluent organization.
Less Making, More Planning
We feel a lot of pressure, both externally and internally, to create content. Twitter accounts! Videos! Blogs! Microsites! Email newsletters! The more widgets our factory churns out, the better it must be, right?
But that pressure is not always well founded. Volume can no longer be the determining factor of success; it must be value. And value means correlating the outcomes of our efforts against goals we establish at the outset. What are we trying to accomplish, and do these efforts move us in that direction?
Instead of pushing for five news stories a week rather than two or three, take some time to think about what your goals are for news and consider how your current stories may or may not be helping accomplish them. You may try revising your approach for your current volume of stories before simply churning out more.
If we create a smarter process, we'll create smarter products. Fewer? Maybe. But they'll be more purposeful and meaningful.
Bring Knowledge and Data Into Your Decision-Making Process
"I know my audience" can be either a sage assertion or famous last words, depending on what you mean by it. If you mean that you've come to understand your audiences' needs through research, focus groups, and analytics, then great. If you're assuming that you know how they'll use digital media simply because you've been working with them for the past 25 years, then you may need to revisit your assumptions.
Digital platforms introduce new variables into how people consume information and make decisions across just about every aspect of their lives. While this can be dizzying, the good news is that our communications efforts are now more measurable than ever. From the web to social to email and beyond, there are several ways to quantifiably capture user behavior and, ideally, analyze it in the context of our business objectives.
Measurement helps us make better and more informed decisions, which is of course good for our audience and our top-line goals, but is also good for helping our organizations run more efficiently, weeding out ineffective efforts and reinforcing focus on the ones that are actually working. If the concept of measuring all the things seems daunting, pick specific pages or features or channels to start, and as you gain confidence (and data), build from there.
We can't, however, completely discount gut feeling and anecdotal insights. There is some information you can only get from talking to people, and some decisions you can only arrive at with the wisdom that comes from experience. What data and research give us are ways to support or complement those more qualitative means of measurement.
Don't Be New; Be Adaptable
Snapchat. Instagram. Reddit. All the hippest, coolest new platforms out there are just that: hip, cool platforms. These will eventually be replaced or supplemented by even more hip, cool platforms.
If you're a Snapchat expert, chances are you'll be out of a job in five years. But if you are instead a student of emerging digital trends, a disciple of communications fundamentals, and a steward of both your audience's needs and your organization's goals, then you will always be equipped to pivot and adjust, no matter what the digital landslide brings your way.
The next time someone asks "Why aren't we on X?" the best thing you can do is ask 37 questions (no fewer, perhaps more) seeking to understand the appropriateness of X for your business objectives. Questions are the best defense against circumspect ideas related to shiny objects.
Our job is not to be hip; it's to be relevant. Wayne Gretzky famously said that he doesn't skate to where the puck is, but rather to where the puck will be. That's where the big scores are waiting.
Summon Your Inner MacGyver
The truth of higher ed is that we are often forced to work with what we've got. Due to funding, training, or a number of other reasons, we may be grappling with legacy structures (both technological and organizational) that inhibit our ability to be as nimble as the digital realm demands us to be. It's easy to feel like our hands are tied in so many regards.
While these constraints may certainly pose a challenge, that just means we need to find a way to work around them. The resourcefulness of higher ed professionals comes in particularly handy in this regard.
We may not be able to build slick custom CMSes or purchase the fanciest third-party services, but we can cobble a couple of free services together to create a photo-driven timeline for a big web feature, an online community for accepted students, or a homepage rich with dynamic social content. And as for legacy org charts, in addition to lobbying for smart, strategic change, we need to build internal communities that connect disparate communicators across campus, so we can draw on the strength of many to address our shared challenges. Everyone has the answer to someone else's question, if only the two could meet.
It's Not About Technology After All
Sure, we're talking about pixels versus paper in one regard, but more fundamentally, the introduction of digital publication has affected the people in our organizations and how we do our work. New skillsets, new roles, new priorities, new metrics, new workflows, new ways of doing business -- it's a lot of change in a short amount of time.
Though the change has come on rapidly, our organizations cannot move at the same pace. This can yield a whole bunch of human reactions -- jealousy, territorialism, self-doubt, frustration, confusion, stubbornness, you name it -- not to mention the attendant business struggle to remain relevant and successful.
As these changes reshape our organizations in ways we can't control, let's regain some sense of order through increased education and enhanced awareness. Develop training groups and guidelines that not only help people understand how to effectively publish in a digital space, but connect them to one another as a support and knowledge base. Acknowledge people's pain points and find ways to support their professional development to adapt to the new communications reality. Get buy-in for changes to old processes and workflows necessitated by the shift to digital publishing, and spread awareness of what they mean and what will come of them.
Changing Everything, Bit by Bit
Even if you follow these prescriptions to a T, you won't instantly become the magical digital organization. Heck, even for organizations with tons more resources, this shift takes time.
As you get a handle on the digital transformation at your institution, don't lose sight of the people. They're the ones executing and living with this change on a day-to-day basis, so ongoing education and communication are paramount.
The important thing is not overnight change, but incremental progress. There will be trial and error, and there will be experimentation. From that, you will gain insight, confidence, and savvy, and your institution will evolve to meet the next unpredictable challenge that awaits.
Georgy Cohen is Associate Creative Director of Content Strategy at OHO Interactive and cofounder of Meet Content. She'll be presenting a workshop on editorial workflow at Confab Higher Ed this November.