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It’s 2014. Is your communications and marketing team prepared to succeed? Never mind platforms and tools; focus on measuring and achieving results.

By Susan Evans


©2014 Mike Austin c/o

Today's higher education communications and marketing landscape is in a constant state of change. Tools, priorities, and expectations shift rapidly. Institutions face challenging public perceptions and questions about the value of a college degree while also encountering disruption within the field of higher education itself. Audiences expect increased accountability and engagement on their terms. Social media and digital communications have altered how, when, and where conversation occurs.

This demanding and ever changing environment has led communications and marketing leaders to rely more on specialists. There's pressure to add content strategists, information architects, user experience designers, brand managers, search engine optimization analysts, and social media coordinators to their teams. Having any one of these positions would be beneficial, but a campus's budgetary realities and staffing limits often require communications and marketing leaders to make hard choices about what to do without.

Most of you likely lack the staff to adequately address the growing number of specializations in these areas, but you are still responsible for producing and carrying out an effective communications and marketing strategy. So how can you be certain that your team's skills are up to the challenge (and will continue to be five years from now)? What should a communications and marketing team look like in 2014? And what changes can you implement to help your team work more effectively?

Hallmarks of effective teams

As a higher education consultant and someone who spent two decades working for Virginia's College of William & Mary, including as the former director of creative services, I've led and worked on a variety of teams. I understand that institutional goals, resources, and priorities all influence the composition of communications and marketing teams, but I believe those that are most effective share the following characteristics.

Leaders who takes risks. The best leaders understand the importance of taking calculated risks. They're willing to think differently and pursue an unusual course, but they back up their decisions with data. Some risks are minor, such as replacing a 30-page print piece with a beautifully designed postcard to drive prospective students to a website. Others take more courage, like running a social media campaign to increase admissions yield during a time of declining enrollment.

Despite the mainstream acceptance of social media, many campus leaders remain skittish about using less controllable channels for official communication. With social media, the tools used to deliver messages become part of the message. Feedback and judgment are immediate, public, and potentially far-reaching.

When I led the communications effort for William & Mary's search for a new mascot in 2009–10, we used social media to engage and be transparent with our audiences. We established trust early on, which encouraged and increased participation. Risk is inherent in contemporary communications strategy; success will not happen without it.

Members with varying viewpoints. A team filled with people of all ages and backgrounds ensures multiple perspectives. The broader the mosaic of talents and views, the richer the ideas and solutions a team will produce.

Alumni who work in communications and marketing units at their alma maters are a valuable resource because of their deep knowledge of, commitment to, and firsthand experience with their institutions. Longtime campus employees, who often feel like alumni themselves, can help navigate teams toward incredible results while skillfully negotiating potential political land mines. Meanwhile, young professionals aren't yet jaded by a history of stalled or failed projects; they contribute ideas, energy, and knowledge worth capitalizing on.

The best way to nurture a team of people with different perspectives is to give them problems to solve. Bring them together regularly to brainstorm options and develop solutions.

Passion for their work. Employees who are passionate about what they do motivate the rest of us to take on challenges and work harder. Their enthusiasm usually indicates a desire for success, which pushes them to achieve results that exceed expectations. They often make the case for avoiding the safe vanilla approaches that will work for everyone (but inspire no one) in favor of choosing riskier, yet informed, options that will generate excitement. One of my current website consulting projects with a large university system is breaking the mold because the team understands both the risk of doing things differently and the potential payoff of pairing dynamic storytelling with home page navigation that encourages audiences to take action.

A mix of general and specialized skills. All team members should be strong communicators with expertise in a particular discipline, but they should also possess at least a baseline understanding of core areas such as messaging, writing for various mediums, design, photography, videography, web technology, and project management. These core areas are essential to implementing effective strategic communications and marketing plans. Today's writers need to understand search engine optimization just as designers must understand the mobile web.

Team members should focus on creating a successful product regardless of the platform. On any given day, a talented writer may draft a blog post, update content on a web page, write a photo caption, prepare a video script, and compose a tweet.

Flexibility. Team members should be:

  • Comfortable with change.
  • Able to build relationships.
  • Supportive of the convergence of media, communications channels, and platforms.
  • Enthusiastic about daily professional development opportunities.
  • Committed to collaboration and excellence.
  • Excited to experiment with new communications tools.
Centralize wherever you can

I understand that alumni relations is different from sports information, which is different from development communications or enrollment marketing. Still, we all know that silos on campuses make it difficult to implement an integrated approach to communications and marketing. Frequently, even our central communications teams have the magazine staff working in one place and the web team somewhere else. Organizing the people responsible for communications and marketing into a single, cross-functional, and multidisciplinary team encourages holistic work and a consistent focus on institutional goals.

Ideally, you want a centralized communications and marketing team that blends capabilities across mediums and disciplines. More specifically, you should ignore the artificial boundaries between print, web, and social media. By placing content at the root of everything you do, the perceived barriers between communications channels will disappear. Then, designers will design for print, web, and social media. Writers will do the same, creating content for everything from print publications and websites to video scripts, tweets, and Facebook posts. Technologists will understand web architecture, content management, and how to integrate content from multiple web-based tools and systems.

During my time at William & Mary, we established a creative services unit by combining the skills and talents of the web team and the publications office. Bringing these two units together broke down the silos that separated our work and helped us approach projects in a more effective, centralized manner. This approach made sense for our projects as well as employees' professional development. For example, graphic designers who had previously done only print work began participating in web design projects. Experienced web designers mentored them throughout, which helped the print designers gain skills in this area.

I've seen and dealt with the institutional barriers and political challenges that can discourage this kind of holistic thinking. I still observe it on campuses in my consulting work. But we should use the current crisis around shrinking budgets, fiscal accountability, and growing expectations to gain support for centralized multidisciplinary teams. Often, such teams can save money by replacing more costly outsourcing efforts and add value by hiring staff members who understand and are more invested in the institution's brand. They also can reduce the duplication of effort that occurs when people work separately toward similar communication goals. The work of a multidisciplinary team is generally better—both organizationally and in terms of the final product—because members have the advantage of close and consistent communication between creative, editorial, and technology specialists.

Collaborative projects can also contribute to people's professional development. When individuals from different disciplines rally around the work, the experience of acting as a team encourages people to learn from their colleagues.

Expanding the team

What one or two positions should you add, if possible, to your communications and marketing team? If it were up to me, I would find a professional writer and a person who knows how to identify metrics and measure results.

Writing is vital to almost every communications and marketing activity. Content that engages, inspires, and romances your audiences is at the core of every communications channel and platform. Whether they're written for a 140-character tweet, a 90-second video script, or a 1,500-word article, words are the tools you use to describe your institution and its brand, communicate its value, and speak authentically to its audiences.

At the same time, measurement is important to demonstrating the value of your work and the success of the institution's brand. We need to get deadly serious about focusing only on the work that aligns with our communications and marketing goals and achieves the necessary results.

Your team's goals come from an overarching strategy; your metrics are defined by what your team needs to accomplish. Determining upfront the measures of success for each project or initiative your team undertakes is essential. For a video, that measurement might be the number of views or the amount of time viewers spend watching. For an email marketing campaign, indicators such as open rates and click-thrus will help determine your message's reach and identify where to make adjustments.

The challenge for most communications and marketing leaders is not being overwhelmed by the seemingly endless number of possibilities, ideas, issues, and projects they need to address or want to pursue. Keeping up is always difficult—and it always will be in a rapidly evolving culture of communication. Leaders must stay focused on the options and opportunities they have to further develop and execute their strategies, while making sure their teams are consistently telling the institution's brand story to key audiences. The people who can adjust and enhance their skill sets to meet today's communications and marketing environment as well as tomorrow's unforeseen challenges are the ones most likely to bring value to your team.

Let's use 2014 to concentrate on goals, messages, and audiences rather than platforms and tools. By year's end, I hope to see many more centralized, multidisciplinary communications and marketing teams successfully engaging and leaving long-lasting impressions on their target audiences.

About the Author Susan Evans Susan Evans

Susan Evans is a senior strategist at mStoner in Williamsburg, Va. She is a longtime leader of communications and marketing teams and has a background in information technology, human resources, professional development, and organizational management.




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