Consistency, Still Key

As a one-person communications shop for my department, I wear a lot of hats. Some days I’m 100 percent focused on writing, web projects, or developing a strategy for a key audience. Other days I focus 20 percent of my day on five different areas and/or projects. This is both the best and the worst thing about my job.

Credit: @dafnecholet

No matter the hat I’m wearing on a given day, I find myself repeating certain tasks on a regular basis. Even on days when a given task doesn’t feel particularly exciting, I try to remember that being faithful to these tasks — developing  routines and sticking to them — matters.

How can you better engage with your organization’s social media audiences if you’re not posting regularly? How can you make donors feel valued and appreciated if you’re not thanking them promptly? How can you maintain a great website if you’re not reviewing top-level content on a regular basis?

These are just a few examples. Your examples may be entirely different. Whatever the routine tasks look like in your work, go out and do them with excellence, even if it’s the 100th time around. It still matters.

Creating a Departmental Alumni E-Newsletter

Despite the many articles titled “Email is Dead!” or “Email is Dying!” or “Email Jumped the Shark in 2010,” I still find email marketing to be a powerful tool. When done right, it allows organizations to share information directly with the people who really want to hear from them. I just sent out the first issue of our new Chemistry Alumni E-News, and I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the process and the project.

Step 1: Identify the Need

As I came into this new role, I knew there would be a lot of opportunities to push our departmental communications in new directions. Since there had never been a communications specialist role before, the department had never had the capacity to generate stories and communicate with our alumni and donor audiences regularly. We had always sent a rather exhaustive yearly print newsletter to our alumni, but that was about the extent of our regular communications. It was rather apparent that we needed to communicate with our alumni and friends more frequently. Additionally, I had already begun writing stories about what was happening in the department. Thus, we already had great content out on our website, but unless an alum visited our website regularly, subscribed to our news via RSS, or engaged with us via Twitter or our Facebook page, they might never have seen those stories.

Step 2: Set Up a List

In February, as I was getting ready to send our yearly print newsletter to the printer, I went ahead and set up an opt-in form on our website to allow alumni to sign up for the new e-newsletter. I also put a teaser for Alumni E-News in the print newsletter that included a call to action for alumni to sign up. A few people signed up, but it wasn’t a roaring success.

Step 3: Survey Alumni

In March, I sent a very brief survey out to about 10 alumni who had either already signed up for Alumni E-News or who were engaged with us on social media. I asked them how often they would want to receive the Alumni E-News issues, what types of content they wanted to see in each issue, and left room for additional thoughts or ideas.

Alumni respondents said they were most interested in:

  1. Faculty profiles
  2. Department news
  3. Student profiles
  4. Alumni events

Respondents were not as interested in notes from the chair, department seminars/colloquia, and university news.

Step 4: Build the E-Newsletter


As a team of one, if there’s an easy and effective way to do something, then I’m not going to re-invent the wheel. I’ve used (and loved!) the MailChimp email service before, so I stuck with that. I’ve heard good things about Constant Contact, Vertical Response, Emma, and a few other services as well, but I like that MailChimp lets you send to lists of fewer than 2,000 subscribers for free. I started with one of their responsive email templates and customized the template a bit. View our first issue.

Things to consider:

  • Branding: Would a recipient know this email is coming from your department just by glancing at it? Does it align with your university’s visual identity?
  • Content: How many stories will you include? What types of stories? Will you include photos or videos?
  • Tone: Will your stories, blurbs, or other content sound formal? Fun? Exciting? Traditional? Conversational?
  • Customization: How much time can you devote to customizing the template? Will other team members be able to navigate the template easily?

Step 5: Build the List

At this point, I still only had a few subscribers for Alumni E-News. About a week prior to my anticipated send date for the first issue, I sent out an email to alumni of our department telling them about the e-newsletter and inviting them to sign up using a form on our website. About 10 percent of the alumni who received the opt-in email signed up to receive Alumni E-News. Our subscriber count is currently in the hundreds rather than in the thousands; however, I would rather have 50 subscribers who are expecting to get our e-newsletters and are looking forward to hearing from us than 5,000 subscribers who don’t know how they got on our list and aren’t as excited to hear from us.

I also began talking about Alumni E-News on our social media channels leading up to the first issue. Finally, at our graduation reception the week before the first issue was scheduled to go out, I asked graduating seniors and grad students if they wanted to sign up for Alumni E-News. On their end, it was a simple yes or no. When the first issue went out this week, it was probably the very first alumni communication piece any of these graduates had received from our department or institution. We talk so often about shepherding relationships with individuals along a path, as they go from prospective students, to enrolled students, to alumni, and perhaps eventually become donors or advocates. This was a simple way to engage with graduates at one of those important transition moments.

Step 6: Send It Out

This is the easy part: schedule that email to send! I looked at MailChimp’s post “When is the best time to send emails?” and decided to send on a Wednesday at 1 p.m. CST. Day and time are definitely two factors that are worth testing, but you have to start somewhere!

Step 7: Reflect and Test

I’m already thinking ahead to our next quarterly issue, and there are so many things I want to test over time: day and time to send, subject lines, different types of content, etc. As the list grows, there will be new considerations as well. It may eventually make sense to segment the list by degree type, location, or some other factor. For now, I’m okay with having established a good starting point. And there’s a bonus: because I started with a list of subscribers who opted in, so far the email has a 68% open rate and a 29% click rate. It’s a start!

John Maeda on the Characteristics of Creative Leaders

John Maeda, president of RISD and renowned designer, recently posted a comparison chart to demonstrate characteristics and attitudes that differentiate authoritative leaders from creative leaders. Having worked with both types of leaders, I found these lists inspirational. I aspire to resemble the creative leader more and more.

It strikes me that being a creative leader requires a lot of trust. You need to trust that you’re working with people who will rise to meet challenges and who will respond to your openness and flexibility with those same qualities.

In contrast, authoritative leadership is really about checking off boxes, CYA, and making sure you’re never wrong. I don’t know about you, but to me, this type of leadership sounds very stressful and unsustainable.

Authoritative Leader

  • Symbol of Authority
  • More Sticks
  • Hierarchical
  • Linear Path
  • Plan and Execute: Launching with 1.0
  • Sustaining Order
  • Yes or No (clear)
  • Literal in Tone
  • Concerned with Being Right
  • Think like a General or Conductor
  • Delegates Actions
  • Closed System
  • One-Way
  • Close the Ranks
  • Follows the Manual
  • Loves to Avoid Mistakes
  • Reliability
  • Orchestra Model
  • Community in Harmony
  • Wants to be Right
  • Open to Limited Feedback
  • Your Opinion Matters

Creative Leader

  • Symbol of Inspiration
  • More Carrots
  • Networked
  • Nonlinear Path
  • Iterate and Do: Living in Beta
  • Taking Risks
  • Maybe (comfort with ambiguity)
  • Metaphorical in Tone
  • Concerned with Being Real
  • Think like an Artist or Designer
  • Hands-On Driven
  • Open System
  • Interactive
  • Permeable
  • Improvises when Appropriate
  • Loves to Learn from Mistakes
  • Validity
  • Jazz Ensemble
  • Community in Conversation
  • Hopes to be Right
  • Open to Unlimited Critique
  • What are You Really Thinking?

Which characteristic inspires or challenges you?

Who Isn’t Your Audience?

An infinite audience, photo by James Cridland (

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to let go of certain audiences? It’s tempting to include everyone. And working in higher education (and especially in public higher ed), it can be even harder to let go, because isn’t everyone a learner, and isn’t it our job to reach out to everyone?

I’m constantly re-learning this lesson: Knowing who my strategic audience is, and also who it’s not, makes my stories and projects better.

It’s really hard to write a compelling story when the audience could be prospective students, current students, alumni, donors, parents, the media, faculty, staff, other institutions, other scientists, the local community, and the campus community.

It’s a little easier when it’s alumni. Or when it’s the media. Or when it’s donors.

It’s hard to let go. But it’s also the only way to win.

Greetings from Across Campus

Surprise: I’m almost one month in at my new position as the communications specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Chemistry.

Since the beginning of the year, my mentor has been encouraging me to think about what I want the next steps in my career to look like. And although I’ve absolutely loved the challenge and learning opportunities associated with working within a research group located on campus, I’ve really missed being plugged directly into the campus community and working for the direct benefit of students.

In my new post, I’m focusing on department-level communications and advancement. The great news is that there’s never been a better time to work in advancement at a public university. The community here at Wisconsin knows that this is a priority, and the campus community is really working to coordinate strategic advancement efforts across the university, while still allowing a lot of freedom at the department/unit level.

I’m stoked to be in such an amazing department, working with amazing people. More to come as I continue to settle in!

Engaging Your Community Part Four: Measuring and Adapting

Once you’ve identified the most appropriate social platforms for your organization, gotten started, and begun evaluating emerging social platforms, it’s time to begin measuring and adapting your approach.

If you work in a team environment, consider creating a regular report that helps your team members understand what you’re doing and what you’ll be focusing on addressing in the next phase. The frequency and level of detail are up to you. Personally, I’ve found that a quarterly report out to my team members is most helpful. I prepare an 8-page web and social media report that includes an executive summary at the beginning. Within the report, I try to identify key events that have driven traffic at specific times during the quarter.

I found Olivier Blanchard’s book, Social Media ROI, very helpful when I was considering what to measure and include in the reports. Blanchard recommends keeping a list of everything you can measure, for example:

  • Number of Twitter followers
  • Volume of outbound tweets each day
  • Volume of inbound tweets each day
  • Number of outbound replies each day
  • Number of RTs each day
  • Number of click-throughs (inbound through Twitter)
  • Number of Facebook fans
  • Number of Facebook updates each day
  • Number of likes each day
  • Number of comments each day
  • Number of comments per update
  • Number of shares each day
  • Number of shares per update
  • Number of click-throughs (inbound via Facebook)
  • Number of blog visitors each day
  • Number of unique visits to each blog post
  • Number of comments each day
  • Number of comments per post
  • Number of click-throughs (inbound to website from blog)

It’s important to note, however, that focusing on the number of Twitter followers, Facebook fans, or raw pageviews isn’t enough. The goal in this measuring and adapting process is to look at trends over time, (e.g., year over year).

“Regardless of your focus … what you are looking for in these data sets is change. What you want to see are shifts in behavior indicating that something you are doing is having an effect … Every individual bit of data, in the way it either changes or doesn’t over time, tells you a little bit of the story you are trying to piece together … The question every change begins to answer is this: Is what we are doing having an effect?”— Olivier Blanchard, Social Media ROI

I try to pick three to five take-aways each time I report on web and social media analytics and metrics. These can be anything from noting a page that has a short average time-on-page and reviewing the content, to noting trends in the top blog posts for the quarter and considering how to schedule more posts like those, to reviewing the referring domains and investigating why visitors were coming from those sites. Your team will likely also raise questions that will drive you to investigate further.

I’ve been using Google Analytics and Adobe Omniture in addition to native social media analytics tools (e.g., YouTube, SlideShare, MailChimp), as well as homemade reports and graphics in Excel.

Have you been working through this same process for your organization? If so, I’d love to hear your promising practices and learn from you! Or, if you’re just getting started, I’d be happy to share a copy of the pdf report I’ve developed.

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It’s Alive! A New Approach to Communications

Frankenstein: "The Web: It's Alive!"

Nearly every organization I’ve worked with over the last few years has been in the midst of a communications culture change. These organization had mastered the art of print-based communications and marketing. However, it was time to dive in to a new, integrated approach to online and print communications and marketing.

By necessity, print-based approaches require tons of checks to ensure accuracy and consistent style. Once a project goes to print, there’s no going back — it’s done. Moving print projects through several layers of editing, copy editing, proofreading and approvals helps ensure accuracy. The upside, the opportunity for extremely consistent branding and style from project to project, often contributed to a downside: slow project timelines.

Today, web communications and marketing requires a new approach. Because the web is essentially a series of living documents, web projects shouldn’t follow exactly the same processes as print projects. Sure, it’s a good idea for a few layers of editing and approvals to remain in place, but the first version you post online doesn’t have to be the last version. For example, the web is great for real-time communications. When an emergency arises, it’s okay to post something quickly and then adapt and refine your response as more information becomes available. Similarly, now that we have web analytics at our disposal, publishing a new page is usually the starting point for optimizing the content to the audience’s needs.

On the flip side, once you publish something online, it can live on in cyberspace forever. But for most routine web communications projects, so what? Yes, someone could see that you changed the location for an event or corrected a typo. But users today expect up-to-the-minute information, and that includes the expectation that the web changes from day to day.

If you’re in the midst of transitioning from a print-heavy approach to an integrated online/offline approach, take heart. The web is alive, and this isn’t a scary idea — it’s an exciting opportunity to try out a new approach.

Read and Learn: The Cluetrain Manifesto

The Cluetrain Manifesto, by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger, is rather popular with the higher education web community, and has been for a long time. The book has been heralding the “end of business as usual” for more than 10 years now. When I saw that a tenth anniversary edition had been published in 2011, I knew it was time to dive in.

The book begins with the 95 Theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto. These range from “markets are conversations” to “companies need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously” to “to speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities.” Even though these theses are more than 10 years old, they still ring true today. This book is all about how the Internet – and the connections it enables – has changed business.

I was challenged by many of the authors’ exhortations, such as:

– Speak in a human voice.
– Get it out there first, don’t wait until it’s perfect.
– Tell the truth.
– Build communities.
– Open up and let people see what’s really going on.

If you’ve read Seth Godin, Eric Karjulato or any number of other writers, you’ll notice similar threads as you read this book. As soon as the Internet was born, real conversations opened up online. Instead of reading official publications and corporate manuals, people began sharing experiences and opinions rather freely. The authors call for companies and the people who run the companies to stop hiding behind sanitized press releases and shiny brochures. They want the real people inside, whether executives or worker bees, to come out and play. Now get out there!

Slideshare’s Unexpected Benefits

If you haven’t investigated Slideshare yet, now might be the time to do so.
When I was looking at options for posting presentations online, I looked into Google Apps, Slideshare, Scribd and a few other platforms. Thanks to a nice user interface, the Slideshare Pro option, and the social functionality, Slideshare won out. I upload presentations and reports to our channel and then embed the presentations on our website where appropriate.

What I didn’t foresee, however, was the added benefit that many see Slideshare as one of the industry standards. For example, when I posted a recent report on our Slideshare channel, several blogs and online media outlets picked it up. One of the outlets that shared the report seems only to share Slideshare presentations. Presentations and reports also get broader exposure than they otherwise might when posted on a platform like Slideshare. For example, the same report was featured on the Slideshare homepage the day after we posted it. I don’t know who all of the 6,000 viewers might be, but I’m sure our report has been skimmed or read by a different (and perhaps much larger) audience than it would have been if we had only posted it on our website.

Have you looked into Slideshare or other similar platforms? What other benefits or weaknesses have you identified?

Engaging Your Community Part Three: Evaluating Emerging Platforms (like Google+)

Once you’ve landed on a starting approach for your organization’s social media efforts, it might seem like a hassle to continually evaluate new social platforms as they emerge. But continuous evaluation means the opportunity to say yes or no as each new opportunity arises. And even if a particular platform doesn’t fit well with your organizational communications or social media strategy, you’ll still need to know about most of the latest social media options. After all, you want to be prepared in case your colleagues come to you for guidance as they consider trying new platforms for their own projects or for professional development purposes.

As a case study, let’s consider Google+. The platform became available to individual users in June. Then, in November, Google opened it up to brands and organizations. If the recent announcement of new facial recognition functionality is any indication of Google’s plans to continue developing the product, then Google+ is worth evaluating. Even if you decide not to incorporate Google+ into your social media plan today,  you’ll still want to keep an eye on if and how they continue to tie Google+ content into Google searches. For now, the main way is through Direct Connect . But in the future, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if they were to give Google+ content higher search rankings than other social media content.

Have you evaluated Google+ or other emerging social platforms? Which ones made the cut?

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