HighEdWeb Meets Portlandia

The HighEdWeb 2014 conference took place in Portland, Oregon, this week. The city’s earnest quirkiness was the perfect backdrop for the overarching themes that came up in session after session: authenticity, honesty, and getting real. In Portland, being “weird” seems less a hipster affectation than a true brand attribute. Portland’s easygoing vibe seems to communicate that being yourself shouldn’t be hard work—a lesson that colleges could take to heart.

As in previous years, the caliber of presenters at HighEdWeb was excellent. There were many enlightening sessions and no shortage of great, actionable ideas. Here are a few of the themes that stood out to me from the marketing and communication track, and that I think will be useful in conversations with our clients at private colleges and universities:

Practice Genuine Authenticity

During his talk titled “Be Yourself: Embrace Authentic Content,” Rick Allen expressed frustration with the overused clichés that we fall back on so readily in higher education. Perhaps the worst offender among college marketers is the mantra “be authentic,” particularly abused when it comes to social media communication. Along with other higher education platitudes (“building engagement” comes to mind), the call to authenticity is ill-defined and difficult to act upon. Can a person or an institution really practice authenticity? Can we become more authentic through effort and practice—or is authenticity simply a quality that we possess naturally? Allen suggested that when we talk about authenticity, we are really talking about being ourselves—unvarnished, honest, and without pretense. Though being oneself should come naturally, there is risk involved; people might not like everything about us, or they might find us odd or awkward. Yet there is great freedom in knowing and accepting who we are—as true for colleges as the guy I saw in downtown Portland wearing jean shorts, combat boots, and a fedora hat.

Our institutions have personalities. They are imperfect, with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Yet an honest assessment of higher education websites reveals that many colleges sound almost indistinguishable one from another. Relentlessly positive messaging, unsupported claims of excellence, and bland platitudes characterize much of the digital communications we encounter—a far cry from the “authenticity” that is always being touted. We encourage colleges and universities to honestly discover who they are—and who they are not—and stop working so hard at “trying to be authentic” and focus simply on being authentic.

Think like an agency

No fewer than three of the talks I attended at HighEdWeb touched on the theme of instilling an agency culture within the digital publishing offices of colleges and universities. This reflects a growing understanding that the halting culture in higher education—hesitant to adapt, paralyzed by consensus—is detrimental in an era of rapid, and sometimes turbulent change. The old mantra “change or be changed” seems applicable to the state of higher education in 2014. The disruptive forces transforming other industries will not leave higher education unscathed, and at HighEdWeb the calls for nimble responsiveness and innovation in the digital sphere were loud and clear. Creative agencies are configured for both efficiency and quality, ensuring that only the right people are involved and have a say in any particular project. In higher education, we tend to involve everyone in approval and decision making, which inevitably results in delays and watered down deliverables. When well meaning senior administrators muddy web projects with uninformed or outdated requests, the true practitioners are inadvertently sidelined in deference to seniority rather than expertise.

Harkening back to her career in fashion, Ellen Godwin said in her presentation “Lessons from other sectors in driving culture change. Or, how to stop working the HE way,” “We need to let the shoe designer design the shoes.” A fashion company would never ask its web developers to provide input on shoe design or vice versa. The strategic guidance and institutional perspective that senior management brings to digital projects is essential and required for success—as is the technical expertise and digital marketing know-how of the college’s web team. The key is not excluding anyone from the process, but in allowing key stakeholders to bring their own expertise to bear at the optimal stage of any given web project. And yet in higher education we sometimes think that everyone needs a seat at the table from start to finish. It’s time for colleges to empower their creative teams to produce digital content that is inline with institutional goals and strategies, but unencumbered by archaic approval processes that both slow down and suppress quality work. Higher education needs to embrace an agency model that demands high standards and meets broad objectives with minimal hurdles and hoop-jumping required. The pressures on colleges and the expectation for timely digital content are too great to continue with outdated processes.

Fundraising is not a dirty word

Like many sessions at HighEdWeb, Ashley Budd’s engrossing talk, “Digital Fundraising on the Social Web,” didn’t pull any punches. “Most of your schools are working under a failed business model,” she said of the unsustainable cost increases at U.S. institutions. If colleges and universities want to ease the financial burden for students, then enrollment and marketing need to support development efforts. While an uneasy relationship has often existed between admissions, communications, and development, it’s time for these outward-facing offices to work in unity, since ultimately they all share the same goal: to see their institutions grow and flourish long into the future.

College officers don’t have the luxury of remaining walled off in their own worlds any longer. Common goals require a collective effort and shared information, resources, and expertise. The web provides an ideal platform to experiment with fundraising and marketing mashups, and to cross-pollinate ideas that can inform a crowd-funding effort while communicating key brand attributes. Ultimately, fundraising shouldn’t be left exclusively to development any more than student recruitment should be left to admissions. If you work at a college or university, you are a fundraiser and recruiter.

In the end, Portland itself seems the perfect metaphor for the college of the future—or the present for that matter. Its eclectic coffee shops and funky food carts cater to a diverse population. Bearded musicians, and, well, bearded businessmen (seriously, beards are a thing in Portland). Professional women and tattooed baristas. Runners and skateboarders. They all coexist in a way that seems natural and unforced. The Rose City doesn’t scream for attention, and it isn’t trying to be authentic. It just is. Perhaps our college campuses could learn a thing or two from it.