Monthly Archives: November 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different

by Dan Woychick

Like the very proper announcer who provided transitions between outlandish scenes in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, colleges and universities would like to promise that they are completely different from their competitors. Unfortunately, most schools’ marketing boldly goes where everyone has gone before:

  • Where Success Begins With You!
  • From Here You Can Go Anywhere!
  • What College Should Be!

Though one might fault marketers for a lack of imagination, the truth is a little more painful: most schools just aren’t that different. And that spells trouble.

Warning signs
Books, magazines, newspapers, and music have all seen dominant business models rendered obsolete in recent years. Higher education is ripe for the same kind of disruption witnessed in other information industries.

Earlier this year, technology observer Clay Shirky argued that “complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond.” Notice any stress in higher ed recently?

Trying to be all things to all people can prevent institutions from responding to the challenge of doing things differently.

No one said this was going to be easy
As difficult as it might be for some institutions to undertake a new branding or marketing effort, it pales in comparison to taking a cold hard look in the mirror and deciding “We’re this, not that.”

The fact that this kind of systemic review hasn’t happened on a broad scale only points to the opportunity waiting for those institutions able to move more urgently. As Anya Kamenetz notes in her book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, if institutions are unable or unwilling to change, others will fill the void.

Different is as different does
What might this new world of higher education look like? It could be college that’s no longer campus-based. It could come from a realization that all students are “non-traditional.” Maybe some schools will entirely forsake athletics. The point is that a higher education monoculture is both unacceptable and unhealthy.

Some schools already maintain distinct models that serve them well:

  • At St. John’s College in Maryland, there are no majors or departments. All classes are discussion-based and no textbooks are used. Now that’s different!
  • At Berea College all students receive a full, four-year scholarship, putting real action behind the school’s mission to provide opportunity to academically promising students who have limited financial resources.
  • Missouri University of Science & Technology, formerly the University of Missouri-Rolla, changed its named to better reflect the school’s academic focus.

Different is good
Cynically, one could look at marketing simply as a way to raise the perceived value of what colleges offer so that regular cost increases are more acceptable. Ideally, however, a marketing campaign helps a school draw distinctions that attract students who are the right fit. The better an organization can differentiate its operations and offerings, not just its tagline, the more successful its marketing will be.

Related Content:
Why College is Overrated
The Axe Man Commeth

Mining Your Blind Spots

by Dan Woychick

I was recently asked for guidance from a communications professional whose new boss wanted a report on their advertising’s return on investment (ROI). Panic ensued.

I can understand the panic, as it sounds a little like a Dilbert comic strip after the pointy-haired boss has returned from a conference with a new buzzword. This is not meant to deny the importance of spending ad dollars wisely, or tracking the effectiveness of your marketing efforts, but trying to construct a meaningful ROI report retroactively is folly.

What can be measured?
Everything. Anything. Just because it’s difficult to find meaningful numbers to attach to an enterprise doesn’t mean people won’t keep trying. Data allows us to rationalize our actions. And it’s widely accepted that reason is more reliable than emotion or feelings. But is it?

Conventional wisdom
Across the corporate and non-profit landscape, quality improvement efforts are stuck in the factory mentality of the Industrial Age. If only things are well-measured, the thinking goes, we’ll produce better widgets, graduates or advertising.

Our brains are wired to overestimate the likelihood that our future will look a lot like our past. This influences everything we do, placing great importance on data – essentially, history quantified. Unfortunately, our high tech world’s rapid pace of change virtually guarantees that the future we imagine is an illusion.

Learning to anticipate
Wayne Gretzky, the hockey legend, consistently outfoxed bigger and faster competition by passing to spots where a teammate was going to be. How did he always seem to magically be one step ahead of everyone else?

Undoubtedly, through hours of practice on his backyard ice rink, he acquired lots of data. But many players practice a lot. It may be precisely because of Gretzky’s disadvantages that he discovered an unexpected competitive advantage. He could sense, or feel, the play developing, and learned to see risks worth taking.

Risk aversion is human nature, but it blinds us to opportunities as well as threats. In marketing your organization, common assumptions about what the future holds (influenced by those ROI reports) create an artificially narrow set of choices.

To expand your vision, you need to recognize and resist the herd mentality. In your market, or with your audience, what is least likely to happen? Learning to see into your blind spots – exploring unexpected territory – allows you to anticipate the opportunities that others miss.

Related Content:

How to Become a Visionary

The Big Assumption Underlying Internet Media Ventures

Field Sense May Be Teachable

Gathering Good Ideas

By Claire Napier

Too often people approach a problem with the mindset that there is only one correct answer. A lot of time can be spent thinking – or procrastinating – with the hope that the answer will come in a bolt of lightning.

Effective marketing requires a steady, reliable flow of fresh thinking. And, as Linus Pauling, the Nobel prize-winning chemist once said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” The following suggestions should help you come up with more ideas.

Let ideas flow freely.
Turn off your internal editor. Give yourself permission to write down or say anything, even if the ideas don’t seem to fit. As this illustration shows, your mind is at its problem-solving best when it‘s free to wander. Computers can provide logical explanations for a problem, but your brain is much more flexible.

Stepping away from your computer is another good way to loosen up your thinking. Embrace pen and paper. If you’re not a designer, “sketch” with words. And don’t try to refine your ideas as you generate them.

Make connections.
OK, you’ve generated some ideas. Now consider the ones that seem least relevant to the original problem. Is there a kernel of truth in your counterintuitive thoughts? Does an unexpected concept spark a new direction? What may seem “wrong” at first, may be exactly right when viewed from a new perspective. Original ideas often come from finding connections that other have not seen before.

Ask lots of questions.
Take the time to gather thoughts, not jump to conclusions. The quality of your solution is directly related to the questions you ask.

  • How has this problem been solved before?
  • Could it be solved differently?
  • What additional information would be helpful?
  • Which project parameters are most flexible?

Sometimes, by looking outside your own field of expertise, a creative solution from a different industry can be retrofitted to your problem – or suggest even more questions!

Let your ideas incubate.
Ever been working on a problem only to have an idea suddenly hit you while mowing the lawn or doing the dishes? That’s because after you’ve provided the food, your brain keeps digesting it long after you’ve moved on to other activities. Whenever you’re trying to generate new ideas, give yourself time to let the subconscious mind go to work for you.

Generating ideas should not be a frustrating or scary process. By challenging yourself to try new techniques, you can “think big” even on small problems. And, with practice, you can become known as a reliable problem solver.