As I near the end of my first year in senior leadership in student affairs at Bridgewater State University (BSU), one of the frequent topics I presented and fielded inquiries on was the creation and implementation of our new BSUlife.com communication platform and our integrated marketing team. As a divisional approach and strategy, this past year has been one of growth and learning about intentional ways of improving our communication efforts towards students. While many institutional communication departments are focused on an external audience, public relations, and/or the university brand, there is often not a concerted effort to effectively communicate and engage students, outside of blast emails or web based announcements.
After sharing our efforts this past semester at an invited keynote for New York Institute of Technology, an educational session at the ACPA Convention in Tampa, FL with Paul Brown, and most recently at Ohio State’s student affairs assessment and research conference, I thought it was time that I shared a comprehensive post on our efforts, in the hopes that the content provides other student affairs leaders perspective about shifting and/or augmenting their student communication and marketing efforts.
Communication is my top theme in StrengthsQuest. It is very natural for me to speak, write, and engage with a variety of people, one on one or in groups. Those who know me understand that this theme has manifested itself throughout my personal and professional career. This year, we took what we knew about social networks and expanded our perspective into other ways to communicate with students and how an integrated marketing approach, at the division level, could help focus our efforts a bit deeper. Certainly, it helps to have a supportive leadership team and divisional colleagues, who all played important roles in getting these new efforts off the ground.
We embraced a focus on growing our mobile content and messaging. According to Cisco (2015), mobile traffic was nearly 30 times the size of the entire global internet in 2000. Additionally, almost half a billion (497 million) mobile devices were added in 2014, with global mobile devices growing to 7.4 billion. This means that at this very moment, on average, there is one mobile connected device for every person on earth. By 2019, this number will rise to nearly two devices, on average and nearly three-fourths of the world’s mobile data traffic will be due to video consumption.
How does this data relate to those of us who occupy the higher education space? First, according to Pew Research Center (2014), 79% adults ages 18-29 own a smart phone (with the national average being 55%). Second, according to Pew Research Center (2015), adults ages 18-29 utilize Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn most often, in that order. Third, there is a rise in academic scholarship and research around the digital and social technology uses, including work from Dr. Rey Junco.
Given this data, ask yourself:
- What types of digital communication tools are you (and your staff) using to get your messages out there? Why do you use these tools and how do you know they are effective?
- What types of social media communication tools are you using to engage students in conversations? More importantly, how, are you engaging students on these platforms?
- Does your division operate under a centralized or decentralized model when communicating with students?
Overall, we were no longer willing to accept student communication efforts that only utilized antiquated methodologies (e.g. fliers, table tents, emails, tabling outside the cafeteria/student union, etc.)? If our programs and services were meant to engage as many students as possible, we decided to spend more time and resources thoughtfully planning and executing these these efforts out. Deep down, we knew that our respective communities were worth a more sophisticated approach to communication with meaningful intentionality.
Last summer, I asked our directors how a centralized, student communication strategy, may help their respective areas. Like many student affairs divisions in higher education, there were a number departments who were communicating with students well and others who were struggling. Many staff members were already utilizing their department social networks, the university’s internal student announcements system, printing fliers and table tents, and other methods to get messages out to students. Given my new role, I wanted to honor their efforts and provide an increased level of support that was not previously available to them. Of course, like any organizational change effort, I knew that whatever we did would take time to adopt and have buy-in.
Over the summer of 2014, I analyzed our division’s (and institution’s) various communication tools, which included:
- BSU’s website (bridgew.edu): focused on external branding, public relations, and university news.
- BSU’s intranet (my.bridgew.edu): focused on internal communication, initially for employees, but expanded to include student access.
- BSU’s student portal (mycampus.bridgew.edu): focused as a centralized hub of student services, primarily accessed by students who wanted to access their email via the web.
- BSU’s student email (Office 365 web)
- BSU’s student announcements (daily email): this email digest pointed to a site on the intranet that students could access.
- Student Affairs social networks: Each department had its own level of social network presence, including from Facebook pages and groups, Twitter handles and hashtags, YouTube channels, and Instagram pages varying in followers and activity.
Given this analysis, along with various feedback from our students and staff, our leadership team supported our vision of creating a centralized, public facing communication platform for storytelling called, BSUlife.com, which built upon our use of a campus hashtag (#BSUlife). We garnered support (and excitement) from our colleagues in the Information Technology and Institutional Communication divisions in this endeavor because most of their staffing efforts were focused on external communication or internal communication for faculty and staff and we all recognized the clear gap in student focused communication efforts. We hired Matt Cheuvront and his fantastic PROOF Branding team to actualize our vision, utilizing WordPress as our content management system.
To support our communication efforts, I rebranded our former Campus Center marketing team, which had a video, graphic design, social media, and writing team for our Campus Center blog, into our new BSUlife marketing team. These teams of student employees, who were primarily from communication, business, and graphic design majors, would now provide support to the entire division of student affairs to those departments that wanted to utilize their various services. Each team had its own student manager that lead their team’s efforts, whom all reported to me weekly on their efforts. We utilized Wufoo forms to collect and process various service requests.
At the start of the fall 2014 semester, BSUlife.com launched strongly, averaging nearly 12,000 visits a month (nearly 4,200 unique viewers) and began to shift our campus culture to think about BSUlife.com as a place to share and consume important stories and messages for students.
The BSULife Integrated Marketing Team
After a strong fall semester, the leadership team and I garnered feedback from folks who had utilized our various services, staff members throughout our division, and folks from the Integrated Communication and Information Technology divisions to see how we could improve what we had started. One of the overwhelming themes was that the BSUlife marketing services seemed disconnected from each other. Most folks would only utilize our design team, OR our video team, OR have a story written on BSUlife.com. I asked our student employees what they were learning about “integrated marketing” in their classes and it was clear that we needed to centralize our process in order to give folks a more comprehensive approach to getting their various messages out to students.
In order to respect what communication infrastructure our student affairs offices already had, we developed a hybrid support structure that allowed for growth at all levels within the division by creating an integrated communication model that supported our student affairs division, as well as, another other university entity trying to send a message out to students.
Instead of four different service request forms (BSUlife.com story, video, graphic design, print shop), we funneled all requests through one form, even if they requester only wanted one or two of our marketing services. I restructured our student staff and managers from each area to report to one Integrated Marketing Manager, who reported to me. By centralizing this process, our student managers would meet with each client who filled out the form to go over their “campaign”, where our student staff would encourage them to utilize our other services as well. For example, if our Center for Multicultural Affairs, simply wanted a digital flyer for their upcoming event, our staff would encourage them to also create web banner for social media, a quick video and a story on BSUlife.com to help make the message more modern (and sophisticated!) Our Integrated Marketing efforts helped us push these messages to other digital platforms including:
- Our EMS Master Calendar, which fed other various platforms such as our student and community announcement system and our student portal.
- Our BSU Mobile App, via mobile notifications
Additionally, it helped make our social media posts more robust, since we were able to add such vibrant graphics and engaging video. Truly, these efforts made many of our simple, text based announcements seem antiquated. Our integrated marketing goals include:
- To create meaningful, diverse stories about the depth and breath of the BSU experience.
- To present messages in an clear and engaging way
- To share and communicate broadly in order to reach as many community members as possible
The numbers from our Integrated Marketing Team’s spring semester work speak for themselves
Additionally, at the end of the spring 2015 semester, BSUlife.com continued to grow, averaging nearly 14,000 visits a month (nearly 7,200 unique viewers) giving us a grand total of over 118,000 visits and nearly 52,800 unique visitors for our first year. As we continue to analyze the data, it will be interesting to see engagement numbers such as how long they spent on the site, what stories were most read and commented on, and what day and time of the day most folks visited our site.
Value Added to the Division
This year, we spent a lot of time trying to crack our “student communication code”… in other words, how do we get messages seen by our students? Certainly, our Integrated Marketing Team has added value to our division and institution, who can now count on our students in the central office to support their marketing and communication efforts, including:
- Data Visualization: Our student affairs assessment committee creates “infographics” to share data related to programs that received grant money from our student support fee. Now our division is looking to use infographics more widely to share our learning outcomes data.
- YouTube Channel Art: Our YouTube channels can now stand apart by making sure that each video is labeled so the user knows exactly what type of video it is. Our BSUlife YouTube channel is a great example.
- Paid Social Media Ads: These efforts in Facebook and Twitter are enhanced by sharp graphics and videos that made paid social media ads more compelling to click and engage.
We are proud of all we’ve accomplished in our first year utilizing this new communication model, actualized by our integrated marketing team. This summer, we are analyzing the various data sets, reviewing our administrative processes, and creating a new version of BSUlife.com (v2.0!). As we continue to evolve, our hope is that our divisional and departmental messages continue to engage our students over multiple digital platforms!
How does your area in student affairs get messages out to students? How do you know students see them? What is your advice on our integrated communication and integrated marketing efforts?
Cisco. (2015, February 3). Cisco visual networking index: Global mobile data traffic forecast update 2014-2019 white paper. Retrieved from http://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/solutions/collateral/service-provider/visual-networking-index-vni/white_paper_c11-520862.html
Pew Research Center. (2015, January 9). Demographics of key social networking platforms. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/09/demographics-of-key-social-networking-platforms-2/
Pew Research Center. (2014, January 28). Mobile technology fact sheet: Cell phone and smart phone. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/mobile-technology-fact-sheet/cell-phone-and-smartphone/