What you need to know to make focus groups work within your digital strategy research
We borrow heavily from other disciplines when we select research methods for marketing and digital strategy. But, unlike many other research methods, the focus group was specifically designed for testing messaging and marketing strategy. Did you know that researchers started using the focus group method to draw out opinions on military propaganda in the 1940s? The U.S. Government wanted to test which messages were most effective in increasing support for our participation in World War II.
Focus groups are a popular research method for their efficiency. It’s usually pretty easy to gather a small group of people and ask them a series of questions. It’s quicker than conducting 6-10 one-on-one interviews. Plus, one-on-one interviews can feel intimidating to the interviewee and interviewer alike. Group conversations don’t rely exclusively on the chemistry between the interviewer and a single participant to produce meaningful data.
Digital Marketing’s Role in Student Mental Health and Well-being
According to the American Psychological Association, “By nearly every metric, student mental health is worsening.” They continue:
During the 2020–2021 school year, more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem, according to the Healthy Minds Study, which collects data from 373 campuses nationwide. In another national survey, almost three-quarters of students reported moderate or severe psychological distress.
As the adoption of large language models like ChatGPT, BARD, and Jasper becomes more widespread in Higher Ed MarComm offices across the country, it’s more important than ever that we remember to ask ourselves this question:
What Higher Education can learn from Live Music Ecologies
I hold a belief that, for an institution of higher education, its community is its product.
I think this for several reasons. Mainly, our course content is already available in libraries and on YouTube. And yet the model for testing out of credits for content obtained from other sources hasn’t totally taken off yet. People like the social aspects of learning. Learning with others builds our confidence and enhances our understanding. It allows us more space to practice applying our ideas when we learn with others.
If you’ve been reading Higher Ed Hot Takes for a while, you can probably infer that I am not a fan of small talk. I like big, weird, deep conversations.
I once pretended (for like 14 minutes) that at HighEdWeb, I was going to be outgoing and network-y. Then I quickly found one other weirdo, somehow Italo Calvino came up, and I spent the rest of the conference deep in conversation with my new friend.
Inside Higher Ed published an opinion piece a few days ago on marketing as a code word. They don’t actually tell you what marketing is a code word for, but you can infer they mean something to the effect of an administrator saying, “Addressing the root problem is too hard or complicated, so I am hoping marketing has another solution for me.”
The main idea is that marketing in higher education is all promotion. Marketing teams have no say in the price, placement, or product the way they might if they were marketing paper towels or toys. But even given this limited marketing role, people think it can somehow work miracles.
I agree with this article. I really do. But I want to build on it a little bit.
Communications and digital strategy during transition times
Are you facing a leadership change in your institution? You are not alone. Dozens of higher education presidents have announced their plans to leave their posts this year.
According to Forbes, this high transition moment is partly due to the pandemic. Many outgoing presidents delayed their retirement to see their institutions through the COVID-19 years. And on the other side of things, COVID-19 put a new level of financial and governance pressures on institutional leadership. This caused a few presidents to decide to shorten their tenures.
Great word-of-mouth is in the upper echelon of success in meeting your marketing goals. Word-of-mouth is often how prospective students, staff, and faculty hear about your University and its programs for the first time. And, if your current students, staff, and faculty are reaping the rewards for being a part of your community, you can bet they will say nice things about you to their friends and family.
Great word-of-mouth engenders social trust. Word-of-mouth can confirm the very messages you market, validate the quality of your programs and services, and even speak to the more intangible facets of your brand personality.
How I learned to stop worrying and love the ambiguity
In a previous career, working in nonprofit arts organizations, I used to bristle any time anyone suggested that nonprofits (or government, for that matter) would be more successful, financially stable, and more impactful if someone in charge would just run things like a business.
The idea is that business management is pretty straightforward. You make decisions based on a combination of efficacy and profit versus loss. If you adopt this worldview lens, you can get quite good at goal attainment and forecasting. Heck, once you’re done with nonprofits and then the government, you can run your life and your family as mini businesses.
Over 20 years ago, Grant, Franklin, and Langford (2002) released a fascinating paper updating what we know about self-knowledge and understanding. “The self-reflection and insight scale: A new measure of private self-consciousness” identified self-reflection and insight as two different constructs. It turns out that insight is positively correlated with all the good outcomes: higher rates of well-being and self-regulation, and lower rates of anxiety. But, self-reflection alone, as it turns out, just… isn’t.
Grant, Franklin, and Langford describe self-reflection as “the inspection and evaluation of one’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior,” whereas insight is “the clarity of understanding of one’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior.”
Is Your Website for Marketing or Community Engagement?
Engagement is an essential concept in the fields of both marketing and higher education. And they are not wholly unrelated. But marketing’s engagement and higher ed’s engagement mean entirely different things. This week, my hot take is on why these two engagement territories get muddled together and how to rethink them for a clearer content strategy.
First, engagement in higher education - how it’s defined and measured - is still contested in the academic literature. In other words, there is no single definition. It’s an evolving construct representing a combination of student behaviors, cognition, and affectation. Researchers and evaluators look for cues that students are involved in their learning and their campus’ social and contextual environment. Then, they attempt to measure the relationships between that involvement and factors such as student success and satisfaction.
Last month, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on dead-end jobs in higher ed. Clearly, the article hit home for readers because a few weeks later, they published a reaction piece featuring anonymous faculty and administrators extolling the coverage of this problem.
To be honest, I was surprised the article didn’t cover a basic solution that seems to evade higher education, at least on the administrative side: employee transfers.
Working on a web team means working on behalf of institutional communication. Sometimes, web work is in service of content strategy and design, while other times, it’s in service of the development of tools and functionality. But, at the end of the day, it’s all about providing some material to create meaning in another person’s mind.
Communication has all sorts of goals attached to it, but one goal is certainly to be an action that fulfills the demands of justice. Whether telling the truth or providing access to procedures to improve a situation, communication is a big part of our pursuit of everyday justice.
There’s no room for experimentation when you’re only focused on revenue.
And later, Kristin will take you into her Higher Ed Laboratory.
Thanks for being here.
You Get What You Pay For
My UK-based friend Tracy Playle, CEO of Pickle Jar Communications, tweeted the above query.
Think about the higher ed paid media you see out there on Facebook or search, and you’ll know Tracy is spot-on with this observation. And in the tradition of saying the quiet parts out loud, I replied with this synopsis:
This is a simplified explanation, but we see this often, especially when working with smaller private institutions. They’re sold an outsourced ad-buying and creation package — for a lot of money, no less — and often are sold outsourced online program management as an add-on.
In the end, these large enrollment marketing firms promise increased applicant numbers (that the institution can’t compare to anything else), but the brand experience is fragmented.
Here’s the quiet part: Private equity firms focus on squeezing every last penny out of their business model. That means there’s little if any, experimentation to improve tactics; every piece of data will be obfuscated to make the business look good, and whatever data they’re providing is packaged and reused across customers.
But you know what? Most institutions don’t have websites optimized to qualify and convert applicants. So, of course, an enrollment marketing firm’s landing pages will generate more RFIs. And most institutions aren’t equipped to craft a meaningful, relevant, and effective campaign. And many don’t even have a coherent brand message.
Throwing cash at ad buys before you’ve done what needs to be done for organic reach is a lousy strategy. If you have enough money to spend meaningfully on advertising in the first place, you should assess what happens when someone finally hits your website. Make that spend work for you, even if that means halting your ad buys and shifting it to something else for a time.
One of the staple readings in my higher education policy program is “How Colleges Work” by Robert Birnbaum. It’s referenced often enough that we all affectionately call it “the Birnbaum.”
This tome of academic understanding gave my fellow students and me a common language for a few years: tight and loose coupling, anarchical systems, cybernetic leadership, and (probably the most memorable) garbage-can decision-making.
‘The Birnbaum,’ written in 1988, kicks off with a scorching hot take. In fact, it still sizzles today like a TGIFriday’s plate of fajitas straight from the line. Here it is:
Are Colleges and Universities successful BECAUSE they are poorly managed?
Wait, wait, wait. He considers this alternative:
Are management and success not closely related?
Those takes are so great; I love this book. It’s smart and logical, and still, every chapter reads like a stream of consciousness from a man in the midst of an existential career crisis.
Birnbaum takes us on a tour of self-correcting feedback loops in higher education. Here’s an example: Institutional prestige goes up → enrollment increases → the sense of community drops due to an imbalance of faculty and students → faculty morale dips → so institutional prestige drops → enrollment declines → the sense of community returns when the student body gets smaller → and the faculty morale goes back up raising institutional prestige… and we’re back to where we started.
Birnbaum posits that self-correcting feedback loops exist all over a university and that that’s a good thing. An institution of higher education with so many competing values and ideas is too complex for any administrator to lead with traditional, solution-style decision-making effectively. You see, our problems are adaptive. So, applying one solution creates another set of problems. It’s like playing organizational whack-a-mole.
Today, the higher education industry is facing some serious external turbulence. In the last few years, we’ve felt the effects of:
Politicians using higher education as a political wedge issue
Admission scandals like Operation Varsity Blues
Rulings from a conservative Supreme Court affecting affirmative action and admissions criteria
Changes to Title XI regulations that could give you whiplash
A recession that’s supposedly due any day now if we’re not already in one
Changes to financial aid and student loan repayments
A decrease in the general trust people hold for expertise
I could keep going. Our financial and technical landscapes are shifting right underneath our feet at this very moment. In this uncertain time, how should industry players respond? How can we shepherd our institutions through the wave of chaos?
Here’s what I recommend: get comfortable in the chaos. In the book, “Surfing the Edge of Chaos,” authors Richard Pascale, Mark Milleman, and Linda Gioja give us four principles for understanding complex adaptive systems:
Our industry is in a turbulent environment. It may be tempting to tame the uncertainty. But, complex systems resist linear solutions. They always have, but never more so than in an environment with as many hungry external variables.
In times of chaos, instability is a strength. Systems that continue to rely on the status quo, utterly unresponsive to new environmental factors, risk becoming obsolete. If you’re feeling magnetic pulls away from threats or towards opportunity, you’re sensitive to what change requires.
When you make an opportunistic move, it tends to be toward the edge of chaos. Why the edge? Because, in the middle, you can’t quickly discern the new bits of information coming through. You only feel those at the edge.
And, when you hit the edge, your system self-re-organizes. You find a sweet spot for creativity and innovation.
This is all pretty abstract, so let’s get down to brass tacks. What does this mean for marketing, communication, and web management teams in colleges and universities?
It means that the rules of Birnbaum’s self-correcting feedback loops are about to get a major stress test. And some of them might change or fail or even remain tirelessly unruffled.
It also means that this is a rough time to set goals. At the edge of chaos, goals are more discoverable than they are settable. Consider sampling some new strategies and see what emerges. Celebrate and chase your bright spots.
If you’re experiencing team changes and organizational disruption, stay open-minded. Your new people and processes will have their advantages - if for no other reason than to give you a glimpse of different perspectives.
New strategies (e.g., giving up on a particular campaign or trying out different technical solutions) create a time when you need to get your ear to the ground for trends or responses. These are the best moments for innovative solutions.
And be open for your offerings and products to shift. Maybe your team set out to develop a new faculty profile, and you find it works just as well (with a few tweaks) for community partner profiles. Or maybe once popular programs get broken up into certificates with new courses attracting nontraditional students. Run with it.
One of the reasons I love studying higher education so much is that my day-to-day work is also my laboratory. Fellow laboratorians, join us for this wild ride we have in store.
Your campus leadership’s character can impact student well-being and institutional reputation in the marketplace.
And also, is it possible to network at a conference without using Twitter?
Thanks for being here.
The Role of Your Leader’s Character in Your Team’s Well Being
Look, hear me out.
What if we didn’t need Twitter to have a fulfilling conference experience?
What if we used other platforms to engage with attendees and chime in with our thoughts?
Would posts like the above Twitter thread be as meaningful on other platforms?
I think so, yes.
Just find the “official” conference hashtag, and start posting about it on the following platforms:
Here are a few conference-y example posts for each:
LinkedIn: “What I learned during Fake Name’s Session on Admissions-specific Podcasts.” Be sure to tag the speaker, use the hashtag in the post, and then sort all posts using that hashtag by recency.
TikTok: Find a pre-existing post where the user asks about the last time you learned something meaningful, and use the stitch feature to add your own insights. Include the hashtag in your post.
Instagram: If you can, ask for a quick word with a speaker you found particularly helpful. Record yourself asking a question or two, and then add that footage to your story. Then add those clips to your profile as Story Highlights.
YouTube: Make a conference recap video, and use the hashtag in the video’s name and description. Then, when other attendees seek conference-related insights post-event, your video will appear in the search results.
BeReal: When you inevitably encounter other attendees “Being Real” simultaneously, it’s a great ice-breaker/chance to introduce yourself.
Some might argue that Twittering at conferences offers a faster, more personable way to interact, and to that, I’d say, “to each their own.”
But also, “meh.”
I think it’s possible to foster new connections and grow your personal brand without the blue bird’s help.
And who knows?
If Twitter continues to devolve at the rate it has in the last week, we might have to.