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By: Jason Buzzell

Jason Buzzell Actually Wants to Make the World a Better Place (And That’s Not Even a Tagline)

As a Canadian working in the States, Jason Buzzell has a unique view of higher education. In a digital-first world, he believes in the power of authenticity, accessibility, and working together towards a bigger purpose.

Lessons From the Field /
By: Jason Buzzell

7 minutes

Jason Buzzell has been working in higher education for more than 10 years now — starting in alumni relations for a private institution in the States before working at the University of Alberta (U of A) in Canada for their new Digital Strategy group back in 2011. Jason’s background has always been in content strategy and SEO, which is why he was particularly excited to join his undergrad alma mater in 2015 as their Director of Digital Communications. Being a dual citizen and spending a lot of time in Canada, Jason considers himself the stereotypical Canuck. He played hockey growing up, loves the Edmonton Oilers, and still curls in Omaha. He has an amazing family, with a boy and a girl who are growing up way too fast, and a very patient wife of more than 11 years.

I wanted to work in higher education because…

Higher ed originally found me. The first job was at a small private institution in the States as the web content coordinator for alumni relations. I had worked in newspapers for a few years and everyone knew the future was bleak, so the transition to online publishing and content maintenance was a great turn in my young career. I left to work in the private sector for a few years before deciding to get my master’s degree. It was during that time at the U of A that I fell in love with the academy and the people I met who were much smarter than me, including the amazing students. The U of A is such a critical part of the city and changes so many lives, it was hard not to enjoy playing a very small part in that.

The marketing tool I can’t live without is…

I love Google Analytics and can’t imagine not using Google Tag Manager now, especially for these marketing tags we’re being asked to use more and more of. But the one that everyone seems to love and understand immediately is Crazyegg. It’s not a marketing tool per se, but for seeing where interactions are happening on the top level or understanding high traffic pages visually, it’s great.

I think in this digital-first advertising world, it’s going to be interesting to see who can remain authentic and true to their missions.

The best marketing I’ve ever seen is…

For me, customer experience is No. 1. If your employees care, it shows. If they invest in you for a period of time, or in the moment, you can feel it. That goes a long way. But also, pull at my heartstrings, folks. My wife worked at the Ronald McDonald House in Edmonton. The Edmonton house partnered with WestJet to fly people to the house in order to bring families together during their sick child’s stay in hospital. I loved that!

My favorite memory from undergrad is…

I met my wife riding the shuttle with her after class one day. Her car broke down and she needed a ride. It was a good reason to get some extra time chatting on the bus. Some people always complained about parking on campus, but between transit and the shuttle system, I didn’t quite understand why, especially when that’s how I met my wife.

In the next five years, I’d like to…

I’m starting a new role in the University of Nebraska System focused on IT Accessibility. I’d like our three campuses’ IT services to be known as some of the most accessible campuses in the country. I’d also like to see the Edmonton Oilers make the playoffs consistently again. The latter might not be possible. The first will happen!

My biggest professional mistake was… 

I took a different job inside the same company that I didn’t really want. I did it for more money. I even asked them when hiring if losing me in the old department was more of a loss for them than joining the new job would be a gain. They said I’d have to weigh that for myself, which I thought was odd because they were the bosses. Long story short, I lasted a few months. BUT the next job was in higher ed! Everything happens for a reason.

When I’m not working I’m…

Playing sports (baseball or curling). Watching sports. Hanging with my wife and kids. And of course, tweeting.

The secret to a student succeeding at my school is…

Taking advantage of the support both inside and outside of our school. We have some of the most amazing student success staff and faculty who truly care for students. Everyone says that, but I see it at UNO. Living in a city, it’s also important to take advantage of the internships, opportunities, and resources that exist outside of the school itself.

We have to be present in the market, but we must never sacrifice affordability in the race for more students.

I admire the marketing at…

I admire high-quality, authentic storytelling. Growing up and looking through the lens of higher education in Canada, marketing in higher ed is still strange to me. I know in the U.S., with so many private universities struggling to maintain enrollment and so much competition, it’s a must, but I end up mostly in tune now with my other alma mater at the U of A. The owned channels, like the alumni magazine and social media have really improved through dedicated staffing and strategies to enhance the brand. Even simple stuff, like using the proper colors and logo, really help. Other than that, I see so much marketing from private schools in the region or coming into our region in Nebraska, it’s hard for me to not think about how much students are paying those schools in tuition and the impact that will have on them in the future. We have to be present in the market, but we must never sacrifice affordability in the race for more students. I’d take a little less budget and fewer ads or billboards if it meant that even just a few more students had opportunities they wouldn’t have without financial aid.

The biggest challenge facing higher education marketers is…

I think what I just touched on. There’s SO much competition in the States and students are seen more and more as customers instead of our future leaders and innovators. I think in this digital-first advertising world, it’s going to be interesting to see who can remain authentic and true to their missions. Storytelling is foundational. And making sure your owned channels, alma mater, and current faculty and staff get your stories out. That can go a long way. 

My biggest professional achievement is…

I wrapped up almost five years managing a team for the first time. A few of them said I treated them like people. I wish this wasn’t an achievement, but I guess it was. They said that was the Canadian in me, which I’m proud of. We need more bosses that focus on the people. I think the results will come from that. 

The future of higher education will be…

Accessible to everyone, everywhere. There will be more hybrid courses where you study and get lectures or information 24/7, but you still have labs and classrooms where you can gain hands-on experience. 

When someone tells me they want to work in higher ed, I tell them…

It’s not for everyone. You really have to care about others. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been in it for a while. The rewards are indescribable and not in the form of money. 

A UNO student is…

A Maverick! It’s perfect because Omaha means “to go against the current.” Students who choose UNO can still go see Division 1 sports and live on campus, but every student I bump into sees the city as an opportunity, not a place you’d want to leave. They really care about what they are studying. Some are working full-time. Some live at home and bus. Many are first-generation. They are ALL Mavericks.

A key to my success has been…

Never thinking that I’ve achieved success alone. I need developers, designers, project managers, content folks, and stakeholder support, or I’m pretty useless on my own. Individuals climb mountains. Teams move them.

The biggest difference between higher ed now and when I started is…

I was just talking to a director who is launching our new STEM Trail Center. I said the most challenging part is the fragmentation of communication channels. When I started in the mid-2000s, if you got a story in the local news, everyone saw and talked about it. Now, much fewer do.

The biggest threat to higher ed is…

Competition. We have to work together, especially other public institutions. The future is interdisciplinary but also inter-campus and university. That’s what academics were built on. Knowledge isn’t for sale. It’s for sharing. Let’s work together to make the world a better place for all.

One thing I’ve learned about managing teams is…

Individuals have so much they can accomplish if they work together and buy into the mission of an organization. They can move mountains and accomplish so much together. Divided, people are frustrating to watch! I’ve coached. I’ve managed. They are similar! I love seeing people grow. I love having them push me. I love seeing them not need me anymore. They just need to believe in themselves.

The hardest part of my job is…

Explaining the time it takes to make changes to templates and doing it collaboratively with others. It’s not hard, but to do it the right way, you need a plan and it takes some time. If it’s really fast, it’s probably got some issues with it. If it’s too slow, people won’t stick with you. Find a process, and go with it. Iterate. And never stop.

The most random thing I’ve ever seen on campus is…

Yes, so many random moments! But one that stands out is a guy had rigged up a magic carpet on his electric skateboard for Halloween and dressed like Aladdin. It was amazing. Someone caught a short clip of him between classes and the tweet got like 100 retweets and 500 likes.

I love my job because…

We get to work with hundreds of small and medium-sized businesses every day with so many different audiences. We get a high-level view and see the challenges and opportunities and can make an impact if we partner accordingly. At the end of the day, it’s about the faculty and students. As a staff member, helping them is the best feeling, because I know we are helping make the city, region, and country a better place.

Jason Buzzell

Jason Buzzell

Lead, IT Accessibility

Jason is currently the Director of Digital Communications at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), BS’05. His team works on digital governance and products that enhance the digital experience for visitors to UNO through a consistent, efficient brand experience. Jason’s previous work includes being a Digital Strategist at the University of Alberta, MA’15, and a Web Business Analyst with the Alberta Motor Association. A curler, ballplayer, and novice hockey coach, Jason grew up just outside Edmonton and is passionate about promoting the growth in Edmonton’s digital strategy scene near and far.

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