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By: The Higher Voltage Podcast

The Lessons of 2020 That Will Shape 2021

A look at the major trends in how, where, and when we will reach our audience as higher ed marketers in 2021.

Marketing & Branding /
By: The Higher Voltage Podcast

What good came out of the chaos of 2020? A lot, if you ask our two guests today, two veterans of the higher ed marketing community. Whether it was the normalizing of remote working and digital collaboration platforms, the banding together of social media managers, or the elevation of transparency and authenticity from a nice-to-have to a mandatory state of operations, these are just some of the higher ed marketing trends that arose in 2020 and that are likely to continue through 2021 and beyond.

Our Guests: 

  • Jenny Li Fowler, director of social media strategy at MIT
  • Gabriel Welsch, vice president for marketing and communications at Duquesne University

Our Host:

Heather Dotchel is the host of Higher Voltage. She is a Philadelphia-based higher ed marketing professional who most recently led two area colleges as their chief marketing officer.

Here’s a preview of the conversation:

Read the full transcript:

Heather Dotchel:
Hello, and welcome to Higher Voltage. Our podcast explores the ins and outs of higher education marketing and touches on all aspects of the business of higher education. Today, we are recording the first episode of 2021, and thus, we will not resist the impulse to channel our inner profits and talk about trends that we predict we’ll see in the next year. My name is Heather Dotchel. You have most recently encountered me leading the marketing and communications teams to Philadelphia area colleges.

Heather Dotchel:
Our guests are Jenny Li Fowler, director of social media strategy at MIT and Gabriel Welsch, vice president for marketing and communications at Duquesne University. Welcome to both of you. Jenny, can you tell our listeners a little more about yourself?

Jenny Li Fowler:
Sure. I think in the first iteration of my career, I was a TV reporter. Somehow I took a left turn, ended up in higher education and it’s been great. I’ve really, really enjoyed it. I lead social media for MIT. I create the strategy and execution plans for all of our institute level communications and initiatives and announcements. I also manage our flagship social media channels and I provide consultation and guidance for our 200 plus social media managers on campus that run the social media channels for our department, labs and centers. And thank you for asking me to be here today.

Heather Dotchel:
Oh, it’s certainly our pleasure. Gabe, tell us more about you.

Gabriel Welsch:
Thanks Heather. I’ll echo, Jenny’s sentiments by thanking you first for having me on and getting ready for this conversation. I’m in my 25th year in higher education. I’ve worked in marketing and communications for most of it, but also in advancement, alumni relations and for a brief period, overseeing enrollment in an interim role at both small colleges and a very large comprehensive university. And Duquesne is right in the middle. It’s a nice size comprehensive research university here in Pittsburgh. As vice-president, I oversee all brand managements and communications, marketing, website, creative production, media, and so forth, media and relations, but also, standard messaging from the senior administration cabinet level.

Gabriel Welsch:
Because I’m the vice president I’m on the cabinet as well. And so, understand the communications challenges and opportunities across a comprehensive university. And so leverage that and bring it back to my team which also makes you very aware of the kinds of issues and trends that may come up in other areas of the institution that are relevant for marketing and communication work.

Heather Dotchel:
Let’s take a quick break to say that Higher Voltage is brought you by Salesforce. Today’s higher ed marketers are faced with new challenges and must expand beyond traditional tactics to engage with constituents, learn how Salesforce empowers institutions of all sizes to unify first-party data, build and measure targeted campaigns and deliver personalized messaging across channels. Visit salesforce.org to learn more about how Salesforce can help your institution meet its goals.

Heather Dotchel:
Predictions and recommendations for higher education marketing and communication trends in 2021. Here’s to hoping we aren’t Cassandras and our expertise is actually listened to and heated. So everything has been in turmoil for a year. It’s the big white elephant that’s in the room, between the pandemic that has been raging out of control since early 2020, and the current turmoil that is going on within our governmental structures. It’s been chaos. Let’s focus though, as hard as it may be given recent turns of events on the positive of chaos to begin. What good has come out of all of the shakeup that came from the pandemic affecting higher ed last year?

Jenny Li Fowler:
I think that one thing that I have found to come out of last year is that social media managers really came together as a community. I think that no one understands the social media manager, like another social media manager in what we have to deal with day-to-day and the extreme pressure and anxiety and pressure to perform. And so, I really feel like this community and this group as a whole came together in digital spaces and became a really, really supportive group. And I know that that happens just on a smaller scale on our campus where our social media working group/channel was really, became the safe space, the space where we could really bounce ideas, bounce concerns, bounce stress and the things that we’ve had to manage on a daily basis.

Jenny Li Fowler:
Now, I hope coming out of this, hopefully the concerns of social media managers are spotlighted a little bit more and maybe brought to a place where there are people who can do things about it and take action with the concerns that we’ve learned. So hopefully, it’ll come a little bit, not just in the spaces where we’re venting to each other, but in the spaces that we can take action. I hope moving forward that happens.

Heather Dotchel:
One of the things that we found when looking at the statistics for the podcast actually last year, was that our very first episode, which was about social media management, crisis management and the mental health of our social media managers, it remained our most popular episode. And we’re not just listened to by social media managers, I do think that there is a growing awareness among marcomm on the whole of what that job entails and how those leading departments need to support their social media staff.

Gabriel Welsch:
I’d like to echo some of the things that Jenny said right away, particularly in the area of digital spaces, being a positive coming out of this year, for teams, not only I think that have those places to bond, but even in some of the workplace technology where we might have been less inclined to use those tools as much. Now when forced to, discovering their potential, discovering how maybe that person you don’t hear from regularly in the meeting has really great suggestions in the chat, or that person who thinks visually is able to post something in a way that wouldn’t have happened in a typical meeting. That’s been very interesting to see. I also think Jenny, you make a good point about understanding the work better.

Gabriel Welsch:
And I would say, from where I sit in a global sense, the necessity of coordination across units was both made intensely bare, but also made very, very clear so that vice-president’s top management can begin to shift in ways to make sure that we are better coordinated. For instance, we all know that parents are a very engaged audience and will continue to be so, and [loco parentis 00:07:30] is back with a vengeance, and yet at a lot of places, I would argue that there are pockets of communication to which parents don’t have access, either because of FERPA or just simply they’re not thought of first, that this situation has brought to the forefront. So now we can be thinking about ways to professionalize elements of, whether it’s student life, whether it’s financial office communications, to be more in sync with the overall brand, with the overall marketing presentation. It will leave us with lessons about how to better coordinate our efforts forged in controversy, but then made better at a time when we can make the most of them.

Heather Dotchel:
Yeah, indeed. There’s a certain thing to be said to being forced to use what’s in front of you and to continue on with those resources that have been pretty much forged and then honed in fire. When we look at all of this, and so our staff are perhaps a little more nimble, we’re using these tools, we’re still dealing with a constantly changing environment that’s very unpredictable. And even when we think we’ve wrapped our hands around it, it lasts mere minutes. How do we plan our tactics then beyond the next couple of weeks at best when we’re in a constant state of sea change?

Gabriel Welsch:
So I face a question of how we move beyond tactic to strategy on a regular basis, even prior to the epidemic and some of the other upheaval, because of course, there’s always been upheaval in higher ed, whether it was MOOCs, whether it was various other social movements. Colleges and universities are a place where society plays out with people who are coming of age. And so, you have to respond to how the culture shapes that. Every place, and admittedly, as a marketer, by training, my answer is going to be brand perhaps predictably. But I think we have to continue to have the discipline to look at tactics in the context of brand. I’ll give you an example. Chat and AI are huge. They’re going to continue to be huge.

Gabriel Welsch:
However, balancing that’s going to be interesting. We have the students, Gen Z who prefers to communicate through that particular tactic or that particular kind of interface. We have Gen X parents who are distrustful of everything, especially robots. And the technology is not yet perfect enough. And then Gen Z has its own influencer on market. And so they’re trying to work with an intelligence that hasn’t caught up to them yet. And what is that saying about how you deal with your constituencies? I happen to work at a place now and previously at a place that were both very high-touch, very relational. How do we manage chat and AI? It’s almost certain disappointments. If anyone’s tried to chat in a lot of sites, it falls apart, and yet meet that expectation in a way that resonates with the brand.

Gabriel Welsch:
How do you make decisions about when to bring in that technology or not? What are you willing to sacrifice in order to meet demand and task? That equation, that negotiation between strategy and tactic is going to be ongoing, but if you don’t look to brand in who you are, you’re going to lose the framework by which to judge.

Jenny Li Fowler:
Of course this question I always think of it very much in terms of social media, because that’s the focus and the view that I take in, but I just think that the biggest thing that we’ve had to shift is tone. I think, it’s not necessarily the content itself but how we present the content in a tone, in way that meets the audience where they are today. For instance, in 2019 we would do a happy Friday. Like, “Yay, it’s the weekend,” post. And not even really think too much of it because it’s just an easy post to do, but that really took a shift last year. We didn’t use the word happy as much because there wasn’t a lot of happy. And we wanted to be truthful with our audience about what the current climate was. And we wanted them to know that we recognized that.

Jenny Li Fowler:
So that post became a, “It’s the weekend. Be well everyone.” So it’s the same content, but the tone changed drastically. And I also think that we cannot be married to our content calendars as strictly. I mean, just in the last 24 hours, we’ve had to just clear everything. I think that it is more day-to-day. And while you keep maybe notable events in the future and you plan for them keeping the current tone in mind, I just think that the idea of the content calendar really went out the window last year.

Gabriel Welsch:
Yeah, I would echo that. It was hard to reconstruct. We found ourselves going, increasingly back to what are the stories? So we may still have some of the very same protagonists, the very same people who best represent us, but we may talk about them in a different way, or talk about how they focus their work in a different way. Because we all work at places where faculty and students rose to the occasion, whether it was around political and social movements, whether it was around the pandemic or whatever. And so, I think another positive lesson too is learning how to tell the story, how to keep the story, how to honor its integrity and maybe express it in a different way or in a different channel, different part of the story. Those things all are at play and I think will remain at play for some time.

Heather Dotchel:
That brings me to the next line of thought that I wanted to pursue to talk about trends from last year that were new and what will persist, or how will we evolve and modify them? Last year we saw great expanses of time where there was just nothing to grab onto. We were in the middle of the pandemic. There was no news coming out about it, except our dashboard numbers. As we look forward to 2021, we have vaccine rollouts, and we’re taking a look at next fall and crossing our fingers and saying, “How normal,” that terrible, terrible word that I think no one wants to hear anymore, “Will next year look?” When we take a look back at what we’re using, all the tools that we’re using in marcomm to build those relationships and keep our identities afloat and afront and in the middle of all of this, what’s going to stick with us, or what do we think will be shifted slightly and then continue on?

Jenny Li Fowler:
I think that one thing that a lot of organizations and higher ed institutions really did was turn inward and solidify the relationship they had with their current audiences in their communities. It was a time to really reaffirm the trust, I think, and reaffirm the bond that you had with their current audience.

Gabriel Welsch:
Yeah. I think we had to start to figure out how to do everything virtually in order to remain engaged with our audience and even to remain engaged with local media and press, whether it’s the president interviewing on FaceTime from his home, as opposed to a more, “Dignified setting.” We lowered our tolerance for certain kinds of quality production and video. And then we found that it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. And that virtual events had lots of people show up and had elements to them, particularly if you think about things like open houses or even alumni events or ways to engage alumni. We’re going to keep a lot of elements of that. Is it going to replace the face-to-face and all the things we want to do when we come back to the, “Normal?” No. It’s going to augment them in a way that many of the technological things that have happened over time. Remember when email was going to eliminate books? It’s going to add on. It’s going to give us more flexibility, the tactical moves. That’s going to be a net positive. I think that’s what we’re going to retain.

Jenny Li Fowler:
I think one thing a lot of organizations did, take this past year to do is to build reaffirm and really solidify, build trust with their current communities and audiences. Because the messaging was very, very critical to our on-campus communities and our immediate community. And so, re-establishing that bond and that trust, I think really helped in that space. I think, like you said, Heather, normal, I think we’re really redefining that. And I don’t know. I’ve heard people say, “Go back to normal. New normal.” I mean, I think it’s just, everything has evolved and it’s hard to think that we’re going to return to a five-day workweek again. I think that we’ve really established that working from home, first of all, it can be successful and it’s working in, it doesn’t mean that employees are less productive.

Jenny Li Fowler:
In fact, we’re probably more tuned in because the workday is not linear anymore. You do your work in the time slots that you can, and you’re highly productive in those moments. And then if you’re parents, you might have to put your attention to your kids for a moment that is to help them with their Zoom studies as well. But I think we’ve learned that the workday is not linear and that’s okay. I think that a lot of workplaces will make some shifts moving forward and that might look very different in the future. I think just very specifically to social media, we saw a lot of platforms adopting stories and that 24-hour post that goes away within 24 hours.

Jenny Li Fowler:
And so, I definitely think that’s here to stay. And I think a lot of us are trying to wrap our brain around a strategy for utilizing that very specific type of post and how it might look within each platform because I think for us at MIT, we’re really thinking about how to utilize the Fleets and Twitter, but we may not necessarily use stories and LinkedIn because I don’t know that that’s exactly the perfect fit for us. I think we’re really going to assess that and try to wrap our brains around that a little bit. And of course, moving off campus, I think that messaging platforms have really risen to help with business continuity and that feeling of togetherness and being in the same room without being in the same room, for Teams, Slack, all of those platforms, I think they’re here to stay, just as much as email, we’ve integrated them into our daily process.

Heather Dotchel:
Right. So these ephemeral pieces, chat, [IA 00:19:22], these are all tools that have really gained some significance over the past year. We’ve mentioned those, what are some other tools that have come to the forefront over the past year that we think are here to stay? And what do we see on the horizon as we’re trying to keep on top of the ever-changing platforms that we have to work with?

Gabriel Welsch:
Jenny said something that I think is relevant to your question about the nitty gritty, getting people in the door, getting checks in the door, that kind of thing. These social platforms have introduced a mode of communication that makes the content ephemeral, when we’ve been spending years in the mode of making content evergreen. So we’ve had to expand, I think, how we think about our content suite in terms of what is allowed to be ephemeral, what are we going to preserve, so forth. I think similarly, we have spent years thinking about a content sequence, or a communication sequence to bring in a donor, [inaudible 00:20:25] management or bring in a perspective student. We’ve embedded with students about knowing that there are times that they’re going to engage us that don’t align perfectly with the cycle of, “Oh, okay.” Send them a viewbook in the fall, they early admit and we send them, all that kind of stuff.

Gabriel Welsch:
We have splintered our mode of communication across multiple channels. To continue to do so, we have, in this year removed the visit as one of those core times where we know if somebody comes to campus, then they can begin to really communicate with them. The whole permission to text a thing, I predict is changing. People are going to be more tolerant, be texting. You’re not going to need their permission anymore because they’re not going to come to campus and give it to you. I think, as we look for the nitty gritty of how to get people in there, we are both challenged by the variety of tactics that we can use, but also liberated because we have a generation of people who are coming of age in an environment where they are ready to engage you at any point, want to do so on their terms with parents who have usually straddled that generational digital thing and themselves are also pursuing their interests in the same way.

Gabriel Welsch:
You’re going to have a rising set of donors, people who graduated in the ’80s or later who are going to come in and start making their first gifts, start making their first engagements, showing up at their first career days, who are accustomed to doing everything on their phone. I’ll give you an example, refinancing my ass. They keep trying to call me, I tell them, “Stop calling me. I get so many spam calls because of my job. Just please email me or text me.” And so they finally started doing that. And that occurred to me, students are going to be doing in the same thing. Stop doing whatever this communication stream is, but they’re not all going to pick the same one. And so that’s where we’re going to have to be agile. And we can’t put all of our strategic eggs in one tactical basket.

Jenny Li Fowler:
One thing that I’ve had to think about this year is really flipping social media on its head a little bit, because social media is, our channels are very public channels. But all of a sudden, the need to communicate to an internal audience became really, really important. And admittedly, we do not do that very well at MIT, maybe in higher ed. And so, we’ve really had to use all of our tools in our toolbox to try to get public health messaging out, which is a good reminder globally, but we really were trying to speak to our on-campus population. I think this is something that I will continue to think about and struggle with, we will continue to think about and struggle with is how to reach very specific audience with very public channels. And I’m not even sure that that’s quite a fit, but we’re just trying to use all the tools that we can at this time.

Jenny Li Fowler:
And while this is not necessarily under my purview, but one thing we’ve had to adjust, especially when we were all asked to leave campus in March, was that one big weekend that we have is Campus Preview Weekend, where our admits come and visit campus. They visit MIT. And this is a time where we really sell our institute. And this is when it’s our chance for us to woo our students, particularly cross-admits that are trying to make their minds between very, very elite and competitive institutions. This is a chance for us to maybe get them to fall in love with us. But that completely went out the door and we really relied on our current students to help recreate that experience online and digitally. Whereas, they couldn’t come to campus, we tried our best through our students to build an experience to bring campus to them.

Jenny Li Fowler:
So one thing our students did, because they’re very MIT, is that they’ve rebuilt campus in Minecraft. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with the game. But it was to the degree where they got blueprints. I mean, I don’t even know how, but they got blueprints of campus and they rebuilt it and it was beautiful. And so, things that just came about organically was folded into this virtual Campus Preview Weekend. And the people that put it together, I mean, talk about flying a plane as you’re building it. I mean, they did a fantastic, remarkable job. And really, it was because our students led the way. And I think that there’s just going to be more of that in the future because they’re so creative, what they do. And they just do it in their free time. And I always find that when we listen to our students and lean on them for consultation, the best ideas come out of those times. And so I think, moving forward, I believe that hopefully we’ll have more of those opportunities and that we’ll grow. And I hope that stays.

Gabriel Welsch:
I think that’s a very good point. We know that there are lots of places in higher ed that have varying degrees of comfort with having your students involved in the cell or the messaging or so forth. And yet those students are the reason we’re here. And if they’re here, how can we let them talk about that? And so I think one of the things that will persist, Jenny, from your point is, places will have learned during this period if they did a good job and they listened to their students. That it’s okay that they can help. And we know that Gen Z students, they don’t want to attend, they want to be a part. They want to take part. And that can be a powerful messaging, powerful leverage, and help your communication tools. Going back to my first comment there, and said, their stories, regardless of the platform are animating how you communicate your value to constituents.

Heather Dotchel:
I love that. I did see the MIT campus creation when it went through social media, “Look at this cool thing the students did.” And that’s fantastic. And it is really nice, when we’re talking there’s this specter of COVID that comes over all of these conversations, even when we’re having a podcast that isn’t specifically related to the pandemic. We just can’t escape it with what we do day in and day out, and we talk about it. But it is neat when we have these pieces that excite us. You mentioned the students at MIT and you can see all three of us lighting up and the body language changes and we get a little pep in our step as we’re talking about it. So when we look forward with all of these pieces, what are the things we’re excited about coming up this year?

Heather Dotchel:
I know with some of the work that I’m doing now, as basic as it seems, I think a lot of schools that have not fought to differentiate themselves because they haven’t quite had to, they know it’s coming, but they’ve been resistant now that it’s more a question of absolute survival, given the resource ramifications of the pandemic. That we’re going to see a lot of schools really lean into that brand identity and find out what make them different and start speaking to their students differently as our understanding goes with that. That’s what excites me. I just put together a piece that I was creating with admissions and communications, just within the last couple of weeks that has a totally different tone and sound to it, talking to the students than the school has been used to, but it’s fun.

Heather Dotchel:
And that’s exciting. And having these new ways of looking at it. And having, I think, more open atmosphere on higher levels of cabinet to this kind of change, which may have not been viewed as academically appropriate in less tumultuous times, is a good thing. And I know that excites me looking out at what schools are doing. Swarthmore’s Viewbook this year, which had that great cover, which was like, “We’d love to tell you what next year is going to look like,” but we don’t know. That never would have happened a year or two ago. So seeing those changes, I find personally very exciting. What is moving you?

Gabriel Welsch:
Well, and so to build on that, we did a research training process to develop better brand tools here at my university. And we’re rolling out all this in a very non-traditional way during a pandemic, because all the things that you would do, you can’t do. No t-shirt cannons, no crowds of people thronging about it, no big… So as we confront that, one of the things that you said, Heather, is very relevant. And the tools that brand work has now in terms of research, in terms of comprehensive, look at all your constituencies, whether it’s your community, your donors, your [alumns 00:30:18], whatever. You can go to a cabinet now. You can go to senior administration.

Gabriel Welsch:
And that whole academic question, well, what is valued in academic culture is research proof and review. The tools that we have now can provide cabinets and can provide faculty if you let them in to that process, a clear research-driven approach to brand that even though the way it manifests itself is fun and creative and all those kinds of things, there’s real research, there’s real data behind this. And I think those tools make it very exciting and having better conversations amongst senior administrators and some of the peers with whom I regularly speak at other institutions who are talking at their cabinet level. There’s enough research to really work. We’re not winging it. We’re never winging it, but it’s so much more easy to show the math, literally, now than it has been for a long time. And so that’s exciting.

Gabriel Welsch:
And you’re also able to learn about its success on the fly in stronger ways and be able to adjust. And we have been now in an adjusting mode for almost a year. And so, we’ve built dexterity. We have understanding of brand, we have understanding of proof. I’m making lemonade here with the lemons, but I think that’s where we are.

Jenny Li Fowler:
Heather, there’s so much about just platform specific stuff that scares me. There’s parlor and clubhouse and voice. But I will say that what does excite me is that, that transparency and authenticity have just risen. Those things are so important now. And also I think that more and more, those who really leaned toward legacy communication channels are starting to see the value of social media. Hopefully, the social media is gaining a little bit more clout and the value of the social media manager is seen a little bit more. I think that’s exciting. I think it’s so important to make sure that your social media manager is in the room, because these people get real-time data. They have real-time data on whether messaging is hitting or if it’s missing.

Jenny Li Fowler:
I mean, sometimes I’m amazed because there are organizations that pay a lot of money for that market research and that data, but your social media manager in-house just can look it up and tell you and they have a keen idea of what the audience is searching. And so, I find that maybe people are recognizing the value of that and inviting social media managers into the room. And so I find that exciting. I think there needs to be more of that. I think we’re just starting to see the beginning of it. And so, hopefully that trend continues.

Heather Dotchel:
So as we look to wrap this conversation up, one of the things that I do always come back to is to ask my guests to forecast in very concrete ways, tactics or tools that our audience can take away with. We all have very different sets of resources, very different sets of positions within the marcomm units across the universities and colleges internationally. With the assumption that not all of us have those resources in common, what would you say have been the most effective tactics that we’ve used in the past year that department should be looking to adapt if they haven’t already? And then, as we look forward to the trends for the year to come, what do marcomm departments need to be ready to, at the very least, evaluate as a tool for their own needs or adapt as quickly as possible? Jenny, do you want to start that?

Jenny Li Fowler:
Sure, sure. Absolutely. No matter whether you have a large team, or if you are a communications person of one, a lot of us were sent off-campus. And I know some campuses have repopulated, but a lot of us are still working from home and we’re not on campus. And our subject matter for being creative and the content that we create, really, it’s hard when you’re not actually in the space where you can create those things or with the people that you could feature or create content. I think remaining creative and just churning out content has been a big challenge. And I think that more and more leaning toward that user generated content, but within your own community. I think you really can lean into the content that is being produced by your amazingly creative students or different labs and centers or the schools.

Jenny Li Fowler:
I think that when you really look to your community to a harvest content and see what you can do to help optimize the content for different platforms, I think that that’s something that is incredibly helpful and useful, and we’ll see more of that and we’ll need to do more of that. As far as trends and predicting trends, I do get asked this question quite a bit, and I always just… This is so hard. It’s like trying to say, “The first quarterback is going to go in the upcoming NFL Draft.” Who’s going to pan out? These things are so hard, but for this year in particular, I do feel like Facebook has altered its algorithm again. And particularly, when you’re just doing organic or relying on organic content and organic reach and impressions, I think whatever Facebook has done with its algorithm has really slashed into those numbers for people who are not paying for posts or not doing digital ad spend.

Jenny Li Fowler:
And so, I really think that you will see more and more people leave Facebook. And I’m not talking at the flagship or the main university levels, but if there are department, labs and centers or schools, particularly those that have a following maybe less than 10,000, I think you’ll see them not finding any benefit from continuing to be on Facebook, and they’re going to leave Facebook and join LinkedIn because the engagement numbers in LinkedIn are so much better and they continue to increase. And the algorithm is a little bit more transparent. And I think people are moving to those spaces. And also that piece about speaking to an internal audience.

Jenny Li Fowler:
One thing that we always, question we’re always asking ourselves is, “How do we reach our students with the messaging that we need to get to them right now? And how do we make sure they’re seeing it because we know that everyone gets too much email and they’re not reading all of the emails in a timely fashion or when we want them to read it?” I just think messaging platforms and even text, sending mass texts for reasons other than emergency, I think those are going to move into the forefront or at least be placed on the table as possibilities more and more.

Gabriel Welsch:
I would build on what Jenny said. Lots of great observations, particularly the LinkedIn one. My former role in advancement, I was convinced it was the most underutilized platform. So good to hear what you’re doing. I think one of the things that you’re going to have to do going into this coming year is, to the extent you have any brand guidelines in research at all, including, even if it’s only what your social media manager is seeing and your web analytics are saying, and that satisfaction surveys, whatever, even if you haven’t hired a firm or whatever, but whatever research you have on your brand it is the most recent, look at it with a skeptical eye, evaluate it and make sure you’re on top of it in terms of what it’s saying, because your constituency just changed.

Gabriel Welsch:
They may be the same people, but what they value, I mean, safety is going to be top of the sell right now. And what are your stories that say that without guaranteeing everyone’s going to be safe because that’s unrealistic. I think that’s one of the things that we’re going to have to look at. I think another thing, and I mentioned it early on in the conversation, but I’ll stress it again because I think it’s important, I think we need to, wherever you are, evaluate to the extent possible, and adapt and professionalize your student life communications, as like once you’re inside the university. I think we’ve professionalized advancement and enrollment. And so you have three years of, “I love you. Please come here.” You have 50 years of, “I love you. Please give us money.” Then you have four years of, “Do what I say.”

Gabriel Welsch:
And I think it’s a real brand building missed opportunity for… A lot of places to build a brand just organically because their faculty are there, their people are good, they’re doing good work, but you’re communications now, particularly with a large portion of your campus virtual, look at how to professionalize and bring around student life communications, even if they’re just following, “Here’s three rules,” or whatever it may be, anything you can do to make that stronger is going to be of help for you in the coming year. And I think finally, and this builds on something that Jenny said as well, be ready for video dexterity, not only from user-generated content, but different ways to do things. Knowing that you can’t necessarily get to campus, how can you repurpose photographs? Be okay with people talking on Zoom or their phone.

Gabriel Welsch:
A lot of places have already been comfortable with that depending on the [inaudible 00:40:36], but I think it’s going to be a lot more forgiving even in your most formal contexts to have people potentially coming in with Zoom or iPhone content. And then, how are you dexterous and how you chop those bits up, use them, share them across multiple platforms, et cetera.

Jenny Li Fowler:
You know what? I think one big thing that really came out of 2020 in social, or social media is that we have constantly been in the column or the lane of, post, post, post, post, post, post. We are constantly like, it’s a steady stream. And we were so used to keeping it going for so long that 2020 was really the first year when we found value in pausing. It was just like, “We don’t need to be a part of this conversation right now.” Or just to say, “Before we trip on ourselves and accidentally post something that will not hit. Well, right in this space and time, let’s just pause on all of that.” And people have said things like, “Go dark,” or just, “Clear the queue.” I mean, whatever term you want to use. I think that we have learned that, first of all, it is okay to press pause in social media. And sometimes there is more value in it. And this is really the first time we have learned, experienced and embraced that.

Heather Dotchel:
Do you think it is interesting? I mean, that can be extrapolated beyond social media too. In a year that we’ve needed to over-communicate, we have also needed to learn when to pull back. So the over-communication does not become white noise that nobody’s paying attention to. So I think social media is a microcosm of that in a bigger conversation that we as communicators need to keep in mind.

Gabriel Welsch:
Well, it’s also split out which conversations it’s okay to communicate on and which not. If I read one paper, I’ve read 10 this year that said, “Everything about being mindful and respectful and pausing and so forth is true, asterisk COVID.” And I mean, we literally, I think at one point during all of this sent two a day for a week, but they were needed for some of the logistics that went into the time and movement. And so, like I said, I read a number of papers that have said, “This is the one subject on which you almost, almost, cannot over-communicate.” And so, I think it’s going to be… We work with plenty of people who think their message is the most important one. And so, what they take from the lesson of COVID I think has to be attenuated to the professionals to say that, “Yeah, this was a pandemic. The next speaker who’s coming to your department is not quite the same. We don’t need to send an email every day.” I think we want to make sure people don’t misunderstand this particular exception that proves the rule.

Jenny Li Fowler:
Yeah. Ditto. 100%. There was no over-communicating when it came to COVID. Right?

Gabriel Welsch:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jenny Li Fowler:
But I think in everything else, and I know that I talked about tone earlier, but it was just, [inaudible 00:43:56] was so vital because out of 2020, there are so many trigger words now. Words that actually trigger a negative, knee jerk response in people. And if you were really listening to your audiences you know what those trigger words are. And I learned that that was vitally important as we continue to write posts and write copy for our social media posts. I won’t go into what those are because I don’t want to trigger any negative feelings here.

Gabriel Welsch:
Sure. Well, it’s a whole other discussion too, I think. And COVID was over-communicate, but we also had a re-emergence of essentially the second civil rights movement, which required honest communication, honest communication in a way, but then also space for people to process, work, and not necessarily institutionally butt in on every single thing.

Heather Dotchel:
All right. Well, I think that’s a good place to end since we’re all in complete agreement that that is a huge lesson and trend from the past year that we need to move forward with. When we wrap up these podcasts, we do like to take a hard turn and talk about something completely different in the immortal words of a certain flying troop. So many of our colleagues cultivate creative sides in addition to their day-to-day marcomm jobs. And so, I want to pick your brains about what that looks like for you. Jenny, you recently shared that you took a stand-up comedy course. Tell us more.

Jenny Li Fowler:
I did. I think it was just, maybe the third month of being self-quarantined and at home and everything was starting to look the same, same, same. I don’t know. Stand-up comedy always has interested in me in a way, because it’s still writing. I feel like there are some of the writers, but the delivery it’s public speaking in a totally different sense. First of all, I just wanted to challenge myself. I always tell people it’s important to do something that scares you a little bit because that’s where the growth happens and I needed a creative outlet, and joll my system a little bit. And we did. We had to put together a five minute set at the end and I invited my team, which is, could have been dangerous, but it was great.

Jenny Li Fowler:
I mean, thankfully we all got a laugh out of it. People found it funny and it was great. It was a great bonding moment for my team. And it was something that I felt like I had accomplished. And there weren’t a lot of moments where you felt good about something this past year. So I think, it checked the boxes that I needed checked.

Heather Dotchel:
I love that. Did it check them for good or can we expect to see you at our local comedy shacks sometime soon?

Jenny Li Fowler:
I think it’ll always be some… It did light a fire in me. I think I did enjoy it and I felt like I could do it. I think the next thing I’m eyeing is maybe an improv class, but I feel like you need to be in-person. And that’s a lot scarier to tell you the truth, that provocation, but maybe that’s the next scary thing that I will try and approach.

Heather Dotchel:
Excellent.

Gabriel Welsch:
The next scary thing I will do is go into the office.

Jenny Li Fowler:
Good point.

Heather Dotchel:
There is that. Gabe, you are a writer.

Gabriel Welsch:
[crosstalk 00:47:40].

Heather Dotchel:
And you have published several books of wonderful poetry. What’s on top for you this year. Tell us where you are right now.

Gabriel Welsch:
It’s been hard to write with all of the things on deck and on my mind, but it remains the thing that starts my days, most days. Sometimes it’s to call the president, but most days it’s writing. But I’m pleased that this year in October, my first collection of short stories will be published. It’s called Ground Scratchers. It comes out with [Tulsan 00:48:14] books in October. And I’m very much looking forward to seeing that come into the world in addition to the books of poetry. So that writing, I do early in the day before I’m polluted with phrases like strategic excellence initiative. It’s nice to do and keep myself real and grounded and all that.

Jenny Li Fowler:
Is Ground Scratchers, is it informed at all by the year’s past experiences or is it just totally apart from it?

Gabriel Welsch:
It’s totally apart from it. I worked through high school and college and part of graduate school as a landscaper. And it was a tone of derision directed at another landscaper by a trendy, urban Zen garden designer dude. Then when I heard that, a story came out of it, but you’ll have to wait till October to read, but is also fairly memorable, where does a title, and so forth.

Jenny Li Fowler:
Yeah. Thank you for indulging my question.

Gabriel Welsch:
Yeah, no problem.

Heather Dotchel:
I can’t wait. Short stories are my favorite. I’m very excited about this. Gabe and Jenny, is there somewhere our listeners could reach out to continue conversations with you? Gabe?

Gabriel Welsch:
Sure. You can find me on LinkedIn. You can also find me on Twitter @gabrielwelsch.

Jenny Li Fowler:
Same. I am on LinkedIn and I’m also on Twitter @thejennyli, and Li is L-I.

Heather Dotchel:
Jenny and Gabe. We are so thankful that you could sit and chat with us today. We’re looking forward to more great conversations with higher ed thought leaders in the weeks and months to come. If you’d like to explore our topic further, please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @hdotchel.

The Higher Voltage Podcast

The Higher Voltage Podcast

Higher Voltage is a periodic podcast covering all aspects of higher education marketing.

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