The other day, I wrote about Why The Fuck Should I Choose Oberlin? (WTFSICO), an irreverent but successful effort by a couple of loyal Obies to showcase why they love their school.
We talk a lot about authenticity in higher ed web marketing, but how much more authentic can you get than a website powered by user submissions, showcasing what people really like about an institution via an internet trope they readily embrace? (It’s important to note that, while I call it a “marketing” site, it is an unofficial site not officially endorsed by the university. More than anything, it’s a fan site that just happens to be run by university staff and alums.)
When I see WTFSICO, I see a reflection of any number of popular single-serving sites that come down the pike, go viral (like, legitimately viral) and spark a huge amount of sharing, conversation and attention. In short, what I see is the real internet. I don’t see a time-delayed facsimile that has been vetted by committees and upheld by established best practices, and in the process had all the life, authenticity and relevance wrung right out of it. I see a real-time cultural echo.
In higher ed, we far too often call that a risk.
Look Beyond .edu
At HighEdWeb, I talked about how higher ed needs to begin using mainstream media as an analog for developing our own news sites — learning from the standards they are setting for an online news experience and from the platforms, channels and content types they are embracing to tell stories.
But the validity of that approach goes beyond news. In his HighEdWeb session, University of Florida’s Jeff Stevens brought up everything from Kiva to Kickstarter to Farmville as inspirations for engaging alumni and soliciting donations in ways that are new to higher ed but proven in other contexts. If we’re reaching out to a particular audience via the internet, why not do what works for that audience? Seems simple enough to me. Maybe it’s a magazine. Maybe it’s LOLcats. If it works, it works.
The fact of the matter is, if you are doing what you’ve always done, or sticking only to proven .edu conventions, you will soon find yourself falling behind — or realizing you’ve been behind for a while. That’s not to say we should change on a whim, or just for the sake of changing. Not at all. But we can’t be complacent. That would be the real risk.
Fun, Fun, Fun, Fun
At Ithaca College, where campus closes at 3 p.m. in the summer, multimedia content coordinator Rob Engelsman and his colleagues took the opportunity to do a “fun, summery thing… to help celebrate the weekend” and post humorous GIFs to the university Twitter account. Yes, GIFs. In case you didn’t know, this 24-year old file format is having a cultural resurgence via sites like Reddit and a host of Tumblrs. Two of the most popular ones for IC were Rebecca Black visiting the campus fountains, which drew about 518 clicks, and a rendering of what campus looks like at 3:01PM on Fridays, which got about 189 clicks.
“For the last shuttle launch, we photoshopped the space shuttle lifting off from our new Athletics Center which has a large tower on it, and for the fourth of July we had the liberty bell swinging between our two iconic towers on campus with fireworks in the background,” says Engelsman. They got some feedback about a couple of the GIFs being too goofy, but according to Engelsman, “we had fun anyway.”
Recently, I saw Mike Richwalsky of John Carroll University tweet, “So we run digital signage, and I’m so tempted to put “STUDENTS Y U NO GET FLU SHOTS” on there promoting our free flu shots. #jobsecurity.” Pittsburg State’s Michael Fienen responded by creating the slide, which Richwalsky then adapted for use in digital signage. I’m not sure if he actually published it or not, but I thought it was hilarious — and certainly attention-getting, which is what you want for a flu shot campaign.
These examples few and far between. Though Rob Engelsman tipped me off to at least one company in the higher ed space is embracing this — check out Unigo’s Find Me a Fucking College single-serving site, driving users to the Unigo pages for various schools.
Too School For Cool
There is one giant caveat: It is extraordinarily difficult for us to do this. One of my cardinal rules is “don’t try to be cool,” because if we try to hard to be cool, we will only look foolish. This is tricky stuff to pull off. Photocopying pop culture is not a recipe for success; it’s a shortcut to failure.
We also wrestle with our own gravitas. I think many institutions would want to characterize themselves as forward-thinking and not hidebound, but how much of our marketing is hidebound? When trying to be forward-thinking, how often are we forced to tie one arm behind our back? Why do we have to hashtag neat, valid ideas #jobsecurity? Where does the real risk lie?
Why WTFSICO works for its creators is that they are not too far removed from their target demographic. Also, the site is not official, and it likely didn’t languish for months between conception and launch. WTFSICO is a natural extension of their love and enthusiasm for Oberlin and a natural expression of what, to them, is an effective web presence. In short, they are not trying too hard.
The July 2010 Brigham Young University parody of the Old Spice guy videos worked because it was a real-time, nearly instantaneous reaction to a pop culture phenomenon. (The incredibly popular video response phase of “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign launched July 14, 2010; the BYU video went up the next day. The original commercial had debuted in February 2010.)
Still, we have to be attentive to internet cultural phenomena like LOLcats and GIFs and single-serving websites. They represent a key dialect of the language that the rest of the internet is speaking, and we do not operate on a separate internet. In marketing, achieving a fluency in that language is the biggest challenge. Whether we’re talking Tumblr or flyers, the language may change but the challenge remains the same.
But maybe efforts like WTFSICO are out of our reach. Maybe they only succeed because they are not institutionally grown. Maybe we’re too close to the problem to be part of the solution, and our role is best served encouraging from afar rather than creating on our own. Maybe. Maybe not.
It’s easy for us to segregate ourselves, but our users don’t. We’re judged alongside everything else. We don’t get a break. Believe it or not, we are on the actual, real internet, right alongside everybody else. So need to find ways to start acting like it.
What do you think?