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Shane Shanks

Coaching in-house teams

Work like an agency: always think first

December 1, 2016   //   Shane Shanks

I worked for years on an in-house team in higher ed. When I moved into consulting, I expected big changes in the type of projects I managed.

But guess what?

The work isn’t that different. The players, locations and institutional quirks vary, yet many of the big issues are pretty similar across institutions.

I was asked to speak at a recent CASE conference for chief publications managers — “publications” being the outdated but catch-all term for offices that handle marketing communications projects of every stripe.

My topic: how to think — and work — like a consultant.

After a few years at Zehno, I know that several of the processes and tools we use as outside consultants could have made me more effective in my in-house job. This post, the second in a series, shares two ideas about bringing a consulting mindset to your current job.


Always think first

Thinking is the most important part of your job. So why is it the first process to go when work gets too busy?

The thinking phase is where you prove your value to the institution, so don’t skip it.

For your bigger projects and campaigns, that means dusting off the research, strategizing how to align your work with the university goals, and making specific recommendations that your team can act on.

In the consulting world, the thinking phase — known as discovery or an audit — usually involves:

  • Conducting surveys or analyzing existing research
  • Interviewing key stakeholders
  • Conducting focus groups
  • Reviewing current communications tools and processes
  • Evaluating competitor schools’ marketing messages

The discovery phase leads to a set of strategic recommendations that serves as your game plan. This report could be a thick notebook, a two-page summary, or a presentation that outlines:

  • Overall objectives
  • Specific goals for this project — and the strategies to meet them
  • A critique of existing tools and performance
  • A prioritized list of needed tools — and timeline/budget for producing them

I know what you’re thinking: If I already work for an institution, why bother making a formal report?

My answer: You want a strategy that is sharable — with your own team and with leaders across campus. You want something that documents the work and your colleagues’ inputs — interviews, surveys, enrollment numbers, more — that informed your recommendations.

And you want a strategic foundation that guarantees that your next round of communications is poised to accomplish something specific.


Know what your institution is already doing

This sounds simple, but usually isn’t.

Let’s be blunt: In a pinch, could you itemize everything coming from your own office?

And what about all those offices creating flyers and emails you never see? And those other campus kingdoms — alumni, development, athletics, research extension — with their own communications branches? Does anyone really know what they’re producing?

That’s why it’s important to set up a formalized communications flow for all of your major campaigns. Zehno regularly creates them for prospective students and donor audiences. Here are some common variants on a communications flow:

Calendar-focused comm flow

Sometimes a comm flow is structured week by week. Dissemination of various communication tools is organized by your key dates rather than your prospects’ points of entry in your cycle.

In a basic undergrad admissions example, high school seniors might receive a “search” email outlining the admissions process in the second week of August. The next week, they receive a printed invitation to Open House.

When a new prospect joins the audience pool midway through the cycle, the flow picks up where he or she entered on your calendar (with maybe a couple of exceptions).

This flow strategy is driven by decision points and deadlines — typically a fall campus visit, fall recruitment events, application and scholarship deadlines, and several others.

Prospect-focused comm flow 

For schools using a CRM system, the comm flow is typically based on the days that prospects enter the system. On day 1, they might receive a branded email; on day 10, you mail them a program-specific brochure.

As prospects perform certain “trigger” actions — maybe clicking on a link or submitting an application — they move to the next status level. And as they move from, let’s say, a purchased name to a prospect, they’ll receive a richer, customized flow of information.

When a new prospect joins the audience pool mid-cycle, the comm flow proceeds on the prospect’s timeline (although it may be compressed if very late in the year).

Why pay attention to your flow?

Yes, to know what your institution is sending out. But also to equip your team to make smarter decisions about:

  • Coverage: Are you hitting all of your key audience segments? Or are some falling off your radar?
  • Frequency: Are you communicating with prospects regularly? Or do you leave them hanging for weeks at a time?
  • Media mix: Does your campaign balance across mediums? Are you over-reliant on, say, email to drive your communications strategy?
  • Message mix: Are you always asking people to apply or donate — yet forgetting to explain why they should?

(Zehno’s new comm flow generator tool helps educational institutions get their campaigns in order. More on that in a future blog post.)

Once you’re crystal clear on who is receiving what (and when), you can focus on your mix of messages and your metrics. Building this global view of your campaigns also helps you prioritize which new tools are needed next and which are no longer necessary.

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