Humor as perpetual emotion

An open letter to Andy Beedle…

I’m an Andy Beedle fan. Love your sense of humor, admire your ability to assemble a creative staff and deliver a measurable marketing success to college clients.

I share your commitment to the college market, and share your perspectives on many issues related to marketing to Millennials, including the value of authenticity, self-deprecating humor, and the major wrong-headedness of the Appalachian State “HOT HOT HOT” video.

But I think you’ve gone a bit overboard in your latest email, Andy…

Every week, I get several calls from College and University enrollment folks wanting to talk about having us do a new and innovative project for their institution. I also get slightly fewer calls from other higher ed marketing firms that are intellectual property fishing trips disguised as “partnership explorations” where they ask questions about how we come up with our ideas for online campaigns and I say non-committal things like, “We work hard on a collaborative and generative process that is informed by the interests of the target demo.” I have no idea what that means, but it makes those calls mercifully brief.

[Andy then proceeds to advocate ways of achieving viral marketing clout through humor, humor, and more humor.]

First, Andy, I want to say that going viral via humor is a very dangerous branding strategy for a college. Yes, some of your efforts on your web site are laugh-out-load funny, including the Stickman animations for Kettering, and the George Mason mascot video. Brilliant. But Beedle, you’re a Boomer, and while Millennials crave immediacy, Gen Y literacy, individualism, and social interactivity (according to Forrester), they are not the irreverent rebels you and I are. They get along with their parents (80-90 percent), buy brands (90 percent), tolerate and even desire supervision and protection, build communities rather than protest injustices, respect branded institutions if they sense authenticity, and are in many ways much more conservative than we are from the inside out.

For that reason, while there’s no doubt they love to find goofy junk on YouTube to laugh at with their friends, they are not necessarily going to be dismissive of a credible, authentic presentation about a school. They seem to be much less hypocritical than we are about getting an education and a job. We cry “down with the establishment” while we build the most materialistic lifestyle in history; they are often turning away from lucrative positions in order to find meaning in volunteering or other lower-income pursuits.

Second, your attitude toward other marketing approaches feels like smugness. Ideas, freshness, have never been a challenge for me personally; speaking for myself along with you and your staff and many other marketers I know, there are plenty of folks who feel relentlessly creative and have no problem coming up with fresh, prescriptive ideas to suggest to clients. Those of us who choose to specialize in the college marketing arena do so, I would guess, out of a desire to focus on a demanding niche that requires a very refined and nuanced level of creative precision. As a class, college marketers from A-beedle to Ztories (my tiny company), and all the Lipman Hearnes and Stamats in between, have much more trouble getting their clients to take risks than they do finding fresh creative ideas to suggest to their clients. [Am I right on this, fellow marketers?!] So, Andy, my hunch is that lots of college marketing consultants have got to feel the same as I do, impressed with your creativity but not necessarily your artistry.

Third, and most important, humor can attract attention, but it can also cheapen the brand of anything that purports to be worth a $120,000 price tag. Does Michelin go for humor? Cuteness, friendliness, family values; but not funny. Do Lexus and Volvo attach humor to their brands? No, good quality is not funny. Safety is serious. A quality diploma is no laughing matter.

And so for getting unqualified, happy-go-lucky leads, your viral yuck-it-up stuff can fill an inbox. Maybe even bring in a bumper crop of applications. But if you want those Kettering applicants to matriculate, and stay for 4 years because it was a good fit, it seems to me there needs to be a serious and credible set of messages that address substantive issues with the kind of immediacy and Millennial literacy that other schools are able to do through more dignified marketing efforts.

When I scratch below the brilliant, viral Kettering search effort, I see media which fails to bolster its most basic claims vis-a-vis dynamic, engaged applied science. Nor does it authentically address the tough situations students who actually go there must face in an economically distressed community. Should colleges take a caveat emptor approach to their image, or should they attempt to be more transparent about their actual weaknesses as well as strengths?

And the chemical activity level of the humor I’m seeing here can produce unexpected results. It would be damaging to a school like Whitman to make fun of liberal arts as an aspiration. It would be destructive to a Hillsdale to get funny about its preoccupation with politics. These are critical dimensions, august ideals, which fill the very air at these institutions. For me, the essence of brand elucidation requires colleges to begin treating 17-year-olds as adults who are going to be making serious decisions based on reason and, yes, the western rational tradition rather than some funny but ultimately senseless zinger by the school’s mascot.

Has the bump in interest provided by Stickman been a benefit to Kettering? Short term, it seems positive, but how will it play long-term? Here’s my concern: the downside of associating Stickman to a college brand, is the junk which has now been attached to Stickman at the top of the search engines: Subservient Stickman.

No, I’m not advocating stuffy, predictable bureaucratese. Most college videos I’ve ever seen are unendurable. I’m advocating truthful and memorable storytelling. I have seen the benefits of credible, compelling, immediate, socially-interwoven rich media that builds brand equity.

“Authentic” and “sarcastic” are not synonyms. Making it authentic does not mean making it disrespectful, irreverent, or ironic. It means making the claims precisely and demonstrably true, without hubris or puffery. And communicating effectively with rich media requires an emphasis on appropriate emotion, not “facts”. It means story-telling with just the right mixture of humor, humanity, and gravitas.

Will these kinds of weighty communication efforts go viral? Not often. But they’re worth paying for because they have value.

Ultimately, aspiring to get the marketing equivalent of perpetual motion is not just fraught with risk; it could be downright foolish and create a perpetual emotion, a damaging double-entendre that sticks like glue and measurably hurts the most important thing a college has: its reputation.

PS — Andy, I hope to meet you some day and settle this little disagreement over humor methods with a friendly (and funny) contest… hot-dog eating? jousting? inflatable Sumo smackdowns? Or we could have a recite-off of our favorite aphoristic writers. I elect Alexander Pope, Francis Bacon, Mark Twain and Piet Hein… 🙂

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Top 10 admissions websites (not)

Mary Beth Marklein is a great reporter on the college communication scene for USA Today but I am not impressed with the NRCCUA list she shared recently:

  1. Lawrence University
  2. Pennsylvania College of Technology
  3. LeTourneau University
  4. University of New England
  5. Bellarmine University
  6. Wayne State University
  7. Gonzaga University
  8. Saint Vincent College and Seminary
  9. Lakeland College
  10. Newberry College

Admissions usability? Design? Use of media? I didn’t see a single site on this list that felt strong to me in these areas.

Here are my top 3 at the moment:

1. Keck Graduate Institute – “Hybrid” microsite – Congratulations to Lipman Hearne for putting together a fast-loading, well-designed, site that integrates video effectively using Flash technology. Intuitive to navigate, very hip look, and consistently invites alums and student advisors to leave their friends’ name and email address.

2. Whitman College – terrific college website with great variety but unity of design. Lots of flash, very responsive, though there is little to no video. Excellent photography and goes a long way toward establishing the feel of a rich intellectual community.

3. Rice University – just released new university website with very nice interactive flash interface leading to interesting tie-ins between Rice history and current trends. Dock them for using Windows media and a clunky html interface for the archival video clips they show.

I looked at a couple of dozen sites in the last few days and could not find one beside the Keck Graduate Institute site that used basic Flash video, integrated into the page, to show video clips. My own informal search supports what Mary Beth reports, that according to the National Research Center for College & University Admissions, “the level of student satisfaction has been declining”. Students want more interactivity, including contact with both admissions people and students already on campus. Ease of communication with real people in the admissions office via IM is another hot button.

Of the minority of college sites that I found to offer rich media, most have long wait times, multiple formats to choose from, and clunky interfaces. It’s not that hard! My guess is we’re looking at a pattern of IT sluggishness here. Often, this seems to manifest itself in movies that require downloading, require Real or WMV plugins, or are hosted by separate servers. It’s actually quite easy to have flash movies begin streaming with 5 seconds, playable through any browser or on any computer, and integrated into the design of the page. For example, a really cool iPhone jukebox interface is as easy as falling off a log.

What college sites have you found that look great, are responsive, and use flash or video effectively?

Please comment with your nominations!

The Mystery in Love/Lovemarks

One of the 3 elements of a lovemark in theory is “mystery”. Dreams, symbols, metaphors, stories. Yep, I love stories etc. but let’s be serious about how it applies to the college marketing challenge.

Think about love for a minute. Does love revolve around mystery, or does true love grow with knowledge and emerging reality?

Blaise Pascal said “the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” So on one level there are mysteries involved in any decision of the heart. But Pascal also wisely said:

“Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling, do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles and being unable to see at a glance.”

Sounds like love to me. Love at first sight is based on feelings, and when the mystery dimension is high the love feelings can feel strong. But as the relationship evolves, the mysteries are replaced with realities that often strain the relationship.

Which is why Madeleine de Scudery wrote: “Men should keep their eyes wide open before marriage, and half shut afterward.”

How do 17-year-olds judge what college to go to? I think … I feel 🙂 … that feeling trumps reasoning for kids. How about their parents? I think that parents are more focused on the reasons.*

Yes, the reasons can be feelings. “The feeling of the campus”. “The friendliness of the people.” “Such school spirit.” But effective marketing involves being reasonable and analytical about those intangibles, and learning to maximize them.

What’s the best way to communicate those mysterious feelings? Clearly, through personality and feelings that show in a person’s eyes or tone of voice. Personal contact is supreme… but surely the creative and lively arts of music and cinema ought to be able to get those feelings across well too… right?

*If there’s any useful research on this I haven’t found it yet. Here’s one survey that doesn’t seem to shed much insight for me.

Ranking rancor

USA Today did us all a service with a balanced treatment of NSSE rankings versus USA Today rankings. Be sure to peruse the database they supply … easily the most valuable piece for recruiting professionals.
I especially appreciated the page on  “What schools across the  USA are doing to engage students” High points:

Appalachian State’s Freshman Seminar uses systematic get-acquainted and accountability efforts to keep following up on each other. Grades are better, and satisfaction is up.

Wagner College (NYC) and Evergreen State (Olympia, WA) also use “learning communities” to enhance accountability, not just among freshmen.

Elon University (NC) and the University of Dayton (OH) ramped up writing requirements. At Elon, for example, a media writing course requires 14 to 16 news reports each term, usually assigned on a given day to cover an immediate news event, with a 2am filing deadline. Inaccuracy or tardiness nets a zero.

Miami University (Oxford, OH) offers 140 senior capstone courses, which usually have only 25 students engaged in cooperative learning projects. This is designed to meet the NSSE objective of “opportunities to integrate, synthesize, and apply knowledge.”

At Wabash College, (Crawfordsville, IN),  every senior takes both oral and written comprehensive exams to demonstrate what he or she has learned in the preceding four years. The formal oral exam takes place before a jury of three faculty members.

Other programs described in the article include practical opportunities for diversity education at U of Michigan, first-generation student support at Cal State, and innovative cultural activities at the University of Virginia.

"Exploration of identity"

NPR took on the college admissions imbroglio in an excellent 7-part series last February. (Sorry but I just discovered it!!!) One of the things I enjoyed in reviewing their work relates to a great interview of Beverly Daniel Tatum, the President of Spelman College in Atlanta. When asked if the 10 to 15% of black students who attend HBCUs are involved in “self-segregation”, Dr. Tatum replies with elegance and aplomb. She says in part,

“If we think about the college years as a time when you are really exploring who you are, what you hope to be, how you want to define yourself — AND if you are from a group that has been historically marginalized and under-valued — having the opportunity to attend a school where … you are at the center of the educational experience, where your educational development, your leadership development, is at the core of the mission of the institution, is a very empowering experience which is hard to find in the context of a society that still advantages those who are white, disadvantages those who are not. I think recognizing that important exploration of identity, and recognizing who you are, who you can be in the world, at a particular moment in your development as a young adult, is really critical. Certainly when we think about the opportunity for young people to get to know each other across racial lines it is very important to create places where that can happen. It is important in K-12 to provide schools that are racially integrated. But just as women’s colleges are still important because of the confidence that they provide for women … in the same way I think we can point to historically black colleges as creating an important opportunity during a critical period in one’s life.”

She goes on to relate both advantages and disadvantages in her personal experience (and that of her children) in predominantly white institutions, and the benefits she sees among Spelman students and her own children in an environment she describes as “affirming their identity.”

Let me state the obvious by saying that “exploration of identity” is the most important part of the coming-of-age years, regardless of race, geography, sex, or even socio-economic level. As a middle-aged white guy who went to an all-white high school (except for 3 blacks who voluntarily rode the city bus to get away from a very real segregation in Columbus, Ohio caused by “white flight”), I have always felt deprived of a first-hand sense of black identity, and how that relates to the privileged majority experiences I grew up immersed in. Looking back to my earlier years, I remember being shocked by President Kennedy’s assassination, but crying, angry and raging, when Dr. King was shot. (I was 15) My identity came from the subgroups I associated with, including rocket makers, chess players, musicians, and nerds. A black chess player or musician I could deal with easily. What has never been obvious to me was how to relate to segregated clumps of blacks. When I tried to enter lunch-room discussions with the 3 at my school, I was awkward in my attempts to show that to me race didn’t matter, and that I appreciated their struggles and accepted responsibility for the systematic ethnic tyranny my forbears had inflicted. Of course, those big-picture issues weren’t issues at all; rather, there simply was no easy connection of shared culture. It was more like a language barrier… as if I had grown up speaking French, and treated other non-native French speakers with a hint of disdain… and so they found it easier to hang with their friends. So while I continued to live in unintentional isolation from the black community, I raised my kids on Roots and dinner conversation about Denmark Vesey.

In recent years, having read John Wesley’s tract on slavery, and then Randall Robinson’s articulation of the destruction of African identity, I felt better able to understand… but unable to really communicate because the fact is that I’m still living in a segregated society.

That’s why I appreciate what Dr. Tatum verbalized. There is a black identity, an African-American identity, and it continues to be necessary and distinct because of the “constant under-valuing”, as she put it, of black personhood, black aspirations, and black pain. If blacks had remained in Africa, their identity today would not be racial but more familial or tribal, the way whites in America form Italian or Jewish or Irish identities. But since the historical fact is that whites from multiple tribes, religions and cultures conspired together to subjugate, transport, and dehumanize blacks from multiple tribes, religions and cultures, and then exterminated their languages, their religions, their cultures, and even their individual identities, we should not feel surprised that the black soul, as Robinson puts it is “immortal, [and] has lost sight of the trail of his long story.” It needs some time to reawaken.

And Beverly Tatum’s message on NPR was, that’s what the HBCUs can help do, even today, 125 years after “reconstruction”. Dr. Tatum helped me understand that while integration is important for healthy cultural diversity during the period of attitude formation (K-12), there comes a time when many black young people are better off exploring their identity… in an environment where the dominant mood does not explain away and negate their need to remember, to console, to encourage, and to gather internal strength for a life-long marathon of struggle as an under-valued minority. As Robinson quoted Ralph Ellison at the beginning of his book, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” Let the exploration of identity continue!