Making DEI Practical at University of St. Thomas

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is top of mind for many higher ed marketers, but figuring out the practical side of applying DEI concepts to the actual creative work marketing teams produce is often easier said than done. In this episode, we’ll hear from Kymm Martinez and Katie Jensen at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota about how they made DEI less intimidating and more actionable for their marketing team.

We discuss:

  • How the St. Thomas marketing team developed a shared vision around DEI
  • The steps they took to evaluate their existing marketing materials from a DEI perspective
  • The DEI Viewfinder tool they developed to help their team create more inclusive marketing materials
  • Practical advice for making DEI a part of your team’s day-to-day operations.

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Transcript

Jarrett Smith:

You’re listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. Welcome to another episode of the Higher Ed Marketing Lab, I’m Jarrett Smith. Diversity, equity and inclusion is top of mind for many higher ed marketers, but figuring out the practical side of applying DEI concepts to the actual creative work marketing teams produce is often easier said than done. For instance, how exactly does a team review their work from a DEI perspective, without putting their colleagues on the defensive? Who decides when work needs to change? And how do you portray your school as an inclusive and welcoming community without overselling the level of diversity that actually exists on your campus?

In this episode, we’ll hear from two guests who’ve tackled these questions head-on and have some valuable learnings to share. Joining us is Kymm Martinez, VP of Marketing, Insights and Communications, and chief marketing and communications officer at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, and Katie Jensen, AVP of Insights and Analytics at St. Thomas. Like many university marketers, Kymm and Katie have grappled with the challenges of applying DEI concepts in their team’s creative work, and they have a unique perspective on how to make it less intimidating and more actionable.

We start by exploring how the St. Thomas marketing team developed a shared vision around DEI, and how they organized a thoughtful evaluation of their existing marketing materials. Then we hear about the DEI Viewfinder, a tool their team developed to help evaluate their creative work as it’s being produced. And finally, Kymm and Katie share their best advice for making DEI a regular part of your team’s operations. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Katie Jensen and Kymm Martinez. Kymm, Katie, welcome to the show.

Kymm Martinez:

Welcome. We’re so excited to be here.

Jarrett Smith:

Well, I’m so excited to have you here, and I think it’s going to be just a fantastic and very relevant topic that our audience is going to get a lot out of. Before we dive into that, I would love it if you could just tell us a little bit about the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and your roles there.

Kymm Martinez:

Well, I’ll start with the University of St. Thomas. We are the largest private university in the State of Minnesota. We are proudly a Catholic university. We are among the top 20 national Catholic universities in the country. We have eight schools and colleges, about 10,000 students, and lots of exciting things happening here in Minnesota. We have just launched a brand new school of nursing. We also are the very first university in modern NCAA history to go directly from D-3 to D-1, which just happened in July. So we’re super excited about that.

There’s just a lot of really exciting things happening at the university, and so it’s been fun to be a part of that. I’ve been here for about five and a half years. My background, my title, I am the chief marketing and chief communication officer here at the university. I came from industry, as I’ve learned to say in higher ed, about five years ago. I was at General Mills for 20 years prior to that. And I also hold the title of Vice President of the Marketing, Insights and Communications team here on campus.

Katie Jensen:

Yeah, so I’m Katie Jensen, I lead the insights and analytics team within the marketing, insights and communications team which Kymm leads. And so my team is really all about bringing the audiences to the forefront, and helping people understand and have empathy for the prospective students we’re trying to talk to, or our donors, or our alumni, and just really understand where they’re coming from, as well as measure and track our success in terms of our digital campaigns, our websites, all the analytics from the marketing side work with my team as well.

Jarrett Smith:

Excellent. So we are here today to talk about all things DEI and really how to make that practical for marketers. And I think this is one of those topics that is just on everybody’s mind. You may have seen it. I came across a poll, I think it was on Inside Higher Ed from the Art & Science Group, and they were talking about how prospective students view DEI, and it is top of mind. It is obviously not the only thing they’re considering, but they are looking at that as they’re evaluating schools. And I’m just curious kind of to start things off, as university marketers, where do you see yourselves fitting within your institution’s broader DEI efforts?

Kymm Martinez:

Yeah. I feel like we should also perhaps start off with a little bit of a disclaimer about, we’re not DEI experts. We have a ton of faculty here and other folks within the university that could claim a more theoretical expertise than we have. I would call us more practitioners and we know how important the DEI journey is, and so we have committed ourselves and our department to being on it, but just full disclosure, kind of on that front that this is a learning journey. And I know we’re going to talk a little bit more about that as we kind of get into the podcast.

But I think that the role of marketing and communications at our university or any university is critical to DEI because we’re the ones that are the storytellers that are really fashioning the narratives about the university and helping everybody to have the perceptions about the university that hopefully are accurate. And so making sure that we are really being inclusive with our messaging is really, really important. And so I would say that we’re essential. But of course, when we do think about marketing and communications, it’s really important that it falls on a base of something authentic and that it is embedded in the values of the university, so obviously the entire university plays a big role in making sure that we’re walking the walk on this.

And so as marketers, we are shining spotlights on things, but it’s up to the whole university to really feel it at its core because otherwise we shouldn’t be marketing it. So yeah, we’re critical I think to the university’s efforts to get the story out, but it also needs to be an authentic journey for the university.

Katie Jensen:

The other thing I would maybe add to that, Kymm, is just we work with every part of the university, and so we have the ability to see patterns across different teams or needs across different teams. And so when we think about the role we’ve played in DEI, a lot of times it’s, we’re just in the conversation on a regular basis, and so we have the ability to influence and kind of help push things forward. Even just the way that our faculty communicate with students, or the way that our staff communicates with each other also needs to be inclusive and bring this sense of belonging because we want our entire community to feel included and welcomed here. And so some of our role too is just, we’re there as colleagues and coworkers trying to push this ahead for everybody.

Jarrett Smith:

I think that’s a great perspective. So St. Thomas, like many schools, is associated with its faith tradition, and in this case you are a Catholic school. I’m curious to what extent that has played into, or possibly created any challenges with regard to DEI. I mean, I think I’m thinking specifically about individuals that identify as LGBTQIA+. Has that presented any sort of unique hurdles that you would call out for your school?

Kymm Martinez:

I guess the first thing I would say is our faith tradition is what calls us to, we have a conviction of dignity which is very much rooted in Catholic social thought, which is about respecting the dignity of all and loving everybody and really welcoming the diversity into our community. And we absolutely do that. So I would argue that everything that we do as a university on the DEI front, including welcoming our LGBTQIA members of our community here is rooted in Catholic social traditions. So it is part of who we are as a university to accept and embrace, and to really allow everybody to bring their full potential, and to know that we as a community are stronger because of all those diverse perspectives.

Now having said that, there’s a wide variety of perspectives within the Catholic faith about how welcoming institutions should be. And that’s where, we are a university we’re Catholic, but we’re also a university. And so we are just making it very clear that our convictions call us to welcome and embrace. We do celebrate and uplift all members of our community here. And the best way we can just make sure that we overcome any resistance to that, again is to just clearly communicate, “This is who we are. That’s not up for debate. It’s part of our Catholic social teaching,” and be very honest about that so that nobody is left to wonder what is our position on various topics. So we make it very clear it’s part of who we are and it’s part of our Catholicism.

Jarrett Smith:

I think that’s a great perspective and thank you for sharing that. I think the way your team got started on the DEI journey and the actual marketing products you’re putting out there, the marketing and communications products you’re putting out there is really interesting. And Kymm, you said at the beginning of this, you said, “We are not approaching this from a fully informed theoretical standpoint, we’re really coming at this from a very practical angle.” But I think the way you went about as a team deciding, “How are we going to put this into practice and how are we going to make progress on our journey towards better diversity, equity and inclusion or marketing materials?” was super interesting. Could you just kind of tell us about, I guess at a high level, kind of a 30,000 foot view, where did you start? How did you approach this in a sensible way?

Kymm Martinez:

Actually it started with the university’s convictions. As I mentioned, one of them is dignity, and we obviously have a university definition of what that means. But as a department, we were going through the university’s convictions and then taking a marketing, insights and communications lens to them and writing, “What does it mean to embrace dignity and diversity in marketing and communication?” So that’s trying to articulate what that meant was where we started. And this was probably about three years ago. I would argue that the first paragraph that we came up with to describe, we were talking about wanting to make sure that we were never treating any members of our community as tokens or trying to oversell what our actual experience of being here on the campus was looking like. So three years ago, we kind of started there and started on the journey.

And then just recently we went back to that description to just see, is there any updating that we would want to do? And because of the work that we’ve been on, we’re now specifically saying that we’re an anti-racist department. We want to root out systemic racism in our place. So there’s our journey even in terms of our language has really kind of evolved. But it did start with that place. We ourselves are white cisgender females, so recognizing that and diving into white privilege and what that means, and again, recognizing that we don’t want our communities of color, either in our department or in the university, to always be the one that are educating people on what DEI should look like. We said, “Well, we’re going to take that on.”

And so it’s coming from that articulation of it, we started a committee that we call Representing DEI with Integrity Committee. Actually, it initially started as the Marketing DEI with Integrity Committee, and then we thought, “You know what? That doesn’t feel right to say we’re marketing it. We want to represent it.” So even that language was a bit of an evolution, and we have members of our group bidding monthly, bringing forward issues, topics. And one of the ideas that the group came up with is, maybe we should do an audit of some of our marketing and communications, and get feedback on how we think we’re doing. We are looking at this stuff every day, we’re thinking about this stuff every day, but potentially we’re missing something. And so that’s where Katie’s team actually came in to help facilitate that audit. So I don’t know, if you want to talk a little bit about that?

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. So with this audit, part of our goal was to, as Kymm said, just get outside of our team, get some fresh eyes on things, but also knowing that, we’re not experts in DEI and wanting to tap into the experts we have on campus, or at least people who have been engaged in the journey. And so we worked with a group called SEED. It stands for Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity, which is a national program. So we happen to have a chapter of that here at St. Thomas. And so we partnered with them and we recruited a handful of people who had graduated from this program where they dive deep into DEI concepts, and we said, “Hey, look at our materials and tell us what you see. Put sticky notes all over it.”

And so we gathered a ton of feedback. We then had focus groups with them to really kind of dive deep into the topics and learn more, and we came out of it with a really interesting perspective then on all of the things we had missed, even though we’d been paying attention and an ability maybe to spot those issues a little more easily. So from there we developed what we’re calling the DEI Viewfinder tool, which kind of lays out nine questions you can ask yourself to help develop more inclusive materials.

Jarrett Smith:

Yeah. And we definitely want to set aside some time to talk about the Viewfinder, because it’s super cool and just such a practical tool. If we’re going to dive into that, I guess one question I have is just, how did you decide what to audit in the first place? I am sure your team is turning out a lot of materials. Where did you focus your effort to make it doable?

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. I mean the key was really that doable piece is, how do you… Because we spent a lot of time actually just going round and round about, “What should we put into this audit?” And so, for anybody who would want to do something like this, my advice would be just keep it simple. Pick a few things, pick things that are really important, really central pieces. So for us, we picked our undergraduate view book. We picked the program pages that we have for each of our 150 plus majors and minors, because we know those are some of the first places that our undergraduate students see and get a perspective for, “What is this community like?”

And then we also picked something from our graduate side, so we picked from our Opus College of Business. They had an awareness campaign that we also put into it. So trying to find a bit of range and also kind of pick some of those big high profile items that we could learn from. We also found that, especially the view book, a lot of what we do in other places kind of flows from what that view book creative looks like. And so that was another reason to pick a piece like that, that sort of is representative, it has a lot of tentacles in other work that we do.

Jarrett Smith:

Yeah. It’s going to set a lot of direction for the other materials that you create. I know we’re in a podcast, so it’s a little hard to kind of visualize some of these things, but maybe we can paint a picture with words. I’m curious your audit, were there any things that kind of leapt out at you as things that surprised you, that the team came back with that you just weren’t expecting, or that opened your eyes to maybe seeing some things in different ways?

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. What’s interesting about it is that most of the stuff they came back with were topics we were aware of. So things like, “Don’t reinforce stereotypes. Don’t use language that might be perceived differently by somebody from a different background, code words or idioms, for example.” So these are things we knew about out, but the trick was getting ourselves to actually spot them. And so I think our biggest aha from it is if we could have sort of a mental checklist, which makes it sound simple and it’s not, but a mental checklist of, “Here are some of the things to check for,” and then examples of how that actually comes life. I think it was the examples that really unlocked for us a much better ability to just be able to spot those things.

And then I would say too, just it reinforced for us a sense of how important it is to get other people’s eyes on it. Even if it’s within our own team, people who haven’t been working on the project, because you swap in a headline or you swap in a picture and you Frankenstein this thing together and suddenly you have a combination of things that you might never have put together in the first place. And by the time you get to that final product, you can’t even see some of the issues that you have. So that was for me, one of the biggest ahas.

Kymm Martinez:

Yeah. I guess I would say the other aha for me was just how many comments people had and how many things that they spotted. Again, we’ve been on this journey, we thought we were… I mean, we obviously knew we were going to learn something or we wouldn’t have undertaken it in the first place, but the sheer breadth of the feedback that we got back was pretty interesting. And then just to underscore another point about what Katie said, the examples are key because it’s one thing to say something like, “Don’t reinforce the stereotype.” I mean, who’s not going to nod their head to that. But it’s the examples of like, “Did you realize you were reinforcing this stereotype, or this one or this one?” That was really what brought it to life for people to be able to, “Oh, wow.”

Because it’s easy to agree with statements and things that you know you should do, but once you see it in action, it’s more important. So what’s interesting about this whole thing is we started it because we thought it was just going to be for us. We just were using it within our team as a tool, but the insights were so rich that that’s when we said, “Wow. This has implications for anything that we’re doing, anytime we’re communicating, even internal communications.” And so that’s when we realized, “Hey, we need to package this up so that others can learn from these insights.” And we started internally at the university and then now we’re going external with it as well, just to help spread the word of things that were insights for us that we hope others… If we can help somebody else from making a mistake that we made, great, we’ll all be better off.

Jarrett Smith:

I think it’s such a interesting point you both make that, you’re both approaching this thoughtfully, like nobody is going out to create a piece of creative that’s going to reinforce a stereotype or use a language that is loaded, and at the same time in the moment. And I think it’s almost like when you’re that close to the creative, maybe it’s hard to read the label when you’re inside your own bottle. You’re just too close to it, you’ve got too many other considerations that you’re thinking about, and it can kind of fall to the background. I think that’s just such an interesting point. Just so our audience has a sense of the type of things that came up, could you throw out maybe a couple of examples of things either big or small that were brought to your attention that you hadn’t seen before?

Kymm Martinez:

I mean, I’ll start off with one that, so as a Catholic university, one of the headlines that we love to use actually either digitally or in other places is, Blessed are the Nerdy. We love that headline because it reinforces the academic excellence that we represent, but at the same time it has a little bit of humor and a nod to our faith-based tradition. So Blessed are the Nerdy, when we were originally looking at using that, we were using a stock image of a nerd. And in this case, the nerd happened to be Asian, and we were using that sort of as a juxtaposition. And that’s a classic example of, “You are reinforcing a stereotype by using an Asian in this particular image.” So that’s a great example of like… And we also were using stock photography, which again, we don’t love to use, but sometimes if you can’t get the authentic shot in your community, it’s easier.

But so we went back to student affairs and we said, “All right, this is what we’re trying to convey. We need somebody that is going to be comfortable looking kind of a little bit more bookish. Can you help us here?” And they came forward with a student, an actual student who loves to dress in bow ties, like that’s his authentic self to do that. Happened to be an African American guy with a wonderful smile and just a wonderful way about him. And he was excited to be featured. And so we flipped it. So we have him, a African American male as our model for Blessed are the Nerdy. And so anyway, that’s a great example of a stereotype that we wouldn’t have necessarily thought of. I’m sure I can think of others on my hand, but do you have any others that are top of mind for you?

Katie Jensen:

The other one I’d maybe mention is just the idea of subtleties and how if you are from a marginalized group, you might really pick up on things. So for example, we had one of our ads from the Opus campaign, there was a person who you couldn’t immediately tell, “Is it a man or a woman?” A little bit androgynous. And so if you are part of the non-binary community, it just signals a bit of, “Oh, maybe there’s a place for me here.” Or we had an image in one of our undergraduate program pages on the website where a young man is holding up a frog and he’s got a wedding ring on. So that signals maybe if you’re an older, maybe non-traditional student that this might be a place welcoming for you as well. So I thought that was really interesting too, not just the things to avoid, but the things to include that might signal something in a positive way, not in a message you didn’t intend sort of way.

Kymm Martinez:

One other example that pops to mind too is, in our, I believe it was also in our undergrad view book, our creatives were working with illustration and so we would have the picture, but there were little doodles kind of around the picture, just for more of a friendlier feel and tone, and that was going all the way through the book. There was one photo of a professor talking to a couple of students and there’s no words in these doodles, so they’re all just kind of like doodles. And above one of the black student’s heads is kind of a thought bubble that has just lines in it. Because again, we’re not using words, but one thing that was pointed out to us is, “Are you trying to say that she has no thoughts, that she couldn’t come up with anything to say to the professor?”

And I think that that’s actually really interesting thing because you put that thought bubble on top of a white male student, you’re probably not going to get the same person drawing the same conclusion. So it’s a good example of just context and being careful, even just unintended messages that you’re trying to say. Which actually ladders to another point that I think is really important to make. You were talking before about just like putting these things together. Our creative team, we have an internal creative team who are just amazing and they do really wonderful work in partnership with all of our schools and colleges. And it’s really important to, this DEI journey is everyone’s job and it’s not their fault if they come out with something like that instance for example. We’re not going to, “Why did you put a thought bubble with no words in it above the black woman?”

I mean, it’s all of our jobs to actually think about this and catch this, and you can’t personalize the fact that you missed it because we all missed it too. I mean, this went all the way through Katie, it went through me and it took this group, this external group looking at it with a different lens to find it. So that’s another, I think really important lesson on the journey is to not expect perfection of yourself and to lean on others. And again, not just to lean on your communities of color to help you with that. That’s not fair, but to lean on others and to expect that it takes a village in some respects to get this right.

Jarrett Smith:

I think that is such an important point, Kymm, the attitude with which you approach your team about… And from the very beginning you said this was rooted in sort of the authentic principles and values of the institution. You were thinking about, “How does this apply to our department? Let’s try and articulate that.” And then as you said, you’ve gone back and you’ve evolved this over time, and so you’re kind of taking people on this journey where it’s like, “Okay, we’re not going to achieve perfection, and it’s okay. We’re all doing our level best to try and continue to improve and to be more mindful about the products that we’re creating and what messages they’re sending.” I think it’s such an important point.

But that does bring me to my next question, which is, at some point you’ve got to ship work, you have deadlines to meet. And I think in this case, it’s one of those areas where you will never achieve perfect. You will always be able to point to something in the work and say, “That’s not quite ideal. There may be a better way to handle this.” So how do you talk to your team about it? How do you on your own think about kind of balancing the need to make improvement and be mindful, thoughtful about what you’re communicating, but also at the end of the day ship work that you know to some extent is never going to meet that perfect standard.

Kymm Martinez:

I mean, I think the trick is to just acknowledge that up from the get-go that this is a journey. The other thing is that it’s constantly evolving. This landscape is evolving, language evolves. So even something that might have been appropriate a year ago, maybe isn’t appropriate today because of new learning out there. So even if you studied up and got the A on the test originally of doing all the things right, again you have to stay current on this. And as a result of that, it’s impossible because there’s always going to be something. So I think it’s just about setting that expectation that you want to do the best that you can. It is obviously focusing on intent, although I think it is important to also remember impact. So it’s not enough just to say, “Well, we intended good, so sorry if the impact wasn’t there.”

I think we have to own the impact that we make in addition to our intentions. But just again, to assure everybody that this is a journey. I mean, one of the ways that we tangibly reinforce that for our group is we have personal diversity goals that we ask every employee of the marketing, insights and communications team to commit to at the beginning of the year as part of their annual objective setting. And we don’t dictate what those are. Those are very personal. So you can choose for yourself what it is, but I expect you to have like two to three of your own personal goals, that’s going to help you on that journey.

It could be reading books by diverse authors or consuming media about different population. It could be anything that you feel is going to help you on your journey, but it reinforces to the full team, “This is a journey and we expect you to get on it, but you can kind of dictate how you’re comfortable moving forward.” Because obviously we’ve got people across our team that are at very different points in the spectrum. I don’t know if you have anything you’d add to that.

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. Well, I would just say that one of the things that’s important when you’re thinking about the balance between, “Do we make this edit? How critical are we going to be of our own work?” versus, “We got to get stuff out of the door,” and we’re full up to capacity most of the time, but what’s really important is it is worth the time to take a minute and make sure that we’re sending inclusive messages, that we are not sending unintended messages. And so I think that’s been a bit of a shift for us too in opening up the conversation to DEI and being open to it all the way up the chain to Kymm, as a leader of our department. It’s expected that you’ll speak up. If you see something, you need to say something. And I think maybe prior to having some of these tools and having been on this journey, people were maybe noticing something and thinking, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t speak up. I don’t want to derail the project.”

And now I think we’re much more comfortable being able to say, “Hey, I noticed something here, can we have a conversation about it?” It doesn’t mean we need to make a change, it just means we should talk about it and make sure we’re all comfortable and make sure we feel good about a risk we might take, or, “Hey, I saw it this way, but maybe everyone else sees it a different way.” And so it’s really about that conversation, and if we can pause for a minute to have the conversation. A lot of times it’s not throwing out the whole project, it’s swapping in one different picture or changing one headline slightly. So I don’t think it’s taken as much time as we might have feared to be able to do it, and it feels good to have taken that moment and said, “Okay, do we feel good about this? All right. Let’s go.”

Kymm Martinez:

And that’s where that committee that I was talking about also plays a role, because if you as individual see something that you’re maybe a little bit uncomfortable with, or maybe your spidey sense has gone off, but you can’t really put your finger on why, there is a place for you to bring that image or whatever it is that sort of caused your spine to tingle and to say, “Is anyone else seeing this? Am I overthinking or is there something here?” So there’s a forum actually to bring that forward to get others points of view. And and again, then we as a group can decide, “All right. Is this something we want to approach somebody else on campus with or something like that?” Again, always with humility. We’re not the DEI police, we don’t have all the answers with it.

But I think the other message to really underscore with some of the things we’ve done, like in terms of starting off with just, “What does the diversity conviction mean for our group, the dignity conviction?” Setting up our committee, our personal diversity goals, these are all things we didn’t need university approval to do. It’s not like we waited for HR to say, “All right, now we’re formally going to add these personal diversity goals into our annual plan.” I mean, we just did it, and it’s not in our online form, but everybody has kind of their offline objectives that they have as well. So hopefully your viewers are taking from this that, this is stuff you can do and implement that you don’t necessarily need to wait for somebody to give you approval to do in order to start on the journey.

Jarrett Smith:

And we definitely, I would like to dig into implementation a little bit, but before we get there, I would love to talk about the DEI Viewfinder. Could you tell us what it is and how it works?

Katie Jensen:

Sure. Yeah. It’s a really simple tool, which is kind of the beauty of it, but what the Viewfinder does is it gives you nine questions you can ask yourself or ask with a buddy or ask somebody else to take a look through, and it really calls out some of those key topics in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion, and across all types of diversity. And so really what it does is it gives us these questions we can tick through in our heads. It also gives us common language to use with each other. So instead of saying, “Wow, that picture and that headline together is super racist,” we can say, “I think that’s reinforcing a stereotype,” or, “I think that that is, there’s some unconscious bias coming in there and let’s talk about it.”

So it’s really a tool that you can use, and for any piece of creative, we tick through and we say, “All right, does it hit on any of these?” And if it does, we have a conversation. And so that’s one of the key things with it. The point of it is to be super critical, super detailed about the work that you’re doing. Sometimes we even catch ourselves going, “Oh gosh, are we being overly sensitive, overly critical?” And that’s the point. The point is to really take that critical look and then have the conversation and say, “What do we think? Do other people take the same thing away? Do we need to pull in other people to give us additional feedback?” And then-

Kymm Martinez:

Can I just script for that particular point too? And we don’t always, even when we’ve thought of something with like maybe, we don’t always make the change. And I think Katie said that before, but I mean, we sometimes agree that we’re going to lean into risk either because of there’s another benefit that would be going away if we swapped out the image or what have you. So it’s not a done deal that just because somebody brings something up, we’re automatically to be like, “Ooh, we have to stay 10 feet away from that.” It’s the discussion and then you make a decision on the basis of the risk and the risk reward, the benefit to that. So I just wanted to make that point as well.

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. And one of the things that we love about it is that it’s given us that common language we can use with other teams as well, so when we see something another team has put together. Because I’m sure like many of your listeners, if they’re marketers in higher ed, they are not the only people creating content on behalf of their institution. And so it gives us the ability to say, “Hey, we’ve been on this journey too. We made all these mistakes and here’s all these examples of mistakes that we’ve made.” And it comes with a bit of humility as well to be able to have that tool and be able to show people that, “We’re on a journey and we invite you to join us. And we notice something in your work we’d like to share.”

But the meat of the tool really is there’s these nine questions, for each question we give an overview of what it’s all about, and then we give those handful of examples that really bring it to life. And again, that’s one of the pieces we think is so critical is if you can give those examples that really helps people kind of put it in their brains and really understand and potentially make it easier for them to spot it in their own work.

Jarrett Smith:

So at this point, how many different groups I guess, across your university are actively using the Viewfinder in their day-to-day work?

Katie Jensen:

I don’t know how many are actually using it. I hope they are. We’ve trained several units on it. So we’ve trained anything from, we did a training with the entire faculty and staff of our school of education, for example. We’ve also done it with all of our social media content creators which live across all kinds of departments within the university. We’ve done leadership academy trainings, which is our internal HR kind of professional development group. We’ve done trainings there where we get everybody from the admin, for the provost who puts together all of his emails and presentations and things like that, to faculty members, to even students in some cases. So-

Kymm Martinez:

Actually that’s another one you’ve done it for. We have a student-run media agency on campus, which I’m sure a lot of people do, we call it TommieMedia, and there’s been a presentation to all the reporters, all the folks that are involved with TommieMedia, because sometimes we see things that they’re posting and doing, and we’re like, “Whoa, they might be able to benefit from these questions as well.”

Jarrett Smith:

I’m curious, as you’ve rolled it out to these different groups and kind of socialized this more, have you received any pushback or how has it been received overall, and then have you received any sort of specific pushback?

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. So I would say it’s been really well-received, particularly just as a very actionable tool that people can use. I think the tough part with DEI is once you’re kind of on the journey for a little while and you’re spending time and you’re learning and your eyes are so open to all the things that aren’t great about how marginalized groups are treated and you want to take some action, and it’s hard to know how to do that. And a lot of times I think people leave DEI trainings going, “Okay, I get it. I know there’s issues here, but what can I do?” And so that’s been one of the biggest pieces of feedback is just how actionable and accessible it is. You don’t have to know every stereotype that exists in the world to know that, “I’ve seen that trope before and I just want to research it a little bit and learn more about it.”

So it’s really, it’s accessible to anyone no matter where they are on the journey. I would say in practice some of the more difficult conversations I would say, I don’t know if it’s been pushback is just, with people who are creating content. Our creative team, people who write stories for us, and they’re having the benefit of this being an additional thing that we’re coming back to them and giving them feedback on their work, which I give creative teams a ton of credit. I couldn’t do what they do and have people tell me my baby’s ugly all day. But that’s been the toughest thing. And so what has again been helpful with this tool is that common language and the ability to say, “I think this is sending a message you didn’t intend, and here’s kind of the category that falls in, and let’s talk about that.” I think this has made those conversations easier than they were before we had something like this.

Jarrett Smith:

And again, it just underscores the importance for me about leading with the attitude of progress not perfection, awareness, mindfulness around these issues, but there is no end state where we check it off and it’s just done. And so that sets you up to be able to have a more positive interaction on those things.

Kymm Martinez:

Actually, that does remind me of another, I guess I wouldn’t call it a pushback, but another question that we get. We’re as a university on a journey and our faculty, student, staff community, we would like it to be more diverse than it is. So that leads to a question around from a marketing, communication standpoint is where do you draw the line in terms of you want to represent an aspiration of the university such that you can draw from a population that will help increase diversity, but at the same time, you don’t want to overpromise and create an image of something that actually doesn’t exist when it’s here. So that’s another conversation that we do get into when we roll this out.

And sometimes I think people are looking for, they want like the answer, they want the black or white answer. So every picture should have 25% people of color and 75% white people, because that’s what the diversity of the student body in the first year class looks like. And it’s not that simple. And again, all these things are nuanced and it’s a little bit more gray. So the line that we walk is, we do want to nod to the university that we want to become, so we think it is all right to lean a little bit into aspirational, but we never want to cross the line to where we’re selling again, a look, a tone, a feel that just doesn’t exist here at the university. So we have dialogues around that.

An example is we were doing a campaign here on campus. It was an internal campaign in conjunction with our advancement group, thanking people for the philanthropy, the many gifts that have come onto campus. And so we had taken photos of students with their thumbs up just sort of thanking donors. And there were six students originally that were photographed, and of the six, four were students of color. And so that was something where like, “Okay. That would be like two thirds of the folks in the picture.” So that was an example of something we took back to our committee to discuss. We said, “How do we feel about that?” Because again, we’re not trying to come up with a rule in terms of like, “Every campaign has to have this percentage, but in this particular case, knowing how first of all, everybody was going to have a chance to see all the images because they were going to be what we like to call campus famous, so they were going to be everywhere on campus.

It just didn’t feel like the right mix. It felt like we were over, perhaps going into that token area that we do not want to be in. So our solve for that was to shoot four more students to bring it up to 10 in total and to keep the original four students of color as part of that 10, just to help that mix feel a little bit more true to life. So that’s just an example of how we try and walk that line, and that is one of the questions that we sometimes get when rolling out the tool is aspirational versus reality.

Jarrett Smith:

Yeah. I think that’s such a great point because it’s not a math problem at the end of the day that has a perfect answer.

Kymm Martinez:

No, people would love it to be because then it’s easier. You count the number of people and then you… But it’s not that, that’s why the conversation is important.

Katie Jensen:

And I would say that applies across all of the concepts in the Viewfinder. People want it to be a simple, “This is your set of rules and if you follow these rules, you’re going to be okay.” And that’s just not the case. I mean the diversity and inclusion concepts are complex and nuanced, and so sometimes too from our creative team, another example here, we had a picture that we said we really shouldn’t be using, that had a kid doing a thumbs up. And he happened to be in front of the Colosseum in Rome, and in parts of Italy, a thumbs up is offensive.

And so we gave that feedback and we said, “Look, we can’t use it in this case because he’s really kind of bringing his own culture into this place where he’s supposed to be immersing in Italian culture.” And so our creative team was like, “Got it. We won’t use thumbs up anymore.” And it was like, “No, no, you can use thumbs up, it’s just in the context of that situation.” So that’s a big piece of this is just embracing there’s a lot of gray area and that’s why the conversations are so important to just make sure that we’re thinking through it, and is it okay in this case, because the answer might be different depending on the context.

Jarrett Smith:

So thinking about operationalizing this, people are listen to this and saying like, “Wow, this is very cool. I think we could do something similar on our campus.” What advice do you have for folks that are thinking about rolling out something similar at their own institution?

Katie Jensen:

My advice would be starting with buy-in at the leadership level. One of the things we are really lucky to have is this woman sitting next to me here, Kymm, is a champion of DEI at St. Thomas and even in her personal life. And so, we are lucky to have a executive sponsor who expects us to do this work, who puts it in our personal objectives every year, who asks us to engage and welcomes us to engage no matter where we are on that journey. And I think that piece is really important because now it is an expectation of our creative team when we brief them, or our writers when we brief them, that they know that one of the things when they bring it back to us is, “Yes, does it hit on the key messages we want to hit? Does it speak to the audience? Is it inclusive?”

They know that that is going to be a bar that they’re held to. And so when the feedback comes, it’s not a surprise, that’s part of the deal. I would also say though, in fairness to them, they’re so close to those pieces that we can’t always expect them to come with a perfectly inclusive piece. And so, one thing we’ve done is we’ve said, “We’re not going to make the applying the DEI Viewfinder a step in the process, it’s something that anybody who comes in contact with a piece on its journey to being developed can step in with, “Hey, I’m noticing this thing from a DEI lens.” And so that’s been really good too. It’s this shared accountability, it’s not one person’s job. It’s not a thing we do at one point in time, it’s something we’re all aware of and all free and open to say, “All right, let’s take a second and take a look at this.”

Jarrett Smith:

That’s really interesting. My assumption was that, “Oh, this must just be a formal step in the process.” And that’s interesting that you found that actually it seems to work better for your team that it’s not again, maybe a box that you’re ticking.

Katie Jensen:

Right. Exactly. I think that’s part of what we’re trying to do is it shouldn’t be the like, “Oh, it’s this cursory thing.” It should be part of anybody who’s reviewing the materials should be looking at it that way. It also means though that we have some freedom for people who are maybe more immersed in DEI concepts. When they come to it, they’re for sure looking at it. For those who are maybe less comfortable, they know that there will be other people along the way who can apply it. And then it also means that sometimes if people are less comfortable, they might tap those of us who are more used to using it. So just it provides a little more freedom and feels less like a hoop you have to jump through and more just like, “This is anybody who’s reviewing it is going to want to be looking at this stuff.”

Jarrett Smith:

It becomes more of a community effort at that point.

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. And much more conversation too. I mean, I just actually, I got a text from a coworker on the way to the bus stop to drop my daughter off this morning to say, “Hey, what do you think of this picture? Well, now let me show you it in context.” Or just kind of constantly having these little conversations, and these are conversations where we would’ve in the past felt like, “Ooh, I got to sit down and have a really careful one-on-one conversation with somebody and really…” And it’s just opened up our comfort levels with it.

Jarrett Smith:

That is really interesting. Okay. So let me flip this around and you may have kind of already hit on all these things, but how could somebody go wrong trying to roll this out on their campus? I think you’ve kind of already touched on a few what not to do type things.

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. I mean, I think you for sure don’t want to be the only one. I don’t think you want to be the lone wolf. A lot of the magic with it is the conversations you can have, and the dialogue that it opens up. That’s actually been one of the really positive of things for us is showing others in the university that we have opened ourselves up to this feedback and we’re open to it and we’re having these conversations. We’re getting more feedback from people when they see something. It used to be that we would hear it, three or four people down the road when, “Oh, somebody saw this,” and then finally it gets to somebody who’s comfortable talking to us. And we’re hearing from a bigger variety of people now too, both on the positive and negative. So I think it’s definitely, it’s got to be ingrained in your team culture and you have to be sort of committed to, “We’re on a journey together and we’re going to hold hands and do this as a group.”

Kymm Martinez:

Yeah. I would just echo too, and again, the importance of approaching this with humility and making sure again that people know that you’re not considering yourself the expert, and now you’re going out to try and tell everybody how to do that. Especially in an academic setting where sometimes marketing, people can look at that and say, “Wait a minute, you’re just spinning.” We want to just make very clear what our roles are in there. But I said this at the beginning of the podcast but I can’t underscore it enough, the other really, really, really important way you can go wrong is if the institution that you’re talking about does not have a true commitment to this, and yet you’re out there trying to represent that you do.

That would be very difficult, kind of like in a show stopper from the very, very beginning. So it’s important to as a university, as an institution, as an organization to have a true commitment to walking the walk on DEI, because people will smell it immediately if you are just trying to spin something that isn’t there, or put lipstick on a pig, as we sometimes like to say. That’s not going to work. It doesn’t work in this space. It needs to be authentic.

Katie Jensen:

Can I just add one more I think really critical thing? And you touched on this earlier, but the other way you can go wrong is relying on the people on your team from marginalized communities to do this work. We talk a lot and this is part of the humility we try to have about this. We realize we’re two white women up here talking about this stuff, white cisgendered, able-bodied, straight. And so, that’s important because we hear a lot from our colleagues from marginalized groups that they are tired. They have, we call it representation fatigue, which I thought was a really eye-opening term because they are being asked to draw on experiences of oppression and hurt, and to do it for free on top of their day jobs.

And so, one of the things we really like about this tool is it’s given us a way to contribute and not always have to rely on those folks on our team to speak up and do the work. It’s tiring. And so, that would be the other piece is just, that’s one of the reasons it’s important that it’s everybody, because it can’t just be those few people on the team.

Jarrett Smith:

Wow. What great advice. So what’s next? What’s next for St. Thomas and your DEI efforts? What’s next for your team? Where do you go from here?

Kymm Martinez:

So I’ll talk at the university level first and then bring about our group. Our university has all sorts of really wonderful initiatives underway. Right after George Floyd was murdered here in Minneapolis, we founded a racial justice initiative here with a fantastic scholar, Dr. Yohuru Williams at the helm of that, that is doing a lot of work in terms of historical recovery, and really trying to engage in conversations about, “How do we grow from here? How do we do better from here?” So that’s just one aspect of what the university is doing.

We also have a new college that launched back in 2016, the Dougherty Family College, which actually is focused on underrepresented students, helping them get to a four-year degree. So it’s a two-year program, but that wraps around and provides all sorts of different support for a person who might not have been able to enroll directly in a four-year. But we provide that support for them so that they can then get that support in the first two years and then transfer hopefully to St. Thomas but also other schools. The most important thing is that they get a degree.

So the university has a lot of initiatives like that, that we’re involved in. We just launched a new college of health that is very much engaged in healthcare disparities and eliminating health inequities. Our college of education, our school of education is very much focused on the gap. Minnesota has one of the worst education gaps in the country in terms of when you look at students of color grad rates versus white student grad rates. And so we’ve got a school that’s very much focused on that. So there’s a lot of work at the university level that we’re doing which we’re then privileged and proud to be able to represent and tell the stories in our group.

So for our group, we’re just going to continue on again with our journey. We’ve just done our very first ever three year DEI plan for our group. It includes things like looking at our suppliers, our freelancers, making sure that we’re working with more BIPOC-owned businesses or freelancers. There’s all sorts of things that are in our strategic plan, but we’ve written it down to just make sure that it’s on our journey. And this particular Viewfinder tool, again we’re starting to do… We’ve already been doing presentations outside of St. Thomas. As people have become aware of this tool and are interested in it, and we’re very happy to share that because it has applicability not only for other higher ed institutions, but also for anyone that’s in an organization.

So we’ve been doing presentations on that, but that obviously, the scalability of our ability to be able to get out there and do all the presentations is limited. So we’re in the process of trying to turn this into an online course that people could access that would then hopefully bring the tool to more people, because that would be our goal. We want everyone to have access to it. That’s one of the things I love about working in higher ed is the willingness to share things that you’ve uncovered and discovered that could be of use to other people, and that’s what we are trying to do here.

Jarrett Smith:

Well, that is great. So Kymm and Katie, if folks want to reach out to you and find out more, continue this conversation, what are the best places to do that?

Kymm Martinez:

Well with both, it’s easy to reach us via email, and the email nomenclature here is pretty simple. First name ., last name @. St. Thomas, S-T-T-H-O-M-A-S.edu. And I’m assuming our names are going to be, the spellings are going to be published somewhere so we don’t have to run through that here. So there’s that. LinkedIn is another great place to reach either one of us. And we’re very open to having the conversations with anyone who is wanting to start on this journey and wants to learn from what we’ve done.

Jarrett Smith:

Well, thank you both so much for sharing so openly and freely with the journey that you’ve been on, and I think so many folks are going to find this very useful in their day-to-day work. So I just want to say thank you for joining us today.

Kymm Martinez:

Thank you for having us. Really appreciate it.

Katie Jensen:

Thanks Jarrett.

Jarrett Smith:

The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe, and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. And as always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co.

 

How to Give Better Feedback on Creative Work

Whether you’re working with your internal team or an agency partner, giving good feedback on creative work can be surprisingly tricky. Do it right and you just might unlock new levels of creativity and motivation to get the job done. Do it poorly and you’ll risk sending the team spiraling off in unproductive directions.

In this episode of the Higher Ed Marketing Lab podcast, we’re joined by Echo Delta’s Creative Director, Rachel Newell. As an internationally awarded creative leader with years of experience guiding creative work for some of the world’s most respected brands, Rachel has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to critical feedback on creative projects.

We cover:

  • How to effectively prepare to deliver feedback before you even walk into the room
  • Rachel’s simple framework for identifying the right issues to focus on
  • How professional creators plan for and manage the “creative thrashing” that can bring creative projects to a halt
  • Why it’s usually more helpful to focus on problems rather than solutions
  • How to have a positive and productive conversation without over-relying on formulaic techniques like the “feedback sandwich”.

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Transcript

Jarrett Smith:
You are listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. Each episode, it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in higher education and the broader world of marketing to uncover actionable insights that you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment performance. In this episode, we’ll be talking about how to give feedback on creative work, whether you’re reviewing designs for a webpage or draft copy for your next recruitment campaign, the quality of your feedback can be the make or break factor that elevates the work and energizes the team or sends them spiraling off into unfruitful territory.

Joining us to help get on the path to better more constructive feedback is Echo Delta’s Creative Director, Rachel Newell. Rachel is an internationally awarded creative leader whose work includes some of the most recognized brands in the world. We cover how to prepare to deliver feedback before you walk in the room, how the idea of creative thrashing can help you avoid drastic feedback late in a project, Rachel’s go-to framework for evaluating creative products, and how to lead with positivity without over-relying on formulaic rules, like the feedback sandwich. This was a great conversation and will be helpful for anyone looking to hone their ability to deliver solid feedback that keeps the work moving forward. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Rachel Newell. Rachel, welcome to the show.

Rachel Newell:
Well, hey, Jarrett, thanks for having me.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, I’m excited to have this conversation, and we’re like in person.

Rachel Newell:
Yes. I’m feeling good about it, feeling good, still transitioning, but it’s lovely to see you in person.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, it’s good to be breathing the same air and not totally freaked out about that.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah, I’m mildly freaked out, but it’s good.

Jarrett Smith:
It’ll take another year to get over that.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
So super excited about today’s topic. We’re talking about how to give better feedback on creative work. Before we jump into that conversation, I’m wondering if you could give us just a quick little snapshot of your creative background, because I think it’s super relevant to this conversation and what you do here with us.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. So from the top, my name is Rachel Newell. I’m the Creative Director here at Echo Delta. So I come from a graphic design background. So went to school for graphic design, absolutely fell in love with it. I love the range that it is. So I’ve been able to do editorial design, packaging design, found my way into advertising, which that’s a huge beast in itself, and started doing all sorts of integrated marketing. Did some work in New York City, done some work here in Central Florida. So definitely have worked with a lot of different interdisciplinary teams from different creative backgrounds. So yeah, I’m with you honing your skills of giving constructive creative feedback. I don’t know. It’s a tricky thing and it’s a lifelong skill worth honing.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, when I was prepping for this conversation, I was doing a little bit of homework and I’d forgotten about all the websites that are out there about bad creative feedback that designers and copywriters have gotten over the years. There’s some really hilarious stuff out there.

Rachel Newell:
There’s some good tumblers.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Okay. So the format for our discussion, I’ve challenged both of us to come up with three things that we would want or suggest that other folks think about when they’re delivering feedback on creative work to their teams. I’m going to let you go first. And we have not for the record compared notes beforehand. So we might have, I don’t know, we might have identical topics.

Rachel Newell:
Or I might’ve just gone rogue and not understood. Anyway-

Jarrett Smith:
We might have some serious editing to do is what you’re saying.

Rachel Newell:
Yes.

Jarrett Smith:
Okay. All right. I’ll see if I can diplomatically deliver some feedback after this.

Rachel Newell:
See, this is a meta episode.

Jarrett Smith:
This meta episode. All right. All right, Rachel, you’re up first. Okay.

Rachel Newell:
All right. My initial things, if I had to boil it down to where to start to give better creative feedback is actually with yourself and to make sure that you’re going into critiquing whatever project, knowing as much of the history to the project as possible. So often hopefully, the designers or web designers or whoever have a creative brief. And I think it’s super, super helpful just to take a beat, do your own homework, read through that creative brief or remind yourself, refresh yourself about that creative brief.

So right, you can jump into the conversation with the creatives with the same background knowledge of what are the limitations? What was the big ask? Maybe what’s the big problem? That way you can skip over saying like, hey, well, why didn’t we do this? And then they’re like, well, they said not to do a postcard, or they said not to do X, right? You can kind of not have to have that sort of stumbling into having to catch up, because that’s actually been, I think, something that I’ve experienced is the biggest hiccup and getting into a good trustworthy flow of giving creative feedback is just jumping in, doing your homework and not having that creative who’s having to receive the feedback have to start to explain the why’s and the why’s not, if that makes any sense.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, it’s going to have a lot of that kind of foundational knowledge. And I feel like that gets just more and more important, the more projects you have in the queue, if you haven’t seen it in three weeks and you’re circling back for review, just kind of refreshing on what were we doing? Why were we doing this? What did we all agree to?

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah.

Rachel Newell:
Should I keep going?

Jarrett Smith:
Oh, I want to go next.

Rachel Newell:
Okay, I like this. I like this.

Jarrett Smith:
All right. All right. Well, I’m picturing, oh, you’re a Jimmy Fallon fan, right? So the musical wheel. Yes.

Rachel Newell:
I’m into it.

Jarrett Smith:
All right. So I’m the big Seth Godin fan because he’s written a million books, but years and years ago, I read this book from him called Linchpin. And he talks about this idea of creative thrashing. And so imagine in your mind, there’s like the timeline of your project, this nice little thin line. Every time you have a peak, or sorry, a tweak or a pivot or a change or some discussion about different alternatives and that sort of thing, it creates a little ripple on the line. And he was like, it almost looks like a seismograph. He said like, if you think about the timeline of your project, you want all of that seismographic action, all the creative thrashing to happen on the front end of the project. And it should slowly shake out as the project progresses and you have less and less thrashing. And he said like, this is how professional creators create.

They know to get all the messy conversations done on the front end, because once you’re in an execution, big changes certainly can have a big impact on like time and budget and that sort of thing. But it creates opportunities, increases the chance to miss deadlines or introduce, if it’s a technical project, maybe introduce bugs that you didn’t think through. And honestly, I think we’ve both seen that if there’s a lot of thrashing towards the tail end, it just demoralizes the team because they lose energy.

And this one I think is so important in that it’s going to make your conversations easier if you keep this in mind from the start of the project. So I think there’s a couple of ways teams end up thrashing. The first one I thought about was just the old classic swoop and poop or maybe some really influential, important person was left out of the process and they get brought in right at the tail end and they say, whoa, whoa, hold on. This is horrible. How did you get here? I feel like most people listening to this probably aren’t making that mistake. They’re organizationally savvy enough to avoid that one.

But I think the sneaky way this works in is that in a good creative process, you’re not going to jump right into execution, right? It’s going to be kind of baby steps towards some sort of finished product. I feel like if you did it right, then nobody’s going to be super surprised about how you got to that finished execution. But here’s the thing. The people that commissioned the project, the project sponsor, they’re never the people doing the work. So, if you’re like a senior leader at a school, you probably had to fight. You first recognize that there was a problem that was worth addressing, you probably had to go through all sorts of, jump through all sorts of hoops to secure the budget and the will and the focus to solve that problem. And then you finally bring it to your internal team, your agency, and you’re like, let’s go, I’ve been waiting forever. We need this like yesterday. And well, what do you mean you want to do this concepting work on the front end?

Rachel Newell:
Yeah, talk about it. And let’s explore.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, let’s explore different alternatives. I can imagine that can if it gets excessive could feel a little bit like nails on a chalkboard. So I feel like sometimes, not always, but sometimes there’s a little bit of pressure to maybe cut some corners on the front end, come on, or even if they agree to go along with the process, they may not give the early stages the focus it deserves and they might save some of that because it doesn’t look, it’s hard to see where it’s going, but sometimes I don’t know, I feel like that early part of the project, that’s where you eat your vegetables. It’s not necessarily good-looking, but there’s a lot of that foundational work.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. Well, and it’s like you’re saying, but that’s where you need going back to the schism sort of chart visually that you painted. It’s that thing too, where it’s, leaders, the people who are involved in sort of the leadership level of either motivating the creatives or even that liaison between the client and account and everything where we do need to encourage those conversations and that questioning and everything like that. So all those schisms, all that conversation does happen on that front. And I mean, I know now we’re going into like, how do we even get to critiquing creative work? Without even talking about that step before, we start critiquing creative work. I think that’s part of totally respecting all the work that happened before we even got the creative brief, right?

And yeah, and I think it’s just about, I think even what I was talking about with like doing the homework, I mean, even encouraging the client to share all of their homework. So we have a better understanding that we don’t spin our wheels in an area where they were like, whoa, whoa, why did you even do that? Hold on. We shouldn’t have even touched that area or hey, we’ve done that five years ago, we want something new. So again, I think it’s just that homework, like kind of digging in the homework too of, we get really excited about the creative, we get really excited about, okay, how does it come together? What is that final polished thing? But it’s interesting that both of us, our first points were, hold on before we start even talking colors and type, let’s get everybody in the same brain space, right?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Yeah. And that’s surprisingly hard to do, especially when you have lots of different folks from lots of different disciplines. And I think like you and I, of course, we’re operating within an agency environment, but all of this totally applies to the internal team. Sometimes I think even more so, because I think when people hire an agency, they expect, yeah, there’s going to be a process and there’s going to be a thing that they’re doing. And that’s why you brought them in. But sometimes the internal team is almost more like the creative vending machine of we’re keeping the trains moving on a day-to-day basis. And so there may be even more of a temptation to skip over some of that preliminary, let’s just all get on the same page, let’s share the same brain space and make sure we’re all online.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
Cool.

Rachel Newell:
Before we move on to the next, you made me think about vocabulary too. And I didn’t write this down and I should have, so I’m going to sneak it in-

Jarrett Smith:
I have got a whole [inaudible 00:12:07].

Rachel Newell:
Oh, man, do you?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. All right.

Rachel Newell:
Because I think it dovetails, I think what we’re starting to talk about like if it’s, we talk about the sort of like high level philosophical, we all need to be in the same brain space and know the history. It’s like, okay, how do you make that tangible? And the first way, and I think this happens, I think with an internal team, you start to get that shared language that we can just get each other a little bit quicker. And it’s not thinking the same way. We’re always challenging each other’s perspectives and challenging different and better ways to leverage technology to get to better solutions. But right, there’s just a shorthand that helps.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. That I think just naturally arises when you have a team that’s worked together for quite a while. You just get there faster. Number two, but you got-

Rachel Newell:
Okay. Well, I’m wondering if yours is vocabulary. Okay. Well, number two.

Jarrett Smith:
That’s you.

Rachel Newell:
So think, because we’re doing a lot of website redesigns as of late, my brain immediately went to visual design for creative feedback, but also the supplies to copywriting, the supplies, even though some people might not think it’s like sexy, creative, but like wireframes and everything. The good old hierarchy, like what is like the core goal, what is the core messaging? What’s the core visual? And then what needs to be secondary elements. And so with giving better creative feedback, I think walking into it, asking yourself when you review work, what’s creating clarity, another way of saying what’s working, right? What’s creating clarity for me? What am I understanding? And then what elements are causing confusion? And you just need to note it. You don’t need to fix it. You don’t need to tell the UX designer or the copywriter or the designer like, this is how I would change it, but maybe just tee up, hey, this is causing confusion for me, help me figure out why that is.

But all of these things, I have clarity around, all these things are making sense. I feel like they’re working well together, but this is creating some confusion. And I think using that language for me helps create a dialogue where you’re not dictating how to fix it, but you’re just opening up for that person who’s actually creating with all the considerations that went into that project to kind of be like, okay, cool. So, if that’s a sticking point, how do I need to re-imagine this whole project potentially o, oh, that sticking point. Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah, move that over this way, or put a comma here. Maybe it’s a quick fix, but you give that power to them, it kind of solve.

Jarrett Smith:
Yep. No, I think that’s a really good one. You bring up the point of when you recognize something that needs to be addressed, not jumping straight to the solution.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. I think I had a bad habit of doing that, I still do that sometimes, but I try not to, I try to be very aware of it when I do, because I understand that that can be really overwhelming for a designer. And then, or any anybody who’s invested years and years in honing their craft and they’re probably thousands of decisions that brought them to the point where they are now, and there’s things that you’ve never even dreamed of that they were thinking about that are culminated in this end product. And so you think it’s a simple thing. Why don’t you just make that red? And they’re like, They could probably-

Rachel Newell:
ADA compliance. [crosstalk 00:15:37].

Jarrett Smith:
There’s 25 reasons why I ruled out making that background red. All right. So you brought up vocabulary. The one I thought of was the value of learning a little bit of lingo. I feel like no matter what your role is, it’s just really good to understand a little bit about the big, important things about your counterparts world. And you don’t have to be an expert in every discipline that’s represented the table. I describe as like cocktail party knowledge, like you’ve got a good working knowledge. You don’t know enough to actually do it yourself, but you understand what the big ideas are. So like if you were talking with a designer, it means to me having just a working knowledge of things like alignment and contrast and a little bit of knowledge about color theory and maybe just a little knowledge about typography in different categories of typing, some of the principles that designers use to make the choices that they make. If you’re talking copywriting, maybe understanding a little bit about headline tactics and social proof and calls to action and stuff like that.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. And I think just showing some copywriter love, I think also thinking through different adjectives that they use to describe different writing tones. I know sometimes we say friendly or welcoming, but then we run short. And so reach out to your copywriter and say, hey, what are the different ways that you describe tone so I can be better at facilitating and critiquing?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, totally. So I think when you have a little bit of knowledge, I think that does a few things. Number one, I do think it just gets you a little bit of credibility and respect from the team because it’s showing respect for their craft. And from more pragmatic standpoint, it’s just more efficient and precise to use the language that a particular craft uses. So like I thought of some examples of things you might say to a designer, you can let me know what you think about this, but I was like, you might be looking at a design and say, think to yourself, man, this really hard to read, but you don’t want to, again, stopping short of teeing up the solution, you might be able to say something a little more precise like, hey, the tone of that background color is very similar to the text that’s overtop of it. And it just, it feels like it’s a little muddy. You’re zeroing in a little bit more on like what you think the underlying issue might be. And then you can have a conversation around that.

Proximity is a big thing, right? Like showing that two things are logically related, you could say, hey, the proximity of that text or the image suggests that they’re logically related, but they’re actually not. And I’m finding that to be a little confusing or maybe that vibrant color you’re using in the subheadings is maybe actually distracting. It’s throwing off the hierarchy a little bit. Designer can hear that. You’re not telling them how to solve it. You’re just telling, I think I’m putting my finger on what it is and it saves you. I think, actually, I think is a more polite conversation than saying like, this is a jumbled mess and I don’t know where to look.

Rachel Newell:
Well, like you just said conversation. And I think that’s the thing that I have found to be the most fruitful in critiquing creative work and trying to get better creative feedback. I mean, what we’re trying to do is facilitate alignment, facilitate everybody feeling like the choices that we’re making are the right choices, we’re having the right conversation. So yeah, having that vocabulary, I think, enables you to have that conversation, you’re being able to actually exchange words and get to the heart of what the problem is or be able to praise like, oh my goodness, the color palette here is striking, the contrast is amazing.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, that’s-

Rachel Newell:
And even with copywriting, it’s like, ooh, I know in the brief it said to have to be charming and whimsical, but I totally didn’t know how you were going to do that. And you did that. And so I don’t know, it also facilitates not only critiquing, but also I think praising and building up that trust to where you can have these vulnerable conversations when you need to problem solve.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I think that’s such a great point. And it reminds me of something. I didn’t write this down as one of my things, but it was just the idea of leading with the positive.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. There’s a lot of, like through the years, I’ve, I mean, you can hear my voice. I’m like, there’s philosophies about, what is it? Like the sandwich-

Jarrett Smith:
I hate the sandwich.

Rachel Newell:
[crosstalk 00:20:30]. You have a critique, not a negative, but a critique. And then you end with, it’s like we’re all human. I think it’s like, I do think that there’s great value in giving praise and everything. But sometimes it’s like the designer has been beating their head against the wall, trying to figure out the right composition, the right layout. And it’s like you telling them, hey, you did really, really great. And they’re like, thanks, thanks, thanks. But what’s going on? Would you tell me [crosstalk 00:21:00]?

Jarrett Smith:
I feel like there’s definitely when you treat like the feedback sandwich, I have uglier names for it, but if you do that in a formulaic way, people are like, okay, now’s the part where you say something nice and you’re going to hit me with it and you’re going to follow something. So it’s like, hey, Rachel, I love how you thought to put the logo in the top left corner of the navigation-

Rachel Newell:
In my head, I’m like, okay, where’s it? Okay. What’s the next thing? What’s the next thing?

Jarrett Smith:
And then we call it like the $10,000, but… And so, yeah, I think that’s really bad, but I do find sometimes when I’m giving creative feedback and I actually love like a million things that are going right with this, but now I’m zeroing in on this specific thing. I don’t think it’s quite working. Sometimes I occasionally catch myself and I’ll make sure and say something like, hey, I know it feels like I’m nitpicking you, but I just want you to know it’s because so much of this is so right, now I’m zeroing in on little details that I think it’d be just a little bit better. And that’s just a way to tee up. I just want you to know you did a great job, but there’s some specific things that I think we should talk about.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. And I really appreciate you doing that because I mean, you do that so many times in meetings and it’s so reassuring because I even catch myself doing it, not here at Echo Delta, but in another job, in another team dynamic, I had this just one stellar team, like this great copywriter, art director combo and they amazing ideas, always knocking it out of the park. And they always came with so many options and all of them were always so good. And just how the day the workday goes, we would have only an hour to critique things, pick a direction. And then we had to toss, keep combined certain things. So it was a bit rushed and I caught myself kind of being like, okay, I only have 30 minutes. We went through all this presentation. It was really, really great. Have 30 minutes. Okay, pick this lane. And so I started critiquing it, but I had so much pride for this team.

But a few months in, I remember the copywriter came to me and said, “Hey, am I doing all right?” And I was like, “What do you mean? What do you?” Well, I feel like we just, all I’m getting is like I’m getting better. I feel like I’m honing my craft and everything, but what am I doing right? And I had to catch myself because I was like, oh man, I forgot to just hold space to say, this is all amazing. Hold on. Now we’re honing in on this one thing. So I’m with you. It’s like, so for me, because of that experience, I’ve gotten a little bit more intentional about giving feedback, be it praise or critique, even outside of the hustle and bustle of getting a job done, if that makes any sense, just to hold space for like, I don’t want you to think it’s a feedback sandwich, right? I want this to have a genuine-

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, it’s so provocative. I’m not.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. So anyhow, just little side story there.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, just giving a little context for the critiques that you do have and that reassurance, because I think, I mean, you can speak to this more than I can because you do this more professionally than I do. Well, I don’t know. We all have our different work product. Well, no, we all have our, I guess what I’m trying to babble my way through is that we all have our different work products that we put out there.

And we, I think, try to be professional and somewhat dispassionate about I’m going to create my work product. And then I’m going to turn it over to the jackals to tear it apart and poke holes in it. And whether you’re sort of the creative and the conventional sort of classical sense or you’re strategist or you’re somebody’s manager, I mean, but we’re all invested, we’re all a little sensitive about our work and just that reassurance of, hey, you did good. 99% of this is great. I also feel like if you do the things on the front end that we were talking about, you’re far less likely to have to deliver devastating feedback to someone late in the project.

Rachel Newell:
Yes. And then, anyways, mission control has to happen. And yeah, [inaudible 00:25:25] and reset, realign, all this other stuff. But no, but it sounds like what we’re saying, sort of that initial, if somebody is going into this being like, okay, how can I be better at giving creative feedback? A part of me thinks if somebody is pondering that, it’s because they’ve gone to a creative critique or something and maybe emotions bubbled up a little bit, or maybe there was a miscommunication. And then we were doubling back to clarify and all this other stuff. So I think there’s no surprise that both of us went to conversations, how do we lay the groundwork? How do we share vocabulary?

Jarrett Smith:
How do we prevent problems before they arise in the first place? All right. I think we’re on number three for you.

Rachel Newell:
For me?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Make it good.

Rachel Newell:
Oh, it’s really nothing.

Jarrett Smith:
I’m never doing a podcast with you again.

Rachel Newell:
No, I love it. So how to give better creative feedback? Don’t be, I think we were talking about the sensitivities and everything. I think it’s about just slowing down and just not being afraid to just speak your mind. And I think a theme that we’re talking about here is opening up that conversation. And I think giving good creative feedback is about building that relationship with your creative so they understand where you’re coming from, you understand where they’re coming from, but you got to speak up, you’ve got to start somewhere and just, you may not see the right thing, you may not understand something, you may misunderstood the brief and you were interpreting it this way or that way.

Again, I’m sure somebody listening to this was like, oh, I wanted to say, I need to know the pixel width of this and the location of that. But I think giving better creative feedback is about just being vulnerable yourself. So you allow other people to be vulnerable and just to get to a good solution. So I think it’s just about putting yourself out there as much as you’re making other people put themselves out there.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. One thing is I was preparing for this that I kept coming back to is when you receive that feedback of like, I don’t know what’s, something is not quite right, but I’ll know it when I see it. But if that’s how you feel and you can’t pin it down and you’re like, I don’t have the knowledge or I haven’t been able to articulate what’s not working, but throw that out to the team and say, something doesn’t feel right about this, can we work through it? And can we talk about why that might be? Can you help me work through this a little bit? My ideas are a little half-baked, but I think I’m onto something.

That’s kind of like demonstrating a little vulnerability, help me problem solve this, rather than saying that doesn’t work, I’ll know it when I see it, go back to the drawing board, just like the team can’t do anything like that. So, if you learn a little bit of lingo, you have good alignment on the front end, that kind of stuff and then get helps prevent. You’re less likely to end up in that place. But if you ultimately find, I don’t have the words, it’s okay.

Rachel Newell:
And I think that’s where that sort of framework of what’s clear and what’s causing confusion. I think in lieu of having that vocabulary, having the lingo helps facilitate a conversation to kind of, well, this is working, but this isn’t working. Sometimes that’s tricky, depending on who you’re working with. That phrase, hey, this is working, this isn’t working, you may get a little bit of, well, I think it’s working, but if you’re able to say, hey, this is clear to me, but this is creating some confusion, I think it sparks, again, empathy conversation of like, well, we don’t want anybody to be confused. So hold on, let’s talk about it, what’s confusing about it and stuff.

So anyhow, so my three things were know the background, I teed it up with hierarchy, because usually, when I look at the order of events or order of elements or something, I’m trying to think through, okay, what do I need to see first? What do I need to see second? If it’s that sort of project, but then dovetailing straight into that, I’ve started to say, okay, what’s clear to me? What’s confusing to me? And then facilitate that conversation. And then the third thing of, just showing up, making yourself vulnerable, will facilitate a better vibe, working through creative feedback.

Jarrett Smith:
So you kind of that last piece that you said about saying, hey, this is, or is not working for me, and can we talk about that? And so that kind of segued into my last piece, my last little piece of advice, which was trying to keep your personal feelings in check and understand where you try and be aware of when you may be veering off into your own idiosyncratic feelings about something. And I feel like there’s kind of a lot to unpack there because I don’t know what popped into my head when I was thinking about that was like the movie Zoolander, everybody I know loves that movie. I can’t stand it.

Rachel Newell:
Oh, okay. Why?

Jarrett Smith:
I don’t know. It is so stupid. It’s so stupid. When they’re at the gas station spraying each other with gas, I’m like, I can’t watch that. Okay. But Anchorman totally on board with anchorman, also equally stupid.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. Yeah. But that’s a great point, though, is like, I think that’s why I always go back to like what is the creative brief? Like what is the bigger ask? Because I think that is the tricky thing too, is this notion of creatives being a certain stereotype, like they’re artistic or like they have-

Jarrett Smith:
Supersensitive.

Rachel Newell:
Supersensitive. We’re all human. We’re all sensitive. If you’re proud of your work and you’ve put a lot of time into it, of course, anyone’s going to be potentially defensive, because again, they thought about it, they invested. But I think going into giving better creative feedback is also trying to toss the stereotypes out the door and just meet somebody where they’re at, because at the end of the day, it’s like a lot of the creatives that I work with, yes, they have their personal style, they have their personal preferences, they have done projects that have been very successful in the past.

So maybe that’s kind of they lean on those certain little shortcuts or those sorts of tricks, but we’re in a very interesting, cool industry where it’s not necessarily all about us, we get to learn so much. I mean, just with us, depending on your brief, I’m always learning something new about either a school or a certain audience or a certain interest area. And so I do have to be a little bit of like an actor or a theater person where you have to really dive into that world and-

Jarrett Smith:
And realize, hey, I’m not my target audience. It’s convenient when I am, but-

Rachel Newell:
But let me learn about it. And let’s almost just explore that in a way. And so I don’t know, again, that’s why go back to what’s the creative brief? I think to your point, like about vocabulary, like what are the technical parameters to where we can? It’s not about what do you like and what do you dislike, but it is about what’s working, what’s satisfying the brief, what isn’t satisfying the brief and how can we get closer to that.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. I feel like this thing, the personal preferences can come up in sneaky ways. One thing I’ve noticed, I think this is an advantage we have on the agency side is we get to jump between a lot of different brands, a lot of different types of projects. But when you’re on an internal team and you’re working with the same brand day after day, I’ve observed that very quickly, there’s like a boredom that sets in. It starts out as efficiency, look, we’re all doing the same kinds of work over and over again. And it is efficient, but then I think there can become a level of boredom and dissatisfaction with it.

We’ve got to stretch out and break into something new. And that’s not really driven by a strategy, that’s not really being driven by the recognition of a need. It’s just more like, no, we need some novelty here. And I think that can be channeled in productive ways, but I’ve also seen schools that maybe have like a really distinctive asset, something that appears throughout their marketing. It’s like just something that’s really unique and interesting. And they should be just shouting it from the rooftops and never stop. And then they’re like, oh, but I’m so tired of seeing this thing in our marketing materials. It’s like, really, because your target audience was just now starting to tune in and pay attention. I realize you’re so done with it, but actually, you need to repeat it. And that’s hard. That’s really challenging.

The other thing I thought of was I wish I came up with this phrase, but it’s like the hippo effect, the highest paid person’s opinion. If you are the hippo and you know you’re the hippo, be really careful about when and how you weigh in because your opinion might have 10 times more impact than you really want it to. Sometimes it’s nice. Sometimes it was like, hey, I can get what I want. But sometimes the little side comment really throws everybody into tizzy, and maybe it didn’t need to, maybe it was just a side comment.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. And I mean, even within your internal team, there’s just going to be different personalities and everything. And even with myself sometimes, I love collaborating and I’ve come up with collaborating with other creatives and it’s just you mind-meld and you explore different things. But in the last few years, being in more of a creative director position, as much as you want to pal around with everybody and collaborate, there is a little bit of weight to anything that I say. I mean, case in point, sometimes I’ll ask a question and my creative team is like, okay, we’ll do that. And it’s like, that truly was a question. Hold on, hold on.

So again, I mean, totally to your point, if you are the hippo in the room, being mindful of that. And again, encouraging, hopefully, you have the time span to develop relationships and encourage a sense of trust and encourage open understanding of like, hey, when we’re in this phase of the project, this is exploration, like, yes, we’re critiquing the work, let’s push it. When I ask a question, I’m really asking a question, but that dovetails into you as a person that you’re critiquing work really be self-aware of if you’re asking a question, are you leading the witness?

So maybe just say what you want to say versus like, I don’t know, there’s different, if whoever’s listening, if you’re in a field of being a creative director, creative mentor, there definitely is avenues of thinking to help encourage creative thought and encourage creative problem-solving by asking questions, but just check yourself, are you in a position of mentoring and nurturing creatives? And so you want to mentor and nurture different avenues of thought to land at different problem-solving styles, or are you a CEO coming in and you’re like, why is it this green? And then they’re going to be like, oh crap, we need to make this green, hold on.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, everything is green now.

Rachel Newell:
So I don’t know. Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s interesting, the hippo effect. But so what is your take on that? How have you seen that played out in different recent projects?

Jarrett Smith:
Well, I think in some of the ways that you’ve pointed out where maybe you think you’re offering a simple question and you really come at it from a place of honest questioning, but people think there’s more here, you just want me to get to your answer. And you’re like, no, no, no. And you have to reassure people, I’m really just trying to engage in the thought process with you. And may be again taking what to you felt like, well, on your personal scale of one to 10 of caring, it might be a two for you, but because you said it, everybody thinks it’s a seven or an eight and we need to get this fixed now. And it’s like, well, okay, relative to all the things we’re trying to deal with, this is not a big deal for me. I can let this go. And it might even be driven by personal preference. I don’t know. So I feel like sometimes it’s helpful, you don’t want to have to caveat everything you say. Sometimes a little bit of that can be helpful.

Rachel Newell:
I would be interested to see if, because right, I’m coming at it from a total standpoint of critiquing the work in preparation for client presentation, but it would be interesting considering the audience of this podcast, if upon hearing or sort of insider agency conversations about critiquing work and everything, is there a line of questioning or is there a certain creative aspect that they’re like, cool, cool, cool, you guys were talking about super high level like briefs and stuff, but from the client side maybe or from somebody working for, not necessarily working with an in-house creative team, what their job has them bumping up against having to critique or give feedback to creative work? What are their particular pain points? I don’t know. It would be interesting to see right into Jarrett Echo Delta.

Jarrett Smith:
Right in. Yeah. Yeah. Actually, you can email me. You could email Jarrett, J-A-R-R-E-T-T, and Echo Delta, or podcast at Echo Delta, or visit our show notes and leave a comment.

Rachel Newell:
Yes. Yes. But no, seriously, it’d be interesting because such a head space of like agency critiquing work, but I wonder, I don’t know, I just wonder.

Jarrett Smith:
How does it? How does that? What are the maybe nuances of how that plays out in-house when you’re actually in that, because I do think that context matters a bit for sure? Well, cool. Well, Rachel, thank you so much for the conversation.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. Thanks for having me. And we’ll do a movie night of Zoolander and I’ll see you cringe.

Jarrett Smith:
Cringe. Thanks. The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. And as always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcastatechodelta.co.

 

Marketing Analytics: How to Build Your Team’s Credibility and Data Savvy

Digital marketing promised to make our marketing measurable with clear lines of connection between the dollars spent and the results produced. Yet, as any data-driven marketer will tell you, tracking and attributing marketing activities in the real world is far from straightforward.

Today’s guest argues that it is actually possible to get analytics right and that moving past “true but useless” metrics is essential for building marketing’s credibility within an organization. His name is Chris Sietsema. Chris is a 20-year agency veteran and analytics expert who’s advised some of the most recognized names in both industry and higher education.

Why is Measuring Marketing So Hard and How Do We Get it Right?

According to Chris, when people think about the challenges of marketing analytics, they tend to list things like budget, technical difficulties, and the inherent limitations of the available tools. While these challenges are real, Chris argues there are deeper issues that are often never discussed. Among these lesser-discussed challenges are a lack of well-defined goals, inconsistent processes and vocabulary around measurement, and marketing workflows that turn measurement into an afterthought.

In contrast, analytics-savvy organizations do three things exceptionally well. First, they place a strong emphasis on process and organization, which tends to clarify thinking and align the team’s analytics vocabulary. Second, they work hard to avoid “true but useless” scenarios by identifying meaningful metrics that will actually inform decision-making. Third, they carefully craft reports to align with the unique needs of the different audiences that will be reading them.

Building Your Team’s Analytics Capabilities

In Chris’s view, many organizations already have all the analytics talent they need to be effective. However, when managers are evaluating which team members to grow into analytics roles, they’re often faced with a common question: is it better to train a marketer how to do data science or train a data scientist how to do marketing? Chris suggests both are viable options if the person in question has the right characteristics. First, they must be curious and sufficiently motivated to learn the other side. Second, they must be stubborn problem solvers–almost to a fault. Third, they need to understand how their activities contribute to the organization’s bigger picture. “You don’t need a nerd with a calculator,” he explains, “You need a nerd that can eloquently articulate the core reasons your organization exists in the first place.”

Chris wraps up by describing a straight-forward 8-step process to make sure your next marketing initiative is set up for measurement success from the start.

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Transcript

Jarrett Smith:
You’re listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith.

Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m Jarrett Smith. Each episode, it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in higher ed and the broader world of marketing to bring you actionable insights that you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment performance. In this episode, we’ll be talking about marketing analytics. If you’re like many marketers out there, you’re sold on the value of data-driven marketing, but actually, doing it in the real world is easier said than done.

Today’s guest argues that getting analytics right is not only possible, it’s essential if you want to gain credibility and prove the value of marketing. His name is Chris Sietsema, and he’s a 20 year agency veteran and analytics expert who’s advised some of the most recognized names in both industry and higher education. Chris starts by outlining some of the sneaky reasons measurement is hard, and then he explains the three things analytic savvy organizations consistently get right.

Chris then talks about how to cultivate analytics talent in your organization and he gives his take on the age old question of whether it’s better to teach a marketer to do analytics or teach a data analyst to do marketing. He wraps up by describing a straightforward eight step process to make sure your next marketing initiative is set up for measurement success right from the start. Chris is a deep thinker on this topic and he provides a ton of useful insight for anyone looking to do analytics better. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Chris Sietsema.

Chris, welcome to the show.

Chris Sietsema:
Thank you for having me.

Jarrett Smith:
Absolutely. I’m really excited to dive into this analytics conversation. Before we get there, could you just give us a quick snapshot of your background and the work you’re doing today at Teach to Fish Digital?

Chris Sietsema:
For sure. It’s been about 20 years now that I’ve been in the digital marketing space, pretty much all I’ve done since graduating school. I started off by doing a little bit of everything, a little bit of search marketing, digital advertising, ton of email marketing. When social media came around, that was definitely kind of added to the repertoire. Over the past three years, I’ve really kind of focused on analytics because I feel that, while I love all those disciplines, it’s like picking amongst your children, who do you love more? Analytics is basically the layer over everything.

That’s really allowed me to still be involved in every aspect of digital marketing, but really help my clients focus on what all these numbers mean and what we can do with them and what we do next. I do a lot of audits, a lot of configuration projects, some training, stuff like that.

Jarrett Smith:
Very cool. Yeah, I mean, I feel like, to piggyback on what you just said, analytics is kind of where the rubber meets the road. You’re trying to distill it down into something useful and say, okay, now what? How do we act on this? Where do we go? I know we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about all of that, but I guess I want to headlong into sort of the core challenge, I think, will be familiar with anybody who’s tried to measure their marketing efforts. Digital marketing kind of carries with it the promise that everything can be measured, but the reality is implementing that in the real world is actually pretty difficult and not everything is as measurable as you would like it to be. It’s just not as straight forward. Could you talk to us for a minute about what makes measurement so challenging? Why is this so difficult to get right?

Chris Sietsema:
Well, first of all, I would say, for anybody who has had that conversation about measurement being challenging, and perhaps someone is talking to someone where the response is, what are you talking about? It’s easy. I don’t know what you mean. That person’s off the rocker. It should be hard. It’s supposed to be difficult. I think one of the reasons that, that’s kind of a tease is that, when you compare digital marketing specifically to other more traditional marketing, whether it be broadcast, or print, or whatever, direct mail, you’re right, it does kind of have that promise of being so much easier to measure, but when in practice, it’s not.

One of the reasons I think is that not every marketing program is uniform. We’re all a little bit different. We have different objectives. We’re working in different environments. Because of that unique quality of our own marketing program, the measurement program has to then reflect that as well, and thus the measurement program has to be very unique and specific to whatever it is that we’re trying to accomplish with our marketing goals.

When you look at the analytics space, are there standards? Kind of, there’s tools that everybody utilizes that are pretty consistent, but the manner in which we utilize those tools is completely frayed and totally different from one client to the next or one marketing program to the next. Part of the reason too, I think is that when we think about analytics, we think about a report, like we think about the finish line, or the final state. Where really, if we’re doing it correctly, we have to start way at the front and talk about, what is it that we’re trying to accomplish? What are the true goals that we’re trying to measure? What’s our business objective.

If those are undefined or poorly defined or not shared amongst the entire group of people that are working on a singular project, we’re in trouble from the start, and so is the measurement program.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. It brings to mind the idea that doing analytics right looks like a lot of things that don’t look like a report, if I can say that the right way. There’s a lot of activities that don’t look like a nice report that ultimately result in that hopefully, but there’s a lot of work to do on the backend.

Chris Sietsema:
Yeah. There’s a lot of background work for sure. There’s a lot of setting up of dominoes. In terms of like just the whole, I thought this was going to be easier, why is this so challenging? I’ve had that conversation a lot with a lot of people. How I equate it would be like, I’m sure the first time Orville and Wilbur Wright had their maiden voyage in Kitty Hawk. They brought a lot of promise for things like transportation and supply chain and exploration and measuring weather and all the different implications that flight has. But when you look at where we came from then and where we are now in aviation, we’re not even into jet engines yet in terms of like the comparison from analytics perspective.

We’ve got so much ways to go, and it’s a challenging thing. Despite all the promise that digital marketing has for measurement, we still have to pilot the thing, we still have a navigation, we still have to have a strategy, we still have to have equipment to get us from here to there. It’s a lot of work we still have to do yet. We’ve already come such a great distance so that’s a good thing.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. That reminds me of another sort of challenge here is that the tools that we’re using are changing. I know that we’ve talked a little bit, prior to this conversation, about Google Analytics is getting a major overhaul. We’re coming out with GA4. That’s going to kind of upend everybody’s boat, and of course, one of the most common measurement tools out there in digital marketing, so there’s a lot there. The other thing I think that’s tricky, that’s kind of higher ed … Maybe it’s not really higher ed specific, but institutions, they’re large complex organizations, and so just the people involved, right?

Getting appropriate goals set up on your website, it may be enrollment management that’s really super tuned into conversions on your online application, but it may be marketing who actually owns those properties and they may not always play well together so that even if you straighten out all the technical aspects, there’s still the human element that can make things really difficult.

Chris Sietsema:
Yeah, and with higher ed, which you and I have both have a ton of experience in, for some of these institutions that are massive, like you said, there’s a lot of different hands in the pot. One thing that I would say that’s a challenge for a lot of folks is that enrollment does analytics a little bit different than marketing does analytic, especially now with all the online learning, the manner in which students are actually utilizing the applications to access courses and syllabus and assignments and all those different types of things, and whether those things are being utilized properly.

There’s a lot of different ways to look at it, but I think that as long as we are kind of utilizing a common language or a common dialect with the manner in which we are measuring, that’s really key. Sometimes from department to department that language or that dialect changes, which can cause challenges. Still, part of it is just really kind of speaking the same language from a measurement standpoint. Oftentimes, that language, unfortunately, does not exist when you start to building the tools or building the processes and you have to create it and adopt it and make sure that everyone can speak that language.

Jarrett Smith:
That’s a really interesting point. I think one of the core traps that I see people falling into is that any analytics package, whether you’re looking at what’s available on your social media platform or what’s available out of Vanilla Google Analytics, or whatever tool you’re using, is that it’s going to serve up some things to you automatically. They may or may not be useful. You’ve talked to me about say something like time on site in Google Analytics being a problematic measure. Interesting to look at, but there’s a lot of nuance there and it’s not as straightforward as it seems. I guess my question to you is, where do you see the danger in focusing only on the things that we can easily measure.

Chris Sietsema:
It certainly limits us. The things that we can easily measure aren’t necessarily indicative of success and they don’t really provide a good representation for whether we reached our business goal or not. Some things like brand awareness, like how do you use Google Analytics to measure that? I don’t know that you can, quite frankly. When you have a specific goal that you’re trying to measure that the standard tools do not provide an easy answer for, you’ve got a few approaches. One is just measure what you can, which is not my preferred method, which is basically giving up. Let’s just deal with what we can, right?

The other method is to go to great lengths to configure measurement tools or processes that truly answer the most important questions. For example, to use that brand awareness, like maybe we don’t use a digital analytics tool set. Maybe we actually do a study with real people like a survey, right? Like unassisted brand awareness type study. The challenge there is that those are time consuming and expensive. Another approach would be, as opposed to just dealing what we have to deal with the tools we have, or we’re going above and beyond and finding the metric that we’re looking for no matter what, no matter how expensive it is and how time consuming it takes to get that answer, is to use more attainable metrics as a proxy.

For example, to use like brand awareness, perhaps we look at branded search volume, right? How often is our brand searched for on the Google and other search engines today versus when it was six months ago or a year ago or 18 months ago, those types of things, and that’s just one example, right? From an analytics perspective, oftentimes, we’re thought of as the pocket protector kids and the nerds and very left brain thinkers, and that’s totally fine. That’s what we are. But at the same time, analytics requires a great deal of creativity in terms of how to get the answers that we’re looking for to some of the tough questions that are being posed by leadership, by ourselves, by marketing managers, marketing directors, etc.

So, it does take a bit of creativity to think through like how we can find a real good answer that provides at least a clue as to how we’re performing in that respect.

Jarrett Smith:
To kind of serve as a reasonable proxy.

Chris Sietsema:
Totally. Yeah. That can be difficult because sometimes that, yes, that’s a proxy, but is it really a good indicator? Does it provide a factual representation of the question that we’re trying to answer rather? The most often discussed issues with analytics is that it’s expensive, it’s difficult to configure, or just, like you said, just simply not available. It’s not easily attainable. However, I think the least discussed problems, but more like symptomatic to the actual core issue, is that measurement is often an afterthought.

Sometimes I believe, at least in my experience, I don’t know if you’ve found this as well with some of your clients, not to name names, there’s a need to work backwards. What I mean by that is from a marketing and advertising perspective, we tend to think in a very linear fashion, like, all right, see audience, create ad, choose media for ad, deliver ad. Then at the very end, oh yeah, we should probably measure this too.

Let’s figure out how we’re going to prove that we were successful. When in reality, it’s often necessary to ideal or to identify the ideal scenario in which we can prove success, almost start with the number, or the metric that we’re trying to attain, or the answer that we’re trying to get at and work backwards a little bit from that. Now, should that sway your marketing strategy or your approach to how you put a message in front of your audience? No, but if you’re thinking about it from the outset, it can solve a lot of problems later on that often manifest when, oh, shoot, we should probably create a report for this, two months into the campaign.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Well, and that allows you to really have that conversation around what metrics are truly going to be useful, how would this guide our decision-making if we knew this and we were able to measure this, and you could even ask yourself in advance. It’s like, okay, if we’re underperforming on this particular metric, once we launched this, what does that suggest? I mean, you could start to pressure test your thinking a little bit. Would we actually find that useful? Might we change our plans or activities? On the flip side, if we’re doing really great, what does that suggest? Might that also guide our efforts once we actually get into full swing on this campaign or whatever it is that we’re doing.

Chris Sietsema:
Exactly. I think once you’ve got everything configured and you’ve got a dialect and a language that you’re relying upon for this metric is going to tell us that, and we measure this way because it’s going to provide an answer to this important question. It’s a never ending process, right? A lot of what my work is, and what it involves, is once everything is configured from a marketing standpoint, sometimes a lot of times my clients will have me just hang out. Help us read the tea leaves a little bit here. Help us understand what these numbers mean, because as long as a campaign is live, as long as a website is live, as long as a social media account is active, so is analytics, so is measurement.

It’s a never ending process. It’s a never ending struggle to achieve better results than we did last time. I don’t know about you, but I often get asked the question like, what’s a good benchmark for X? What’s a good click rate or what’s a good conversion rate? The answer is, well, what’s the click rate or what’s the conversion rate now. Whatever’s better than that is the answer. Oftentimes, I think we rely heavily upon what the “industry” is doing. That doesn’t matter. Let’s just focus on us. The more time we spend on others, the less time we can focus on ourselves.

Even if you kind of achieved, let’s say the industry benchmark for open rate for emails is 25%, we have a 30% open rate. Does that mean we’re going to stop trying to get 35% or 40% open rate? It never stops. You always want to improve, improve, improve, and that’s part of the fun.

Jarrett Smith:
That’s a really interesting point. Just thinking about if you managed to get this right and you are able to really think through, in advance, what’s going to be the most useful information, that then really becomes a tool for building credibility within your organization for marketing specifically. I think one of the core challenges we have, and I think this is especially true in higher ed, where you’ve got a lot of PhDs. In a lot of cases, they’re a PhD in like a hard science, something that is super rigorous and empirical.

Marketing kind of comes in, it’s hard to nail down. It has this creative aspect to it if it’s done right. It’s part art, part science, and so I think it opens the door for people to kind of ride off marketing activities and discount what’s happening. Analytics can help build that credibility to say, no, the things we’re doing actually have impact in the real world, and these things that we’re doing matter and deserve to be funded and deserve to be expanded. What’s kind of been your experience with that?

Chris Sietsema:
My experience has been it’s a huge challenge, especially for … You work in higher ed quite a bit, and I do as well. When you have an audience, whether it be those PhDs or in a different industry, whether it’s the board or the CEO that definitely has chops and has earned her own credibility, it’s difficult to prove your worth from a marketing perspective, and I can totally get that. The metaphor I often think about when I’m talking about this topic is, do you know who Bryan Cranston is?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Breaking Bad, best TV show ever recorded.

Chris Sietsema:
Exactly. My wife and I, we spent like six months a few years ago and watched the thing from start to finish, and it’s excellent. If you’ve never watched Breaking Bad, for your audience, he’s also the dad on Malcolm in the Middle, which also just exemplifies the range that, that guy has as an actor. He’s a terrific actor. Right?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah.

Chris Sietsema:
We also started watching, not to take us on too big of a tangent, but we also started watching the show on Showtime called Your Honor, have you seen it or heard of it?

Jarrett Smith:
No.

Chris Sietsema:
Don’t bother. It’s trash. It’s the worst. It is so bad. It was such a let down, because he’s a fantastic actor and he’s excellent at his craft, but it kind of speaks to the point that if the script isn’t there, if the writing isn’t up to snuff, there’s nothing an actor can do to kind of salvage it. In a similar way, if the product isn’t great, the marketers can only elevate a fantastic product. We can’t turn a garbage product into like gold. The reason that, that is a problem in that the situation is marketers only elevate a product and we kind of struggle when the product is weak, is that issue exists due to this question that is posed, I think, a lot oftentimes by leadership, and that is, what if we just did nothing? What if we did none of this marketing stuff or any of this advertising or spent any of this budget on promoting ourselves, would we have gotten the same result?

Because that question exists, and I don’t know if you’ve faced that question or at least heard that question muddled subtly, that’s why analytics exists in some ways, in that we have to actually prove, that because of our efforts, we elevated this product, we improved the state of this company, this organization, this product, whatever it is, due to our efforts to promote and advertise and get the message out. Oftentimes, when we’re looking at measurement, we can run tests or we can run flights, or we can turn our marketing off and then turn it on and see what the results are and see what the differences are.

Chris Sietsema:
To build credibility, we really have to have analytics to show the change we’re making and the positive that we’re bringing to this scenario. It’s invaluable from a marketing perspective. The best moments of my career is when a client of mine or a coworker or whatever says, “Hey, Chris, I’m taking this report that we worked on and I’m bringing it to my next review,” because they can actually prove, with metrics, that what they’re doing is elevating, not only the product, but the organization and the overall company or the mission.

Jarrett Smith:
Well, and I want to circle back to something you said earlier, which is how important it is to agree upfront on what’s going to be measured. Then also, the idea of, and we all need to agree on what these things mean and the language we’re using. If you’re the one actually gathering the data and performing the analysis, that means you’ve got to walk into your bosses office and say, “Hey, I’m working with my marketing counterparts to conceive this new campaign. Here’s what we think we’re going to measure. Is this actually useful to you?” Is this actually useful to your boss? Are they going to find these things, yes, that’s great, or no, actually that’s kind of nice to know, but not actually that useful?

Then you can have that conversation of, okay, well, what can we do with that? What’s within our grasp that might be better. Maybe it is that compromise of, hey, the best we can do in this scenario, because of budgets and dimes and internal capabilities is to come up with a good proxy, but we can at least recognize that problem in advance and all agree that here’s the sort of sensible compromise we’re going to make.

Chris Sietsema:
Yeah. That meeting or that discussion with the measurement person or the analytics person, or whoever’s going to be pulling those numbers and whoever their reporting audience is, whether it be the director of marketing or the CEO, or the CMO, or whomever it is, is absolutely vital, because you have to understand from the get-go what it is we’re all trying to accomplish, so we’re all kind of aiming for the same target. Yeah, and sometimes those conversations do sound exactly like you described, where it’s like, hey, this is what we’re trying to achieve and this is how we’re going to measure the results of this effort, agree or disagree.

Other times it’s, do you agree that we are aiming for this target? Do you agree that this is the business objective, this is our quantified goal? We’re going to increase X by that percent, or we’re going to decrease the cost of that by Y percent, whatever it is. Do you agree? Yes, I do. Great. Then the metrics don’t get discussed until the report happens. Oftentimes, those discussions with stakeholders are all about the goal or what it is we’re trying to achieve. The actual metrics sometimes get brought up in conversation from the outset, but not every time, primarily because those stakeholders either don’t know or don’t care. I don’t care how you do it. Just make it happen. Prove that this effort is worthwhile. We should continue doing it or continue to augment it, etc.

Jarrett Smith:
As you were talking about the importance of the product, it reminded me of the classic four Ps of marketing, product, price, promotion, placement, and how, historically, promotion is just one part of marketing. Historically, there’s been a recognition that marketing can and should involve many other things. Obviously, as a marketing team, you’re not going to be deciding the next new great program that’s going to be unveiled at your school. I think it is good to remember that as a marketer, you do tie into product. You do have something useful to contribute and you have a perspective that your provost might be interested in. You have a perspective that the dean of a particular college might be interested in, that they wouldn’t have access to. Hopefully within your organization, it’s okay to express that perspective and lend a hand as they try to make the best decisions that they can.

Chris Sietsema:
Exactly. Yeah, I wish there was like a fifth P, maybe it’s performance. Because that absolutely needs to be configured into the whole marketing schema, for sure. The other thing that’s really rewarding about measurement and analytics from my perspective is that, when you kind of uncover those juicy insights or those nuggets in which we can kind of show our reporting audiences, whether it be, to use your higher ed example, the dean or the provost, it really is extremely gratifying, because for a lot of those people, they build a program, they build a university, they build a curriculum, and oftentimes, they don’t necessarily see how its intended audience reacts to that, unless that audience is in a classroom.

But up until that, we have to rely upon measurement to understand what resonates with the audience, what programs are really interesting, what aspects of specific programs are most interesting, that kind of thing. There’s a lot of ins and outs to the measurement process from providing leadership with visibility to the front lines, essentially.

Jarrett Smith:
Absolutely. Chris, we’ve kind of talked at length about all the various challenges of measurement and analytics, but I think you would probably agree that some organizations do get it right. I know you’ve worked with a lot of different folks, not just in higher ed, but across various industries, and it is possible, I guess, depending on how you define. But I guess, is there anything that you would bring to us, maybe as a common thread, or what kind of universal lessons might we apply? If someone’s listening to this and they’re saying, okay, I know we’ve got a lot more we could be doing, we could be doing better. Where should they kind of focus their energy? What are sort of the common threads that tie together the folks that are doing a good job?

Yeah. When we first started talking from the outset, we noted that one of the biggest challenges with analytics specifically is that there isn’t a standard. Every situation is unique. Every marketing program is a fingerprint, right? They’re all a little bit different. However, to your point, there are some common threads or common elements that I seem to find with successful measurement programs. The first is, and one of the first questions I even ask when I’m entering in a new analytics engagement is, do you have documentation? Is this stuff written down?

Because if they do have documentation, you can almost prove that there’s a process. If they don’t have documentation, you automatically are a little bit … It’s not clear whether there’s a true process or not. One of the mantras that I have used before, and you’ve heard me say this is, if it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist. Even the most simplest measurements, and the way that things are configured, and the way that we pull numbers for reporting and things like that, write it all down, because that’s knowledge that has to be shared, and it’s also knowledge that has to be referenced later on.

Chris Sietsema:
Focus on process and documentation, the two have to go together. The other thing I would note is that a lot of times when we think about the final report, we tend to try and think about, well, what are some of the other reports that I’ve seen, and what are the metrics that they utilized? It’s like, ugh, I don’t know, because oftentimes what happens is you really have to make sure that your reports reflect the business objectives that you’re trying to achieve. If your business objective is like, get more leads, whatever that number is, however that’s quantified, leads should be at the top of the report.

We really have to avoid including measurement tables or charts or graphs that provide true information, but useless information. All the information that we provide in our reporting should have some kind of actionable next step, like a yes, and. Something that we can read and interpret and then know exactly what we should do the next time we run a campaign, or tomorrow, or within the next hour They should all be actionable. Avoid true but useless scenarios, and really focus on actionable metrics and insights that we can rely upon to make stuff happen.

The other thing that I would say is that I think … I come from an agency background, and we were definitely guilty of this, and I don’t know if your agency has been guilty of this as well, but when we think about providing a report, I think we have the notion that more is more. Like, here’s your report fad.

Jarrett Smith:
Let me justify my hourly rate.

Chris Sietsema:
Exactly. Yeah, I really want them to think that I know, and I really want to prove that I worked really hard on this based upon the size of this document and the number of pages in this document. I say that’s baloney. The truth is that the reporting format should be aligned to the audience. If you are talking to the provost, or the dean, or the CEO, I’m guessing they have limited time. I try and make, as a rule, most of my reports that I provide, one page. Just one singular page, and that’s all you get, because it really forces you to eliminate those true, but useless scenarios, really focus on the actionable stuff, and get right to it. It’s kind of the whole be bright and be gone. Get in and get out. Be bright, be brief, and be gone, I should say.

Jarrett Smith:
It reminds me of the quote, well, at least the internet attributes it, I think to Mark Twain, about I would have written you a shorter letter if I had more time. The internet probably attributes that to Abraham Lincoln too, I don’t know, and Einstein, one of those guys.

Chris Sietsema:
One of those guys, yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
Smart dude back in the day.

Chris Sietsema:
That’s exactly it. I think the value that we provide to our reporting audiences is not the breadth of data, it’s the clarity of our next steps. It’s the interpretation that we can provide and say, here’s the approach that we should venture into next.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. For some reason, when you were saying that orange metaphor, maybe it’s because I’m in Florida, an orange juice metaphor appeared in my mind that the analytics person is the one squeezing the oranges and selecting them from the tree, but by the time it makes it to the executive level, it really needs to be orange juice concentrate.

Chris Sietsema:
Yeah. I’m going to use that. Yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
If someone’s listening to this, we do have a lot of higher ed leaders and folks in decision-making positions that are in charge of guiding teams and staffing teams, folks that listen to this podcast. I can imagine there are folks listening to this right now saying, okay, I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t know that I really have the right person on my team, or at least I don’t have the right role to find, and I think we’re going to need to develop our organization in this way if we’re going to do all these wonderful things that we keep talking about with analytics.

I guess, how do you sort of think about and advise people when they’re thinking about their own team and they’re thinking about expanding their teams’ analytics capabilities, what advice might you have for us?

Chris Sietsema:
You focused on the people aspect, so I will take that and run with it as well. Because oftentimes, when people think of analytics, it’s like, what tools should we be using? What software license should I get next? That kind of thing. Really, it starts with the human resources piece of it. What I’ve seen from my clients, and this is outside the higher ed space specifically, but with other industries, is that for those organizations that have an individual or individuals that are specifically dedicated to the discipline of analytics, some of them do great and some of them struggle.

When they struggle, they are almost too close to all the data. They’re too focused on all the data. It’s one of those, can’t see the forest through the trees type of thing. Or I would say, from a leadership standpoint, you probably have the right people on already. It’s just a matter of changing their view to understand your business and its objectives just as well, if not better, than they understand something like linear regression or something, like something very nerdy, right?

You don’t need a nerd with a calculator. You need a nerd who can eloquently articulate the core reasons your company exists in the first place. That’s where I see people struggle the most. It’s like, hold off the data just a little bit. What is it we’re trying to do here and focus all your energy and efforts on that. That’s where I’ve seen some analytics folks just struggle a little bit. They’re trying to fill a role from an analytics perspective, but not fill the role within the organization.

One thing I would say too, if you’re looking for somebody who would be a great analytics person, I definitely think a background in all those, all the math, and the science, and the art of it, and having good experience with all the tools is important. But the one quality that I see that’s consistent amongst analytics people is that they are problem solvers that are just insanely stubborn. The type of people that can not stop looking at something and trying to figure something out until it’s figured out. They examine it from every possible angle.

They’re persistent to a fault. I think that, that sounds negative, but it’s actually a good thing from an analytics perspective, because that’s where some of that creativity we spoke about earlier comes in, where if we can’t solve it this way, let’s look at another angle to solve the problem, which can be really great. Oftentimes too, especially with the agencies I’ve worked with or trained, or whatever, there’s a question about, all right, do we go find an analytics person or do we just take one of our marketing people and just train them to do analytics?

It’s like, well, I don’t know. It really depends, because it absolutely depends upon the individual that we’re talking about. For example, I work with some agencies like out in Arizona or California, or on the West Coast, Colorado, etc, where, hey, we have this person on our team. He or she is a great account manager and they really want to learn more about analytics. Then when you talk to that person, they just really want to be a great account manager, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but unless there’s a passion for the metrics and the ability to pull those numbers and configure all the data and do all the tagging work, really get your hands dirty and all that work, as well as kind of lead the meeting in which the insights are provided, they’re going to struggle a little bit.

There has to be a passion for both, if that makes sense. Because oftentimes, when we try and convert a person who doesn’t have a lot of analytics experience into something that is more of that analytics person, if that passion isn’t there, there could be a struggle there. Then the last thing I would say is invest in the necessary tools for sure. That’s not easy for everybody, but depending upon what questions we’re trying to answer, it might be worth whatever the budget requirement is to get that testing tool, or that analytics upgrade, or that tag management solution, or whatever the case might be.

But for an analytics person to really be powerful, not only do they have to have that creativity and the stubbornness, and the problem solving qualities, but they also have to have the right tools at their disposal to do the work.

Jarrett Smith:
Okay. I’m going to ask a question that may be so ridiculously broad that it’s not possible to answer it in a good way, so just tell me if that’s the case, but just thinking through the kind of digital marketing operations that you have encountered over the years, what does that tool stack typically look like? I mean, things come to mind like Google Data Studio, which a lot of folks over the years in higher ed have adopted. It used to be, not that many folks really knew how to use it. Now I think it’s pretty common.

You’ve got Google Analytics, you mentioned testing tools, but what else do you consider to be the basic tech stack for good quality digital marketing? Is that even a question that makes sense, or is it too particular to the organization?

Chris Sietsema:
No, it’s a good question. I think that there’s probably three categories of items and then there’s some extra stuff. There’s three primary categories and some wildcards. The three primary categories are whatever tool you’re utilizing to track and bring all the data and all the behavior that you’re measuring into one cohesive tool, whether that be Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics, or Google Analytics 360, which is the souped up version of Google Analytics, the non-free version, that kind of thing.

We talked about configuration before. Configuration basically equates to making sure that all of the behaviors that occur with an advertisement or on a webpage or a landing page or an app or whatever, that all those behaviors can be tracked adequately, and typically, for that type of thing, you need some kind of tag management solution. The most common one is Google Tag Manager, but there are others out there. Then those tags are basically little tracking codes that you place on the website to enable you to measure certain behaviors that occur that are important to you.

So, you’ve got your primary kind of analytics repository, your tag management solution. Then, once it’s time to actually prepare a report, you do need some visualization tool. For many, that visualization tool is Excel, or Mac numbers, or whatever. They basically pull those numbers out. That concept is not foreign to me. That’s how I used to do all my reports up until probably two or three years ago. I would pull the data and make it pretty on my own. But at the same time, some of these visualization tools, like you mentioned, Google Data Studio or Tableau. Oh my gosh, there are so many. I could through a rock right now and I have eight of them, all the Domos and the Power BIs and all those different types of tools. They’re out there. When you asked the question earlier, I don’t think there’s a right tool, but those are the ones I commonly see most often.

As long as you’ve got an analytics database or repository like a Google Analytics, a tag management solution, which you’ll likely need in a visualization tool, you’re good. Then there’s those wild cards for like call tracking, or landing pages, or AB split testing, all those different types of things. Then, to make matters a little bit more complicated, certain channels that we rely upon heavily, such as Google Ads, Facebook Ads, even like YouTube, they all have their own little dashboards and Facebook insights and things like that, that we need to marry in that kind of thing. That can be a little challenging, but those are the core tools I think that you probably have in your analytics toolbox.

Jarrett Smith:
Very good. Let’s bring this down to earth. Maybe someone is saying, all right, I hear what you’re saying. I’m on board. I want to do measurement right, and they’ve got a new project coming up. Maybe it’s a new micro site they’re putting up. Maybe it’s a new campaign that’s just getting kicked off, and they’re thinking, all right, now’s our chance to think ahead on this one. Can you give us some concrete steps that we might take to sort of experiment with doing analytics right on this particular project?

Chris Sietsema:
For sure. The first steps I think would involve something pretty archaic, like a whiteboard or a piece of scratch paper, honestly. Let’s just bring it back to basics, and those are the first thing we want to do, as we spoke about earlier, as we alluded to earlier, just, what is it we’re trying to achieve? Just write down the business objectives and quantify them if you can. That’s step one. With step one, that’s not an easy step a lot of times, right? We have to determine what those are. I will say, though, if you’re trying to accomplish 23 objectives, then you don’t have an objective. Let’s probably limit it to maybe three to five, maybe six max, something that can be accomplished.

Then write down, for every objective, the key questions that surround those objectives, what is it we’re trying to answer. If the objective is I want to generate X amount of leads in February, 2021, then there’s probably some questions that surround that goal such as, what is the source of those leads? What is the conversion rate of those leads? How are people accessing the website? How many times do they need to see the website before they feel comfortable with filling out the lead generation from? All those different questions you want to answer, right?

So, write those questions down. For every question you’ve got, you might have a handful of, maybe say eight to 12. Assign a metric to those. So, lead volume, conversion rate, lead volume by source, conversion rate by source, all those different types of things. Then prioritize those metrics. Which are most indicative of success? What are the most important metrics or the most important questions that we’re trying to answer? Now, all this time, we’re just sketching this out. We’re writing this on a whiteboard or a piece of scratch paper.

Now that we’ve got our questions identified, our metrics identified and defined, and then our metrics prioritized, now the report almost writes itself. It kind of configures itself. Where you can start to say, all right, because this is a top priority metric, this is going to be at the top of the report. These are nice to know and complimentary metrics and questions that are going to help us determine whether we accomplished our business objectives, are going to go next, and then I’m going to provide some notes and some interpretation on that.

The structure of that report is pretty much good to go. You got your metrics prioritized, you know the structure in terms of who your reporting audience is like that single page versus maybe a couple of pages, depending upon how detailed you want to get, and so on. You also, at that point, probably need to determine what the cadence or the frequency is with which you deliver that report. Oftentimes, that question comes up is, Chris, how often should I be preparing a report? Should it be monthly? Should it be weekly?

The answer is, how often can you enact change? How often can you make decisions and actually work with them and apply some of the insights that you’ve derived from your report? If you can do that every week, then you should probably do a weekly report. If you can only do that once a month or once a quarter, then change your reporting cadence accordingly. I would say, with all your reports, automate the data collection if you can, just because it’s easier and you can spend more of your time and resources on actually reading the tea leaves and looking at those numbers and try and understand what it is that’s going on.

So, automate if you can, but don’t limit yourself to just the automated metrics. You might need to dig in a little bit to, what’s going on in Google Ads? And why did that ad in Facebook work so well? Or why did that ad in LinkedIn Ads not work so well? Then, once you’ve got all your data configured and set to go, now it’s time to actually interpret that data. The greatest value you can bring is your ability to translate data points into meaningful insights and actionable next steps. That’s how we get paid as analysts. We don’t get paid for numbers. We get paid from the actions that come out of those numbers, and that’s the most important thing to remember with all that.

Jarrett Smith:
Really good advice and very actionable, Chris, thank you for that. If folks want to connect with you more, to talk more, geek out on all things analytics, where’s the best place to connect with you online?

Chris Sietsema:
A couple of places. I’m not too active in the socials these days. Linkedin’s probably a good place. Chris Sietsema, you can find me there. My email is chris@teachtofishdigital. Website’s teachtofishdigital.com. Those are probably the primary places to get ahold of me or get in contact with me.

Jarrett Smith:
Good deal. Well, Chris, thank you for your time today. This was such a fantastic conversation. Thank you.

Chris Sietsema:
Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

Jarrett Smith:
The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools, just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts, and as always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion, or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co.

 

Getting Your Campus Social Media Strategy Right

Arguably, social media managers have one of the most demanding yet least understood jobs in higher ed marketing. The hours are long, the visibility is high, and the resources to do the job well are often lacking.

Enter Liz Gross, CEO of social listening agency Campus Sonar. A higher ed veteran with first-hand experience managing institutional social media accounts, Liz recently published a new book called Fundamentals of Social Media Strategy: A Guide for College Campuses to serve as a comprehensive guide for higher ed social media managers and the leaders they report to.

Liz is a passionate advocate for getting social media right, and the advice she delivers in this episode spans the lofty and strategic to the practical and tactical. She explains the importance of starting with the right goals and why “go viral” and “engage our audience” should never be goals. Then, Liz talks about the crucial role of executive leadership in supporting campus social media efforts and argues that leaders should plan to allocate a minimum of $100,000 annually to properly manage social media.

Later in the conversation, Liz outlines a practical framework for making content development sustainable and then describes the core components of a robust social media policy to guide official social media activities.

Find us on:

Apple Podcasts

Spotify

Stitcher

Google Play

How to Optimize Your Website for Search in 2021

Some 20 years after its launch, Google remains the preeminent force to be reckoned with in organic search. In this episode, take a step back to understand some of the long-term trends that have shaped the search engine over the past two decades, and then forecast what’s in store for those looking to optimize their websites for search in 2021.

Joining us in the conversation is Echo Delta’s Senior SEO Strategist, Catherine Reich. With SEO experience that spans both higher ed as well as other highly competitive industries like travel/tourism and law, Catherine is uniquely positioned to offer guidance on how to stay relevant in search over the next year.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Fundamental strategies that have kept Google relevant and continue to impact search rankings to this day
  • The most significant changes to Google’s algorithm over the last 3-5 years
  • How to prepare for a major update known as the Page Experience Updates coming in 2021
  • Actionable advice for those looking to improve rankings over the next year.

Transcript

Jarrett Smith:
You’re listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. Well, hello and welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m Jarrett Smith. Each episode, it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in higher education and the broader world of marketing to bring you actionable insights that you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment performance. In this episode, I sit down with Catherine Reich, senior SEO strategist at Echo Delta, to take stock of the current state of organic search, and what’s ahead in 2021. We start by discussing why Google has remained the dominant force in SEO in the important algorithm changes we’ve observed over the last few years. Then we talk about a major update google has planned for 2021 known as the Page Experience Update. We wrap up by sharing our best predictions for the next 12 months. As a bonus for this episode, Catherine’s put together a short guide that lists three SEO tasks you can partner with your web developer to perform over the next year, and the first item in her guide is preparing for that Page Experience Update I just mentioned.

You’ll find a link to download that guide in the show notes for this episode at echodelta.co. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Catherine Reich. Well, Catherine, welcome to the show.

Catherine Reich:
Thanks for having me, Jarrett.

Jarrett Smith:
I am super excited to talk about SEO and looking ahead in 2021. It’s not the first time we’ve done this. It is in podcast form.

Catherine Reich:
Right, but it’s not the first time.

Jarrett Smith:
It’s not the first time, we’ve been here before. So this ought to be a fun conversation, and you’re my favorite SEO person. So here we go. Catherine, I want to start off with what maybe sound like a very basic question, but it’s something I think about periodically, which is why, after 20 years, is Google still the dominant force in search? I mean, DuckDuckGo had that huge billboard campaign, and then right before this, I looked up their market share, and it’s still two percent in the U.S. So why is Google still, when we talk SEO, we’re really talking about Google.

Catherine Reich:
Absolutely. The reason that we are still talking about Google as the eminent one is right now, they have 90% of the market share. And I think it’s an interesting question to ask why. When I started to look into that, there’s the narrative, there’s the things that make the headlines or the beginnings of a keynote speech of, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.” And I think Google has a lot of that fictional, motivating stories behind it. But really, if you look into it, it was a combination of a couple of things. One, they came in absolutely at the right time. So Google didn’t enter into this stage until search engines had been a thing for about 10 years, and also, the.com bubble and burst had happened.

So they had a lot going for them. One, they hadn’t built up all of this energy and all of this business for only to be crushed. Again, everything else happened then. And they also could learn from that. So they saw not only who got decimated, but who was able to survive. And I think they made a lot of great judgment calls. One, a lot of the search engines that were still around even after the.com bubble and burst were your, I’m going to call them, hubs. So think AOL, think Yahoo, these were user experiences that were trying to be everything. They were trying to actively be the internet for you.

Jarrett Smith:
Like your entire web portal.

Catherine Reich:
Yeah. And since AOL really was one of the first ways that users, especially of maybe our generation and age were exposed to-

Jarrett Smith:
Yup, I remember it well.

Catherine Reich:
Yeah. I think a lot of businesses went into making a search engine with the attitude of needing to be AOL, and maybe a different flavor of it. But Google didn’t do that at all. Google really was the preeminent force behind that overly simplistic design that we now see all over the entire internet.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, I remember back in the day when Google came out, it was like, it’s just a search bar. That’s it, there’s just a little text box there.

Catherine Reich:
Yeah. And that was so special to them, but what that allowed them to do was to do one thing really well. And I think what’s interesting is even as they have expanded, and now in many ways, they are that hub that AOL used to be. But you know when you are in one of their service offerings, if you will, which one you’re looking at, and you’re only in that, and there’s ways to link back and forth. But if you are using Google search, you know you’re using Google search, and it’s not trying to send you to a million places. And so I think their ability to stay very focused, coming in at the right time, and also just asking themselves, “How do we give people what they want?”

A lot of search engines in the very beginning were trying to make judgment calls for users, and Google, when they came in in 1997, they were asking, “How do we ensure that searches are relevant?” So they came in with this whole relevancy thing. And they’re still doing that today in a lot of new and exciting ways that they were the first ones to say, “You know what, why don’t we put the user in charge?”

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. And of course, then they launched their advertising product. They’re making a ton of revenue, they can hire the best brains to figure this out. Now we’ve just seen the product evolve and evolve and evolve, and of course, fueled all by this advertising revenue that ultimately, that’s the product they’re trying to keep folks coming back to, they can see more ads. So yeah, that’s interesting. I hadn’t really thought about it in that long-term historical perspective. So let’s just kind of think about the last couple of years. I know you’ve been doing SEO for a long time. I know the SEO game has changed a lot over the years. It used to be a lot of these kinds of silly games you could play with keywords and that sort of thing, and it’s really a lot more sophisticated now, just kind of looking back over the past two or three years, what are the things that really stand out to you as landmark changes in how Google operates, and how it’s determining at the end of the day what’s relevant, what should appear in that number one position when you search for a term?

Catherine Reich:
Great question. I think what we saw probably at that three year mark, maybe the three to five-year mark, is that Google realized that SEOs like ourselves were doing things. Marketers had started to exploit the system, and so in that five to three mark, they started to do things like panelizing. There were steps at Google were taking to say, “No, stop that, SEO, stop that, stop trying to exploit these search loopholes.” Then I think what we’ve now seen, and what we’ve moved into in the last two to three years, is the flip side of that. And I think the more positive thing of, “Okay, how do we get back to relevancy? How do we get back to making sure that users are having a great time when they’re using our product? How do we make sure that they’re getting what they need?” For Google, big thing that they look at is, does your main content, and love their documentation, they refer to it as MC because they love acronyms, is that MC addressing the user’s intent?

What Google does that I think is really interesting too, is they have real human testers that test before and after their releases. And if you look at their documentation, they even say, listen, if somebody’s intent is to find a lighthearted humor site, then provide them that. If that’s what they’re looking for, it doesn’t need to be an encyclopedia article that’s very long and text-heavy, because they know that’s not what a user is looking for. And so I think the last couple of years we’ve seen that, and I think the ways we’ve seen that is things like page speed. Page speed has become more and more important. I think we also saw that in the HTTPS and making sure that that was part of it because what Google realized is that people’s intent was to stay safe on the internet.

Catherine Reich:
So even zooming out from what they want out of a search, what do they want out of their search experience? What do they want out of websites? And to me, this has been a much more exciting time to be an SEO because it’s the fun stuff. It’s not just fighting against like the bad stuff. It’s how do we truly do great work using the digital tools that we have in our toolbox in a way that Google is going to like it, but ultimately that a user is going to like it? And that’s way more fun than stuffing a bunch of keywords into something. I feel like anybody can do that, but this takes creativity, I think.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, it’s kind of an interesting point. On one hand, it’s like, as the algorithm has gotten more sophisticated, in a way, the SEO’s job, and you may not 100 percent agree with this, so please disagree, and I’m sure I’ll give you multiple opportunities to disagree and to set me straight during this conversation, but in a way, in a sense, the SEO’s job has gotten a little more straightforward in that there are technical details that matter, absolutely. But at the end of the day, Google has gotten very good at figuring out what people want. You need to create the best web experience and content that will serve whatever it is that your users want. If you’re doing that, there are other details that matter that could hold you back.

But that’s the main course right there, and these other things have become more side dishes where it used to be, no playing SEO games could be your main course, and getting backlinks that were from websites that you owned, and paying people for links, and stuffing your content with keywords, those kinds of silly SEO games. That could be your main course and the content could be the side dish, but it’s kind of set the priority is right, and in a way, you have to think more like a content strategist and an editor than you used to. Would you agree with that?

Catherine Reich:
Yeah, I absolutely would. I didn’t know where you were going at first. I was prepared to [crosstalk 00:00:10:30].

Jarrett Smith:
Good. I wasn’t entirely sure where I was going either, but it ended up somewhere good.

Catherine Reich:
I like where you ended up. No, I think that’s a great point because I think that if I had just taken you at the statement of, it’s gotten more straightforward, my eyebrow went up. Listeners can’t see that, but it did. As you’re saying, the straightforwardnesses create a good experience, because I agree. I think three or four years ago, you saw more instances if you were a search engine optimization person, such as myself, where you had to make these compromises. You had to say, “Okay, how do I spice in some things here,” we’re just going to keep talking about food analogies, aren’t we, but sprinkle in some very search engine crawler bot stuff, and then, “Oh yeah, by the way, we also need to sprinkle in some of the actual user stuff.” Now it’s really looking at the user stuff and going, “Hmm, on the technical side, are there ways that we can make it faster? Are there ways that we can, the data structures on the website to make it crawlable?” But it’s not, they’re not conflicting anymore, and I think that’s awesome. I think it’s a good time to do that

Jarrett Smith:
I remember for years having content, having SEO related discussions with clients and saying things like, “Well, we have to think about what’s good for the search engine and the user’s kind of what you’re getting at. And we have to think about those things kind of separately, and it’s not that we never say that or think about that, but I feel like that phrase, “Let’s serve both,” kind of comes up a lot less often, and it’s more like, “Let’s really nail this user need. Let’s really focus on that. Let’s be awesome and better than anybody else on the internet at this thing.” And we have pretty good idea that as long as there’s nothing egregious on the technical side or we clean up some of those details, that that’s going to be sufficient.

Catherine Reich:
Yeah. And I think too, that for a long time, I think if we zoom out even a little bit outside of SEO, but I swear it’ll come back here. If we zoom out a little bit, I think there was this mentality that a website was a digital brochure. And that was it, it was a digital brochure. And where I think a lot of businesses and institutions could fall into a trap, like one might in a brochure is, “I’m going to talk about myself in the way that myself is organized,” and it was very much like me, me, me. What I think search engine optimization has made people realize is that you have to match it to your users. It can’t be just about you. It has to be about you, but in a way that the user wants and needs and can understand. And that’s great for search, but that’s also great for conversion. That’s also great for brand sentiment. And so all of these things I think are coming together to work more cohesively than ever before.

Jarrett Smith:
Interesting. Okay. So let’s kind of think ahead. So here we are at the top of 2021. So looking ahead, I know that I’ve been hearing a lot about some updates that are on the horizon, the core web vitals for anybody who’s been following SEO for the past several months, you’re hearing that come up a lot more. And I know, mostly from talking to you, that anytime Google announces, “Hey, we’ve got an update coming,” then you better pay attention because they normally don’t. They change the algorithm and make updates to it constantly without telling anybody, sometimes with great impact. But I know there’s some things on the horizon in 2021, that are kind of a big deal. Can you talk about that? What do we know?

Catherine Reich:
Yeah, great question because, like you said, we know that when Google is taking it so seriously that they are telling us in advance that it’s coming, that it’s already kind of happening. And I think a great example is to look on back at that HTTPS update where Google said, “Hey, you probably should have a secure website,” which fair.,That’s a reasonable request for them to make because users care about security. And then they said, “Oh Hey, no, really, we are going to incorporate this. We are going to mark it on the search engine result pages that your website is not secure unless you get your act together.”

And if you didn’t handle that as that release happened, people lost huge swaths of traffic. Just people who, for so long, they had an old website, but they had good, maybe robust content that had a lot of information, but that release came out just like Google said it was, and they went from being on page one for maybe some local things that they are the eminent person who maybe provides that service in their area to maybe page two where nobody is seeing it. So I think that if they’re announcing it, we know that it’s a big threat. Let’s talk a little bit about what goes into the update first. So it’s the Page Experience Update, that’s kind of the name us SEO’s like to name them, but when Google-

Jarrett Smith:
So they’re calling it the Page Experience Update?

Catherine Reich:
Yeah. And so the kind of rhythm that it falls into is if Google announces it ahead of time, they get to name it. But if they just sneak one in on you, the SEO community just kind of names it, and that’s where you get the really weird ones like Panda and Fred and Phantom and all of those fun ones. But this one has a very straightforward name. It’s the Page Experience Update. And what it’s looking at are these new sets of metrics that they’re really pushing, they’re called your core vitals. Of course, it’s a series of acronyms. Of course, they sound very technical. But when it comes down to it, it’s is the user having a good time using your website? So the first one is LCP. So your largest contentful pane, and really, what that is, is it’s not just how fast your page loads, it’s also what elements load quickly.

So we could get into the technical stuff, but honestly, it would probably bore us to tears. So listeners, I’ll save you it. It’s really, if you’ve ever gone to a website and it’s taking its time to load, it’s taking its time to load, and then you start to see the stuff flicker and it comes up, and it’s like, “Oh, I don’t care what this picture halfway down the screen is. I can’t even read the content yet.” It’s making sure that those first important things that are loading are loading fast enough. So it’s not just, is it loading fast, it’s is the super important stuff loading fast enough.

Jarrett Smith:
Are you prioritizing things the right way in the way that the web page is loading.

Catherine Reich:
In a way that a user would want, so that’s the first one. The second one is your first input delay. So that’s going to be your interactivity. So how that’s working, how you’re able to click through things and how quickly you’re able to do that. So that’s F-I-D, FID is some people are using it.

Jarrett Smith:
It’s super catchy.

Catherine Reich:
Great. And then CLS, your cumulative layout shift. What they’re calling this is stability for those listeners who were around in maybe the AOL days and the days of the original Firefox and all of that, those popups that you would get that you would chase the X, because the interactivity is purposely trying to mess with you. It’s how is that interactivity functioning? Is it functioning in a way that’s blocking content or blocking functionality or is it moving right? Is it doing any of that kind of weird stuff? Is that operating as a good experience? And again, they’re putting metrics around it because it’s nice to have standards to measure things. We’re marketers, we like KPIs, we like goals and that’s what they’ve done, but just a KPI is really helping you measure how many leads? Are we moving the business needle? That’s what this stuff is. It’s really, is your website in a place, a measurable place where people are going to have a good experience?

Jarrett Smith:
So if we’re looking ahead to the core web vitals, or the larger Page Experience update that’s on the horizon, I guess first question, do we have an ETA? Did they dignify us with some idea of when it’s going to happen or is it just 2021?

Catherine Reich:
So in the past, Google has given timeframes, and they have not always adhered to them. I think the general consensus in the SEO community is to expect this in March. Now, all of that being said, if you make these updates now, you will see an improvement in SEO upon launching them. Hypothetically, if these metrics are bad now and you fix them, they’re already taking these things into account. It’s just that once that release comes out, it’s really going to matter. If that’s a two percent of the entire algorithm now, maybe it’s four to six later, and I’m making those numbers up totally just to give kind of a context for scale there. But yeah, we should be seeing that in March. It could come sooner. That’s just, it’s Google’s prerogative as to when they do it, but most of us on the SEO community think March.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. And I know that Google has released some tools, like a Chrome extension that allows you to kind of see how you’re doing on each of these three metrics and that sort of thing. So if we have any in-house SEOs out there, or maybe someone who manages an in-house SEO, what do they need to be doing? What would be some logical steps that they could do with this to kind of make sure that they’re ahead of it and prepared when that update comes out?

Catherine Reich:
Yeah, great question. I think that first and foremost, think about whatever your developer likes in terms of snacks or beverages, and go ahead and maybe purchase those and get those stocked now. And then yeah, you can go online now, Google has several tools, I’m sure we can include a link to them, and it’ll tell you how you’re performing. And it also gives, I would say, pretty good documentation that your developer can use to see, okay, what changes on your website do they need to make in order to bring that up to goal?

Jarrett Smith:
And I can imagine somebody listening to this who says, “Okay, well, I’m in charge of an enormous higher ed website that has thousands of pages.” But one thought that I have is that it would also be helpful to kind of prioritize what really matters in search. Not necessarily every page on a website gets a lot of organic traffic or needs to appear on organic traffic, but something like, say, a degree page. To me, it seems like an obvious example. It’s like, that’s a big gateway for unbranded search where that particular page on your site could be ranking for a degree program. You’d need to make sure that, like your degree pages are pretty buttoned up for instance.

Catherine Reich:
Absolutely. I would say, for our higher education clients, the places they should be looking at the homepage, obviously, always a great place to start. Your degree pages, and also, if you have any blog or news articles, I would be looking at those as well since those are getting crawled a lot, they’re kind of getting added. Well, they are getting added a lot, and Google’s paying attention to them because they’re recent content, Google really likes things that are recent. And so since that template on your site is going to often be the most recent, having that in a good place is going to be sending positive signals to Google.

Jarrett Smith:
Okay. So what else? Maybe we might be getting into more speculative territory here, but kind of looking out over the next year, do you have any thoughts about what else might be on the horizon, maybe not announced, or just kind of bigger picture strategy ideas that you’re thinking about personally?

Catherine Reich:
Yeah. I think in line with that thinking from earlier about just creating things that are good for users, I think we’re going to see more and more of that. What we’ve seen in probably the last, gosh, even in the last year, there’ve been a lot of developments in terms of what CMSs can do, particularly page builders. So things where a non-developer can go in and make, maybe a more graphically interesting page than just text. I think what we’re going to see is a resurgence of longer form content, which I think is a little bit of a hot take, but I think it’s going to be true because Google now is really, really looking at, are you matching that intent, like we said, and it’s looking at, are you fully answering the question?

And I think if you’re looking at things like how long people are spending on a particular page and on your website in a total session, I think what we’re going to see is if things are going well for you in terms of SEO, that number is going to be tracking with it. So as your time on page goes up, and your time per session goes up, I think you’re also going to see an increase in rankings because Google has been very evasive when people have asked, “Do you take that as a signal?” And they’ve been like, “Well, there’s a lot of signals,” and they’ve politician answered it really well a couple of times. I encourage you guys, anybody in the PR space, to go and look at how Google answers questions about how the algorithm works. It’s a masterclass.

Jarrett Smith:
Did we mention Largest Contentful Pane? How about that?

Catherine Reich:
It’s amazing, and they do it live on camera. Again, it’s fascinating. But yeah, I think we’re going to see a resurgence in that, because I think that for a little while, there was a big trend in having essentially a page on everything. So any topic you had, that gets a page. You have a topic on this, oh, that gets a new page instead of creating these comprehensive resources. And so when I talk about that, I’m talking about, say your application page. So there’s always going to be a landing page of like, “Hey, let’s put people who are ready to apply. Let’s get them to that.” But I think there’s going to be a need for a more robust, “Hey, here’s just the rundown. Here’s how the process works. Here’s the documents and milestones you’ll need along the way,” because oftentimes, people are having to search around a million different places to find what they’re looking for, and I think Google doesn’t like that.

Time and time again, Google has actually even said, “We don’t want people to bounce.” That’s why bounce rates are bad. So I think having a nice comprehensive resource for important topics, that’s going to be even more valuable in 2021 than ever before.

Jarrett Smith:
And that’s kind of a tall order though, if you think about it, a very rich, deep page that also loads really fast. And that can be a lot to balance, and then to have it’d be something that also happens to be on brand and accurate, those things. There’s a lot of considerations that have to go into that.

Catherine Reich:
Absolutely. It’s not easy. And I think the flip side of that is, yeah, if it’s that difficult, the ones who do it really well, that’s really going to be powerful.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Interesting. So I have a little bit of a hot take, and you can set me straight on this if you don’t think it’s going anywhere. But one thing we haven’t really talked about is how much the search results page has changed over the years. And so now you have all these new types of content that are being pulled in. If you go, anybody here goes to search for their school, they’re going to see rich content blocks pulling data, not just from their website and pulling information, not just from their website, but from lots of different sources that may not be able to control into more or less a listing that appears. And it’s super interesting to see how that’s involved, so evolved over time.

So my kind of take on that over the next year is I hypothesize that Google is trying to move people to more of, and I don’t think I came up with this, but more of a zero click environment where if you’re clicking on something, it’s just within that Google product, and you can find everything you need on that Google search results page, and they can serve you more ads, and you don’t necessarily have to click through to the website to get the information you were looking for, which is great for Google, but I think stinks for us. And I wonder, this is really going out on a limb, if we might see sort of total referral traffic coming out of Google decline over time. This is me reaching very far now, but it seems like kind of a logical thing that might happen if that’s kind of where they’re going. What’s your take on that?

Catherine Reich:
I think you’re absolutely right. And I think we’re already starting to see some of that.

Jarrett Smith:
Yes, score.

Catherine Reich:
Yeah, but I think it’s important to put a couple of asterisks next to that too, because where before you might have somebody, maybe a prospective student, so maybe this prospective student they know they want to call the admissions department because they’ve got a question that they don’t know how to put succinctly and they want to talk to a person. Great. We want an admissions counselor to be able to talk to them.

Jarrett Smith:
Yes, please call.

Catherine Reich:
So before, maybe three years ago, they may have had to search for your school, and click on your page, and then scroll down to your footer to get the phone number. That’s not a good experience for them, and they might get distracted or lost in that process and forget to call you. What happens now is you search school name, phone number, and that pops up in a pretty little knowledge graph, and they call that directly. Ultimately, yeah, are you losing traffic? Sure. What you’re probably doing though, is increasing conversion, you’re increasing the speed that they’re talking to an admissions counselor, and they’re having a good experience while they do it.

And so I think it’s important as we think about those traffic losses, that you’re moving it from one bucket to another, and that’s the better bucket for it to be in. You don’t want to slow down the process for people making those informational requests that Google can serve up quickly and easily. And so I think we are going to see that. I think we are already seeing it on some of those very, very straightforward searches, but I don’t think it’s a reason to panic. I think it’s actually a reason to celebrate because if you’re able to get answers in front of prospective students of things that they need to know in order to consider you to kind of put you on their application list, you want them to get that information as quickly as possible. The danger though, I think the true danger is not a loss in traffic, it’s that those answers are inaccurate.

Jarrett Smith:
Oh no, what’s getting pulled into the knowledge graph is not coming a source that we control, and it’s incorrect.

Catherine Reich:
Absolutely, and I think what we see right now on higher ed searches is the people also ask. So we’re seeing that I’m not going to say on every school, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen one that didn’t have it. And there’s a list of questions, and some of them are tuition related, some of them are, do they offer housing? And it’s not only pulling in official sources from the school. Sometimes it’s a listing site. So like, your niche.com, your college raptor, and it’s pulling in stuff from that, that if you haven’t provided them with accurate information, they may not have it. And so I think the name of the game there is to look and to make sure, and to take any actions to make sure that that information is accurate, not necessarily going to your site, but going to a site that has accurate information, that’s going to prompt the user towards converting.

Jarrett Smith:
Well, and I know a lot of folks are already doing this, but the word that kind of comes to mind for me is managing that total web presence, and thinking about all the different places where information about your school might live in, how can we do our best, control what can be controlled, in that there’s a lot that’s going to live off the .edu that you may be able to control, unfortunately, sometimes for a price.

Catherine Reich:
Yeah, absolutely. And I will say, think about it this way. If you have somebody that you really like and respect and they go, “Hey, you’ve got to check out this new restaurant. It’s amazing.” You’re going to be like, “Hmm, okay.” If you have five different people, even a couple of them you don’t like that much, but they all tell you to check out that restaurant, you’re really going to feel good about going there on Saturday night. And so I would say that you don’t want it all to go to your site because you want to be making a good impression on different sites because that just builds that reputation. It builds that total reputation in a way that it gives a lot more trustbuilding.

Jarrett Smith:
Interesting. I’m coming back, it just popped into my mind, was a presentation I delivered years ago where it was back in the zero moment of truth days of Google, remember that. And people were rating that how much they trusted Google versus how much they trusted their parents and close friends, and they were almost equal. So here we are, just at the sort of the logical conclusion of all that. Well, super interesting. Well, Catherine, any parting words of wisdom for folks as we embark on 2021, and we’re looking to improve our search rankings, anything we should be thinking about, or want to leave us with?

Catherine Reich:
Yeah, I would say two things. First, do not forget about the Page Experience Update. Really, really, don’t get overwhelmed with it and say, “Oh, we’ll do it later.” Really look at it. The sooner you get that handled, the better off the SEO to your website is going to be. And the second parting wisdom I would say is, don’t forget that SEO and all the insights you get from SEO can also be a great business insights tool as well. Knowing, say if you have multiple campuses, how many people are searching for each one, versus just your name and seeing what programs are in demand. You can go into many different search engine optimization tool of choice. There’s a lot of great ones out there.

I personally love Ahrefs, Moz, SEMrush has got some great resources as well. But look in there and see. If your provost is looking into, should we offer a degree on X or Y, or X and Y, you could look at how often are people searching for colleges with X major colleges with Y program. And you can really get to see, is there a demand for it, and really pull that in. And so these SEO tools can do so much more than SEO. Be thinking about that. I think it’s a great way to kind of have a two-way conversation that’s more productive and more collaborative.

Jarrett Smith:
Interesting. Well, Catherine, this has been a fun conversation, and I’m so glad we got to circle up and do this, and looking forward to next year when we get to do it again. I know we’ll have more SEO conversations on the podcast between now and then, but I think this will be a fun look ahead.

Catherine Reich:
Absolutely. Always great to talk.

Jarrett Smith:
The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes to see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. And as always, if you have a comment question, suggestion or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co.

 

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