Fear and Loathing in Web 2.0

Letting go isn't as scary as you think

This feature explores the challenges and opportunities at the heart of the struggle taking place as campuses get on board (or not) with Web 2.0 technologies. What's at issue is not necessarily the technology, but the idea of giving up control of the message.

By Andrea Jarrell

Talking the Web 2.0 talk has become commonplace for many campus communicators. Yet walking the walk is a different story. For some practitioners, relatively recent innovations like student blogs are old hat. Yet other communications offices continue to ponder jumping on the blog bandwagon.

Ask practitioners what holds some institutions back even as early adopters move on, and the word control comes up a lot.

Andrew Careaga, director of communications at the University of Missouri-Rolla (soon to be Missouri University of Science and Technology) and author of the blog Higher Ed Marketing (, explains that "letting go of control or the illusion of control is something educational institutions in general haven't quite got a handle on yet. We're in the throes of some heavy-duty cognitive dissonance here. How can we embrace the integrated marketing idea of consistent messaging while also embracing the dis-intermediated conversations of the blogo­sphere? It's a conundrum."

Rather than trying to control the message, a new mindset is required-one that approaches the communications and marketing role as helping to facilitate a conversation about an institution in all its many facets. In this conversation, the institution has a definite voice; it's just not a definitive voice. Having others-students, faculty, parents, alumni, the media, the outside world-be part of the conversation about your institution and thereby relinquishing the idea of control over your message does not mean relinquishing an institutional point of view or voice. In fact, in this new conversation, understanding and being true to institutional identity becomes more vital than ever.

From Goliath to an army of Davids

Whether communication occurs in a Web 1.0 or 2.0 world, institutional goals haven't changed. And they are likely to stay the same no matter what the next technological shift entails. Colleges and universities want to recruit students and faculty to educate future generations of citizens and workers, and they want to raise friends and funds to help create and disseminate new knowledge. So the question is, how do shared-voice communications rather than institutional-voice communications influence the ways goals are achieved?

We've had Goliaths; now we're creating armies of Davids, announced Joe Trippi, political strategist and former national campaign manager for Howard Dean's presidential campaign, at the 2006 CASE Summit session about technological challenges in higher education. Bouncing off an idea described in blogger Glenn Reynolds' book, An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths, Trippi talked about a growing shift from monolithic institutionalized power to bottom-up power-something with which he is quite familiar, having pioneered the use of online technology to organize what became the largest grassroots movement in presidential politics.

Institutions have to decide, Trippi said, whether to try to remain a Goliath in this age of empowerment or become a provider of slingshots for the Davids. So what would an army of Davids look like for campuses?

Perhaps like a group of faculty experts disseminating your brand worldwide and driving visitors to your Web site. That's how Sherrie Whaley, director of public relations for the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications, in Athens, views the college's faculty bloggers. In the spring of 2007, she created a collection of faculty blogs called "Blog Dawgs" that's now a standing feature on Grady's home page. After learning that several of the school's professors already had their own blogs up and running, Whaley got the idea for the feature. She sent out a call to all faculty members inviting them to tell her about their blogs and be part of Blog Dawgs. "I immediately heard from five professors who loved the idea and sent me their URLs and blog description."

The site now has 11 faculty bloggers with more being added all the time. "I see blogs as a great way for Grady to tell its story and extend its brand," Whaley says. "The blogs allow our faculty to take their expertise in a direction that appeals to specific audiences without impacting the approach and content of our primary Web site."

The blogs also provide another way for search engines to index important keywords and phrases to drive traffic to the Grady site. Whaley notes that recently, in a two-day span, one of the blogs, which focuses on popular Latin American TV tele­novelas (, had visitors from Bolivia, Slovenia, Spain, Canada, Venezuela, Serbia, Poland, Australia, Kenya, Switzerland, Israel, France, Colom­bia, Peru, Macedonia, Qatar, United Kingdom, and Bulgaria, as well as several U.S. states. Whaley says, "This eye-opening visitor list represents contact with individuals worldwide who have now been exposed to the Grady College brand and its faculty expertise. What public relations professional wouldn't welcome such reach?"

Loyola University Chicago has also found that Web 2.0 tools allow an army of Davids to produce a powerful and engaging Web site. "A university Web site is unique to the world in the sheer vastness of its size and the relatively small budget with which it operates," says John Drevs, Loyola's Web content manager. "Our marketing and IT people are just not capable of managing 65,000-plus pages. It has to be done at a more grassroots level but still allow us to influence it." So two years ago Loyola relinquished some control to its schools, colleges, and departments by investing in a content management system that decentralizes management while allowing its marketing department to retain control of the look and feel of pages.

"After two years of success, we were ready to relinquish more control," Drevs says, and in the summer of 2007, Loyola launched a redesign of the Web site to emphasize interactivity. The site features LUTube, the university's version of YouTube, and Blog Around the World, an interactive world map featuring student, faculty, staff, and alumni bloggers living and working throughout the world. Drevs describes the new features as the logical next step in a gradual letting go of control.

"We mitigated some of the challenges of this lack of control by very selectively choosing the people we were giving control to-our bloggers-and by educating them on what the mission of the project was," Drevs says.

What Loyola doesn't do is edit the blogs. The constant editorial influence of the marketing department, Drevs and other administrators believe, would significantly detract from the project's goal: to allow Loyola people to communicate directly with audiences. The university does reserve the right to take down any entries in their entirety that don't support the mission of the project.

"We stress that the blogs are owned by the bloggers so they have the responsibility to maintain them," Drevs says. "We want bloggers to know success reflects on them as much as Loyola." The great thing about the Blog Around the World, he says, is that "it gives us a vehicle by which we can back up our marketing message with actual evidence. Actual Loyola people spread out all around the world pursuing knowledge and contributing to make the world a better place. It's not often that other marketing vehicles can be this engaging and supportive of our message."

Value added

Some practitioners say they hesitate to use Web 2.0 strategies because they're concerned about return on investment. Does anyone really read blogs and listen to podcasts? Are sites like Facebook and MySpace a flash in the pan? The hype of new media can camouflage the real question: How do these tools help advancement programs do what they have always done better?

If you're on the fence about allowing for user- generated content in your advancement mix, ask yourself if you would consider 3,700 new active members of an affinity group within two months a success. How about if 600 of those members were young alumni who had rarely, if ever, interacted with the alumni office before, but were now doing so on a weekly basis? Elon University in North Carolina has seen these results with the homegrown social networking site E-Squared, the Elon Town Square. Daniel J. Anderson, assistant vice president and director of university relations, says in terms of alumni and parent relations and instilling young alumni loyalty, the connections and conversations that take place on E-Squared would never have occurred without this new technology. "The interactions are magical," he says, "and we have already met our goal of reconnecting alumni with their alma mater."

Like interactive class notes, regional alumni chapters, and affinity groups all rolled into one, E-Squared allows alumni to connect with classmates and professors, share news and accomplishments in their personal profiles, and organize alumni groups and events. The same is true for students and parents as well. "A powerful feature of E-Squared," Anderson says, is that it "begins to build connections between alumni and current students." The alumni relations and career services staffs often spend countless hours trying to make student-alumni connections happen. E-Squared has the potential to generate such connections not only seamlessly but in a much more personal and direct way.

Elon's new site grows directly out of an army of Davids that has been working for the university for almost 10 years. "From the inception of our Web site in 1998," Anderson says, "Elon has embraced an open-information environment in which all students, faculty, and staff have the ability to contribute content." The core of the site is E-Net, a community news and information site that receives 20 to 30 submissions a day detailing faculty scholarship and publications, student organization activities, study abroad and internship opportunities, cultural events, notable alumni accomplishments, media coverage of Elon, and other offerings. The site also includes campus news releases and an active Want Ad section for the community. The university relations staff updates and copyedits site submissions at least four times a day and ensures that the messages are placed in the proper category on the E-Net system.

Anderson says E-Net draws an average of 20,000 to 25,000 page views daily. "Our job is to highlight and give prominence to messages that further the mission of the university," he says. With a campus culture already practiced in the ways of shared content creation, he says, it was easy to make the transition to a social network that allows Elon alumni and parents to join in.

New rules

When Ann Wiens was promoted to director of institutional communications at Columbia College Chicago, she wanted to use the newly created role to explore uncharted marketing terrain for the institution. Web 2.0 tools-podcasts and faculty blogs, in particular-were at the top of her list. Her advancement colleagues were hesitant, however, concerned about the inherent loss of control in these media. It's a valid worry, she says. "What if blog comments were not in the best interests of the institution?"

The pros and cons Wiens and her colleagues discussed echo those of practitioners who heard Trippi and CASE Summit panelists Patrick Houston of Yahoo!, Johnathan Landman of the New York Times, Joan Walsh of, and Vinay Bhagat of Convio suggest that faculty blogs could replace media expert guides. While practitioners saw the value in the idea, they also immediately envisioned a PR nightmare resulting from professors without media training in direct contact with reporters. They also worried that such blogs could become platforms for disgruntled faculty.

UGA's Whaley thinks PR professionals should look at blogs and other social media as additives to traditional methods, not replacements. She believes media expert guides still have a place in the PR mix because not all reporters will search blogs to find faculty expertise. But she says she doesn't worry about loose-cannon faculty. "There has to be a certain amount of trust on the part of educational institutions that faculty will do the right thing," she says. "But if disgruntled faculty members would choose to use their professional blogs to bash Grady College or UGA, I have the power to simply remove their blog from our Web site. Sure their comments may still be accessible out in the blogosphere, but at least we wouldn't give them more credibility and accessibility by 'advertising' their blog in Grady Blog Dawgs."

Princeton has also created a faculty blog page as part of its core Web site. Lauren D. Robinson-Brown, Princeton's director of communications, thinks faculty blogs have been the best way for the university to "maximize the rewards of the new medium." And, she says, the best way for communicators to diminish the fear of the unknown is to learn all they can about new technology and then make it work for institutions. "Colleges and universities are the engines behind so many of today's innovations, we cannot afford to abdicate our role in the global conversation," she says.

Whaley agrees. She thinks that instead of worrying about the "what ifs," advancement professionals should focus on the many positives that can result from social media, primarily direct contact with a multitude of stakeholders, including students, prospective students, parents, potential donors, industry, and the media. "In the past, producing content was the name of the game for PR professionals," Whaley says. "We operated in the top-down mode of message generation." The bottom line, she says, is that social media and Web 2.0 have changed the rules, and "we in public relations need to adjust our 'control' expectations as well."

Going native

Andy Shaindlin, executive director of the Caltech Alumni Association and author of the Alumni Futures blog, says the fear of relinquishing some control to constituents is at least as old as listservs. "Fifteen to 20 years ago, senior administrators were very afraid that allowing alumni to communicate on listservs or bulletin boards would lead to electronic disinformation or smear campaigns by disgruntled or merely misinformed alumni. These fears proved unfounded," he says. Fast forward to today and the same fears are present. "Some healthy skepticism is well-founded but I believe that in the end we should be more concerned about our success in 'going native' with the new tools."

For baby boomer practitioners, going native can be inherently more difficult than it is for younger staffers, according to education expert Mark Prensky. In his landmark On the Horizon journal essay, "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," in which he explains why teachers can be out of step with their students, Prensky describes the technological divide between generations that were born into a digital world and those who weren't. Prensky writes that Digital Natives "grew up on the 'twitch speed' of video games and MTV. ... They've been networked most or all of their lives." Digital Immigrants, on the other hand, "learn-like all immigrants, some better than others-to adapt to their environment, but they always retain, to some degree, their 'accent.'"

But an accent is no excuse for not becoming fluent. While no communications professional could succeed without writing well, many persist in relegating new media savvy to the Digital Natives in their offices. Students and young staffers are a great resource for learning how best to use Web 2.0 tools-as long they're not a substitute for firsthand knowledge. Lack of hands-on practice will keep practitioners in the dark about the potential uses and user-friendliness of social media. Just as practitioners learned that writing well for the Web requires a different way of thinking than writing well for print, the interactivity and share-ability of multiple media and the informal voice of Web 2.0 change the way one approaches conveying a message.

"Whether practitioners like it or not, the structure and the skill set of campus communications offices has already shifted and will dramatically change in the coming years," says Karine Joly, founder of "The good news is that these new tools, all built for 'regular' users, are easy to learn and use."

Going native may also come more naturally for some institutions with a history of shared content creation like Elon, but even institutions wary of giving up control can learn to let go. Rather than pushing the faculty blog idea or abandoning it entirely, Columbia College's Wiens and her colleague Saraheva Krancic introduced an internal advancement department blog so they and others in Columbia's advancement office could gain firsthand experience in the blogo­sphere. Less than a year after those initial conversations about the appropriateness of Web 2.0 communications, Columbia has introduced a periodic student blog written collectively by students studying abroad, is developing a blogging policy, and is about to launch its own on-campus social networking site.

On concept vs. on message

When it comes to branding in a Web 2.0 world, Caltech's Shaindlin believes worrying about being "on message" is of no consequence if nobody is actually reading the message. "Our site content won't be of interest and won't be trusted much longer if it has the organizational, corporate voice that it has today," he says. Indeed, a new study indicates the more you let your constituents talk among themselves, the more they also may listen to what you have to say. Communispace, a company that develops online communities for clients such as Bank of America, Johnson & Johnson, and PepsiCo., analyzed activity in 84 online customer communities. The resulting 2007 study, "Beyond the Other Box: Giving Customers an Independent Voice in Your Community," found that "by allowing members to engage with each other in the context of a brand, they will engage more with the brand itself."

What does "engaging within the context of the brand" mean? Isn't that what events like alumni reunions, accepted-student weekends, and parent receptions have always been about? Yes, and so it is with blogs (comment feature on), video sharing, and social networking sites. Social marketing may grow out of today's ad-soaked society and new interactive technologies, but these trends merely amplify age-old impulses for community and the impact of conventional word-of-mouth communication. Using Web 2.0 tools acknowledges that our audiences want to communicate with us and other like-minded individuals, says Loyola's Drevs. "Blogs, video sharing, and online communities don't change that; they simply change the medium by which that communication is delivered."

Although the new Web 2.0 world announces the end of the controlled message, Joly says, the unmediated conversations of the blogosphere don't actually conflict with integrated marketing. "If your integrated marketing strategy is based on what really makes your institution a good fit for prospective students, there is no balancing act. What will be published on blogs by your students will be along the lines of what can be read in your viewbook or on your Web site." Think of it as staying "on concept" rather than "on message," she says.

Rather than chucking the idea of brand out the window, today's fifth "p" in marketing-participation-makes it even more important than ever for institutions to know who they are and what they stand for and to give their constituents ways to talk about it. Drevs emphasizes that Loyola's blogs focus on key university brand traits connected to its Jesuit tradition and to pursuing global social justice. "Web 2.0 was the next big thing, but the university's differentiation is not based on the technology," he says. "It's based on what Loyola is really good at."

While there is a certain amount of risk in letting go of control, not letting go is even riskier. If you don't take part in all these online conversations, Joly says, "people searching blogs for information about your institution will only find content created and published on other blogs."

Put another way, if the conversation is the message, then opting out of the conversation is the real loss of control.

This is from the September 2007 edition of CURRENTS