Last Friday, I got to spend some time at my old stomping grounds at the University of Toronto to speak to a class about my experience volunteering overseas and our experiential learning programs at Operation Groundswell. I was asked to do so by a former professor of mine, Linzi Manicom, whose class on community engagement I fell in love with in my final year of undergrad. I had always been active in community service and the nonprofit sector but it was this class that opened my mind to a whole new level of thinking...it's where I really began to challenge assumptions about local community engagement and on a wider scale, international development. It's where I really began to critically think about privilege, systems of oppression, and power dynamics. It definitely shaped my thinking and where I am today so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak to this class.
I spoke alongside a few other current students and graduates whose experiences took them to Ghana, Kenya, South Korea, Ethiopia, and Namibia. All of whom brought fascinating stories and learnings about international development and the many internal challenges that come with engaging in some sort of community service abroad. Always such a great feeling to connect with youth who are passionate about making an impact in our world and doing so with a critical eye and responsible mind!
I've been busy collaborating with the Political Science department and the Career Centre at the University of Toronto to organize and moderate a panel discussion on breaking into the communications, PR, and social media industry. It's going to be a wonderful event with a stellar line up of panelists who will share their insights on success. Following the panel discussion and Q&A, light refreshments will be served and we can get our networking on!
Ainka Jess is a Senior Communications Officer at the CBC in Toronto. With over a decade of communications and broadcast television experience, she was recruited to manage the communications and social media strategy for a candidate in the 2011 Ontario Provincial Elections. A woman who wears many hats, Ainka was the first producer at Sun Media to launch and produce the inaugural multicultural segment on Canoe Live. Her love of current affairs and reputation as a social media star lead her to work with TEDxToronto in 2012 as Communications Lead.
Carolyn Van is the co-founder of thirdocean, a social media communications company as well as a mentor and advisor to various technology startups, innovation accelerators and post-secondary institutions.
Having always been an early adopter of technologies and Web 2.0 tools and platforms, Carolyn has been weaving social media in to marketing programs well before brand pages, self service ads, share functions, and the array of interactive features we see now were ever introduced. She has led the successful development and execution of digital communications, social media marketing and experiential marketing programs for brands including Scotiabank, Rogers Wireless and Drake International.
Michael Edwards leads Navigator's digital practice and specializes in developing integrated digital strategies to achieve client objectives. He develops and executes strategies for companies and organizations that want to speak to their ideal audience through digital channels. Michael works with brands, corporations, not-for-profit organizations and political parties as a partner in identifying strategic opportunities and managing online reputations.
As a Senior Consultant at High Road Communications, Rayanne supports the digital team in social media marketing and community management strategic counsel. Rayanne primarily works on projects with TELUS, Microsoft, and Second Harvest. Before joining the team at High Road, Rayanne was the lead for all social media, community and word of mouth marketing at FreshBooks, the number one cloud accounting specialist for small business owners. She’s also very active in the local social media community, spending her time turning online into offline relationships through attending and managing community-organized events.
Last Friday, I had the opportunity to go back to my alma mater, the University of Toronto, and speak on the panel for their first Communications Summit. The event brought together senior staff responsible for communicating with students, particularly those in their first year at the university. It was an effort to break down the silos between the many different departments and collaboratively create a strategic communications roadmap for the upcoming year. The summit was largely a response to a report released by the Council on Student Experience in July 2010, which found that many students didn't really feel a strong sense of support or community on campus (and as a recent grad, let me tell you...I can attest to that).
I was asked to speak about my work and research with Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie on networked creation and how it relates to the university as well as my own experience as a former student. And as someone working in marketing and communications, it was fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes look at how this all works in the university setting. I'm used to working with smaller, more collaborative and agile businesses and oganizations and it was really interesting to see how bigger, more bureaucratic institutions are dealing with and adapting to (or not) the changing networked media landscape.
Summit panelists: Theo, Coey, Chirag, and moiOne of the things that really resonated with me on that day was what keynote speaker and marketer, Max Valiquette, noted and that is that universities need to start thinking of themselves as brands. And that means more than just providing a "product"--in this case a public good: education--but also an experience...both online and offline. Many of the most successful businesses provide an experience for its customers (just think Starbucks) and there's no reason that universities should think of themselves as fundamentally different from such companies. The university is a profit-making institution with a very clear "customer". And if anything, universities actually have a leg up over other businesses in that they have direct and complete access to all of their customers. Failing to communicate your message effectively when you have not just all the personal and contact information of your audience (phone, email, schedule, address, birthday...like, actually everything), but also an audience that is actually interested in what you have to say? Well, that's almost unforgiveable.
Throughout the day, there were so many questions as to which communication platform was the best to reach out to the student population. Was it Facebook? Twitter? Email? And if it was email, did students prefer long messages that outlined everything or shorter notes with links for more information? Valiquette said something akin to email being dead and irrelevant, but some students in attendance indicated otherwise saying that they actually preferred email as their primary mode of communication. Conflicting answers that didn't really give the staff much to work with.
The problem here is that many of the staff members at U of T are approaching this with assumptions about students and the way they receive their information. But after talking to many of them, I discovered that none of those assumptions were actually being tested and confirmed. No one was looking at the data. Instead of running blindly with these assumptions, why not test them and learn with empirical data whether or not those assumptions are actually true? For instance, what are the open rates and click through rates of their emails? Which platforms were the largest referrers to their site? Looking at this concrete, empirical evidence would give better answers to their questions of which communication platforms are the most effective. Imagine all the time, money, and effort that could be saved if time was spent looking at this data and iterating properly.
The Communications "Roadmap". Photo by @tkenderdine
It's a huge undertaking but there are universities (Harvard, for instance) that are really keeping up with the times and communicating in ways that truly resonates with its students. The student population is one of the most natural communities out there and it's a very social demographic that is eager to participate in this networked world. I know it's easier said than done but U of T needs to start thinking more like a startup and experiment, test and retest, and iterate quickly (rinse and repeat!). They need to hack their own institution and disrupt their traditional and bureaucratic structure and create a space for innovation and collaboration. Failing to do so may mean the risk of becoming those archaic, irrelevant ivory towers that universities are so often accused of. And as a proud alumni, I sure hope that won't be the case!
I had the rare privilege of being a guest lecturer at the University of Toronto today for Barry Wellman's Technology and Society class. Above all else, it was exciting (and nerve-wracking!) to be back at my alma mater on the other side of the classroom.
The internet, mobile, and social network revolution has ushered in a new generation of creators, blurring the lines between producers and consumers. As Douglas Rushkoff says, “The people have crashed the gates of professionalism, penetrating the formerly sacrosanct boundaries protecting elites of all industries from challenges from below”.