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Case Study: Video Storytelling

December 9, 2014

It was early 2011 and I was sitting in my first editorial committee meeting for our new storytelling initiative. During the discussion, we discovered that one of our M.A. in Education (MAED) alumni was a California Teacher of the Year award winner. His name went to the top of our list of stories to be explored for video.

When we contacted him, he explained that the timing wasn’t right at that point to go through the video production process, so we waited.

Fast forward to early 2014 when we heard the good news. Gregory McFall, a 2008 California Teacher of the Year, and Concordia University Irvine alumnus, let us know he was available for his story to be told. And what a story it is.

A key component of our marketing strategy is storytelling. Academic content isn’t enough. Marketing higher education isn’t about selling widgets. A higher education brand lives in the head and the heart, and decisions about where to go to school are made there, so our content has to touch both.

Furthermore, because our web content has to be robust enough to hold interest over what tends to be the long haul of the higher education purchase cycle, video is a natural channel for our storytelling content.

We’re as proud of this video as any we’ve produced even though the video is not all about us. It’s about how Gregory McFall transforms the lives of his middle school students by how he teaches and by who he is. It’s about his belief in his students. It’s about inspiring teachers and future teachers. And it’s about how our mission and brand are expressed through Gregory’s life and story.

The video was wonderfully directed by Peter Borrud of Signal Fire Productions. Mark Merrick and Trusted Web Solutions served as executive producer.


Case Study: Native Advertising in the Orange County Register

December 7, 2014

NATIVE ADVERTISING is “meant to embody the idea that, on any given environment, a piece of advertising will be more effective if it feels native to that platform. Ad ad on Twitter should look like a tweet. An ad on Facebook should look like a Facebook update. An ad on a Google search should look like a search result.” — Joshua Benton

This is the second of a two-part series on the Orange County Register.

If you’ve been paying attention to the marketing environment in the last few years, you’ve been reading about native advertising. Native advertising as summarized by Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Lab at Harvard University, is “meant to embody the idea that, on any given environment, a piece of advertising will be more effective if it feels native to that platform. An ad on Twitter should look like a tweet. An ad on Facebook should look like a Facebook update. An ad on a Google search should look like a search result.”

Native advertising in newspapers has been a controversial subject with the journalism profession quite concerned that native advertising crosses the line between journalism and advertising. Benton does a nice job of summarizing the subject and saying enough already in his article, Like it or not, native advertising is squarely inside the big news tent. It’s a good read whether or not you’re well versed in the subject.

Native Advertising and the Orange County Register

Native advertising by higher education institutions has been in the news in the last couple of years as well with the case of the Orange County Register and its native advertising campaign with three universities in Orange County, California.

In the new OC Register, publishers Eric Spitz and Aaron Kushner created a higher education section that would run one day per week. And for that section, the Register asked the county’s three biggest higher education brands–University of California, Irvine; California State University, Fullerton; and Chapman University–to be a part of it. No other colleges or universities need apply.

Of course, my bias should be noted as I am chief marketing officer for a private university in the county that was not allowed to participate in the higher education section, along with a few other private universities and all nine of the community colleges in county.

Needless to say, the new higher education section was controversial. I’m sure just about all of the colleges and universities shut out of the higher education section were wondering how that section could be called Higher Education when it excluded more institutions than it included.

But the controversy about the new higher education section wasn’t just local. At the 2013 Council of Independent Colleges’ College Media Conference in Washington, D.C., I listened to Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, cite the apparent conflict of interest inherent in a newspaper selling native advertising space to local universities. How would the newspaper be necessarily critical of the three universities from which it receives revenue?

Media Matters for America was more direct in its blog post, How a California Newspaper Took $825,000 to Shill for Local Colleges, wondering if the effects of the conflict of interest were already beginning to manifest.

But the reality is that even if the OC Register had allowed us to be a part of that section, the price of admission was too high (reportedly $275,000 annually). There’s no way that I would devote that much budget to a such a limited market (OC Register subscribers).

Native Advertising Campaign in OC Varsity

OC Varsity Native Ad

OC Varsity Native Ad

However, the Register has a tradition of covering local high school sports well in a featured section of their newspaper–the Saturday OC Varsity–and we’ve had our eye on it for quite some time as a place to advertise our Master’s in Coaching and Athletic Administration (MCAA) program.

After voicing our disappointment with the OC Register in being excluded from the higher education section of the newspaper, we found common ground with the development of a native advertising campaign in the OC Varsity for our MCAA program.

Our Master of Arts in Coaching and Athletic Administration program is the top enrolled program in the market niche. It’s an applied program that can be consumed online, face to face, or by any combination thereof. Our students come from all over the United States and the world, but we’ve been expanding our media advertising in Southern California.

The native advertising program in the OC Register ran from November 2013 to June 2014, and consisted of a once per week back cover ad that provided helpful and insightful content for coaches and athletic directors. We saw it as a way to brand thought leadership for our program, and to brand the university to prospective students and parents, coaches, and school administrators.

The Register was great to work with on the campaign. The Register, and our MCAA/Communications teams created the design template and subject areas collaboratively. The articles were written by the Register staff, and edited by our MCAA program. The project was managed on our end by our Communications team.

Given our concerns about the Register’s hard paywall, what made the project doable for us was that in addition to running the ad in the print and website editions, the Register would also place the ad content in front of the paywall, which meant we could share the content. We could also repurpose it. The content was ours to use for other channels.

And that’s what I liked about the campaign. The campaign was content marketing. On multiple channels we were providing helpful content and displaying thought leadership on issues related to coaching and athletic administration.

Campaign Metrics

We viewed the campaign as a qualified success. That assessment was based on feedback gleaned from surveys taken at MCAA info sessions and from anecdotal comments and questions on the articles from coaches and athletic administrators around the country (shared by us via social media). Those were the results we all loved. Our prospects were engaging our content.

However, what the campaign didn’t do was drive the needle with website traffic and inquiries–the metrics we use to assess advertising effectiveness. This is typical for print advertising in the current market. While a reader can click-through on a digital ad, print advertising doesn’t offer that option.

And that was the rub when we considered continuing the native advertising campaign this year. Ultimately, we decided we needed more return on our investment, and we weren’t willing to invest more in print native advertising at this time.

Native advertising on a digital news channel

Such may not have been the case if we were talking about a native advertising campaign on a digital news publication, like Mic. I read this tweet over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend:

The Digiday story highlights Mic’s decision to only sell native advertising. It describes how General Electric is using Mic’s native advertising strategy to reach Millennials, and how it’s getting results.

Since it launched last week, 320,000 people have visited the “Map Your Mind” landing page and 116,000 have started the quiz, 88 percent of whom have completed it. The BrainMic channel itself has been viewed 3.2 million times and shared 620,000 times. BrainMic stories have even climbed the ranks of reddit’s top stories and have gotten picked up by news outlets like The Huffington Post. — Digiday

And there you have it. GE’s native advertising campaign included paid media (native ads on Mic), owned media (its landing page only a click away), and shared media, all of which are components of how content is distributed and shared, and of how brands are built today.

Which brings us back full-circle to the Orange County Register and its failed attempt to move the dial back to essentially a print-only business model. By doing so, the Register failed to leverage today’s powerful market dynamics for its brand as well as its advertisers’ brands.

That’s frustrating to this advertiser, and it certainly factored into our decision not to continue the campaign. However, that’s not to say we won’t do the campaign again. But what will continue to factor into that decision is the state of the Orange County Register. We’ll be paying close attention to it.

Part One: The Orange County Register. The Market Wins Again.

The Orange County Register. The Market Wins Again.

October 30, 2014

Disclaimer: The views I present in this post are mine and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer, as usual. Additionally, I have been a longtime subscriber, and am currently a digital subscriber, to the LA Times.

This is the first of a two-part series on the OC Register

This is the first of a two-part series on the OC Register

If I’ve learned anything in my career thus far, it’s that the market rules. It absolutely rules. Align your product, price, place and promotion to the market, and you at least have a shot at being successful.

But if you ignore market dynamics, you’ll lose. And the degree to which you’ll lose will depend on how much you don’t align with the market. Ignore the market big-time, and you’ll have a train wreck.

For the last two years in Southern California, we’ve had a front row seat to one of those train wrecks as we’ve watched the Orange County Register newspaper experiment with a new business model that seemed to altogether ignore the market, thus giving us a lesson to be learned for higher education.

The Orange County Register

In 2012, the then new publishers of the OC Register, Eric Spitz and Aaron Kushner, launched a new business model for the paper. It was a print-first approach that emphasized local coverage with a number of integrated newspapers and publications included in the Register newspaper package. Actually scratch that. It wasn’t just a print-first strategy the new publishers chose. It was essentially print-only.

The new publishers chose not to invest in the digital consumer experience. They didn’t reenvision the OC Register newspaper as a media company as so many other newspapers have done nationwide in an attempt to deal with the changing market. Instead, they reaffirmed that the OC Register was a newspaper, they touted the newspaper reading experience, and focused on building their newspaper subscriber base.

The publishers adopted a hard paywall for the OC Register website, and wondered publicly why newspapers would give away their content. And while other newspapers were trimming their staffs, the Register expanded their corps of reporters.

Spitz and Kushner made a splash nationwide with both admirers and critics agreeing that this was a fascinating experiment and perhaps a solution for the newspaper business.

But as I looked at it from the perspectives of a potential advertiser and subscriber, I was floored by their audacious approach to the market.

In an era of dramatically changing market forces, when thought leaders are describing to us in real-time how digital is significantly changing consumer behavior, Spitz and Kushner were pushing all of their chips to the center of the table and were betting on print. On print.

That’s right. The OC Register–a news content producer–was implementing an aggressive business model that was ignoring all the market dynamics of digital content and consumer behavior in today’s marketing environment that drive brand recognition and growth.

As an advertiser, would I be interested in only reaching OC Register subscribers who would be unable to share content? Maybe, if their subscriber base is the audience I want to reach. But if their subscribers are almost entirely seeing our ad in print rather than digital, how do I measure ROI? And if the Register is essentially acknowledging that their subscribers are largely late adopters to digital, how is that going to drive the needle measuring website traffic?

From the perspective of a technology empowered news consumer, their print-first strategy alienated me. I don’t consume news by picking up an ink-saturated newspaper. I want to be able to read my news on a well-optimized platform of my choosing and be able to share stories with family, friends, and colleagues.

Whether you call today’s marketing environment Content Marketing or refer to it as Paid, Owned and Earned Media, Spitz and Kushner were ignoring all of it.

Just this week, the NY Times ran an article (I found on Twitter) titled How Facebook is Changing the Way Its Users Consume Journalism. I highly recommend it and share it here (which I can do by the way because the NY Times employs a metered paywall). The article states:

Though other services, like Twitter and Google News, can also exert a large influence, Facebook is at the forefront of a fundamental change in how people consume journalism. Most readers now come to it not through the print editions of newspapers and magazines or their home pages online, but through social media and search engines driven by an algorithm, a mathematical formula that predicts what users might want to read.

In this new market for journalism that’s increasingly about digital and algorithms, how do you make a decision as a news content producer to adopt a print-first strategy with a hard paywall that keeps those stories from being shared by algorithms? By seeing yourself as a newspaper and not a news content provider, that’s how.

In essence, Spitz and Kushner created their own gated community of newspaper subscribers, a perfect match for the stereotypical housewives culture of Orange County, but entirely out of sync with the market. And based on the fact that the market wins pretty much every time, I believed Spitz and Kushner were doomed to fail.

Fast-forward to last week, or last month, or the last six months, and the bold and ill-advised experiment hasn’t worked. Waves of layoffs, the short-lived LA Register, past due payments for distributing their newspapers, and a shake-up in management, all confirm that the Register is in trouble. Shocking.

Sure, newspapers nationwide are struggling, and there are other filters through which view the failure of the new publishers to fix the OC Register. But if we learn anything from the OC Register, and the newspaper industry overall, it’s that the market rules.

The OC Register didn’t stand a chance with this new strategy. It’s one thing to ignore market dynamics. It’s quite another to go in the opposite direction. Like it or not, news content providers–A.K.A newspapers–that formerly distributed their content via newspapers are going to have to continue to explore how to adjust to the new ways consumers consume news content.

The Moral of the Story for Higher Ed

The OC Register and the newspaper industry overall provide an important lesson for higher education. Market forces are in the relatively early stages of disrupting higher education just as they have disrupted the newspaper industry.

And we’re faced with the same question that newspapers have had to address. What’s our core business? Is it traditional or even nontraditional higher education as we know it, or is it transforming lives through education regardless of the platform? We need to open our minds before old revenue streams dry up.

Now is not the time for higher education leaders to look boldly to the past for solutions. It’s not the time for retrenchment. It’s the time to reenvision higher education in order to address changing consumer behavior and changing market dynamics, not ignore them.

See also: Higher Education. A Fading Rite of Passage?

Marketing: It’s No Longer 2009.

Marketing to the Empowered Consumer







Case Study: Social Media Engagement

July 26, 2014

A big advantage of having talent on your team is you have it when your organization needs to find a creative solution. Such is what happened months ago when Concordia University Irvine was planning for the campus visit stage of its regional reaccreditation process with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).

Invited by WASC to be one of eight institutions involved in its pilot program introducing a new institutional review process, the university tapped into the expertise of our social media manager, Veronica Steele, who developed a first of its kind social media engagement campaign for a WASC reaccreditation visit. Veronica detailed the campaign she developed to engage the Concordia community in a post on her blog, which I’m posting here.

As I stated in my last post, just having talent isn’t enough. It’s about contributing to success, and I’m proud to say that our social media campaign played a role in Concordia University Irvine receiving a ten-year reaccreditation by WASC–the longest term of reaccreditation awarded that was achieved by only three of the eight institutions in the pilot program.

Veronica Steele has emerged as a social media community management leader in higher education. She has spoken at multiple national conferences and has written for numerous publications. She writes about her perspectives on social media on her blog, The Digital Socialite.


Veronica Steele picA Recipe for Engagement
by Veronica Steele
Social Media Manager at Concordia University Irvine

1 Part Social Media Manager
1/4 Cup Ingenuity
Heaping Amount of Help
Pinch of Budget

I recently attended the WASC ARC 2014 conference in L.A. where I presented at a poster board session. (Yes, apparently in some circles poster boards still exist and serve a purpose.  Mind blown).  My poster board showcased a campaign that I created, produced and executed at Concordia University Irvine (CUI).  The WASC Campaign (not my most creative title) was designed to promote campus engagement around the education of WASC before the WASC team visit on March 26-28, 2014. I was asked to write the “recipe” for this campaign by WASC so other schools could re-create it on their campuses. Here is my best attempt.

Definition: For those of you who are not in the education sector, WASC stands for Western Association of Schools and Colleges and is the major accrediting body for schools (K-College) on the West coast. It’s accreditation is vital for the academic and financial validity and integrity of institutions. When an institution has been accredited or reaccredited the school’s response goes something like this.

The entire WASC process is dreaded among campuses. It entails endless amounts of assessment reporting on classes, departments, programs, finances, and student services. Faculty and staff work tirelessly to provide accurate, thorough, and honest reports that meet the guidelines outlined by WASC. In short, it’s a ton of assessing, writing, and paperwork.

So how does one make WASC fun, engaging, and educational? It begins with recruitment. Pulling off a successful campaign on such a large-scale, especially on a topic that is despised, cannot be done alone.  I worked with the Associate Provost, Director of Institutional Research, and three Social Media Interns to make this campaign happen. Each of them played a vital role in the execution of the campaign which could be a blog post all in itself. But for space purposes I’ll break it down simply:

  • Associate Provost = Executive Champion, a person high up on the ladder who rallies and supports your efforts in front of faculty and staff
  • Director of Institutional Research = Topic Expert, a person who can give you content on the topic at hand
  • Social Media Interns = Creative Team, people who help craft content for maximum engagement for various audiences. They also help with grunt work.
  • Social Media Manager = Magician. Enough said.

With these key team members in place The WASC Campaign took form.


#AskWASCHonoring the golden Marketing rule, “Know Thy Audience,” The WASC Campaign consisted of two parts. First, the #AskWASC contest. #AskWASC was a social media campaign designed for current Undergraduate, Graduate, and Adult students. Emails were crafted for each audience and included key facts answering the question “Why does CUI being WASC accredited matter to me?” Obviously, Undergraduates have different concerns and cares than Graduates and Adults so it was only natural to design different messages. All the emails, however, pushed two action items:

  1. Encouragement in the participation of the #AskWASC contest
  2. Promotion of the open forums WASC would host during their visit

These emails helped lay the foundation for the #AskWASC contest and also provided answers to the #AskWASC contest questions. Every week, CUI would post a WASC related question on its main social channels: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Students would submit their responses using #AskWASC and a weekly winner would be announced via social media on Fridays. Winners would get prizes such as:

  • CUI T-Shirt
  • CUI Lanyard
  • Free coffee at the campus coffee shop
  • Free meal in the Dining Hall
  • One-day reserved parking spot in the President’s parking space
  • Gift card to Starbucks, In-N-Out or Subway

Students were also encouraged to use #AskWASC to share their thoughts, suggestions, or concerns about CUI. We teamed up with the Associated Student Government and Food Services to host #AskWASC Wednesdays and Waffles And Southern Chicken. Being where students were, on social media and in/near the dining hall, is what made this campaign successful.  With over 192 responses during the campaign we blew our goal of 40 responses out of the water. To see the life of the campaign visit

The WASC Games

The WASC Games

With the educational and fun experience for the students taken care of it was time to direct the same creativity towards faculty and staff.  Enter The WASC Games. Departments, or “Districts” as the case was, competed against one another in games emailed to them in January, February and March. Once again, two action items were pushed in every email:

  1. Play and submit the game described in the email
  2. Read the Institutional Report (a 75 page report given to WASC one year prior to their campus visit).

Answers to the games could be found in the institutional report which made reading it rather important. (Faculty and Staff are always told to read the report but rarely do). Games included fill-in-the-blank Mission Statement, WASC word scramble, draw WASC (what does WASC look like to you?), and a matching quiz. Points were awarded based off of timeliness, accuracy, and occasionally creativity. Each month announcements were made in faculty and staff meetings sharing the progress of The Game. On March 19, 2014 the final WASC Game was held and two Districts (Academic and Administrative) went head-to-head in a Family Feud style showdown. The winning District (Academic) winning by 1 point, took the Grand Prize of $500.00.

The outcomes of The WASC Campaign were greater than I could have ever imaged.

  1. Faculty and Staff laughed, smiled and enjoyed hearing the word WASC.
  2. Students understood and appreciated who and what WASC was.
  3. A campus became united in a cause.


So, what can you take from this campaign to make your next campaign a hit? Here are my suggestions.

Have a vision. Knowing what you want as a product out of any effort should always be outlined. It’s nearly impossible to measure success without having goals, objectives, and an end result in mind.

Be adaptable. Having a desired destination doesn’t mean having everything mapped out. Make the goal getting to the destination and don’t get caught up in how you’ll get there. Things happen. Ideas change. And when they do you need to change too.

Have a driver. A driver is someone who is at the wheel, making the day-to-day actions that get things done. If you’re not the driver of a campaign, designate one. It’s hard to get anywhere with no one steering.

Have an Executive Champion. I spoke about this in a blog for Hobsons back in 2013. It’s a point I will stand behind always. You can’t always do things yourself. You have to have someone at a higher level supporting and promoting the campaign (or you) and more importantly, engaging with key stakeholders you don’t have access to or influence on.

For me, the greatest takeaway I had from The WASC Campaign was memorizing my University’s (and alma mater) Mission Statement.

Concordia University Irvine, guided by the Great Commission of Christ Jesus and the Lutheran Confessions, empowers students through the liberal arts and professional studies for lives of learning, service and leadership.

I wrote that from memory, I swear. Feel free to test me any time!

The Absolute Necessity of Talent

July 8, 2014


Lionel Messi, World Cup 2014

Lionel Messi, World Cup 2014

I had a lot of fun watching the World Cup. I love the sport when played at a high level, and the event-wonderfully covered by ESPN–was an enjoyable interlude for me.

While the U.S. Men’s National Team’s performance in getting out of the Group of Death was exciting and inspiring, it was also sobering. Most of the time we were playing on our heels. We were near last in time of possession because we were outclassed technically on the pitch.

In the wake of the team’s elimination, two questions have been asked–what went wrong, and moving forward, what does U.S. Soccer need to do? These are not new questions, but this time I’ve been encouraged that the media is finally getting it.

It’s not about the coach. It’s not about tactics. It’s about the absolute necessity of talent in the game of soccer, and how we don’t have enough of it. The harsh reality is that we don’t have top-level talent at every position, and we don’t have a world-class striker who can draw the attention of and score on the world’s best defenders.

Moving forward, Head Coach Jürgen Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer face a daunting challenge. How do we compete with countries whose talented kids grow up with a soccer ball at their feet and become world-class by playing other talented kids on the playground and later in soccer academies? There are no easy answers, if there are any answers at all.

As I’ve thought about all of this, the position Klinsmann faces is not unlike the challenge I face as a marketing leader. Bigger name universities and smaller ones armed with million dollar digital budgets frequent our various markets. I can’t invent a big brand university, and I can’t outspend the big spenders. There are no easy answers, only one that requires my full attention.

Like soccer, successfully competing in today’s difficult market environment requires top talent. In fact, the way I see it, talent is my most important asset as a marketing leader.

In soccer, well-coached talent scores goals. In marketing, well-managed talent achieves goals.

With the World Cup in mind, here are five thoughts on talent as related to marketing higher education…

1. Talent comes before tactics. In soccer, your talent dictates what tactics you employ. In marketing, market dynamics dictate your tactics. And in a market full of changing dynamics–from Google’s algorithm to changing consumer behavior to better resourced competition–talent rises to the top of the assets I must secure to meet my institution’s marketing goals.

I need talent that is flexible, adaptable, and creative. I need team players who are comfortable with the ball at their feet, who can creatively operate in tight spaces and under stress. Otherwise, we’ll turn the ball over, miss opportunities, and end up playing on our heels in the market, being reactive instead of proactive. I need team members who are talented enough to find tactical ways to get out in front of the challenging market and compete confidently with tough opponents.

2. Commitment to the craft, then mission. Such technical ability comes from a devotion to the craft. While a sense of mission is integral to what we do in marketing higher education, it’s not primary. I don’t need well-intended average professionals. I need mission-oriented team members who see themselves first as marketing professionals who are going to push themselves professionally. Frankly, this means putting in the extra hours to develop your craft.

3. Secure talent at every position on the field. In this content marketing environment of multiple channels and platforms, we have to be good at content creation and curation on our website, and in social media, digital, print, PR, email, so on and so forth. Thus, I need to find and nurture top talent so that we produce outstanding work. At my institution, I’ve done so by assembling a talented team of employees, vendors for specific projects, and on-going relationships with small agencies who are a part of our team on our campus.

4. Nurture talent. Professional development is not all on the team member. It’s vital that I create a culture of talent and professional development in which iron sharpens iron, where we push each other to get better, and which encourages emerging stars to, well, emerge. For our team, this happens when we air out ideas and creative decisions, and generally shoot the breeze about marketing and communications, in weekly meetings, impromptu discussions, in email threads, and on social media; and by encouraging team members to take on challenging and cutting edge projects. Creating this culture takes a willingness by me to help prepare our team members for their next job, whether it’s here or elsewhere.

5. Keep the team focused on our goals and on performing well. Playing the beautiful game is useless if you lose. Just having talent isn’t enough. In marketing, we have to perform. We have to drive interest in our brand and do our part in growing our enrollment. Accountability keeps us focused on quality and the bottom line. Winning in soccer and achieving marketing goals require strong and creative leadership to keep the team excelling.

In the World Cup and in marketing higher education, talent is an absolute necessity. And it’s on me as a marketing leader to secure talent and create an environment for it to excel.

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