Should higher education institutions worry about branding? No. But yes.

Last year, I did a presentation about our Communications Summit to a group of colleagues. When I showed a slide with the word “brand” at the top, a few hands shot up. They weren’t asking to go to the bathroom.

The reaction to the term among some of the people in the room was pretty negative to even a discussion about brand. One person rightly said that postsecondary education is not a commodity. “It makes me think of Campbell’s Soup,” she said.

And why not? Generally what we think of when we think of brands are consumer goods. And we think of those consumer goods being sold to us. So Apple, Toyota and Campbell’s Soup tend to be what we think of when we think about brands.

I don’t think about it that way, but maybe brand is the wrong word anyway. To me, when we talk about “brand” in the context of communicating with students, we’re really talking about what kind of organization we’re going to be in the eyes of students. What are the promises we make to our students? Are they the right promises? Do we promise enough or too much? Do we deliver on those promises, or do we just say nice things and not follow through?

We shouldn’t worry about competing with Apple for the students’ attention. I mean, come on. But we do need to think about what we’re saying to our students, and if that matches to what we want students to take away from what we’re saying. Or if it matches what students want. Or if student perceptions of us match what we want them to perceive.

Perhaps we need a brand new word. Whatever the word, we need to pay attention.


How we communicate with each other says a lot about how we communicate with students

My most popular post on this blog so far was this one on email. I think most of the people who read it were students or recent students, though the colleagues who regularly empty their inboxes recognized themselves right away.

The students I communicated with enthusiastically agreed with that post. Too many emails from their institution.

But I’m not a student, and I get too many emails. What’s going on?

Email is the primary mode of communication at my organization. I bet it’s that way at yours, too. But as fast as email is, it can be inefficient and distracting. It’s terrible for collaboration. I find I’m always having trouble figuring out when to send a message to one person, when to “reply all” or who to include.

There are a lot of examples of organizations who have eliminated email altogether. Utopia!

I’m not saying we have to eliminate email at U of T. But I will say that there are tools out there that we should consider that would help us communicate more effectively. (Our Community Crew uses a Facebook group and it works much better than email!) I wonder why we don’t at least try them.

Recently, I received an email with a major announcement that one of our senior executives had been renewed for another term. It was good news. How did this information come to me? Not only was it an email, it was a memo (a memo!) attached as a PDF. I mean, people really still write memos?

It’s time we took a look in the mirror. How we communicate with each other is going to affect how we communicate with our students. And if we’re still sending each other memos as PDFs attached to emails, is it any wonder we are struggling to be effective?

How to run a student blog: always evolve

life at u of t blog header

In 2011, my colleague Tricia Kenderdine had an idea. For years, our team had been publishing a booklet for new students about campus life, filled with involvement opportunities, resources and interviews with more than 20 students who were great examples of being involved on campus.

In a focus group assessment, many first years said they wished they could contact the featured students to see how they balanced everything.

What if, Tricia wondered, we feature the bloggers in the book. That way, there’s an opportunity for first-year students to not only read about successful students, but also connect and ask questions online.

For various reasons, (one of which was we couldn’t coordinate the hiring schedule), that idea didn’t quite work out, so Tricia created a team of Student Life Ambassadors who were featured in the book, and had Twitter accounts so they engage students through social media.

These ambassadors spent a year tweeting and answering questions. It was a great use of social media. When the year was up, we took another look, and thought, why not bring it all together? We could have bloggers and tweeters as part of the same team, and what the heck, let’s do Facebook too!

Which is how our Community Crew was born. Now we have a large team of students working in various media who both respond to questions, but also initiate conversations online with students – both current and new. Five of them are featured in our Life @ U of T book, and QR codes allow mobile users to quickly connect with them.

Through the Student Life Community Crew, we have integrated print, web and social media. But who knows what the next evolution will bring?

How to run a student blog: partner up

Boat Collaboration

We started the blog in 2008 as an experiment. Our hypothesis was that students would respond better to communication that came from other students, and that was happening in an interactive format.

Were we successful? Well, it’s still going, so that says something. And I’ve mentioned before, we’ve averaged a 50 per cent growth in readership each year. I used to get excited if we had a few thousand unique visitors in a month. Now we’re up around 15,000. So there’s that.

We also do learning outcomes and reader surveys. It’s all part of an evaluation process that tests whether we’re achieving what we  want to achieve.

But the thing I point to when people ask me whether the blog has been successful is our partnerships. After two years of publishing on our own, we were approached by two different departments to ask if they could place a blogger with us.

Now when you have reached a profile where other departments want to get on board with your blog, that’s what I call success.

But it’s a  two-way street (which, by the way, I think would be an excellent name for a blog!). Having partners on board has had great benefits for us as well, and here’s why:

  • We were able to reduce the number of bloggers we hire, without reducing the number of students on the blog. In fact there are more than ever now.
  • The partner bloggers energized the content, because they covered areas that our core group of bloggers might never have thought to investigate.
  • There’s an open line of communication between departments. Because we are already in contact regularly about the blogger, other ideas and productive conversations emerge easily.

For the partners, they are able to promote their messages through a medium that has a high profile on campus, and continues to grow. One example is our first partner, the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education. They wanted to find a way to encourage more women to get physically active. They already do things like promotional campaigns and women-only hours in the gym, but what the blog provides is a real-life experience. Each year, they hire a blogger who tries out various physical activities and writes about it weekly on Life @ U of T. This gives them something real that no amount of promotional material can offer.

So far, we haven’t found a need for a formal agreement with our partners. However, we do ask them to pay their bloggers at the same rate, that the bloggers be part of the team and attend meetings, and that they are required to post the same through the regular school year as the other bloggers. Editing and supervision is all done by the partners as well.

We now have six partners, and are always open to more. Each of them has their own reasons for partnering with us, but the mutual benefits continue to grow.

See also: How to run a student blog: yes, we edit our bloggers

How to run a student blog: managing conflict

Collaboration photo b ignacio malapitan (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

How to run a student blog: managing conflict


So you start a blog with great students, you bring them together in a room and everybody gets along, and you think, “Hey, this is the best group I’ve ever worked with! I hope it goes on like this all year!” And sometimes it does.

But other times, there comes a point at which two (or more) team members stop seeing eye to eye.

I confess, I’m not a big fan of conflict. I love it when a team gets along and works together and does great things, and conflict often destroys the good will and motivation.

On the other hand, I know people who court conflict. They see the creative value in it. It tackles differences head-on, and can lead to a new understanding on the other side.

So I guess I’m a little conflicted about conflict. But one truth I can’t avoid, even if I wanted to, is that conflict is inevitable. It doesn’t happen on every team every time, but it does happen.

It hasn’t happened much on our student social media teams over the last five years, but it’s come up once or twice. Conflict between bloggers and yes, even conflict between team members and staff.

Sometimes, it’s best to just watch it let it work itself out. Team members will disagree – a lot – and that’s not a bad thing (see the point above about courting conflict), and jumping in too early can actually stifle healthy debate and creativity.

So when is conflict unhealthy? I think it becomes destructive when respect is lost. When you see defensiveness popping up, or if the discussion turns to personal, that’s a pretty clear sign. Other times, you might just sense something (for example, I find that  when people say there is a “communication problem”, that’s often a sign that communication is really only the tip of the iceberg).

What to do? I’m no expert, but a few things have worked for us:

  • Prevention. Creating a respectful culture, and encouraging people to talk to you if there is any kind of problem can help the team members feel that they’re in a safe space. One of the first things I say to bloggers is, “Don’t suffer in silence.” I mean this mostly about stress and workload, but I also mean that they should not stew on a conflict – they should bring it up with a staff member. We’ve also created the position of “Team Captain”, who, among other responsibilities, will act as a go-to person if anyone feels uncomfortable speaking to a staff member.
  • Diversion. I don’t mean ignoring the problem. What I mean is that if you find a meeting degenerating, suggest to the people involved that the discussion be taken up at the end of the meeting. Sometimes, you just have to get through the business of the meeting!
  • Discussion. If things escalate, bring the people involved together and find out what it is each of them really needs. Sometimes it might be  clear that one person has done something insensitive to another. Having each person express their point of view without attacking or being defensive can help build empathy and understanding.
  • Decision. Sometimes, there a decision just needs to be made to move on. Someone may win, and someone may lose. But if you’ve created a culture of respect, the team members should respect your conclusion.

I know these points aren’t comprehensive. This is just what’s worked for me. What’s your experience? Have you found effective ways to manage conflict?

See also: How to run a student blog: yes, we edit our bloggers

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

How to run a student blog: yes, we edit our bloggers

The worst thing to read on a blog post is, “It’s been a long time since my last post.” Tip number one for any blogger: do not write this, ever, even if it’s true. Your blog post just becomes about the fact that you haven’t been keeping up. Let it go, and move on.

As I’ve said before, starting a blog is easy. Keeping it going is hard, and keeping it fresh and interesting so that students want to read it is even harder.

In my series on starting a student blog, I emphasize that starting out right can help you a lot in your long-term success. Pay your bloggers. Choose carefully. Train them well. Set them up as a team.

Our approach to student blogging has been as a form of personal journalism. My first advice to bloggers is to “do something on campus, then share it with your readers.”

File:Seattle Daily Times news editor quarters - 1900.jpg

Not quite what our offices look like, but I do sometimes like to think of myself as an ink-stained wretch. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

We try to take a light hand with editing – but we do edit. This is an institutional blog, and we want their writing to be high-quality. But the editing is not censorious. We rarely (maybe once a year) have to ask a blogger to make a change.

Here’s what I look for when editing a blog post:

  • Obvious legal issues, such as libel or commenting on a court case (which could happen!), or malicious content (which has never happened).
  • Copyright, a big problem especially with photography. Students often don’t realize they can’t just cut and paste from the internet without permission.
  • Speaking of permission, the bloggers need to have it from any people they take photograph.
  • Safety. We discourage bloggers from revealing too much about themselves. Our blog has a high profile, so, for example, we will discourage a blogger from giving too many details about where they live or hang out. Similarly, they shouldn’t reveal such details about any people they mention in their posts.
  • Conflict of interest. Some bloggers are very active on campus and (usually inadvertently) promote themselves or a private cause in a post. In other words, they can’t use the blog as a campaign mouthpiece.
  • Quality. The problem isn’t usually bad writing. It’s often that the blogger has slipped into the “Voice of Authority” and is trying to give advice, rather than share a personal experience. As well, I try to catch typos and grammar as much as possible.

The process that we’ve developed, which seems to work pretty well, goes like this:

  • A blogger is assigned a day of the week for their post, and they* are expected to have a draft done at noon the day before.
  • The blogger will keep the word DRAFT in the heading until they’re ready to have it edited.
  • The post is edited and published by the editor (me, although there are others I’ll talk about in subsequent posts). The editor emails the blogger to let them know it’s up.

I have received a lot of comments about how editing goes against the spirit of blogging. Hire well, they say, and set them free to write whatever they want.

My response: it doesn’t go against the spirit of blogging at all. A key piece of the success of the blog is that we don’t tell them what to write. Having them decide on their blog posts is always going to be better for showing the real student experience.

But we want the bloggers to put their best selves forward. This is a portfolio piece for them, not a diary. A lot of people read it, and the readers deserve the highest quality we can deliver.


* I know, I said I edit for grammar and here I am using a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent. Leave me a comment if you can think of a better way to say it!


I, for one, welcome our future millennial overlords

I’d like to highlight a blog by one of my classmates in the Digital and Communications Strategy course I’ve been taking. Carolyn is a recent university graduate, and her blog 20-something is a reflection on how her generation is perceived and what it’s like to be one of the so-called millennials.

Her post, “why do they hate us?” features a TED talk from Scott Hess, which essentially argues that Gen Xers (like me) are a different breed from the millennials. Rather than being lazy and entitled, millennials are, well, kind of better than us. Really enjoy Carolyn’s blog. Great stuff for any of us who belong to or work with this generation (and she also has some great photography)! I also enjoyed this talk a lot. It’s worth your time to watch, or read Carolyn’s post for a breakdown.