9 Questions to Ask When Developing A Digital Strategy

Posted by Sean Carton | November 24, 2015 | 4:53pm

The concept of “digital strategy” can seem pretty mysterious if you’re new to the game or are trying to understand just how the digital realm can be harnessed for recruitment, branding, or awareness-building.

The whole process can often be seen as a black art, a perception not helped by the fact that our industry often treats “strategists” as all-knowing magicians and obscures what they do in an impenetrable haze of jargon and buzzwords. Many times we see clients that have been trained by their agencies (or their internal “digital” folks) to treat the whole concept of “strategy” like talking to a sacred oracle: take your problem to the oracle, drop off an offering, and pray fervently that The Answer will come down from on high, translated for mere mortals by those that serve the Gods of Strategy.

Baloney! The whole concept of “strategy” needs to be simple. A strategy is a way to approach solving a problem. Tactics are what you do to carry out that approach. Simple. No mysterious potions or arcane rituals required.

Ok, maybe it’s not exactly that simple. There is one thing you need in order to be able to create solutions to the marketing and communications problems that you face, and that is understanding

It’s impossible to create successful strategies without understanding the various dimensions of the problem that you’re trying to solve. Sure, you can try but what you’re going to end up with is just a guess, and probably not a very good one at that. Even worse, when it comes to selling your strategy to your colleagues and the decision-makers you report to, without basing it on a rock-solid foundation of understanding, you’ve just got your opinion to fall back on when questioned about why resources should be invested in your plan. If you’re a particularly-adept salesperson you might be able to pull this off a couple of times, but eventually someone’s going to call your bluff.

In order to help you develop the kind of understanding you’ll need in order to develop successful marketing and communications strategies, we’ve developed a series of questions you can use to guide your strategic planning process. These questions, in one form or another, have been developed after years of helping institutions of higher learning break through all the static that often accompanies institutional decision-making, as well as the fear that accompanies such decision making and the inertia bred by that fear. These are questions designed to get to the heart of the problem as quickly as possible in order to develop consensus (as much as that’s ever possible!) around the issues, the data, and the consequences of one path of action or another. In other words, these questions were designed to cut through the BS, lay bare the facts as objectively as possible, probe existing assumptions, and challenge existing systems and structures in an effort to generate innovative, effective, strategic solutions.

We do have to warn you, however: while these questions are simple, they’re not easy to answer. In fact, many times we’ve found that when using these questions to develop a strategic framework for our clients, they make people downright uncomfortable.

But that’s OK. If everything you’re doing was working, you wouldn’t need to develop new approaches. If you and your colleagues commit to answering these questions as honestly and completely as you can, the result will be an unparalleled understanding of what you’re really trying to do and a rock-solid, defensible foundation for making it happen. Be brave! It’s worth it.


Question 1: What will happen if we do nothing?

We like this question because it forces you to confront reality. While nobody can face the future perfectly, you can usually predict it with some certainty based on the current trends and what you know about the situation. If enrollments are down and the pool of prospective students is shrinking, it’s not hard to see what the future holds if things continue the way they are.

We must caution you, though: in order to answer this question correctly, you must assiduously avoid what we like to call “magical thinking.” If getting to an answer that makes everyone feel good requires the sudden descent of a deus ex machina from the rafters, you’re probably on the wrong track. Likewise, avoid guessing about factors that are out of your control, unless you’ve got some really solid information that points to things changing in one way or another. it’s OK to throw projections of one kind or another into the mix if they’re coming from a reputable source (e.g. demographic forecasts from the Census Bureau), but if it’s hearsay, it doesn’t count. Stick with what you know.

We’ve found that the best way to approach this question is to think in terms of scenarios. What are some possible outcomes? Why might they happen? What might keep them from happening? What will they affect if they happen or not? Developing a number of these scenarios and then using them as the basis for discussion is a great way to answer to this initial (and possibly most important) question.

Question 2: What are we trying to accomplish?

You’ve probably heard the proverb of the blind men and the elephant: a group of blind men are introduced to an elephant, a creature they’ve never encountered before. Because they’re blind, they have to rely on their sense of touch in order to figure out what type of beast they’re dealing with. And, as you’d expect, each one interprets an elephant based on what part of the animal they come into contact with. The man who feels the trunk believes that the elephant is shaped like a snake, the man touching the leg thinks that the elephant is like a tree trunk, and the man touching the ears thinks that the elephant is like leaf. Each person experiences the elephant in a different way depending on their own subjective experience.

When it comes to thinking about a problem we all tend to see the problem through the lens of our own experience. If you’re a marketing/communications person, you might see issues about recruitment through the lens of brand and brand awareness. Admissions folks might see recruitment in terms of the contact they have with prospects on a regular basis. A student affairs person might think that issues around student life may be contributing to recruitment problems while a faculty member will pay attention to academic issues.

Since our natural inclination is to see any problem through the lens of our own experience and expertise, answering a question like “what are we trying to accomplish” can be difficult. It’s easy to allow the process to break down by arguing the merits of one aspect of the institution over another, with each person trying to defend their own turf or ascribe parameters to what they know.

Because it’s so easy for things to go this way, we’d encourage you to force everyone involved to stick to specific, measurable answers. If your goal is to “raise awareness,” ask yourself how you’re going to measure future brand awareness against the current state of awareness of your institution. If someone wants to say that the goal is to “increase enrollment,” you should follow up by asking them for specifics. Why do you need to increase enrollments? By how much? Over what period of time?

By forcing everyone to stick to specifics it makes it a lot easier to move from fuzzy generalities colored by experience to specific, measurable, actionable goals. Instead of defining the elephant in vague terms based on what part of it you’re touching, you’re forced to imagine the specifics of what an elephant in the form you initially envisioned would be like.

Finally, it’s important to remember one important thing: there’s no right answer to this question (or, for that matter, any of these questions). If you can agree on an answer and know why that’s your answer, that’s OK as long as the parameters of the answer are specific and measurable. If the answer to “what are we trying to accomplish” is “keep the President happy,” that’s fine…but you’d better be able to agree on how you’re going to measure her happiness.

Question 3: What does success look like?

Question 3 is, in some respects, an extension of Question 2. If Question 2 is asking more broadly about what you’re trying to accomplish, this question is all about further defining the specifics. By defining success as specifically as possible, you’ll be able to also define what benchmarks you need to start with, what milestones you’ll need to reach along the way, and what — and why— the measures you’re using are important. And, though it might be outside your purview, it’ll help you put your results in a greater institutional context.

Let’s say that you answer Question 2 with “increase enrollments by 20% over 5 years.” Great. To answer Question 3, however, you’re going to have to get down to the proverbial brass tasks and define exactly how you want that to happen. Obviously you need to know what your enrollments are now. Next, you’ll need to define how you want that growth to happen. Is it OK if enrollments are flat for 4 years and you hit your ultimate goal in one final push in the 5th year? Is it realistic to expect a 4% increase per year over your initial benchmark, or will you need to ramp up gradually? Why?

Finally, how will reaching this goal impact the institution? Do you have the capacity to absorb these new students? If not, what will have to happen in order for that to occur? Based on what you know about your pool of prospective students, will your institution have to lower admissions standards in order to reach that goal? If so, how will that impact your brand?

As you can probably imagine, answering this question isn’t easy. But don’t let that deter you. You can only answer what you can answer, and it’s better to have an incomplete answer than no answer at all. After all, no plan ever survives contact with reality.

Question 4: What resources do we have available?

While it’s tempting to look at financial resources when answering this question, it’s equally important to examine the capacity of those whose jobs will be impacted by your decisions. Developing budgets is easy. People are a lot more complicated.

Schools struggle with this question the most when they fail to anticipate the impact that increased spending on recruitment marketing will have on the people who need to respond to the increase in leads. The marketing budget might be there to push the number of leads generated through the roof, but when they arrive in the Admissions office they may fall into a black hole, languishing in a database of prospects to be contacted “some day,” if at all. As a result, yields go way down and once again everyone’s wondering why that spiffy new advertising campaign — accompanied by a spiffy new budget— haven’t yielded the results everyone anticipated. Worse yet, all those prospects who haven’t gotten the information they requested now have a much more negative perception of the institution, a negative perception that they’re all too happy to share with their peers on their social networks.

Besides money and people, you also need to look at the institutional resources you have available. If you’re doing something that will require new databases, a new phone system, or access to additional facilities, do you know if you’ll be able to harness these resources when you need them? This can be an especially sticky question if those resources are out of your zone of responsibility: if you don’t have a guarantee that those resources are going to be available when you need them, don’t count them as “available” when developing your strategic plan.

Question 5: Who are we trying to reach?

You might be tempted to answer this question in the same way that you’d answer the classic question “who are our audiences?” Obviously, you do need to define your audiences in the classic way, starting with factors like demographics, geography, and level of academic achievement. But that’s just the start.

Next, it’s vital to look how context comes into play.

These aren’t easy questions to answer, but one way of approaching this question is to start with some broad demographic, geographic, and academic definitions of target audiences, and then brainstorm some typical “customer journeys” they may take to get to you.

It’s also important to remember that virtually no one makes the decision about whether or not to apply on their own. Everyone exists in a social network of one kind or another, and different people within that network exert different kinds of influence during your prospect’s decision making process. Determining who in general is likely to influence your prospects is equally important as determining your target audiences to begin with, more so in cases where prospects can’t make decisions on their own (e.g. traditional-age undergraduates). While an accelerated weekend program might make a lot of sense in theory, it may not be very attractive to someone with family obligations, no matter how much faster it will get them to their degree.In such a case, a prospect’s significant other might be just as — if not even more— important to reach out to than the prospect themselves.

Question 6: Why them?

Understanding why you want to reach out to a particular audience is perhaps just as important as defining who you’re trying to reach out to in the first place. While the “who” question will typically result in decisions about typical “marketing” stuff like media and creative choices, the “why” question will require looking at the bigger picture and understanding how what you’re trying to do will impact the institution as a whole. Answering this question will also help you break free of much of the “conventional wisdom” and “because we’ve always done it that way” thinking in order to consider what you’re trying to do in new and innovative ways.

Going after the same prospective student pool every year is easy, especially when it yielded in the past. But what if your yields from that group start to decline? As Albert Einstein is said to have quipped, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results,” and chasing the same prospect tool is a pretty crazy thing to do. But what if they make the most sense in terms of the kinds of students your institution has traditionally attracted?

If that’s the case, perhaps it’s time to question your basic assumptions. Why are you chasing them? If you honestly answer this question, you’ll have to admit that it’s simply the way things have always been done and may also have to admit that it’s not working anymore. Instead, it may be time to look at different groups of prospects to see how well they align with your institutional priorities. Maybe you need to examine admissions standards. Maybe you need to look for changes in demographic trends in the geographic areas where your traditional pool is coming from. Maybe you need to look for opportunities in groups that are traditionally underserved by your institution. The possibilities are nearly endless, but no matter who you decide to pursue, you need to be able to answer why you’re going after them.

Question 7: If we do this, what are we going to do less of?

In our experience, no client has an unlimited budget. (If you do, please don’t hesitate to contact us!) And because you have limited resources, doing something new almost always means doing less of something else. 

Deciding what you’re going to do less of isn’t easy. It often has personnel ramifications, and re-assigning or eliminating personnel— especially if you’re going to replace them with new people with a different skill set— is never easy, especially at a college or a university.

The best way to decide what you’re going to do less of is to first take a hard look at places where you might be currently duplicating efforts or would be if you were to pursue a new strategy. If this is the case, you may be able to get by — and even free up additional resources— by shifting how you allocate resources.

Next, you should examine your various initiatives by asking some more hard questions. Why are you doing what you’re doing? What are you (specifically) trying to accomplish? Is the initiative succeeding? If you determine that it’s not or can’t decide because you don’t know how to measure performance it’s time to consider ending the initiative so that you can free up resources to do something new. It may seem risky to do so, but if what you’re doing isn’t yielding the results you want it’s probably riskier to continue wasting resources on it.

Question 8: What internal processes or politics will have an impact on what we’re trying to do?

“Politics” and “processes” are often inextricably linked. Usually things are done the way they are done because someone wants them done that way. The safe thing to do is to accept them and deal with the situation. The right thing to do is to take a hard look at what’s going on and why.

One of the most common ways politics and processes collide is when someone’s been in a position long enough that they’re serving as the “institutional memory” about a particular process. They’re black boxes, taking inputs and producing outputs without anyone having any idea what they’re actually doing to make the decisions they need to make. And while it may have worked at one time, in practice, most of the time these people are bottlenecks at best, obstructions at worst.

While you may not be able to do anything about it, it’s vital to your strategic planning to be honest about what impact these people or units are going to have on your efforts. If Admissions routinely ignores your requests for information about what they’re doing to follow up on leads you send them, you need to consider not counting on receiving any information from them in your planning. If graduate program recruitment happens at the department or program level and you have to depend on the department chair or program director to follow up with prospects or provide you with some indication of how well your graduate recruitment initiatives are going — and they’re not doing either one—you need to consider alternative methods for doing what needs to be done. For example, if your information request forms are going directly to the program director, it might be a good idea to send a copy to your office as well so at least you have some of the information you need. Having friends and family “secret shop” for you by sending in requests for information (and reporting to you what they receive) is another way of getting at least some of the info you need. In any case, understanding the players, politics, and processes is vital to your strategy…unless you enjoy spinning your wheels.

Question 9: Who’s going to be in charge?

Finally, understanding roles and responsibilities may seem like one of those things that should be obvious, but it rarely is. If the person who’s responsible for implementing your strategy isn’t capable of making the kinds of decisions that need to be made to keep it on track — or you can’t figure out who that person would be— your strategy is doomed to fail. And while it may be the unfortunate truth that you can’t do anything to change the situation, at least knowing who’s ostensibly in charge will help you craft a strategy that puts elements in place that perhaps distributes responsibility or at least alleviate the need for too much intervention. On the other hand, you may need to account for someone who either doesn’t agree with your strategy or has a competing (but unspoken) strategy of their own. Again, you may not be able to do anything about it but at least you can account for their impact (or lack of impact) on what you’re trying to accomplish.


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