The companion to the Student Social Media Academy:

Cultivating Faculty Partnerships: How Digital Marketers and Faculty Can Combine Forces

Josie Ahlquist, EdD, with Danielle Sewell, MFA

“Marketing just makes me feel slimy.” 

The faculty member who said this was a colleague I respected and the topic had come up during a committee meeting about campus-wide initiatives, including communications. She dropped it casually, with no intention of being malicious. It was just how she felt. 

I saw a few heads nodding around the table—heads that belonged to a mixed group of faculty and administrators—and I, the lone marketer in the room (your friendly blog co-author, Danielle), felt like I’d been punched in the gut.

It’s not an uncommon story. We’ve heard similar tales from marketers and communicators throughout higher education, and some of them aren’t nearly as tame. It’s no secret that misunderstandings about marketing are widespread, and we know that there is a significant industry-wide gap that needs to be filled by leaders with a strong background in digital communications. But in this example, we are reminded how skewed the relationship between faculty and academic scholars and marketing can be. 

It’s no one’s fault in particular. It’s the kind of misunderstanding that comes up when groups have been historically siloed and generally only interact when one side needs something from the other. That said, we can do better. We have to do better. 

At the end of the day, faculty and administrators and marketers all share the same goals—but each may not actually understand the other. So we hope this post fills two gaps. Marketers gaining a realistic picture of faculty life, and academics seeing the value that higher ed marketing and communication professionals provide a campus community. 

What’s in a Name? 

First, let’s talk about that word: marketing. If you don’t work in the communication field, the images that word brings to mind are probably straight out of pop culture. We have Mad Men’s Don Draper, the ultimate 60’s slick-haired and slick-talking ad man. Then there’s Steve Jobs in his black turtleneck and jeans, speaking confidently about technological innovations while a massive screen projects minimalist images of pristine gadgets. And of course, there’s the newest kid on the block—the Instagram influencer, a role made famous by the Kardashians of the world as they promote #ads for beauty products, miracle weight loss shakes, and the swankiest hotels you’ve never visited. 

Contrast those with the idyllic imagery we’ve built around our colleges and universities. The stated mission of higher education, and by extension the faculty and staff who support it, is the antithesis of selfishness. It’s about improving the lives of others, lifting them up and showing them that their goals are achievable. It’s about helping people to build the kind of lives they’ve always wanted for themselves and their families. 

It’s not a product to be sold. Back off, Don Draper. 

via GIPHY

We get it. Marketing can come across as pretty intimidating. A threat to the innate goodness of the educational mission, even. 

But here’s the thing: Modern marketing, particularly in the field of education, is not about simply pushing a product to the masses. It’s about aligning an institution’s communication strategy with its overarching goals. Higher ed marketers are the link between your college or university’s strategic plan and the wider world. 

These highly skilled professionals are specialized in their area(s) of expertise: content strategy, copywriting, digital media management, design, web development, data analytics, photography, videography, branding, and storytelling—just to name a few. Moreover, these professionals are often working in pressure-cooker jobs with extremely high stakes for overall institutional wellness.

But we’re not done! Digital marketers are skilled administrators, keeping the wheels of their own offices turning, and maintain awareness of the ever-changing communications landscape in both higher ed and outside the industry. They are asked to continually innovate, usually on a shoestring budget, all while supporting the needs of colleagues and departments campuswide. They’re doing their best. And they’re doing it for our students.

The work of the marketing department does not detract from that of their faculty counterparts. In fact, it represents the efforts happening in the classroom, research and publications and all across campus. No snake oil required. 

However, marketers should also understand that they may encounter hesitation from faculty scholars, and sometimes a little empathy needs to be incorporated into digital strategy. 

Academic Click-Bait Hate

In a recent article with an ominous title—“Careers intelligence: surviving academic social media’s dark side”—Times Higher Education explored the pros and cons of social media use among academics:

“Unfortunately, discussions about social media in higher education remain polarised between advocates and critics. The former group downplays the problems in their drive to encourage colleagues to break with the model of scholarship that Patrick Dunleavy described as the academic hermit….Meanwhile, the latter group sees platform capitalism weaving its way into the academy through social media, entrenching a narcissism that imperils the scholarly vocation. What gets lost is a practical discussion about how to respond to this dark side…”

(TimesHigherEducation.com, 2020)

As higher education marketers, we should be compassionate when faculty express reservations about this “dark side” of digital media. After all, the comments section can be a terrifying place for the savviest of social media users, and hashtags don’t have a particularly scholarly reputation.

George Veletsianos and Jaigris Hodson discussed the issue in a 2018 op-ed for Inside Higher Ed: “Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the same platforms that were once heralded as democratizing spaces destined to broach the distance between the ivory tower and society, often come to be used as weapons to silence and intimidate academics.”

Digital platforms can be particularly dicey to women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups. Academics of marginalized identities know that social media can amplify the macro- and microaggressions that are already prevalent in their day-to-day lives. 

Veletsianos and Hodson’s research found that “women [academics] are harassed when writing about a wide range of topics, including but not limited to: feminism, leadership, science, education, history, religion, race, politics, immigration, art, sociology and technology broadly conceived. The literature even identifies choice of research method as a topic that attracts misogynistic commentary.” 

Academics of color also face an elevated risk of harassment online, Qrescent Mali Mason explains in Diverse Issues in Higher Education:

“When…academics of color share their ideas with the masses on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, they also open themselves up to being digitally attacked by those who take issue with their views. And while this is a risk that all academics who choose to engage in these forums face, the psychological and professional consequences can be particularly consequential for academics of color, especially those whose work engages issues of race and gender.”

Imagine how it may feel for an academic, one who might not be a masterful digital communicator, to subject themselves and their work to the mercy of the internet. They may need a guiding light to help them through the process. Digital marketers are in an excellent position to provide that support.

With recent changes in Title IX legislation and an increase in public discourse around consent on college campuses, Brigham Young University wanted to get ahead of the curve—and in front of their students. There was no better place to reach that audience than Instagram Stories, and BYU’s University Communications was up to the challenge. 

When planning the project, BYU media relations and social media manager Jon McBride made a point of involving faculty. 

“Talking about the topic of consent in dating and relationships through Instagram Stories, we reached out to faculty members as topic experts,” says Jon. “Instead of approaching faculty to say ‘We’ve got this idea, and here’s what we want you to do,’ I think a better approach was ‘We’ve got this idea, and we need your help. As an expert on this topic, can you help us make sure we’re talking about this topic in the most effective way possible to best help our campus community?’ Approaching them by letting them know how much we value them and their expertise, and by showing them how much they can help make our institution better by being involved in this project was important.”

The response was overwhelmingly positive, with members of the faculty volunteering to help write and review the script, appearing on camera and in voiceovers, and serving as influencers by promoting the finished campaign to colleagues, students, social media followers, and even media. Overall, the project was better for the collaboration. 

“Faculty involvement made a world of difference,” Jon explains. “They saw and anticipated things through the process that [the communications team] never would’ve on our own…They provided big-picture input such as what type of student narrators we should have…[having] a male and female student to better speak to [all] genders.” 

Working with faculty colleagues also opened up a world of resources that is not always easily accessible for marketing and communications staff. “[Our faculty] also had ideas for how they could uniquely help promote the project, such as reaching out to media contacts they’d cultivated through their research efforts,” says Jon. “This project would’ve looked very different and not been nearly as effective without the help of our faculty. They added a level of insight, and also credibility, that was so needed.”

It’s the kind of cross-silo teamwork that is all too rare in higher education, and we can all learn something from BYU’s experience. In many cases, faculty members want to help digital communicators in their outreach to students and other audiences—because they know that fostering those connections is vital to the health of the institution they love. 

Finally, Jon reflects,

“Sometimes we can forget how absolutely spoiled we are to work in communications in this higher ed industry of ours. Sure, there are issues and struggles unique to our work, but we have inside access to expertise that no other industry does,” says Jon. “We share parking lots and cafeterias and wear the same logo’d apparel as some of the brightest minds, in their areas of focus, in the entire world. Topic experts in a vast myriad of areas are right at our disposal and at the end of the day, many of them have the same vested interest in the same things we do when it comes to communication and promotion of the university. We’ve got to find ways to leverage the incredible expertise all throughout our campus communities.” 

Getting Started: The Faculty Outreach Starter Pack

Extending an approachable and encouraging a collaborative environment with faculty is easier said than done. Luckily, we’ve compiled a few ideas and resources to help you get started. 

How do YOU build connections between faculty and your digital communications team? Leave a comment to let us know what worked…and what definitely didn’t. 

Get into the Faculty Flow

Any experienced communicator knows that rule #1 is “know your audience.” The same is true when your audience is comprised of your colleagues on faculty, researchers and scholars. Understand that academics are likely facing a barrage of pressures that you may not necessarily experience or know of. 

Faculty work with very different schedules than their counterparts on staff. They may not be physically located on campus every day. They may only teach at night or do so completely online. Sabbaticals may occasionally take them off campus (sometimes even out of the country) for extended stretches of time. So, don’t take their availability for granted when you’re making plans that may involve them. 

Between the stress of a “publish or perish” culture, late nights grading papers, and the emotional labor of instructing and advising impressionable college students, it’s easy for faculty members to feel overwhelmed by the demands on their time. And just like higher education marketers, they face a high rate of burnout

This is not to say that all, or even most, of our faculty colleagues would be unwilling to help with digital marketing efforts or upcoming campaigns. On the contrary, they are often eager to be involved. However, it is essential that we communicate an appreciation for their time commitment and dedicated energy.

Look for ways to align the goals of your digital marketing initiatives with the goals of each faculty and/or college or department. If faculty participate in a project with your marketing department, how can the experience elevate their research, scholarship, or teaching efforts? Do your homework, find out what are the current priorities of each academic, then spell out exactly how their goals are aligned with your marketing strategy.

Ask for Expertise

We learned about the importance of tapping faculty subject matter experts in the BYU case study above. Their depth of academic knowledge is beneficial for a variety of messaging, across multiple platforms. 

The Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University hosts a podcast called Ways & Means, which focuses on “bright ideas for how to improve society.” Episodes combine narrative storytelling with faculty research, and faculty guests frequent the show. The result is a university-owned channel that showcases the ties between a Duke education and real-world issues—and their faculty bring scholarly gravitas to the show while simultaneously giving an approachable face (or voice) to Duke’s academic programs. 

Faculty also play a key role in IUPUI’s video series, IUPUI Explains. The series explores timely topics through short sessions with academic experts and can be found on the institution’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. 

Old Dominion University saw firsthand the benefits of faculty collaboration when their researchers traveled to Alaska for their annual Arctic Research Expedition.

“The faculty’s involvement was HUGE,” says Jamila Walker, ODU university social media manager. “It is easy to post a photo from the Arctic, but the audience wants to see a day in the life. I trained two of the faculty members on how to do an Instagram takeover…I developed the social media strategy which included takeovers, Facebook Live, photos, video, and a GIF that I made [with] a map of the Arctic and a plane showing where they were traveling…[The faculty had] never showed their research on social media until I pitched the idea.”

Ultimately, the campaign was launched flawlessly, and ODU’s researchers were even featured by Al Roker on the Today Show!

Shine the Spotlight

Sometimes, building relationships with faculty starts with simply highlighting the excellent work they do every day through teaching or research. And there’s no shortage of material. 

A great example of the “spotlight” approach is Colby College’s Crash Course series. Through these short-form videos, Colby provides an inside look at some of the institution’s most innovative classes. Naturally, every innovative class has an innovative educator at the helm—and these professors prove to be great on camera, discussing courses like “Dance Forms of the African Diaspora: Hip Hop,” “Policing the American City,” “Visual Culture of Tattooing,” or “Documentary Radio.” 

Digital communicators are also in a unique position to cultivate relationships not only between the faculty and our own offices but between faculty and the greater campus community. The University of Texas at Arlington’s UTA Q&A gives faculty and staff the opportunity to show their personalities beyond the classroom environment. (Note the handy “Submit a Story” form linked on their News Center webpages, too!) 

Pepperdine University has also prioritized faculty relationships, according to social media manager Laura Nickerson. “When I first started as the Social Media Manager for Pepperdine University, I felt it was crucial to connect with faculty and students who were breaking boundaries and exploring areas of global importance as soon as possible,” says Laura. 

“I have since created a posting strategy featuring faculty and student research articles on LinkedIn and Twitter every other Monday.”

“Posts alternate with articles from Pepperdine Magazine, which also often feature the work of outstanding alumni and teachers. This strategy quickly turned into benchmark content, resulting in an uptick in both engagement and brand awareness.” Recently, Pepperdine featured Christopher Parkening, Distinguished Professor of Music and chair of the guitar department at Seaver College, who was invited to play at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. 

Be Accessible…and Persistent

While marketing and communications initiatives are constantly top-of-mind for those working in that functional area—faculty probably have other major concerns. Classroom instruction, creating syllabi, grading, research, and pressures associated with the tenure process are just a few of the many pressing concerns staking a claim on our faculty colleagues’ time. 

In short, they’re probably not ignoring digital communications at your campus. It’s just not something they spend too much time thinking about. Most faculty members do want to help however they can with marketing projects, but they may need a catalyst and invitation to get started. That’s where you come in. 

A few pointers: 

  • Don’t wait until you’re scrambling for stories to start building connections with faculty. If they only see you when you want something from them, the foundation of trust between marketers and academics will be lacking.
  • Ask to sit in on a department meeting, even if you don’t have the opportunity to speak. It will help you to better understand that department’s goals and challenges, which can inform future conversations.
  • Start with the faculty who already get it. Chances are, you have at least a couple of faculty members on campus who enjoy using social media and use it effectively to connect with others. You’ll have an easier time bringing those folks on board with digital initiatives than you would with someone who has little digital experience. 
  • Find value in casual interactions. You learn way more about a person over coffee or lunch than you do around a conference room table. Formal meetings have their place, of course, but you may find that bumping into someone at the water cooler yields better insights and leads for potential stories. Try swinging by faculty offices with a box of donuts occasionally—at the very least, you’ll make a few friends.
  • Be a digital educator. Digital marketers are educators, too—and sometimes it’s your institution’s faculty who need the benefit of your expertise. Offer workshops, lunch-and-learns, or one-on-one sessions as a value-add to your colleagues. Offer them technical support, coupled with data on the benefits of building their own digital presence. Don’t tell them what to do, but rather offer suggestions and provide real-life examples of other faculty in their discipline. And always keep in mind the culture of academics—if it’s not proven or published, it’s just theory. Bring data to back up your talking points

And don’t forget to send the occasional reminder email about submitting stories or sharing feedback. As marketers, we know that multiple touchpoints are usually required before your audience takes action; the same principles apply in our places of work. 

Share your Success

Digital professionals in higher education are generally happy to be behind-the-scenes people. As much as we like to let our work speak for itself, it’s important to remember that our favorite projects sometimes need a translator. 

While your colleagues might see your latest social media posts, targeted ads, webpages, video series, podcasts, or multimedia campaigns—they might not understand the scale of your content strategy and associated outcomes. And if you don’t share that information, they never will! 

Be sure to celebrate your successes. Follow up with faculty collaborators, letting them know details and data from the project results. This data may also be important to share with the faculty member(s) department chair and/or college dean. How many views did their video interview receive? How many leads were generated from the inquiry form on their department webpage? What was some positive feedback you received about your shared project? If you’re proud of the outcomes, chances are that your faculty counterparts will be, too. So, send a follow-up email, share the news on the employee intranet, or praise them in public when the opportunity arises.

Say Thank You

We’re all busy, and when faculty members take time out of their schedules to participate in an initiative alongside you, you should at the very least send a follow-up email to say “thank you.” In some circumstances, pass on appreciation to their department chair and/or college dean. Bonus points if you send an actual, paper-and-ink card via interoffice mail. A handwritten message makes everyone feel extra special. 

When faculty go above and beyond to help you create something great, you want their experience to feel overwhelmingly positive. That’s how you build strong collegial relationships and ensure plenty of participation in the future!

How are you Incorporating Faculty into Your Digital Strategy?

Busting down silos is no easy task, but it is a major unwritten job duty for marketers. We hope that the insight and examples you’ve read here will serve as inspiration for your next collaborative project—and when that happens, please do share. We would love to see your ideas brought to life! 

Did we forget to mention a technique that worked wonders for your faculty partnerships? Want to shout out a project that really highlighted faculty involvement on your campus? 

You can reach us in the comments below, @ us on Twitter (@JosieAhlquist & @DSewellMFA) or tag us on LinkedIn. 

You can learn more about the intersection of leadership, higher education, and all things digital by listening to Josie and the Podcast, available anywhere you listen to podcasts.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

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