Pickle Jar’s top three takeaways from CEAC 2017

By Posted in - CASE Europe & Higher Education on September 1st, 2017 0 Comments

The CASE Europe Annual Conference has finished for another year – and as usual, my brain is buzzing with new ideas and insights.

It’s been a busy week for the Pickle Jar team. We’ve been down in Birmingham in force, celebrating the company’s 10th birthday in style with the schools, colleges and universities we love and support. We’ve connected with old friends, made new contacts, heard about some impressive projects, and been able to share our own work through formal sessions and corridor chats.

It’ll take time for all the things we’ve heard and discussed over the week to percolate, but three themes really stood out for me across all the sessions I attended that I wanted to share.

1. We need to break down our institutional silos – and content strategy can help us do that

I heard the word ‘silo’ used so many times this week and felt more than ever the frustration that advancement professionals feel getting things done across complex structures in their large organisations.

I know all too well how challenging it can be to run successful projects across departments when you are separated by management structures, competing departmental strategies and physical location. As Tracy said in her recent blog post about what she’d love to change in the education sector, the rigidity silos can impose creates poor audience experience, inefficiencies, missed opportunities and reduced impact.

So it was refreshing to hear that institutional leadership is savvy to this problem. A panel of Vice Chancellors in the conference closing plenary reflected that a recent Higher Education Leadership Symposium concluded that one of their top 10 priorities for securing the future of education was to ensure the advancement disciplines worked together in an integrated and connected way.

I nearly cheered out loud when I heard Paul Andrew, Vice President of Public Affairs & Communications from Harvard University advocating that a content strategy approach can really help organisations to break down those silos and work together. By focusing on the actual content and not the individual channels and platforms, institutions can connect their content ecosystems to enable meaningful experiences for their audiences and a far more efficient and effective way of working.

Paul described how he disbanded his digital strategy team at Harvard to instead focus on content:

And through working holistically across teams and channels, they’re seeing great success with maximising the reach and relevance of individual pieces of content across multiple platforms:

We heard too from the University of Glasgow who have created a Content Steering Group. This group works across institutional teams to develop an approach to presenting Glasgow’s six new research themes. Laura Tyler, Glasgow’s Research Marketing Communications Manager, spoke about how bringing people from across the institution together to focus on content revealed audience insights she didn’t have before and created a much more effective way of developing rich and compelling content about complex topics.

If you want to learn more about content strategy and how you can make it work for your institution, we’re running two one-day seminars this autumn – to find out more, sign up here.

2. Emotion is everything

At Pickle Jar, we’ve long emphasised the importance of understanding the emotional motivations of audiences as we undertake research for our clients. Indeed, we blogged earlier in the summer about a model for ensuring your content strategy plays to audience needs and emotions.  

All too often though, we see organisations focus entirely on stats and metrics in their communications planning. But this year at CASE, for the first time, I heard multiple sessions advocating for a deeper look and really showing the benefits of doing so.

Clare Riding, Head of Marketing at the University of Lancaster, spoke about it not being enough to have quantitative data on decision making. It’s great to understand that a good percentage of open day attendees take up a place at your university, but it’s much more useful to understand what it was about an open day that helped prospective students feel that it was the home for them. Behind the data are individual stories – and understanding them will help you ensure all your communications are relevant and relatable for your audiences.

The University of Warwick’s storytelling session, from Keith Gabriel and Nicky Ginns, was all about finding that emotional connection with your audiences. By truly understanding the ambition and motivation of their postgraduate audience, they’ve been able to create bolder, more distinctive content to persuade and inspire. I’ve ordered my copy of their postgraduate magazine, Contrast, and can’t wait to see this in reality.

The Warwick team also used examples from outside the sector to show that content that plays to our emotions can be so much more memorable – at Pickle Jar we all love the Spotify examples they shared.

Beth Elzer’s hilarious session about geeks and humour was packed with examples of emotive content and campaigns based on depth research insights – including this:

And the example of creating relatable content that made me wish I’d brought tissues into a session came from Harvard University – check out their beautiful graduation film:

Talk to us about our in depth audience and stakeholder research approach and how empathy mapping can help your content cut through the noise and stand out.

3. Aligning activity to institutional objectives

The final thing I was delighted to hear talked about throughout the conference was the need to ensure that everything we’re doing is truly aligned to organisational strategic objectives. This sounds obvious and it’s something we try to do at the beginning of every client project we work on. But it is so common for projects to be initiated just because a competitor is already doing it or because someone wants to try a cool new tool.

But as budgets get tighter, and the need to demonstrate impact gets stronger, that just doesn’t cut it anymore. Being able to clearly align projects to the overall institutional strategy both validates the work you’re doing and helps achieve stakeholder buy-in. And it can really help focus your work to ensure it is truly relevant.

In the CEAC17 closing plenary, the call for alignment came loud and strong form the panel of Vice Chancellors:

Our institutional leaders want to be convinced – let’s make it easy for them to see the value and importance of what we do.

As we all head home from the conference, there is much to reflect on – and I am sure there will be more Pickle Jar posts as we consider the implications of what we’ve heard. Thanks to CASE Europe for another successful conference – one that we were proud to sponsor this year.

Get in touch if you’re thinking about launching a new project or need help with ongoing challenges back in your institutions.



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