“New Media” is “THE Media”: Higher Ed Must Invest or Perish

New media is “new” like New York is “new.” Okay, so social/digital media isn’t quite 300 years old, but to refer to these outlets as “new” in 2014 continues to brand them as experimental or unproven, and frankly, I’m tired of it.

Why so sensitive? Maybe because I like facts. Maybe because I like relevant terminology. Maybe because people who work in social media on behalf of institutional advancement are tired of “new media” playing second fiddle to “traditional communications.” All of those things might be true, but the latter is particular frustrating and the basis for this opus.

There are few, if any, people working in higher education who aren’t constantly reminded of the limitations of their budgets. Whether it’s a central budget, divisional budget, or their team’s budget, it’s always there to destroy dreams. Universities may be rich with trees of knowledge, but those trees don’t seem to be sprouting any dollar bills, and until they do, cash will always be in demand.

So one would think that if operating budgets are tight, we would use the most time- and cost-efficient methods for engaging and soliciting our donor base. You can probably guess by that carefully crafted setup that I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of that.

funny eCard that says "You have an amazing talent of finding the most inefficient way to do things."

So why do I care? I care because I desperately needed something to write about, and it’s easier to complain than it is to credit. Strike that—I care because I believe in the power of social and digital engagement, and I believe we need to invest more heavily in those areas.

While I’d like to think my opinions carry enough weight to trigger a major shift in how universities approach communications and marketing, decision makers (rightfully so) respond to data and evidence not to the hunches of a lowly Associate Director of Social Media.

But what if it’s not a hunch? What if some reputable sources had evidence that proved online ad revenue has reached a point of making it the most profitable place to market? What if…

“U.S. interactive advertising revenues for 2013 hit an all-time high of $42.8 billion, according to the IAB Internet Advertising Revenue Report for the full-year, exceeding broadcast television advertising* revenues ($40.1 billion), for the first time ever. This momentous figure marks an increase of 17 percent from 2012’s landmark revenues of $36.6 billion.”
iab.net

So there it is. We have reached a tipping point where internet ad revenue has surpassed that of TV ad revenue. Little boy online media has whipped a few stones from his slingshot to topple the mighty Goliath that is television. This shouldn’t come as a shock, as you see more people opting for the on-demand services of Netflix and Hulu versus the frequently interrupted services of Time Warner. It was recently reported that the 18-34 demographic now logs more hours watching YouTube than they do cable television. Let’s not forget that WAY back in 2012, online surpassed radio and newspapers for where people access their daily news.

line graph of digital news surpassing newspapers and radio from 1991 to 2012

Even the most novice online user wouldn’t argue the overall decline of these “traditional” media channels. Newspapers have seen a steady decline in readership for over 20 years ,and TV as we know it could be next. As more networks talk about going “a la carte,” cable giants may soon be crumbling empires. This is not news to most people paying attention to the communications landscape, yet we continue to see digital/social as an offshoot of our core strategy.

bar graph of shift from traditional to digital media

The writing isn’t just on the wall, it’s blinking and flashing in a desperate attempt to get our attention.

Ad revenue is rising online because that is where the people are…that is where OUR people are. Sometimes it appears as if there’s some wall between advancement offices and the evolving world where we don’t assume our alumni will be “swept up” in the latest “fads.”

Well, they will be and in the case of social media, the “fad” has become a norm. Consider how much your office spends on postage and then consider how outraged a supervisor might be if you asked them to spend just $1,000 on Facebook advertising.  “$1,000 on Facebook?? We’re on a tight budget!!” Yes, I know you’re on a tight budget, and that’s why you SHOULD be investing in Facebook/social media advertising.

bar graph showing the cost of reaching 1,000 people across multiple mediums, including online and print

Yes, Czar Zuckerberg is choking out our organic reach, but that’s a small price to pay to reach the thousands of alumni who spend hours on his site every day. LinkedIn offers you an opportunity to target people not JUST by alma mater but by job title as well. Want to market to just your CEO alumni? BAM, done! Want to only pay when they engage with your ad? BOOM goes the dynamite! Does the United States Postal Service only charge you for a stamp when the recipient opens your letter? Can the USPS tell you how many people jump from your letter to your website? No and no.

chart of Facebook ad revenue

The numbers don’t lie.  Online ad revenue, specifically social media ad revenue, is on the rise. Though they may be wealthy, big companies typically don’t throw money at things that don’t work. They’re advertising on social media because they know that’s where the customers are.

This is also a good time to remind you that exposure is only a small piece of the puzzle. If you’re going to pay for exposure, make sure your content is unique, authentic, and engaging. Don’t drop $5,000 on a Facebook ad that simply says “Make your annual fund gift before the end of the tax season” and then wonder why you didn’t see a big spike in end-of-year gifts. Money buys you eyeballs; content buys you ears.

Don’t think static, think dynamic. If you’re not upping your video production, now is the time:

“Digital video, a component of display-related advertising, brought in $2.8 billion in full year 2013, up 19 percent over revenues of $2.3 billion in 2012.”
iab.net

Without YouTube, it’s possible no one born after 1995 would know Old Spice. And as long as you’re thinking video, think about how your audience is doing absolutely everything on their smartphones. Whether it’s video, your website, or event registration, it better be mobile-friendly.

“For the third year in a row, mobile achieved triple-digit growth year-over-year, rising to  $7.1 billion during full year 2013, a 110 percent boost from the prior year total of $3.4 billion. Mobile accounted for 17 percent of 2013 revenues, whereas it was 9 percent of revenues in 2012.”
iab.net

Hopefully I’ve proven to you that both the private and non-academic nonprofit sector is investing in digital, social, and mobile at an increasing rate. These arenas give you the ability to target YOUR people with incredible detail, and the platforms (based on the ad style you choose) only charge you when those people engage with you. To me, that’s a pretty sweet deal.

So how do we in the education industry currently stack up against other industries when it comes to spending money on online marketing?

“Retail advertisers continue to represent the largest category of internet ad spending, responsible for 21 percent in 2013, followed by financial services and closely trailed by automotive which account for 13 and 12 percent of the year’s revenues respectively.”
iab.net

chart of social advertising by industry

Answer: we don’t even show up on the list.  

Granted, it’s hard for schools to compete at the same level as these for-profit sectors, but I would argue there are enough universities and colleges out there where we should be at least the slightest blip on the radar.

Now it’s time to put one foot on the soapbox and shake my head. We go around reminding our alumni and other prospective donors how important our school is. “We’re doing groundbreaking, life-changing research while molding the leaders and lifesavers of tomorrow.”

The best way for us to honor our own mantra is by investing in ourselves. The richest 1% of our alumni will always receive warm and fuzzy face-to-face visits, but for everyone else, we need to be where they are and be there prominently. That means spending money in the places where we KNOW they are playing.

I enjoy my work not just because I love the evolving social/digital media landscape but also because my work benefits an industry that I personally believe is crucial in solving the world’s problems. As the federal government continues to cut spending on education, it’s up to us to compensate.

Deep breaths into a paper bag…okay. There is too much competition for donations to not invest more in social/digital solely because an internal shake-up would take effort or—heaven forbid—hurt feelings. We’re not pushing cheaply made clothing on people. We’re not selling used cars. We’re selling the future by investing in the present. You know what Jake and Elwood Blues would say, right?

While the debate over our origins is for another time, we cannot deny the fact that what happens on our campuses puts us in an advantageous position.

The question remains: will we allocate an appropriate amount of dollars and staff time for reaching our constituency via social and digital media? I feel we’re at a pivotal moment in higher ed where tuition costs and access to education is becoming increasingly controversial, and the threat of a bubble burst looms like a soapy hula-hoop at a science center. We don’t have the luxury of continuing to do business the same way we’ve done it for the last 50 years. We MUST take social advertising seriously and begin shifting resources appropriately.

The next time someone scoffs at your ideas to overhaul your communications or marketing strategy, challenge them to go rent a movie from Blockbuster Video. When they inevitably say “That’s impossible, there is no Blockbuster video anymore,” simply respond with “Exactly.”