TNT2: Plan to be a champ: Turn your school’s 15 minutes of fame into a year-around web effort

Zack Barnett 
Director of Web Communications, University of Oregon

The audio for this podcast can be downloaded at

Announcer: This is one in a series of podcasts from the HighEdWeb Conference in Austin 2011.

Host: The director of Web Communications from the University of Oregon, Zack Barnett.

Zack Barnett: All right. So this presentation, it centers around football but when you watch the presentation, don't think about, well we could do this with our football team, we could do this with our basketball team. Think about, this is a way to justify your presence on campus as a Web Communications Department. I know my boss has a pretty good idea of what I do but my grand boss, so my boss' boss seems like every two months I'm sitting down with her and she's going to view the video annal of it. I'm sitting down with her saying, here's the direction we're hit, no we're not just a group of Web Developers.

So Web Communications at the University of Oregon is a six person team. We've got two developers but we have a, I'm trying to get a videographer, photographer, trying to replace a developer position with a videographer, photographer. We got a guy who has 25 years recording experience, he's doing multimedia stuff for us now.


We're really trying to move in the direction of being a story-telling unit but to do that, we have to explain what we do. So University of Oregon, I know there's somebody from Oklahoma in the room, they're used to being good, we're not. As much as people at Oregon want to say, "oh we've got this great football team" we don't have the tradition and we haven't been capitalizing on the national attention like we needed to. So in 2009, we played Oregon State and we won a game, we're going to the Rose Bowl, great. Everybody celebrated.

After that game, vice president for University Relations catches my boss in the parking lot and says, "we need a website and we need it in four days." We were caught off guard by this, we were not ready to be good as a team, not as a football team but as a Web Communications team.


My boss said, it's just going to be all hands on deck, I nearly cried, I was so pissed and I'm like "there's not very many hands" my hands were shaking, I was in rage. In 2009 we had a designer, we had a circa 1995 hosting environment, we had system, are there any system administrators in the room? Don't get offended. We had a sys admin who would say, "well static HTML is about, it's reliable as it can get, I don't know why you'd want anything different.

We had a brand new Web developer, so the Monday after the civil war that we won, that's against Oregon State that sent us to the Rose Bowl, it was his first day at work. So I wasn't going to slam him with we got to have this site up in four days. At the time, I was an interim director so we were a three-person team at the time. We hired some contractors, four days later we had what I think of now as an ugly site, but we had it up and running. It wasn't strategic, it was just pure, let's brainstorm some tactics and throw it at the website.


And that sort of the difference between communications and strategic communications. Strategic communications means you have a plan and we're going to talk about how to create that plan, you got measurements and then you're going to go back and report on that plan. You're not just going to do, "oh, this is going to be a cool idea, oh that would be a cool idea," you can always refer back to that plan. Where does it align with where we want to get this year?

First 30 days of the site, 27,000 page views. We had something to hype. We're this small little fledgeling team. We had something to hype. We had something to celebrate. And from my perspective, we had a lot of things to cringe about but it was time for us to, this is cheesy but, plan to be champs. And that meant goals, objectives, strategies and tactics. There was no way I was going to get caught with, we need to have a website in four days and not have a plan to refer back to.


So goal is our ideal. You want to align the goal for your website or your Web project with your university's overall goal. We're lucky enough to have a strategic communications plan at the university that already does that for us. So we've got everything that the office of communications does. So we're media relations, design and editing services, Web communications, everything that we do is supposed to align with the integrated marketing and strategic communications plan that already has some goals. Now if you don't have that, your university's opportunity would be subversive. Go out and write your own plan for your team. Take that direction and just go.

Where do you want to be as a university? You go visit with the people in enrollment management, go visit with people in fundraising. I'm not going to read all these goals to you but one of the goals for the university overall is to be recognized as one of the premier publics. So we want to be up there with Michigan and Virginia.


Being the institution of choice, not just for students but for the best and brightest students across some target western states. So Colorado, Arizona, California, Washington. We don't want them to stay on state, we want them to come pay us out of state tuition. And then we just name some target states. Such a bar, what do you want to do? What are your goals? And these objectives do not have to be fancy. What we're going to talk about today, dashboard level Google analytics. Take it any deeper and it's challenging to explain to the people on top.

Now that's where I want to go, I want to have a conversion rate, I want to have a click through rate. First year, we didn't, we just set some real basic objectives. This is the second year for a Champions site. We want to increase page views by over 15%, increase time spent like 20% and generate a minimum 25% of traffic from our seven target states. Those are our objectives, that's what we're setting out to do, this is after the Rose Bowl, this is not being caught off guard the next year.


Strategies, how are we going to accomplish our objectives? We have to choose a direction. So our strategies are to divert a fraction of attention from the Bowl birth to the university overall. So we don't expect football fans to come to, they're going to go to the athletic site, they're going to go to goducks but our traffic spikes at when we're on national TV, we know that.

So we're going to divert some of that attention. We're not going to stay with this real long but we're going to give them some things that maybe they didn't know. A lot of Oregon sports fans, they don't see beyond that football helmet. So we're going to expose them to the university, we're going to convert them into brand ambassadors for the entire brand, not just athletics. They're not just going to talk about U of O football and U of O basketball, they're going to talk about the university overall and they may not even realize that they're doing this.


Tactics, now this is kind of the fun part, it's important not to put your tactics first. Everybody says, "oh, I want to do this, I want to do that, I want to do this" that's cool if it aligns with your strategies and it will help you hit your objectives. So some tactics we paired, we paired feature stories on award-winners and faculty and students with athletes. So we built a new site, Some kid won a Marshall Scholarship, we just paired that with stories about athletics.

How many of you know the LaMichael James? Running Back, University of Oregon, he was the Heisman Trophy finalist last year. Put that story on our homepage, once you put the story on the Champions page, you put a slide on the homepage, click-throughs to the roof to the celebrating Champions site. So we're not just telling you that LaMichael is a finalist for the Heisman, while you're there you're going to hear about Josh Lepton who won a Marshall Scholarship.


Facebook ads, this is a tactic but what objective does it comeback and align with? It aligns with the objective, seven target states. How many of you bought Facebook ads? So it's my first four into it, it's not rocket science, you probably know more about it than I do but we just said, "look, we've got x amount of dollars, we'll spend x amount of dollars a day, we want kids who like, 16 to 20 year olds, these seven states." We want them, we picked out some, everything from Biology to Steve Prefontaine. We were going to hit some kids but we wanted that traffic.

And then we just used just a broad swath of stories on the Champions site. Everything from gospel singers, Marshall Scholar winners, just so happens I am not a huge fan of a cappella music but we have an a cappella group on campus. Does anybody watch The Sing Off? It's an NBC reality show. I had never heard of it but we had a group of singers on the show in December, it was perfect timing for us.


We had a former beat reporter, he would go home, watch The Sing Off, pound in a story, put it on the homepage the next day. He was covering that as if it was a game or city council meeting, it was a boy band but he was covering it, we're reporting it on the Champions site. Again, just another reason and another reason to celebrate, so when I talked to the executive leadership team, the vice presidents, I don't use the word champions. When I talk to academics, I don't use the word champions, I use the word celebrate. We're going to celebrate excellence as a campus and this site does that for us.

And it wasn't, anytime anybody whine about athletics. How many of you have a divide on your campus between athletics and academics? Anytime anybody whine about that, you can tell "we're covering the arts. We have on the rocks, we have the gospel singers, we have Josh Lepton, Marshall scholar"


The other thing that we did was we went to the game, we live covered the event. We went to the pep rally, we had 40,000 people out of pep rally in downtown Scottsdale, we were there with our flip cams, we were the first ones to post video of the event, we tweeted it, we had it on Facebook, we beat local TV in Eugene, we beat the TV stations in Portland with our story.

People were coming to the U of O site for news. We had story and we cover the hell out of that. As a university, we got caught off guard the Rose Bowl year, we planned and this is probably old hat at Oklahoma but in September of last football season, we planned. We were reserving rooms in Tempe, we were reserving rooms in Pasadena, we were reserving space in Miami. We didn't know where we were going. As the months went by and we kept winning, we started canceling reservations.


For the important thing for me was to get the Web in those meetings. I wasn't the one making those reservations, I wasn't the one calling donors but we were in the meeting, we were at the table because of what we had done the previous year, get us the time, put the Web out front.

How do we do when we lost the game? What we had a service project, the day before the game as a university that we helped cover. We had that on Facebook, we had that on the homepage, we had an admissions event at the pep rally. So we've called all of our prospects in the Phoenix area and said, "you have a free pass to the front row at this pep rally to meet with deans from the University of Oregon." That was just a great idea as a university, it wasn't anything to do with the website but we were there. We had video posted two hours after the event. Those prospects could go home and see themselves on the U of O's website. They might not have even applied yet but they were already on the website.


So we lost the game but our numbers were good and I don't mean statistically our numbers were good, I mean on the Web our numbers were good. Our objective, and when you do this, you're going to be reporting the statistics to an executive leadership team that might not understand conversion rates. All they care about is to set your objective a little low, you want to blow it out of the water.

We've said we wanted to increase it by 15%. We increased it by nearly 340%. Sitting there you say, "well what did you do this year Zack?" Well we leverage the hell out of the BCS National Championship game. Increased time spent on the champions website by 20%, we didn't do that. When you get that many page views, it's really hard to maintain it, so we dropped by nearly 30 seconds. Is that in the report to the executive leadership team? No. They don't need to know that.


You spend analytics in your favor, constantly. Don't report any stat unless you can spin it in your favor. Spin, spin, spin. Take advantage of the fact and they're going to watch this video, take advantage of the fact that VPs and AVPs don't understand analytics. It's just spin it. Our third objective, to generate a minimum of 25% of traffic from our seven, eight target states. We got nearly a third of traffic from our eight target states based on those Facebook ads. That was another piece where you could pull the stats out.

We spent $250 to $500 a day in the lead up to the game over about six weeks. We could report 90 million impressions, we can say that we had a pool of perspective students between 3.5 and four million. Those are huge numbers when you think about 30 million people watching the BCS National Championship game, to see your ad up here on Facebook 90 million times.


Now you and I know that that's not that big a deal. It's just an ad in the right column when somebody logs in to Facebook, they're not going to see it but to be able to report 90 million impressions, well that justifies your presence on campus. We talked yesterday in the Leadership Academy about how there is money to do something with numbers like that, they will find the money because you're targeting students that are part of the university's overall communications plan. You have tied your Web work to the overall mission of the university.

They're not going to be able correlate directly but you can go and say, "we got nearly a third of all our traffic to the champions site was from prospects." It just went over the Facebook stats. We had unintended benefits. This is a parade after the game in Norman, Oklahoma I guarantee, when you lose the National Championship, they do not throw you a parade. In Eugene, Oregon they do.


The city came to us and said, "we want to throw a parade but we want to throw a parade for the university. We really like the words celebrating champions." Where do they get that? They got that off our website. It was a panage conversation between my boss and me, we won't stick with those words but they stuck for now. Unintended benefits, we talked about the divide between faculty and athletics. When you have faculty members marching in their regalia through downtown Eugene getting cheered on. And this is the Physics professor wearing a duck hat. And you just don't see that on our campus. Professors do not want to be tied to athletics.

You can't really see these photos but the city put on the parade, they stole, it's perfect, they stole our slogan. Public works, community champions. Celebrating champions up here on the stage. It's off our website, it was tangible, it was real.


Now we didn't let it die. We celebrate campus milestones. We said, "OK, game's over. How do we come up with another communications plan to really leverage this momentum?" This good will that we pretty much have with our whole campus. Athletics offices are at one side of the river, campuses on the other. We like to talk about each other. On the other side of the river, they don't want to do that. We had a bridge and we didn't want to lose it.

So how do we leverage campus milestones? I sat down, come up with another plan. We had 45 celebration videos, the video's not loading, it's an embedded YouTube video. We sat down at the alumni sendoff. So the Alumni Association a couple of weeks before commencement, they get, they invite all the seniors, they want members, they invite all the seniors, give them free root beer floats, everything, they tried to get, I think they had 5000 kids or 2000 kids and we sent our reporter with the flip and we just had, we gave a little script and we gave the kids a T-shirt saying tell us about your champion over your four years, who helps you, who is the individual who helps you?


We had kids saying, "oh, it's my Physics professor, she taught me to live for passion and I am so and so from being rich in Oregon and I'm graduating with a degree in business." We had people thanking their work study bosses. We had people thanking their friends but the important piece for us was it was a diversity of students saying "I am Theresa Baker from Corvallis, Oregon and I want to thank my Business professor." little 30 seconds snippets, put that on our celebrating Champions sites. We are celebrating commencement. And we're drawing in a whole new audience.


Commencement marked the second highest day of traffic to our Celebrating Champions website. We changed the homepage six times that day, we were telling a story. It was back to that live coverage of the pep rally, we were going to be there, we were going to be there first and damn it, we were going to celebrate it.

So important notes as we talk about doing this, it wasn't just a strategic communications plan that allowed us to do it, we doubled the size of our staff. In part because of the success that we had just throwing something together preparing for the Rose Bowl, gave us stuff to go and make the ask with. We built an alliance with Central IT, we convinced that another system administrator that we could do something more complex, we got significant investments in infrastructure to make that happen and we're able to rebuild the homesite. All of those things allowed us to move from tactics to strategies as a team. We are a one person shop, I think it'd be hard to put together a strategy because you just got your head down tactic, tactic, tactic, tactic everyday but you have to be strategic. The less time you have, the more time you have to be strategic.


So just kind of run through what needs to be in your plan, you need goals, objectives, strategies and tactics. Goal is your institutional ideal. Objectives, that can be as simple as dashboard level analytics. If you're an analytics pro, conversion rates, whatever you want, hard numbers that your 're going to hit and set them low. Strategies, those are the directions of choices that you're going to make. We're going to drive people to our website using postcards and postcards are a tactic but we're going to use print, we're going to use Web, we're going to use Facebook. Tactics are the actions. Those are the assignments that people leave the room with. You're going to go write five feature stories about graduates.

20:05 Now we have time for questions and we also have time about moving forward. As a team after this, we had doubled in size, we can put our heads down, we built a new homesite, we could put our heads down, we did Champions. After that we were kind of, "OK we came up for air in February" looking at each other, "what are we going to do now? What are we going to do now?" My boss' boss didn't understand what we really did as a team, it was an opportunity for us to be a little bit subversive, we came back with, they didn't ask for it. May, met with my boss, "here's our strategic communications plan for 2011, 2012" and he loved it because it was his goals, my objectives, my strategies and my tactics but he loves seeing his goals from his overarching plan. It's the only unit in the office of communications that did it, I wasn't trying to make other people look bad but I wanted to do certain things and I wanted to be proactive. I don't want to just do this, here's how we're going to measure it, here's how we're going to evaluate ourselves and then the last piece that's not in the presentation is you report the hell out of it whether it's bullet points to your VPs.

Mark Greenfield calls himself a web evangelist, people on campus at the university are sick and tired of hearing me go off about celebrating Champions or strategic communications planning but they understand it. We're getting, "hey could you get this story on champions for us, hey could you do this on champions for us" that's the idea. The library is calling, can you get this. Who thought the library would want to do stuff on a Champions site that was built for football?

Really the idea for me, I kind of hope as a football fan, I want to end up in the Rose Bowl this year but as a professional, I kind of hope we don't, I kind of hope we're in the Holiday Bowl or the Sun Bowl because I want to drive home the fact that this site is not tied to athletics. This site is a place for campus to celebrate.


That's not a real strong finish but that's what I have. We got time for questions.


Audience: [Indiscernible]

Zack Barnett: The nice part about getting content from campus right now is we were able to go out and get a newspaper reporter. We went from being reactive to getting those requests and saying "damn it why haven't you done that, you're an idiot that you didn't cover this kid" to going out and really being, he covers it like a beat. He knows professor's office hours, he knows where to go and when. He will camp out outside of a dean's office just to get that one number, that one profile, that one stat. Is it a little bit annoying for them? Probably. Is it overall, is it good for us? Yes. Do they love him now? Yes. Does he do a great piece? He did a piece on campus landscapers, it's on our homepage right now.


I rolled my eyes when he pitched it to me, they love it. And he pictured as we have 11 people who make this campus beautiful and that beautiful campus is one of the major selling points for people. So that goodwill while the primary audience at our homepage is not the landscapers, it's definitely not internally focused website. It's important for us to be able to focus externally but build goodwill internally. So that was part of doubling the staff was we don't have to wait on you to send us those stats. I think we've got about five minutes left.

Audience: [Indiscernible]

Zack Barnett: Yeah, we nabbed him. People are jumping out of a newspaper business and me, my background is in journalism too and I just thank my lucky stars that I ended up at the university but yeah.


We've got a couple of them, couple of guys, one with 25 years, one with 30 years, they didn't really like it when I said, "my first job in journalism, I worked at a paper with 12 reporters and if you added up our experience, it didn't even touch, it wasn't probably even half of the experience that you guys have in journalism" but they're great. They are just awesome.

Audience: [Indiscernible]

Zack Barnett: Sure. How did we, can help our former journalist recovering journalist, learn to write for the web. They're good writers, by and large. Newspaper people are deadline oriented, they pound in copy, they work at a much faster rate. And he wanted to learn. Part of the reason we hired this particular guy, he had a hunger, he was ready to adapt. He learned video. If you look back at the video he was doing a year ago and the video he was doing now, it's great. The difference is huge.


That said, sometimes he'll turn in a piece and we'll sit at my desk and we'll make a paragraph bullet points. We will wrap text around a photo that maybe, might not happen. So there's still, I don't want to call him. He's here, he's at this conference, he's learning how to think about things. And it's really fun when he post something to Facebook or he goes out. We bought him an iPod touch and he just roams campus and he's posting things to Facebook, shooting the photo and it's on Facebook. Shoot this, shoot that, he's having a blast. So part of it is you just got to make it fun. I do not, I make it a point not to saddle him with tedium. Other questions?

Audience: [Indiscernible]


Zack Barnett: So we have, we identified when I said built my communications plan for 2011, 2012, we identified commencement, move-in day, those major things that you're going to have on your homepage anyway. We're going to celebrate them and we're going to measure them. So a good example of the way we measured move-in day. Move-in day 2010, we had two move-in day oriented stories on our homepage. Got a collective 3,600 page views, not particularly whopping. This year we had nine move-in related stories with 15,000 page views, some of that is being enterprising, it's going to housing and saying, "no we're not going to link straight from the homepage to your site with tons of copy with what people really want in the bottom. Send us five things." And then having a journalist, you can take those five things and rewrite them into something readable. I want that because that's my Web traffic, that's what I report to the VPs, "we got all these Web" but really it's just good Web writing.

And then so your question though was, how do we do it when we're not in season. We celebrate, whether it's move-in day, whether it's commencement. You don't have, and the title of it is leverage your 15 minutes of fame into something. You don't have to have a theme like that. We just got lucky.


What you need is a strategic communications plan so when you get that dumb request, you can go back to your boss and you can say, "look here's the plan that we agreed on, here's what we're going to do, here are the objectives that my performances tied to. Where does this fit? What comes out of it? As a project manager, what comes out so we can do that?" Other questions?

Audience: [Indiscernible]


Zack Barnett: So we use slides for feature stories on the homepage and we also use Facebook to promote copy on champions that may or may not end up on the homepage. So it's been kind of interesting to watch Facebook evolve as, I don't know if this is answering your question but a lot of what we do, Champions really is just our story-telling sites where our stories live most of the time. It doesn't have real strong calls to action. When we looked at rebuilding it for the next year, we need stronger calls to action, we need stronger convenience for the perspective student. It really was built to expose football fans to the great university. So as we look at it, is that tool and we measure it, can really justify additional work on it. That said, sometimes we post copy on stories on Champions that we don't put on the homepage politically, that's a huge play. Send us your news release, it will take one of our former reporters 20 minutes to rewrite it, post it on Champions, send the link out, people are thrilled with that. The other thing we do is Facebook stuff, we have a photo submission form on the champion site. So we'll call for photos every once in a while.


We got one from a guy in Iraq who sent, the question was where are you going to watch the Duck game this week and he said, he sent us a photo, it was a self taken of him in his fatigues, he said I'm going to watch it on my hand me down 13 inch TV that fades in and out, any day with the Ducks is a good day in Iraq. We didn't post that on our homepage, it wasn't particularly a great thing for a perspective student to see. He posted that to Facebook, I was shocked with the page we used just from Facebook. So to be able to use Facebook and Twitter to drive traffic to the champions site is another advantage.

Audience: Ken Circo of Brown University, so I assume you guys have Alumni Magazine as well So how do you coordinate your strategy and the stuff that's going in your Champions site versus the stuff that goes on the magazine? What do you do?


Zack Barnett:So the actual Alumni Magazine, the question is how do we tie, what we do the story-telling that we do on the Web with story-telling in the Alumni Magazine. We have what I think of as a really good Alumni Magazine but they don't think of themselves, they're such a good magazine that they don't think of themselves as an Alumni Magazine. So they have independent editorial control, they're not a PR arm, I think of it as NPR with the written word. It's a subsidized 6,000 word narrative magazine. They're independently. So specifically, we don't work with them but generally we have a group of story-tellers on campus. So we've got campus communicators, that's fine, we'll meet with the communicators from the other units but we have a group of people who are really into stories. We meet every couple week, the story-tellers. And that has really helped us integrate our story-telling effort whether we're linking to a feature story on the development site from the homepage or we're going to put that story on Champions or re-purpose it.

Audience: Follow up, and what happens to us is something cool happens like athletes going to Olympics, you got three or four different people writing the same story for, one for the magazine, one for the news site, I mean so in your meetings you


Zack Barnett: We're able to kind of hash it out. I'm lazy so if somebody else is doing that story, I'm going to grab it and use it. Reporters aren't lazy but they're smart with their time. So if somebody else has done it, they're going to do it and they're going to do it in a way that they think is better but those meetings are really nice. We don't share a lot of content with that Alumni Magazine. We probably could do better, they come out quarterly, we link to them from the homepage, four times a year. I would love to be able to have them doing Web exclusives that we're linking to. But by and large, the story-tellers group has been really nice.

How many of you are former journalists? So when I say when the story-teller is meeting, it really is like a budget meeting for the next two weeks. We're going to talk about what stories people are doing, doesn't mean that they're not going to get done in different places but they probably need to be done differently.


Art and Architecture is going to write a much longer story about their rock star professor than we are for the homepage. Nobody wants to read a thousand words about this art professor but 400 would be pretty good, 400 in a video would be better. Other questions? Just got the 10 minute sign, I thought we were really bumping up against something with time.

Audience: [Indiscernible]

Zack Barnett: They're sort of the cream of the crop campus communicators. So the question is where do the people in our story-tellers group come from. And it's the people who have the stories and understand stories. And a large part are doing the actual tactical work too. There are a lot of people in our campus communicators group who wouldn't fit in, in our story-tellers group necessarily I have to be politically correct here but really is kind of just the cream of the crop story-tellers.


Most of them were not heavily oriented at our university toward marketing. We are heavily oriented in our communications university relationship toward communications. So a lot of these people are story-tellers. They're just writers by nature.

Audience: [Indiscernible]

Zack Barnett: We're doing it but we've been having a conversation with my boss about a conversion rate on the website. It took a while to sort of manage up and explain to him we needed to, so the question is who's doing the marketing if we're heavily oriented toward communications. We are, it's an opportunity for us to do that. It's an opportunity for people like me to manage up.


I'm a journalist by trade too, I'm not a marketer necessarily but I can understand why we need to measure our conversion rate on the website. My boss says, "it's just enough to tell the story," well no. And over the period of six weeks, I convinced him that conversion rates were a good idea and in the seventh week he was talking to me about how I needed to be measuring my conversion rates. So a lot of it is just managing up. Yeah, in the back.

Audience: [Indiscernible]

Zack Barnett: We're big on directors and assistant directors. So the people who are in that group, director of media relations, she kind of runs it. She's got an assistant director, he's one of the guys with 30 years of newspaper experience. My guy, Tim, Christy, 25 years as a reporter is there, I'm there. We're really thinly staffed. When I say we have a story-tellers group, it's really easy for us to pull together our director of research communications. We've got a director of communications from the College of Arts and Sciences. Associate director of development communications is there.



We're big in name but we're small in stature, 23,000 students at U of O, we just don't have, decentralized institution but you can still touch the people and bring them together pretty easily. Other questions? Well thank you for coming, thank you for listening. I really appreciate it.