Gene Begin speaks at eduWEB 2011

Babson College on Building a Higher Education Digital Strategy from Scratch

Live from eduWEB 2011 in San Antonio

I’ve been melting in the Texas heat this week at eduWEB 2011, a higher education web conference brimming with smart EDU web folks. 

I just attended a great session by Gene Begin, Babson College’s Digital Marketing Director. He spoke on building a digital strategy from scratch, a topic near and dear to me. Gene was gracious enough to share his presentation online, which I've embedded below.

Gene took the helm of Babson’s digital team at the tail end of what he calls a “black hole of a redesign project.”  The college toiled for 4-5 years through a strategic redesign with many setbacks along the way.

As Gene assessed the road ahead, Babson could check the boxes on the traditional dysfunctional elements of higher education.

Contentious marketing and IT relationship. Check.

Throwing print content over the wall to the web. Check.

Lack of unified institutional goals and marketing strategy. Check.

Key to getting things off on the right foot was talking to folks across the entire campus.

“I became a little bit of a politician,” he said. “We had traditionally focused a lot on the revenue generating aspects of the school, but the academic side of the college wasn’t getting much attention.”

But unlike most politicians Gene was focused on delivering on the campaign promises he was making.

He worked to couple the digital strategy with Babson’s institutional strategy. It sounds so basic, yet I’ve found very few colleges and universities do this effectively.

Babson did what you would expect from a top MBA entrepreneurial school. They developed a three-year business plan for digital marketing. I love the semantics behind “business plan” which suggests a level of rigor not often seen in planning for the web (this isn’t your grandfather’s redesign project).

Gene’s approach to digital has a heavy emphasis on internal education. He strongly believes in the power of teaching and empowerment to drive digital change from within. “Our campus doesn’t know enough about how to market online or what a good user experience is about,” he says.

One of the first steps was simply staffing the right team. “I call it a hybrid approach,” he says referring to the need build a strong centralized team while also relying on the decentralized web community.

And while marketers typically lament about IT, Gene has a different perspective. “As marketers, we need to stop [complaining] about IT.”  While many web folks race to circumvent IT, he embraces the partnership and views it as a “two-headed beast” of marketing and IT to bring the digital strategy forward together.

Babson established a six-person digital team (and growing it sounds) that includes a director and five digital marketing specialists. An impressive feat considering many Universities struggle to have more than one person manning the entire web ship.

His team includes folks focused on community management and support for specific business lines like Executive Education, Alumni and the Graduate School.

The Babson governance model was different than many I’ve seen. It splits out the social media governance and website governance, which I think is interesting since social is such a different beast than the day-to-day site management responsibilities.

“We have 70 social media accounts across campus,” he said..

Did he say 70? Yikes. He got all of these folks together to help build a more unified social strategy.

Babson also developed a written web governance model (like on actual paper). It’s rare to see one of these in the wild. It charts the executive owner of each section of the website, the content lead (or champion) and the digital marketing manager in the central group tasked with supporting their efforts.

What I love about this model is the implied partnership between the department owners and the centralized team.

Babson developed a specific governance model around supporting the website. He partnered with IT to use their ticketing system and mapped out the first, second and third line support options for each department.

Website support for a large college is a thankless job and it’s great to see a working model like this put in place. I’ve found that without one, folks across campus will turn on you very quick. Of course, they may still turn on you with it, but that's a different story.

Beyond support, Gene’s approach to digital strategy also focused on this little area called “the content.”

“There’s so much damn content on your campus,” he says as a frank word of advice to the audience. “More than you can ever imagine.”

To wrangle it, Gene brought on a dedicated content strategist in for a project to develop a six month plan to prioritize content and publishing goals. He hopes this can evolve to be a full time position.

Gene’s vision for Babson online was both educational and inspiring. It’s clear he approaches the challenge with a healthy dose of humility and good humor necessary for success. I invited him to join us for a higher education digital strategy panel in Boston this fall, and look forward to seeing how it all unfolds at Babson.

And for those who weren’t able to attend in person, you could very well see the story on the big screen soon.

“I plan to write a movie script about this someday,” he says.

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