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First Impressions Friday: Portland State

First Impressions Friday: Portland State

It’s First Impressions Friday! Time to take a look at a higher education home page and ask ourselves if this is really the message that institution was trying to make.

Today’s example: Portland State University in Portland, OR.

Three-Second Judgement

First off, I love the domain name. is the best combination of succinct and meta. Using your airport code rather than the abbreviation of your name is uniquely Portland. And as we know, Portland likes to keep it weird.

Unfortunately, everything falls apart after that.

Where do I click first?

At first glance, I count five different typefaces. The primary navigation is the smallest text on the page.

The action steps navigation (“Follow Us, Visit, Apply” et al) is somehow too big and too hard to find at the same time.

As a user, I don’t really know where to begin my journey.

Content Drill Down

On a messaging level, this page is a mixed bag. While there are several stories and photos about the work the college does, the page doesn’t project a sense of place. There are not a lot of context clues about the campus environment, the size of the student body, the academic emphasis, or the institution’s place in the city.

I get what they are trying to do here. But boy, work on your copy a little more! “Colleges throughout?” Throughout what?

Which is more important: “sign up” or “Transfer Open House”?

Overall Grade:

High Points:

  • The domain name is cool.
  • The color palette, while uninspired, is at least consistent.

Low Points:

  • Does not use a responsive layout. BIG problem for accessibility.
  • No clear hierarchy of information. Everything is splattered across the layout with no logical flow.
  • Lack of compelling imagery

Interested in working with us?

Making Water Flow Uphill

Making Water Flow Uphill

Which way does water flow?

If it seems like a trick question, it’s not.

Water flows downhill. Every time. No exceptions.

And yet there are always people who occasionally want to see water flow uphill.

Many years ago, I was running a small (at the time) one-man production shop at a major university when I was asked to produce a piece of video content for the student recruitment website. I was brought alone into a room with four managers and told that the assignment was to create a “year in review” with specific shots of a young freshman experiencing all the various activities and seasons of a typical year on campus.

There was only one problem: the conversation was happening in June, and the video was due in August.

The four managers unfurled rolls of paper containing storyboard sketches. They had a very specific list of things that needed to be featured.

Football games.

Campus picnics.

Field trips.

Trail hiking.

Snow skiing.

Crowds of people on campus.

“Wait.” I said. “You want me to film a ‘year in review’…in two months?”


“Um….” I tried to let the reality of the situation sink in. It wasn’t working.

“Is that a problem?”

“Well, it’s late June. And there are twelve months in a year…”

Blank expressions turned to mild annoyance. “Is there a reason you are unwilling to comply with this request?”

Try as I might, I could not convince the room of experienced and oh-so-wise managers that you need to shoot the footage before you can use the footage. When I pressed the issue further, I got the most condescending response possible.

“Oh you just don’t get it. We only need a snippet of each event – not hours and hours of footage. It shouldn’t be too hard for you to find just a snippet.”

What the heck is a “snippet” anyway?

Try as I might, I could not convince the room of managers that it doesn’t matter if you need two seconds of footage or two hours: the footage has to exist before you can use it. Water flows downhill. You can’t make it flow uphill. You have to source the assets before you can use them.

When you build your marketing plan, think in terms of a supply chain. The assets (text, photos, videos) have to be sourced at the beginning. Then you can edit them. Finally, you can distribute them. The materials you produce start upstream and flow downstream. And you can never violate that rule by asking your team to produce content from assets that don’t exist yet.

As you grow your team’s capabilities, think about what is coming “downstream” of where you are now. Want to produce a slick new student recruitment viewbook? Shoot the photos 8-12 months ahead of time to capture your campus in the right seasons. Want to have high-quality copy in your brochure? Hire a writer with the skills to do it well, and provide them with the lead time to do the proper research ahead of the deadline.

Water flows downhill.

Every time.

All the time.

If you remember that, everything in marketing gets a whole lot easier.

How to fail at engagement and alienate your audience

How to fail at engagement and alienate your audience

One eager attendee raised her hand tentatively. The presenter called on her and listened to her relevant, on-topic question.

She got three quarters of the way through it before she was cut off.

“Wait wait! I’ve got some slides that talk about your question a little later on. We will talk about that later. Ok, back to my presentation…”

It wasn’t a big room or a big crowd. There were maybe fifteen people in the audience, and the presenter knew he was speaking to an audience that was looking for practical answers.

But after another hour and a half of poorly-designed PowerPoint, the audience question still wasn’t answered. It was supposed to be a 40 minute slideshow with 20 minutes of Q&A. Instead it was nearly two hours of slides and almost no meaningful discussion.

The presenter somehow thought that their PowerPoint slides were more important than engaging the audience.

If you have known me for any length of time, you know my life’s message is to know your audience. It affects every other decision you make, from content to presentation, from hiring to firing. Sometimes knowing your audience is a high-altitude discovery process of market research and focus groups. Other times, it’s simply taking the time to listen rather than ramming your content down the audience’s throats.

Looking for a reality check on your institution’s ability to listen to your stakeholders? Give Recraft a call. We specialize in cutting through the clutter and discovering what matters most in your public engagement.

Interested in working with us?

Is a research focus in undergraduate education a bad thing?

Is a research focus in undergraduate education a bad thing?

Is a research focus in undergraduate education a bad thing?

Ryan Craig – a contributor to Forbes – seems to think so.

According to a Brookings study published in January that utilized unique “matched student-faculty data” from Northwestern University between 2001 and 2008, “there is no relationship between the teaching quality and research quality of tenured Northwestern faculty.”

Craig makes the well-meaning argument that heavy investment in research-focused faculty doesn’t directly affect the quality of undergraduate instruction. After all, just because someone is recognized as a leader in their field doesn’t make them better at imparting their skills in the classroom.

He goes on to say that:

Colleges and universities that continue to allow faculty research agendas to drive curricula will find themselves at a disadvantage in preparing students for good first jobs. (Although research-driven curricula isn’t necessarily at odds with what employers need, it’s less likely to include the appropriate mix of cognitive, non-cognitive and especially technical skill development that most employers are seeking in entry-level hires.)

So is he right?

Yes. But I also believe he is missing the point.

On the surface, this is a classic case of correlation being confused for causation. There are many instances where an institution’s quality of instruction is driven by the output of research flowing from the faculty. There are also plenty of times where the research lives in the silo and has no bearing on undergraduate education.

Dig down deeper though, and you find a problem that transcends these issues of instruction vs. research. Namely, the lack of transparency in individual degree programs.

When you sell a college or university, you often have to rely on the strengths of the whole in order to persuade an individual student to enroll. An aura of high scholastics is presumed to permeate throughout, totally disconnected to the fact that each academic program is a small universe unto itself, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Just because program “A” has good teaching faculty with a skills-applicable research focus doesn’t mean that program “B” has the same thing.

This needs to change.

A student registering for a degree program needs to have ALL the data available. Not just program comparisons and U.S News and World Reports (often bogus) rankings.

Faculty/student ratios
Graduation rates
Career placement rates
Research association to industry

As marketing communications practitioners, we have a chance to lead the change. As education costs continue to rise, our customers will become more and more discerning. And the institution that leads with relevant transparency in program promotion will have an instant edge.

Does your institution’s programs provide a fast track to employment? Prove it. Lead with it.

Does your institution’s research support real-world industries? Will students studying in that field gain industry-specific skills as a result of this research? Shout it from the rooftops.

In the end, research is not the problem. In many cases, it is part of the solution.

But the real solution is colleges and universities providing real value to the people they serve. And your institution’s marketing is the frontline in providing that value.

Are you a rising star in providing value to the people and job-creators in your region? We want to work with YOU. Reach out to Recraft Media and start a conversation on taking your engagement to the next level.

Interested in working with us?

It feels good to get fan mail

It feels good to get fan mail

Testimonials are persuasive because they build affinity. You feel comfortable with an idea or brand when a real human being can vouch for them. I spend a lot of time telling my clients about the importance of using testimonials when selling their institutions. So much time that I tend to forget about it in my own firm.

Laura McDowel from the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges in Washington State came to my rescue with this home run quote:

What makes Recraft Media shine is that they can distill your ideas and data into a sparkling, crisp message and provide the strategic vision to make sure it reaches the right people. Recraft has keen insight into the value of higher education and the public policy forces that influence it. When you work with Recraft, you are not only getting communication products, you’re getting priceless savvy.

Laura McDowel

Director of Marketing, Washington State Board for Community and Technical College

Thanks Laura!

For the record, Laura’s SBCTC is the perfect client: forward-looking, aware of their need to connect with a specific audience, and willing to collaborate in order to get the job done.

Take a look at the final product here:

Lying to yourself is the worst kind of dishonesty

Lying to yourself is the worst kind of dishonesty

“But I want to see my posts in my news feed!”

The client was incredulous. Totally convinced that his deviation from the company’s marketing strategy was paying off.

“Before, I would post stuff and it would get buried. Now, I know it’s being seen because of all the comments and likes!”

This gentlemen’s company has a Facebook page with just over a thousand likes. The content rollout was consistent and daily. There was ample budget to boost posts to pre-determined audience segments. The plan was working. And then he decided to screw it up by abruptly starting a second Facebook page with a narrower focus, inviting a few team members to like the page, and then diverting his content to the new page.

“See? This post has 15 likes already. And on the old page I wouldn’t even see it in my news feed.”

This was one of the hardest client conversations I had ever had. He was convinced that he had hit on a brilliant plan to get more results. When really he had stopped doing what was working and moved to what categorically didn’t.

For those of you who have not had the displeasure of managing a Facebook campaign, this is a classic example of an feedback loop. The main corporate page had 1,000 likes, and the new “rogue” page had around 35. But because the manager asked all his teammates to like the new page, it created an internal perception that their posts were getting more traction. Not based on data, but on the purely anecdotal impression of their own news feeds. They created an online audience made up of themselves, and then posted content that only they would see.

It was a feedback loop. A box where stuff goes in and gets reflected right back to the source. Where the only people who hear the sounds are the ones who made the sounds in the first place.

When you evaluate your marketing strategies, are you looking at data? Or are you basing decisions on anecdotes? Is your budget motivated by real results? Or by the comments of a few people and their personal impressions of what success looks like?

Need help taking a hard, objective look at your institution’s marketing? Give Recraft Media a call. We excel at separating facts from feelings, and making sure your institution is being honest where it matters most: with yourself.