Welcome to Brand Story Inc. I’m your host, Jay Sharman. Every week we sit down with smart folks to talk about innovative ways they are creating content to connect with their audiences. I’d like to say every company can be a media company, and this conversation hopefully helps you understand why. Joining us today is Heather Swain, Vice President for Communications and Brand Strategy at Michigan State University. Heather, welcome to Brand Story Inc.

Brand Story Inc. Interview with MSU’s Heather Swain

Jay Sharman: Excited to have you here. And obviously, running a large, Big Ten Marketing and Communications Department is quite unique, and has evolved quite a bit over the 13 years since you’ve been there. So I’d love to start by you giving us an overview of the wide range of content you produce, and the staffing that you have to fulfill this.

Heather Swain: Sure. So we have a content model that we work on to think about how we connect the Spartan story with audiences out there, different types of audiences. So we think about really developing content that supports affinity and esteem. So think about that as reputation and pride, and then we have some spirit content that we really only think about putting in social media. And then what we call actions of change, which is content that really helps folks understand what sorts of actions that we’ve taken to be accountable and a welcoming community, and the community that’s recovering from crisis. So we have a model actually built out around that, where people can understand, whether they’re in our shop or across the campus, our percent of effort put towards those different kinds of content and the buckets we need to fill up, and how much we need to create and put out there around those.

Jay Sharman: When you think about the size and scope of Michigan State, whether from undergraduate perspective or the amount of faculty and different departments you have, it’s overwhelming to me from the outside looking in, how much content you’re producing on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. Give us a scope, if you could, from your department’s perspective, how much video, social content, articles, how much are you doing a day or a month, whatever timeframe you’d want to look at. Just to give us a context of the scale and scope.

Heather Swain: Sure. It’s not actually probably as much as you think it is. And there are probably a couple of reasons for that.

  • Our writers are probably averaging a couple of stories a week.
  • Our videos, we’re probably putting out, eight videos a month out of the middle here.
  • And for social, about 25 to 30 social posts a week.

But we’re an aggregator, really, as well as a creator. So we’re aggregating quite a bit of content. And so into our, what we think of as our content hub, they’re probably 1,700 to 2,000 pieces of content that are loaded in there a year. So we have strategic partners all over campus. Some of those are dotted line reports into our office. Some of them are just more partnerships.

So there are lots and lots of people creating content, whether that’s social content or that’s content that ends up being more pitch-worthy, or its content that just really goes direct to our Spartan fans, whether those are alumni or those are parents. So there are lots of content creators all across this very vast campus. As you said, it’s really, really big. Some of those are faculty members who are creating content. So we act as an aggregator. The other thing that makes it maybe look like more content, is that we’re focused on resurfacing content too. So we’re really looking to not just completely wear ourselves out by creating new content all the time, but really being very, very smart about looking at our analytics and figuring out what does well.

Heather Swain: And taking content that’s performed well in the past, and resurfacing it at opportune times. Either because there’s a news hook around it, or it’s the right time for it. So give you an example. We have a piece of content called Land-Grant Roots that did really, really well when we created it. We created around the anniversary of the Morrill Act signing a couple years ago. And we have resurfaced it over and over, but we usually do it around a hook. So we just resurfaced it a couple of weeks ago around our Founders Day. And every time we put it back out there, it performs just like people are discovering it for the very first time. So we look at a lot of resurfacing, so that we continue to bring these important stories to our audiences.

Jay Sharman: You touched on something that’s really important there, and I think that there’s so many different people creating content on the MSU campus. If it’s not in the triple digits of departments, it’s got to be close.

Heather Swain: Oh yeah.

Jay Sharman: And so maybe let’s back up for a second there, because people listening to this who run a large corporation, if you’re thinking the Proctor and Gambles, or the Unilevers, where they have so many different brands. I think P&G has nearly 300 brands under its domain, each with their own communication strategies and content teams. You’re really the mothership in many ways. And so I’d love to get your thoughts on how that works? How do you interface, engage, curate with so many different departments who have their own priorities for different audiences? How does it work, what do you look at as your target audience?

Heather Swain: We really look at whether something can have a broader interest. So we won’t turn anything away from the content hub unless it doesn’t really meet our quality standards, and then we will. But we have a style guide that we share broadly. We have a communicators network, and we meet with them monthly. And so all communicators across the campus are welcome into that network. And we’re always sharing with them what we’re looking for, what are our quality expectations are, what this content model is all about, what our brand strategy is all about. All those things that help them understand the parameters and the thing that we’re trying to elevate up.

And then we understand that they have audiences, and they have strategies they’re trying to deliver. And we’re looking for that intersection where that content they’re creating has the ability to elevate esteem and affinity for the institution. And then if so, we will elevate it up and amplify it in a way that will reach a broader audience. But at the same time, we realize that some of it is going to be more of niche-y interest, but we’ll still give it a home and that content hub. So if you look at, we call it MSU Today, and if you look on there, you’ll see what we call categories. So news categories or topic categories. And it will still find a home there, where people looking for that content can go and find something that has to do with business and technology.

But we may not push it out to that broader audience. So we use a weekly email to drive inbound traffic to the site and take content out to our audiences. We are curating, definitely, we are looking for those things that have a cross-cutting level of interest, either from that human story element or just like anybody would be. You think about any media company, they’re looking for something that has that little bit of broader impact or spark for people, that has that relevance to their lives. What does this mean to me? Does it have to do with my health or my kids or my grandmother. That thing where you sit down at the kitchen table and you think about, is this something that I would tell my niece if I were having a meal with her? We’re always looking for those kinds of things that are repeatable, that are relatable, that have that interest to them. So that’s really where we’re making our cuts.

Jay Sharman: What does your staff that supports the content hub look like? How do you break it down?

Heather Swain: Well that’s very interesting. We’re actually in the middle of a realignment, so you’ve caught me at an interesting moment. So we have folks that we consider channel strategists, and then of course we have content creators, and we’ve been on a long journey of integration. Because of course in this world where the difference between PR and marketing has disappeared, or is rapidly disappearing, we’ve really integrated a lot. But we are now in the final stages of really pulling down those last barriers.

We have a Director of Social, we have a brilliant editor of that content hub, manager of that content hub. What we have now and are transitioning away from our PR strategist who, right now write all the content, they create the content and then pitch it for our earned media strategies. But then that content that they create goes over the wall over to our content hub to go in it. And that’s not at all an unusual formula for universities, but we feel that it’s time has come, it’s outdated and we’re ready to move to something else.

Jay Sharman: I think those not familiar with the higher ed space, like you are, may not appreciate the evolution. University Relations used to be comprised of PR experts, crisis communications, and press releases. And it’s evolved into what you’re just describing. If you step back and look at the amount of content being created on any college campus, if you look at discrete pieces of social content or video content, it’s truly, it’s a large media entity. And so to your point, I think it’s fascinating. That’s why we’re doing this podcast. You’re right in the heart of that transition still, and it takes a lot of time to do that.

I guess many people that would listen to this. So if you’re a small liberal arts college that has a couple thousand undergraduate folks, and may not have the resources that, or the perceived resources I should say, that a Michigan State or other Big Ten schools have, what advice would you give to people who are going through that as they’re building out their content hub, or content studio? In terms of staffing, critical must haves and things they should be thinking about as they’re doing similar evolutions that you are?

Heather Swain: So I’d go back to a couple of things. One is don’t forget the power of repurposing. So everything does not have to be created new all the time. And think about the partners that you have across your campus who can be actual experts in various fields who may be able to produce some content for you. Which you may be able to then edit or manipulate, but are able to give you some content you can work with.

I would say, especially those… well, all of us, but I do want to say especially those who are in the earlier stages of their careers have to think about being Fat T marketers or PR people, whatever label they like to give themselves. As I said, those differences are evaporating. And that means that you have to really think about having a combination of skills, and a multiplicity of skills. So certainly that the vertical of your T, you’ve got to have an expertise in something. But the fat part means that you’ve got to really build up expertise in a variety of related things. And that needs to include being very comfortable with digital, and very comfortable with data. And if you’re not, find a way to get comfortable. Get yourself some continuing education, challenge yourself to do some online learning. Take some courses, because that’s here and it’s not going away.

And then the other thing would be to really look at those analytics, to use data to make decisions about what content you are going to invest in and spend your time on. And look to your audience. Let your audience help you decide what stories to tell, which doesn’t mean that you’re going to not pay attention to your brand. It doesn’t mean you’re going to not pay attention to the story that you need to be telling to be strategic, but how you’re going to tell it, and how you’re going to shape it and aspects of it, you’ve got to be paying attention to your audience. Because it’s that intersection that’s going to make it work. So, especially if you’re small, you can’t afford to be making content that people aren’t really that jazzed about, they’re not interested, because then they’re not getting your message anyway.

Jay Sharman: You hit on something there, and that versatility of not only content creation but connecting the dots to the data and the analytics behind it. How do you measure success? How does your department measure success?

Heather Swain: I don’t think we’re real shocking or surprising. But we do have some very specific measures. We have lots and lots of different data points we look at, lots of different analytics. And I won’t go through all of them, but we have a few key performance indicators that are around growth for us, or where we want to move. We really use the PESOS model, that is paid, earned, owned, shared or social.

Paid, I won’t get into really, because there we have really efficiency metrics, as well as reach and consumption kinds of things. But with earned, owned and shared, earned is where it’s always been. We are working with Cision, that’s the company that we use for media monitoring. To get into a new product now that’ll allow us to view through more into what’s actually happening with the placements that we have in terms of page views to them. But that’s new for us so we’re not there yet. So earned really looks like what are our placements in key media outlets. It really looks like it did 20 years ago. Not a whole lot new there.

With social we are really looking at engagement. That’s a composite engagement metric made up of a few different things. But we’re also really looking at clicks through to content. So how well are we doing bringing people from social to our web properties. We didn’t care if we brought you out of social, people consume things in the platform. That’s fine with us. That’s all the really algorithms of social reward for staying there. But really the strategies of the social media companies are changing, and we can’t really count on them to be doing what’s good for us of course. And we have complex stories. We have complex concepts to get our head around, and we need to bring people to our platforms to really understand some of those things. So we really are looking at, on certain things, our research kinds of things, of really moving you to our properties to understand them. So we are, that is a growth metric for us that we are looking to increase.

And then our owned media, we really look at a couple of things. One has more to do with list health. So open rates matter, but that is highly dependent on what we do to our list. When we add people to it, do things like that, it affects those rates. But we still look at that because that has to do with list health. We’re looking at click to open rates, which has more to do with how good is our content. And then on websites themselves, and we’re looking at story page views. So not just any page views, but what are the page views on those stories themselves. We’re really working hard to come up with a metric that works for us on quality consumption. But we have problems with just about every single one of them. So we’re still working on that one.

Jay Sharman: Is there a platform that, to your point of making sure that you control your own destiny, is there one that that seems to be working better than the others right now for you?

Heather Swain: We really believe in, really, the mix of all of them together. So we use different channels for different things. So to reach informed public, and our peers, earned media is still really important. To get to audiences that already have an affinity with us, we’re using really more of the social and the owned, but we’re using paid almost always to amplify that, and to ensure that those things get in front of them. We’re also using paid to amplified the earned media. So if we get an earned media placement on any given day, can we be sure that who we hoped would read it would read it? Nope. So, we’re trying to make sure that that gets in front of the people that we care about with paid. So it’s all very intertwined in our strategy, and how we use those channels in combination,

Jay Sharman: I can say this, you’re one of the more highly regarded marketers in the entire higher ed space. You were the former Chairperson of the American Marketing Association Higher Ed, and you’re a go-to in the space, so it’s great to have you here. And I think one thing, regardless if you’re in higher ed or not, that’s an ongoing continuing conversation, is when you sit down with the C suite of Michigan State, how do you communicate success? And how do you find the top-level folks at a university viewing ROI on the endeavor?

Heather Swain: It’s interesting, because I just joined some of my other counterparts for a presentation to the board of trustees. And I think one of our biggest challenges that we continue to face is that earned media seems to have such an outsized place in the minds of our leaders. I think that’s natural because our board members are elected, and so it’s really present for them. And so it’s the bubble that they’re living in, and it feels to them where the story is.

Jay Sharman: For an example, so if there’s a nice article in Detroit Free Press about some innovation that you’ve created, that tends to psychologically rank higher perhaps, then a piece of social content that got viewed by more people.

Heather Swain: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it’s really difficult…I can stand in front of them, and have, with all the numbers, the size of these channels, the reach, the consumption, the engagement we get. But it just is really hard to counter that personal feeling that you have when you’re engaging with media particular media type every day. And then the media type that they engage with the most primarily is earned. Some of them certainly are social users, and that can then feel very present for them. So we use paid, we do use it to reach broad audiences, but typically it’s hyper-targeted. And they’re not necessarily within the hyper-targeted audience. So that’s a challenge, I think. And probably a challenge and has been for as long as any of us have been in this business. Probably why people have bought billboards on people’s routes home in the past. It’s what’s in front of you is what’s felt and I think that’s a challenge.

Jay Sharman: We’ve had that issue. You’re on the Big Ten Network, obviously. We’ve done a lot of work with Michigan State and Big Ten and Big Ten Network, and it’s incredible. Zero rating, not that they get many of them, but there are shows that don’t show up that get a rating, but yet the perception is everyone saw it. Because it could be a zero rating, but it’s on national television. And you do something on social that gets 100,000 views and 500 comments and a lot of engagement, and yet there’s still, depending, especially to be a little bit of an ageist, there’s still that perception of, “Yeah, but being on the Big Ten Network feels bigger than that.” It’s an interesting thing.

One of the things that we’ve done to combat that is anecdotes. When you get those emails that, “Oh my gosh, you changed my life through this story,” et cetera, et cetera. And I’m curious to go there. You’ve done some amazing stuff. That’s why you’re on this podcast. Game Changers, which you did on the story behind Michigan State’s historic role in the integration of college football in the 60s, that intersection of sport and society, which you guys produced, and was award-winning.

And even stuff that you’ve outsourced, I believe, Like the Spartans Will campaign, which is one of the more renowned campaigns in higher ed. I’m curious, about the type of anecdotes that you get from the people that you cover, and how you use those as part of your… I don’t want to say justification, because that’s not maybe not the right word, but as proof of success.

Heather Swain: Yeah, those are always helpful. And I think that’s a good point. If folks are in a certain space, and it’s happening in a limited view, it’s almost like taking the limited view of a different space and using that to just break through. I think that’s an interesting point. And I think another thing is that we’ve always used research and research can pull… It can pull forward anecdotes, and then pair them up with some research numbers. So the anecdote becomes the one example that then proves the rule that is in your research numbers.

Heather Swain: So when I was doing this presentation to the board, I went through all of these channels and went through all the numbers, and I could see that my numbers were starting to numb them. And then I said, “Hey, but what does this all add up to?” And we have a brand tracker, and what we’re looking at is, we’re really trying to change people’s hearts and minds. So we’re using all these channels and we track all this performance and we have growth targets, and okay, Heather, what are you trying to say?

What we’re really trying to do is change brand perceptions over time. And so we have likelihood to recommend, and here’s how it’s changed and here are these key perceptions and here’s how they’ve changed. And look, they’ve all gone up and none of them have gone down. So then that helps them to distill it into something that, oh, okay. And then like you’re saying, if you compare that with a couple of anecdotes that show, oh, and what does that make people think or believers say, then that that is helpful.

Jay Sharman: I’m curious, we get to see a lot of content come through these doors. We work, as I mentioned with the Big Ten, as you know. And you guys are at the top of the list in terms of content creation, in terms of the quality, that intangible quality. You guys do a great job with that. I’m curious how you decide what to keep internally versus outsource.

Heather Swain: So a lot of our brand content is done internally. We feel like we are the stewards of, and really understand the brand really deeply. So especially that heartbeat content. It’s got to happen, it’s got to happen all the time. We’re doing ourselves. Things that take a higher level of either discipline-specific expertise or just really higher production quality, we’re outsourcing.  But generally, I don’t have my team do national TV spots. We don’t do our own marketing research. We don’t do our own media buying. So things that are either episodic, or really require just a level of expertise, or talent, that it isn’t sensible to buy and keep on staff all the time, those are things we tend to outsource.

But if there are things that we need to have a steady stream, and do all the time, and we really need to understand and own our brand, those are things we do in house. And we try to nurture, grow and retain that talent. So it’s really important to us. Actually, I should add to the… If have a small team, what do you need on it? Particularly with video. Video is essential to storytelling. Visual content is essential to storytelling. We know we have to have great writing, but today great writing isn’t enough. We have to have great visual storytellers. And so we really work to grow those and build those. And fortunately, we have great programs at Michigan State, and we’ve been able to actually have interns who have turned into fabulous employees and are on our team. And so that’s something that I would say. If you’re a small team, you got to make room for, and nurture, that visual talent, because visual storytelling is essential.

Jay Sharman: I saw birth of a rhino your YouTube page, and that got a lot of traction.

Heather Swain: Don’t you love it?

Jay Sharman: Yeah. And that’s great. It just does not work in words as well as it does visually, right?

Heather Swain: No.

Jay Sharman: So that’s great. All right, so last question for you. You mentioned it before, you’re connected. You’re connected with CMOs and VP of Marketing at some of the most trusted brands in higher ed, and I know you’re on their speed dial as you guys compare notes about the rapid change of content creation and execution, like we’ve been talking about. What are the next hurdles, and what are the next opportunities in the higher ed space that you see, that you’re thinking about right now? Where do you see this going over the next two to four years?

Heather Swain: I think the question that, and it’s not just now, but over the last X number of years, that has been asked the most frequently. Often people ask about budget, but it’s about structure. Over the years, people have really wrestled with structure. What’s the best structure? What’s the best organization of team? How do we put this thing together to best facilitate success? And there’s not just one to answer, but are there better answers? I think so. And we know that change is going to keep happening. Change in the industry is going to keep happening. We’re not going to reorganize or realign every time it keeps happening. So how do we create structures that best allow flexibility and pivoting. And how do we create processes that also facilitate that?

We’ve been doing a lot for a long time with what are the ways of working that will allow us to integrate. We felt like we had gone as far as we could with that without another restructure, which we haven’t done for quite a while. But that’s part of what I see people wrestle with, is what is the right structure and what’s the timing on those things. And I think it’ll also become a bigger question, what to insource, and what to outsource? I think that we are starting to use more outsourced resources for continuous stream things. And the reason I think that will become more of a trend and… Or more of a question, is because, frankly, the more technical needs, more data literacy needs, more technical talent needs built into all of your positions.

And frankly, can you get that talent in your local market? Can you get it where you live? Are people willing to relocate for that? And those are questions that all of us, no matter where we’re situated, have to ask. And then are we willing to flex our current working arrangements, our ways of working to do that. And we’re finding that the answer for us is yes, we are. We’re willing to do fully remote positions in some situations. We’re willing to have telecommuting arrangements in some situations that a couple of years ago we wouldn’t have done, but we need to assemble the team with the talent that we need. And we’re going to be creative in how we do this in order to get the right talent. We have a UX person who works in Ohio. He’s full time.

Jay Sharman: Sacrilegious for Michigan State.

Heather Swain: We have a designer who is full-time remote, has never been in this office. So we’re just assembling the team we need in new and different ways. And in that is not without some growing pains for sure. But I think that will start to be more of a question for people. And then the challenges of culture and all those things around it.

Jay Sharman: Yeah, that’s a whole different podcast. That’s fascinating though.

Heather Swain: Yeah, it is for sure.

Jay Sharman: Kudos for you for adapting. And before we part ways here, I’d love to just have you share where people could consume the content we’ve been talking about. And maybe highlight a couple of pieces that you’re particularly proud of, of note.

Heather Swain: It’s MSU Today, and that is our content hub. If you go to msu.edu you’ll see a big button right on the right, or a badge that says MSU Today. And I’d say, I talked about the different categories of content, the things that drive esteem and things that drive affinity. And we find that we really do need that blend. And so you mentioned a Game Changers. That’s a piece that we really were very proud of. Not only does it gets to the history of institution, but does highlight this really important a role that we played in integration. Land-Grant Roots is another one of those historical things that gets to our identity as a Land-Grant university.

And then there are a couple of things that fall in this more affinity basket. One of them is You Are Spartan, which was just our welcome video this year, but got great traction. Helped us introduce our new president to our community. But really just welcomed our new students to campus, and really resonated with our alumni. And then Spartan Goodwill was an award winner for us. That was our holiday card, not this year, but last year. For us, coming off a crisis, knowing what the right message was and how to do it was really critical. And it really was a… It was a video we created, but it was based off of installations around campus that allowed people to express their Goodwill wishes to one another and really express themselves in a time that was a time where people really needed healing. That’s a good one to check out.

And then we have other pieces that really talk about our impact. So Spartan Road Trip, where we showed our impact all across Michigan. And then I Am A Spartan series, which really again we’re an institution recovering, and for people to look at the camera, say I Am A Spartan, and be the people who are our faculty and our students who do the research, do the outreach, and show what a Spartan really is. Some real impactful and important things for our community in the last couple of years, so captured visually are really powerful.

Jay Sharman: Well, Heather, thanks for sharing and definitely check it out. I think if you’re in the higher ed space, there’s some real good food for thought in terms of creative ideation that Heather’s team has created. And if you’re not, there’s also such a wide range, to her point, on MSU Today of the different types of content. We appreciate you taking the time, Heather, to share some of… Pull the curtain back and share some of the secret sauce of what you’ve done. So thank you for joining us today.

Heather Swain: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Jay Sharman: Thanks for listening to Brand Story Inc. We’ll be back next week with another conversation, digging into the ways companies are becoming late media companies. Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and give me a follow on Twitter, @_JSharman and on LinkedIn.

For more on how universities are creating content and staffing their internal teams. Check our “Inside Northwestern Athletics’ Content Studio”

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