Traditionally, we have viewed offline and online experiences as two separate things — complementary, perhaps, but separate. Today, the distinctions between physical and digital are dissolving — campus events are experienced both from the audience and via the hashtag — revealing themselves to be two sides of the same experience. This begs the tough question: Are we aligned?
On June 12 and 13, I delivered a presentation at Penn State Web Conference entitled Bridging the Real and Virtual Worlds: The Future of Social and Mobile Marketing, in which I discussed the need for alignment between online and offline experience.
What does that mean? It means that each side must live up to the expectation that the other sets. and that they must support each other.
Consider an academic department that has a website, a Twitter account, a phone number and a front desk. A student reaching out through any of those channels, communicating with any variety of staff who maintain those channels, should receive the same quality of content and engagement.
Going further, the critical intersection of online and offline experiences is context. Different layers of information can enhance an experience — say, a campus map display with a QR code guiding users toward the mobile version, or a Foursquare tip that clues a user in to the history of a campus landmark. Online and offline content experiences must become complementary, not distinct.
How did we get here?
As the web has become an increasingly two-way platform, we’ve developed expectations around a participatory web. In addition, as the concept of ambient intimacy explains, we’ve grown accustomed to and dependent upon an added layer of context that enhances and informs our everyday lives. In higher ed, this may come from the hashtag backchannel during orientation or the inauguration of a new college president.
In a March 2011 Wired article based on his recent book, “The Art of Immersion,” author Frank Rose says:
People want to be immersed. They want to get involved in a story, to carve out a role for themselves, to make it their own. But how is the author supposed to accommodate them? What if the audience runs away with the story? And how do we handle the blur?
Our challenge is learning how to handle the blur. Physical and digital are false distinctions that we must unlearn. The participatory web — a web created around relationships and experiences, unfolding across multiple channels and in real-time — demands it.
As the blur plays out across our online and offline content channels, the challenge is to stay aligned despite this. To do so, we need a compass we can trust.
I was thinking about this last week, when I attended the HighEdWeb regional conference at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y. Upon arriving on campus, I sought out the first available campus map in the hopes it would guide me to the campus center — and it did, with no difficulty. Plus one, MCC!
Why do I mention this? Because we implicitly trust campus maps and other available guidance—be it online or off—to lead us where we want to go. If the trail goes cold — say, the new campus center has not been added to the map—it can feel like a betrayal.
In this blended world, all of our online and offline content channels comprise a trail. If our content trail misleads because our messages are not aligned and consistent, we have betrayed our users. From consistent branding and messaging to making sure lab hours are updated on both our phone message and Twitter bio, cross-channel content alignment is critical. Any confusion is a disservice to your audience and compromises your communication plan.
A huge part of achieving this is, of course, content strategy. Margot Bloomstein discusses this in her presentation, Tuning In to Your Multichannel Content Strategy. Message architecture, style guides and editorial calendars are some of the tools that can help you achieve the necessary cross-channel alignment. And a communications strategy that considers all active channels should help counter disproportionate focus on shiny social media or inattention to the web.
Capturing and Enhancing Experiences in Real-Time
The real-time web is reality. Like it or not, we are expected to act and react in real-time, whether it’s responding to student inquiries on Facebook, live-tweeting major campus events or utilizing our experts to help explain world events via media coverage or news stories.
Now, let’s consider this real-time reality with regard to campus events. As the heavy volume of YouTube videos, Facebook photos and on-the-scene tweets tell us, it’s that people are inclined to create content almost reflexively around these experiences. How can we capture this content? I think of it like harvesting rainwater to help our platforms grow. Can we create conduits to funnel it to our website or Facebook walls? Are we sharing hashtags not only online but from the podium and via flyers, as well?
Hashtags are particularly important. I consider them a currency of the real-time web. They are a digital fiber threading together the layers of an experience. But a hashtag needs nurturing in order to succeed. Earlier this year, a Cornell University study found that hashtags required a sweet spot of four or five repetitions in order to click with the user. Are we giving our digital campaigns the effective cross-channel promotion they need to succeed?
Content in context is a hallmark of the real-time web, and two major sources of it are QR codes and location-based service check-ins.
QR codes function as context portals, enhancing our in-person experience with related digital information — for example, a flyer for a career workshop with a code driving you to a basic (mobile-friendly!) registration form or an advertisement for a concert featuring a code linking to a short video preview. There’s a lot of debate about the future of QR codes, but whether they stay or or go these types of informational way stations will be critical connectors in this new landscape, delivering contextually-relevant content.
The same goes for location-based services, with check-ins leveraging our personal network and a rich history of data to convert mere geographic data points into a content-rich experiences. A single check-in at the library can tell you which study areas are the quietest, which copiers don’t work and which of your friends are already there.
Are We Aligned?
Where else does this play out? What else should we pay attention to in order to align content online and offline?