You may have gotten the request. It could come via email, in a meeting, or during a chance encounter in the staff kitchen.
“Say,” begins Steve the PR guy (or Jen the photographer, or Marie your vice president), “have you seen the social media hub (or the slider widget, or the faculty profile database) on Competitor U’s website? It’s pretty great. Can we do something like that?”
And… that’s it. A thing. Maybe they saw it on a blog, or at a conference. It may not even be the work of a competitor, but just a popular university or local peer institution. It doesn’t matter. Suddenly, it’s on your to-do list.
These requests can be frustrating — and, when coming from a manager or other key stakeholder, they may seem difficult to circumvent. We know that digital “one-ups-manship” rarely moves the needle.
But our job as content professionals is not solely to make things — it’s to make the right things for the right reasons. The content solution that is appropriate for one institution may not be appropriate for another, even if it is a direct competitor or peer institution. If we create a copy of someone else’s awesome thing, it’s like copying the answers off of the wrong math test — it’s the solution to the wrong set of problems. And we don’t have the time or money to make that kind of effort, or take that big of a risk.
When it comes to content, every university has unique needs, challenges, resources, audiences, and capabilities. Bring the conversation back around to these considerations, and you’ll have better luck telling the copycat to shoo.
Tactics for Responding to Content Requests
When dealing with a request such as this, whether it is large or small, there are several approaches we can take, sometimes combining multiple tactics.
Focus Groups and User Testing
Is this new thing right for our users? Well, let’s find out! Bring members of your target audience together for a focus group to learn about their real needs. For instance, would incoming students use a social hub to browse and follow the university’s social media accounts? Once we know, we can ask, “does this idea serve a real need?” Surveys and user testing can also help unearth user needs — and you may find proof of more pressing matters within your existing digital properties to attend to.
Do you already have content serving the intended purpose of this new thing? If so, lift the veil and show the value, putting the numbers in context and showing conversions, if at all possible. Maybe you will discover significant external traffic coming to your existing media expert pages or press releases (perhaps correlated to related press coverage), mitigating the need to invest in a fancier option. If you paint the choice as being between cold, hard, real data and a nice-sounding idea, it becomes a little harder to support.
Need data beyond your own testing, measurement, and user research? Whether it’s from Pew, Nielsen Norman Group, Noel-Levitz, or other available resources, there are reams of data available that offer quantitative findings into various aspects of digital communications, both in general and as it applies to higher education. The Noel-Levitz E-Expectations data, for instance, indicated this year that 15 percent of parents use Twitter. So perhaps the parents program should reconsider going all-in on a Twitter presence. Third-party validation is always good to have in your back pocket.
If you have identified your content goals, you can embark on a competitive analysis whereupon you can examine the fancy new thing and other competitors’ similar efforts against those objectives. Evaluating these requests in the context of a) a wider range of competitors and b) your own communications goals go a long way toward bringing the discussion out of the arbitrary and into reality. You will come away with some actionable insights for the best course of action to take — and that can help bolster your argument. How do peer institutions present and organize their news content, or what types of content are they sharing via their Twitter accounts? Also, rather than craft a facsimile, you may find out which elements of the content in question are worth emulating in a way that specifically addresses your own needs.
This may only apply if the requested content does not require significant resources to create (at least not on a prototype/proof-of-concept level) and you have something currently existing you can compare it to, but set up an A/B test so you can determine which approach is truly more successful. For example, do homepage carousels draw significantly more engagement than a single hero feature? The downside (upside?) is that you may learn that this new thing is a pretty good option after all — perhaps not the expected or even desired outcome, but we’re in this to do the right work for the job, after all.
One of the most remarkable things about the web marketing and development community in higher ed is how helpful and collegial people tend to be. You never know — even someone from a “competitor” may be willing to share some information about their fancy video jukebox or interactive map. Maybe you’ll learn about a five-figure price tag or a significant resource requirement that will instantly deter your copycat requestor from pursuing the idea any further. And maybe you’ll get some valuable insights in the process.
A Better Strategy
So, yes, dealing with these illogical requests can be challenging. However, every request stems from a desire, and that desire is rarely as shallow as “I saw it on a blog.” Don’t take these requests at face value. What is the real problem the requestor wants to solve? Always ask “why” — this question is the sharpest tool in our content strategy toolbox.
It is sometimes hard to be persistent and advocate for a strategic approach without feeling like we are being contrary or subordinate. But we are not being arbitrary. Rather, we are being deliberate and diligent in the service of broader institutional realities and considerations.
Copycat requests, while challenging, are educational opportunities in disguise. Bring the conversation away from the details of the request and more around content goals, messages, and audience. How do you define success, and how do you measure it? With that foundation established (or reaffirmed), you can give serious consideration to the latest thing.
Do It Real, Do It Right
When we ground these challenging requests in our own organizational realities, we better position ourselves to do the right work for the right reason.
By tackling the real problem at hand, you will actually be solving bigger, longer-term issues, rather than simply making a thing. That kind of business problem solving prowess is more valuable — both to the institution and to your career — in the long run. You’ll be the cat’s meow.
How do you manage non-strategic content requests from managers and stakeholders?