School of Thought

A Blog for Admission and Advancement Communicators Working In And With Schools, Colleges, and Universities.


2012 – 10 Highlights From A Very Fine Year

Goodbye 2012. What a lovely, challenging, rewarding year you were. Wishing all my friends and colleagues a fantastic 2013! As Frank Sinatra sings, "The best is yet to come and babe won't it be fine."

Working with nine new clients (and many old favorites) including my first SEC (Southeastern Conference) champion, several premier liberal arts colleges, two top boarding schools and two crosstown rival Catholic girls’ schools – all with their own goals, stories, challenges and victories this year!

Traveling to Beijing to begin research on the brand story for the new school Keystone Academy – a Grade 1 – 12 school you will be hearing more and more about.
Working with Bucknell University to launch its $500 Million capital campaign. To develop the digital, social and print strategy I partnered with Michael Bierut and Jesse Reed at Pentagram Design.

Attending a huge college fair in Washington D.C. and seeing my work on several tables.
Having my Yale-NUS College work (brand story, ad, print and digital messaging) of the previous year take off as the admission team for the new college traveled around the world recruiting Yale-NUS’s inaugural class. It is a phenomenal experience to see a brand new institution go from zero to sixty, attracting the most talented students.

Working with Wesleyan University to launch an “uncampaign” campaign(another Bierut/Pentagram project) in which the message is less command and control and more crowd sourced – much more on this exciting project in future posts.

Having my chapter “From Marketing Strategy to Brand Story: Telling the Story of Independent Education” in Chris Baker’s new NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) book The NAIS Enrollment Management Handbook.

Seeing the admission funnel come alive as my high school senior received a flood of recruitment materials from colleges and universities. Very interesting to watch her go through her selection process and see her accepted to several great schools.

After the Sandy Hook shooting tragedy, being asked (as a friend rather than a consultant) by one of my favorite college presidents, Oglethrope University's Larry Schall, to help with a letter urging gun control that was eventually signed by over 300 college presidents. 

Having several of my personal essays published including in the Sunday New York Times Modern Love column.



Getting Comfortable with the Unfamiliar

Last week, as I deplaned in an unfamiliar faraway city – Beijing – without a way to contact the person meeting me, I was immediately reminded of another airport arrival in another faraway city a long time ago. It's been many years since I was 17, arriving in Egypt, scared and furious with my mother.

We'd come to Cairo a day earlier than our tour began. Our travel agent had made a mistake so of course it was my mother's fault. As we made our way past armed military guards, we saw no American Express tour guide holding our surname on a cardboard plaque. Egyptians greeting arriving passengers thronged against a fence that barely held them back – their outstretched arms straining.

In my mind, the airport is filled with the high-pitched trilling of women as frantic- seeming as the crowd. But this is a trick of memory. The celebratory ululation that discomfited me didn't happen until we arrived at the Nile Hilton where several weddings were taking place. I sat in the lobby sulking as my mother went to see about a room. But the Hilton, whose American name was a beacon to me amidst all this strangeness, was fully booked. She was told to return the following day when our stay was to begin. Which is how we ended up at a perfectly fine hotel with me refusing to do anything but sleep fully clothed on top of the covers. I was shutting down like a toddler who will walk no further and sits down until a parent scoops him up. It's a wonder my mother put up with me. Maybe only a mother would have.

At the time – over three decades ago – if you were American, traveling abroad was still something of a rarity. Mostly for the rich, the retired or backpacking college students. We were none of these. My mother and I had been traveling together – always in Europe – since I was eleven. She saved her vacation days and we went for five- and six-week stints. Our Egyptian tour was not the usual M.O. but rather my mother's nod to being a novice on a non-Western continent. Normally, she planned our itineraries on her own. Her fun for the year. Later, we abandoned tourism all together, renting apartments, taking language classes, forming circles of friends.

My trip to Beijing was not my first time in Asia, but my first in China. I was there to work on a new bilingual school project (about which I will write more in future posts). As I explored non-tourist neighborhoods, took taxis with only the hotel's address card in Chinese characters to assure that I find my way back, and found myself the only Westerner more than once, I was grateful for the global experiences my mother gave me. Grateful that she ensured I would become someone willing to turn outward and face the world despite the fact that at times the panicked girl arriving in Cairo still exists within me.

That first night in Egypt is emblematic for me of what is meant by clichés like lifelong learning and global education. I was the exact age of many teens in school today who take their first service-learning or study abroad trips.  Some lean into these adventures. Others resist and need coaxing out as I did. If they are lucky, they will get used to experiencing the unfamiliar as a familiar rather than scary sensation, paving the way for another cliché – lifelong learning.

It's ironic that what scared me the most that night I spent in the Shepheard's Hotel (at one time one of the most celebrated hotels in Egypt) refusing to get under the covers, was my worry that my mother was not up to the task of keeping us safe. Everything was too unfamiliar for me to see beyond my own panic at how beautifully she'd managed. I couldn't see that despite the fact that we didn't know the language, we had no transport, no hotel, looked the odd man out or in our case the odd women – my mother embraced the experience undaunted.

What surprised me most about my recent experience in Beijing was to find my mother's confidence and capability living within me. As I explored the Temple of Heaven on my own, climbed the Great Wall, met new Chinese colleagues, interviewed Chinese parents about their hopes and dreams for their children’s education, I was thankful that my own mother had been determined to engage the world and to take me right along with her. She’d put up with my childhood objections to yet another museum, my fainting spells in Greece and Italy, my fears over men who tried to pick her up – in every city, my missing a train and getting lost for nearly a day (a whole other story) and more. She knew she was changing my life for the better. And even then, despite my protestations, I knew it too.


Global U. Global Me. 

A few years ago, I lamented the fact that I had not chosen a global career. Rather, my work as a communication strategist and writer for schools and colleges was firmly entrenched on campuses all over the United States. I've studied abroad and traveled fairly extensively but I wanted more than pleasure trips. I wondered how I might market my expertise to schools and universities abroad but foresaw language barriers and educational systems very different from those in the U.S. 
Then something amazing happened: NYU President John Sexton imagined a "global network university" with "portals" in New York City and Abu Dhabi.   His vision for NYU Abu Dhabi wasn't some study abroad satellite. This was a whole new college -- a liberal arts college -- rising up on Saadiyat Island. In 2009, I was lucky enough to work on the project, helping to brand the new college and craft its story. 
In 2011, I went to Singapore when Yale and the National University of Singapore forged a partnership to launch Yale-NUS College, a new college with a curriculum that reimagines liberal arts from both Eastern and Western perspectives. My job again has been to help frame the story of why this new liberal arts college was founded by two great research universities. 
I often say to the schools that I work with that what I do is look to their history and their aspirations to capture their epic story -- the one that began with their founding and has been unfolding ever since. My goal is to reveal that epic and invite prospective students, parents, donors to see themselves as potential heroes in that story and make it their own. 
Unlike the work I have done for my clients in the U.S. and Canada, the NYU Abu Dhabi and Yale-NUS College projects were startups -- no campus, no current students, no rich lore to turn to for inspiration. Our job was to conjure the dream of what each place could and can be. Nothing is more exciting than to see each of those visions come alive -- to see faculty from all over the world vie to teach at these colleges; to see students from all over the world apply to them.
Now, next week, I will go to Beijing to work on my third global startup. This time, a day and boarding school called Keystone Academy. I plan to blog about the trip so stay tuned. After writing for years about the global world schools need to prepare kids for, it is pretty exciting to be living it.



The Next Big Thing — My Creative Side Project

When I lived in Camden, Maine, I used to hike Maiden’s Cliff quite a lot. It’s the site I chose for Evie’s fall. The cliff’s namesake maiden was 11-year-old Elenora, who fell reaching for her hat in 1864. Several years after it happened, her sister recounted the story to The Camden Herald like this: “I remember exactly how she looked. When I last saw her she was sitting on a rock near the edge of the cliff trying to hold on to her hat in the wind. I turned to speak to my friend and heard a scream, ‘My hat!’ When I looked where Elenora had been sitting, she was gone.” I love Tina Roth Eisenberg’s (aka swissmiss) talk on side projects and how necessary they are for those of us in creative fields. What she found is that her side projects are actually front and center in her professional life. And I would say the same for me.

I’ve always known that in the age of brand storytelling, my fiction-writing skills inspire my marketing work. But under the heading of “use it or lose it,” I was surprised to discover — after taking a hiatus from fiction writing — that the marketing work I do for schools, colleges and universities has actually improved my creative work.  Having to hold the attention of teenage prospective students looking for colleges has forced me to focus on compelling hooks and pacing more than ever before. With some recent essay and story success I decided to take the leap to write a novel. So when my novelist friend Elizabeth Mosier blog tagged me in her post on The Next Big Thing and asked me to write about my novel in progress and share it here on School of Thought, I agreed. I hope my “side project” inspires you to feed your own creative work.

What is the working title of your book?

Coma Girl: The Late Great Blooming of Evelyn Dupree.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

In some ways the old “I wish I’d known then what I know now” adage is part of it. At the heart of the story is the dichotomy between two friends and their approach to life: One grabs as many goodies as she can; the other is ever on the side of the pool waiting to dive in. Then something happens to make her dive in — how will she use the finite time she has left? 

What genre does your book fall under?

General Fiction/Women’s Fiction

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

The two best friends at the center of the story are supposed to look similar to one another but one is a lesser version of the other, having not quite come into her own. Perhaps Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain, who look somewhat alike.  Or maybe Gwyneth Paltrow for the friend and Emily Mortimer for the main character. For the love interests, there are two good guys and an insincere but charming guy. For the good guys, someone like Matthew Macfadyen, Andrew Lincoln or Chiwetel Ejiofor. For the smarmy guy, a Bradley Cooper type.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A woman in her twenties awakens from a coma in her forties and has to reinvent her life, reconciling the actions that led to her accident and coma and making peace with the people who in some ways stole her original life.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Two years. The first third went like wildfire, complete in three months. Then I got stuck for several months on the second section and put it aside because I was also in the midst of multiple client projects. But once I figured out the middle section, the last third flew.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, both by Audrey Niffenegger, and some Alice Hoffman novels in which the world feels real with just a touch of otherworldliness.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My desire to write the book came after a night with my book club friends in which several confessed they had not read the heady literary novel assigned but had all passed around a popular, fun novel. I wanted to write a book like that — one that my smart women friends would want to read not because they were “supposed” to but because they were enthralled.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The action moves from a summer cottage enclave in Maine to New York City and L.A., and involves a political campaign, a paparazzi frenzy, new research on comas, and a mystery of mistaken identity. 

As I work on the novel I continue to write shorter pieces including upcoming memoir essays in Narrative and Memoir.

Who have you tagged?

Now you can read about the upcoming works of these fabulous writer friends: Susan Barr-Toman, author of the novel When Love was Clean Underwear, Kristin Ohlson, author of Stalking the Divine and coauthor of Kabul Beauty School, Clark Knowles, whose stories have appeared in Glimmertrain, The Black Warrior Review, Nimrod and other publications, Laurel Saville, author of the memoir Unraveling Anne, and Tom Schabarum, author of Airstreaming and The Palisades among other works.



Words I Live By

For about eight years this photocopy has been taped to the wall of my office.

It's from a little promotional book produced by advertising executive Robert A. Wilson (father of the Luke and Owen).

On the opposite page I underlined the following: Audiences need insights. What can't be absorbed won't be remembered. Tell stories worth remembering.

Methods may have changed during the last eight years, but the wisdom of Wilson's advice is just as brilliant.


I've Learned A Lot from Boarding Schools

Posting anew this op-ed I did for The Christian Science Monitor in honor of the client school that first inspired it five years ago and the new project I have just finished for the same school.

"Unlike Harry Potter, I didn't have the opportunity to attend boarding school, but I have talked to hundreds of kids who have. I make my living telling their stories in the 'viewbooks' schools send out to prospective students and their parents."

Read the rest here.


2010 Was a Thrill Ride

I don’t know about you, but as I get older the years seem to flit by faster. Weren’t we all just sending good wishes for a Happy 2010?

I confess I constantly fight against the feeling that time is slipping away. I must force myself not to worry about what I haven’t accomplished yet. When I turned 38 (I won’t say how long ago that was) I remember someone saying to me, “Yeah, now is when you admit to yourself you’re never going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone.” Don’t worry this post gets cheerier.

The feeling that time goes faster is an illusion. For me, it actually indicates how full my life is now compared to my younger life. When I take stock of “what I shipped” Seth Godin and Brad Rourke style 2010 feels like a grand adventure.

On the work front
I got to work with some amazing clients including:
Columbia University
Concordia College
Dickinson College
Flint Hill School
Fredericksburg Academy
Girard College
The Hotchkiss School
Lafayette College
Middlesex School
Oglethorpe University
Philadelphia University
Ridley College
Saint Andrew’s School
Saint James School
Scripps College (It was a special honor to work with the new president of my alma mater on her inaugural speech.)
Spelman College
Swarthmore College
University of Delaware
The Winsor School
Yale University

I also got to work with some inspiring partners: Creative Communications Associates, Landesberg Design, Pentagram Design, Plainspoke, and Turnaround Marketing Communications.

In addition to all of the above, eight new clients came on board with projects now underway. I spoke at two national conferences and wrote some magazine articles.

On the personal creative front
I finished my novel, queried agents, and received several requests for the manuscript – an adventure that is still underway. I learned a whole lot about publishing versus writing – in a good way. I’ve been supported by many friends and mentors through the process of both.

On the home front
I watched my husband Brad get bitten by the yoga bug. Now we practice together, which has been such a fantastic gift. I watched my son Daniel get almost as tall as me (“I’m 5’ 2” and have a mustache. I am not little,” he declared.) I watched my daughter Carson become ever more awesome. I mended a difficult relationship with a family member. I welcomed two baby nieces into the world. I watched my mom fulfill her dream of going to Kenya – a trip that is only the beginning of more.

Looking back, 2010 was a thrill ride that leaves me grateful and optimistic about the New Year that begins today.

Sending you best wishes for your own new year of grand adventure.

Photo Credit: mgrayflickr


Join Me at TABS 2010 (Baltimore December 3-4)


Here's why you should go. Here is who you will meet and hear. Here are a few tips to make the most of the conference (Courtesy of Chris Brogan). You can register here.

I'll be there along with Dr. Andrew T. Weller, Dean of Admissions for Canadian boarding school Ridley College, and Rob Norman and Liza Fisher Norman of Turnaround Marketing Communications.

Our session is “Canadian Hogwarts Magic: National Prestige to Global Brand”
How can a local legend break into U.S. and global markets? Start with a British system head of school, an admission dean fresh from East Coast prep schools in the U.S. and a venerable Canadian institution. Add marketing expertise and communication strategy. In this case study of Ridley College hear universal lessons on market positioning, brand storytelling, and the power of design to appeal to target markets worldwide.


Bonus Material: Content is King

The Bonus Materials i.e. outtakes, deleted scenes and "the making of" are one of my favorite parts of any DVD (and the only drawback to iTunes movies). So here is a little bonus material from my latest CASE CURRENTS article.

During my interview with William and Mary's Susan Evans she told me, "Marketing and communications is changing so much. There is nothing that doesn’t require multimedia-based technology at this point. But one of the things I see people do is focus on technology when they need to be working on core messages instead." The kicker is that Evans is a technology expert. She spent 12 years working on the IT side at her institution before becoming its director of creative services on the central communications side.

She went on to say before you think about technology "you've got to focus on your institution's core values. What are you trying to accomplish? What do you want people to know about? Content is king."

I hate leaving good stuff on the cutting room floor. This is a gem.

Photo by Edgley Cesar


Partners vs. Vendors

In case you missed my column on working with consultants in the September CASE CURRENTS, here you go. It features words of wisdom from Missouri S & T's Andrew Careaga (if you're not reading Andy's top higher ed blog already, it's a must), William and Mary's Susan Evans (many thanks to Michael Stoner for connecting me to this sage who discusses what she was looking for in a consulting partner when she chose mStoner to help develop the college's new website), CCA's Dan Kehn (undoubtedly one of the top strategist/account managers I have ever seen), George School's Odie LeFever (she has the Midas touch when it comes to working with consultants and turning out gold), and the University of Richmond's Nanci Tessier (an enrollment management star who has helped her university become the envy of peers and a first choice for prospective students and parents).


A Client’s Brand Primer

The best sign that branding I’ve done works is when those who live the brand really own its ideas and language and make it their own.

In terms of my own brand, I was reminded of this when Andrew T. Weller, Dean of Admission at Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, told me what he tells other schools they can expect from working with me. I’ve worked on three school branding projects with Andrew (partnering with Turnaround Marketing Communications). He understands the process inside and out. He doesn’t use my language when he tells people what I do. Yet it is exactly what I hope clients get from partnering with me. His insights are a great brand primer in general.

Courtesy of Andrew Weller:

1. I assure people they are not going to be told who they *should* be or become but rather have reflected back to them who they already are.

2. I highlight the research done into other schools the client provides as well as the consulting team’s collective knowledge from experience. What’s the point in a brand someone already has?

3. I let them know that the work will distinguish between what is great about the school and what is great about the school that the market cares about. Who cares if we take pride in our plaid skirts from the 1880’s if prospective families don’t?

4. The end result will be market-friendly, market-digestible language – the school’s “insider” identity will be crafted in a way that resonates with the audience.

Read more Dr. Weller here.


Hallelujah, the Copywriting Matters

Recently, a few higher ed marketing communications friends and I passed around another list of words we're sick of -- breakthrough, innovation, excellence, global, real-world.

So it was with a pang of pity that I noticed a university ad in this week's New York Times Magazine in which the copy was composed almost entirely of these words.

What I didn't say when the list of overused words went around is that sometimes I wonder if we school communicators have dipped into the excellence-global-innovation well so many times that not only have we drained these words of meaning but we've emptied our thesaurus canteens as well. I also didn't say that sometimes I wonder if design has become the only way to make a message really sing.

So I was delighted to turn to the back cover of the same issue of the Times magazine and see the ad for Mount Sinai. Like the university ad, it's about breakthrough research. Indeed, both ads use the word breakthrough -- one of the ones that made it onto our trite words list.

Yet the Mount Sinai ad is powerful, persuasive, emotional. Why? For a dozen reasons that all have to do with the way it is written. Here are just a few: an intriguing hook related to something bigger than the subject of the ad (the three characters walk into a bar canon of jokes), some celebrity sizzle (the comedian mentioned is a Saturday Night Live writer and performer), a compelling story (the ad makes us care about the stakes -- the guy's life is on the line but he's not wiling to sacrifice his voice and career -- what would we do?), and a satisfying payoff (Mount Sinai docs invent a solution and save the day).

So the next time you/I despair that our word well has run dry, let's remember it's not about the words. It's about the writing.


My Take on Godin’s Higher Ed Melt-down

When Seth Godin posted The coming melt-down in higher education (as seen by a marketer) yesterday, several friends and colleagues eagerly asked me what I thought. I admire Godin and value his insights but for those of us in higher education marketing, he didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. I’m not going to examine each point. University web developer Dylan Wilbanks does a nice job of that.

The higher ed bubble has been expanding to a scary bursting for several years. In terms of marketing, the last two decades were “boom years” for higher education. The combination of one of the largest college-bound populations in history and a thriving economy led to too many applicants for the best schools. Every college and university that had the philanthropic support to do so became more competitive – adding faculty, programs, and amenities.

Given the competition for space at top colleges, lesser-known institutions were able to expand the public’s perception of the prestige category of schools beyond the Ivy League, the “Little Ivies” like Amherst and Williams, and the public Ivies like Cal Berkeley and Michigan. Marketing colleges became huge business with media outlets all too happy to produce guidebooks and websites offering new categories of “hot” colleges, “New Ivies,” “Colleges that Change Lives,” and “Colleges with a Conscience.” During this period many colleges and universities not only became stronger due to new resources, they also increased their visibility and prestige.

These boom years are over at least for the foreseeable future. The same factors that led to the boom – greater numbers of college-bound students and a thriving economy have reversed. At the same time the public and government leaders are critical of the high cost of higher education. This has been an issue for several years as tuitions rose at a much higher rate than the cost of living, but economic stress has intensified the issue. This makes perceptions of value versus prestige more important.

In addition a revolution in technology is changing the way the public accesses higher education and the way institutions think about the education they deliver. With more and more online courses and programs being offered even at top universities many in higher education have posited that a sea change is coming just as it has in the newspaper industry. No one is quite sure what the new landscape will look like and what it will mean. But if the institutions I work with are any indication most are trying to figure out how to navigate the new landscape and remain relevant.

I think the truest thing Godin says is that students and their families are not willing to blindly pay for “the best” anymore. He’s also right about the lack of quality in the majority of (but not all) direct mail students receive. (The Wilbanks post is especially insightful on this). Institutions do use direct mail to increase applications. But they also know increased applications are no longer a great measure of success given that students apply to more schools than ever. The real metric institutions pay attention to is the “fitness” of their applicant pool and their matriculating “yield” of admitted students – in other words, the students who actually enroll after being admitted.

Given that pundits have been predicting the end of higher education as we know it for most of the last decade for the reasons that I've described above, my real question is will the “end” come with a bang a la the financial meltdown or by degrees? To my mind, the rise of value versus prestige is one of the biggest changes that has been happening for a few years now. How institutions develop programs of value and prove that value in today’s world is what we higher education marketers need to be marketing. What we’ve been marketing has been mostly about real or wannabe prestige.


Stopgap Measure or Elegant Solution?

Sometimes my clients come to me and want something now. The ambition of the project they describe within the timeframe they propose will not produce the quality they want and we both know it. I can either say no to the work, dive into the equivalent of a professional “all-nighter” or come up with an option that is not exactly what the client first imagined but can be done well within the timeframe – an elegant solution. I've recently found myself casting about for a similar solution to something I want done right now.

Jane Friedman wrote an excellent post last week about not being able to do everything you want all at once. She was talking about her fiction writing but the lessons are universal. I can relate. In a perfect world I would continue to do the exciting work I’ve been doing with my clients, finish the book I’m working on as well as two others I have in mind, have fun with the family I love, practice yoga every day, write a daily blogpost and keep up with my colleagues on Twitter and Facebook, take my own advice on how best to position and market my business, teach more writing workshops, travel more for pleasure and learn two more languages. I can’t do it all (at least not at the same time) so I do what I love and need to do most right now: work, family, book #1, yoga.

All this is a long way of zeroing in on keeping the blog promise I made awhile back – too long ago in bloggertime. I promised to begin posting my portfolio through my blog. Despite writing one of those posts and gathering gorgeous photos of the work from my creative partners, I have yet to begin the series. But many of these projects are already being showcased on client and partner sites. So in this single post I've created a stopgap measure -- links to several recent projects with a little bit of background on each. You can decide if it is also an elegant solution.

Scripps College
Over the last several months I've been honored to work with my alma mater Scripps College on the inauguration of the college’s eighth president Lori Bettison-Varga. My role was to work with the college to develop the inaugural theme which resulted in "The Genius of Women." I was also delighted to work with President Bettison-Varga on her speech and with Michael Bierut of Pentagram Design, who designed the emblem for the occasion. Here is the story of the emblem that I also wrote.

Yale University
One of my great pleasures over the last two years has been working with Yale Undergraduate Admissions to conceive of and write a new viewbook and a companion book showcasing Yale as a science and engineering innovation incubator, and to translate the voice and persona of those print publications to a forthcoming undergraduate admissions website. The Yale publications have been another opportunity for me to work with the incredible Michael Bierut. The viewbook has been lauded by AIGA and Higher Education Marketing.

NYU Abu Dhabi
Another Pentagram project that was fascinating to work on was for NYU’s new Abu Dhabi campus. My role was to help craft and write a vision piece for the campus that does not yet exist to be used with multiple audiences -- prospective students, faculty, parents, and partners. I can’t share a link to that piece at the moment, but here’s the curriculum guide we also did. (Be warned this is a fairly long pdf download but it's worth it to see Michael’s brilliant use of the NYU torch on the second page.)

Middlesex School
I had the fun of teaming up with Middlesex School director of admission Doug Price, with whom I worked at Episcopal High School a few years ago. Doug hired Pentagram and me to create a new student recruitment series. You can see the viewbook here. The advancement team, Pentagram and I are now working on the school’s capital campaign.

University of Pennsylvania
Over last summer and fall I partnered with CCA to create Penn’s Your Ivy campaign which included a search publication and microsite. My role was as message strategist, writer and interviewer for the storytellers featured on the site. I’m excited to be working with the CCA team again on a new brand campaign for the University of Delaware.

Some of the most gratifying and successful work I’ve done is in collaboration with Liza Fisher Norman and her team at Turnaround Marketing Communications. The firm specializes in independent school marketing. Here are a few of our recent projects and some of my enduring favorites.

William Penn Charter School
The William Penn Charter campaign series. I love these little books, which won a CASE silver award and were featured in CASE CURRENTS magazine as a unique and innovative case statement solution. After having worked with Penn Charter on a viewbook and several other projects over the last several years, in 2009 Turnaround and I created a new brand campaign – “Reinventing Classic” and a viewbook to tell that story. It’s one of my favorites.

A few of the other award-winning projects on which we have collaborated include Cheshire Academy recruitment, Chestnut Hill Academy recruitment, Germantown Friends School capital campaign, The Orchard School recruitment. We had the fun of presenting the Germantown Friends strategy at the 2010 Annual CASE/NAIS conference.

Carnegie Mellon University
A highlight last year was working with director of central marketing Marilyn Kail at Carnegie Mellon University. I was wowed by her team's depth and breadth of message and marketing savvy across all platforms. The great Rick Landesberg of Landesberg Design and I worked with the university to develop its campaign communications including a case statement. Rick and I got to team up again last winter as faculty members at the CASE Annual Publications Conference.


Lessons Learned: My Portfolio

Like a lot of my school, college and university clients I know I need to get the word out about the great things that are happening in my business. But I'm often so busy living the story that it's a challenge to make the time to tell it.

For the last year, I've wanted and needed to add a portfolio feature to my web site to showcase the projects I've been working on. At the same time, I've been striving for more regular blog posts. Inconsistent posting can kill even the best of blogs and mine has been idling for a month as I've been traveling, presenting, and creating the work.

Solution: Each of my next 10 to 12 posts will feature one of my projects. By the end I'll have my work up and out for all to see and I will have fueled my blog.

Each project will focus on a lesson learned -- key insights that become part of AJ's School of Thought.

Photo by StreetFly JZ


Campaign Communications: 7 Steps to Move Beyond the Typical

Even before I meet with schools about campaign messaging I can guess what their fundraising priorities are. I bet you can too.

Scholarship, faculty, facilities. There’s a good reason for that. A school’s ability to meet these three needs drives its success. So how do you engage donors -- many of whom have heard it all before – in the same ol’ same ol’ priorities?

That was the challenge for Germantown Friends School, Turnaround Marketing Communications and me two years ago when the school asked us to develop its campaign communications. During its feasibility study a major donor prospect said the priorities sounded like “the typical independent school stuff.” At this year’s CASE-NAIS conference I had the pleasure of teaming up with Germantown Friends School Director of Development Sally West Williams and Turnaround Marketing Communications Principal Liza Fisher Norman to talk about what we did to move the message beyond the typical. Here’s an excerpt from my part of our session called, “From Basic to Brilliant: Not Your Typical Campaign Communications.”

For Germantown Friends it boiled down to a seven steps that I think can serve as a roadmap for any school.

1. Tap into the Human Need to Be Part of Something Bigger than Oneself
Donors are people who believe in their ability to make a difference. They give to schools because it’s an opportunity to make an impact on an issue they care about. They give to be part of something new, important or unique. They give out of loyalty and pride. All these motives equal a human yearning to be part of something bigger than oneself. Great campaigns tap into that yearning.

2. Find Your North Stars
These are the people who love and support your school and can articulate why. (I usually interview scores of people to understand a school. North Stars are the voices that stand out and tell me what makes this school different from the rest). At Germantown Friends, our guiding voices were the head of school, three donor-parents, one donor-alum, one teacher, and one legendary quote.

3. Ask Your North Stars the Right Questions
Some of my favorites: If this school didn’t exist, why would it need to be founded today? Where are the ambiguities at this school? What difference will it make to the world in 50 years if you’ve gave to this campaign?

4. Name What Sets Your School Apart (and have the proof to back it up)
In listening to Germantown Friends’ North Stars, we identified five distinguishing characteristics:

Germantown Friends . . .

  • Is a “Niche” School
  • Has a Vibrant Culture of Intellectual and Creative Ambition
  • Is a Daring 21st Century Urban School Model
  • Is a “National Treasure”
  • Is a Catalyst of Hope, Interconnection, and Positive Impact

5. Match Your Campaign’s Tone and Approach to School Culture
While campaigns raise money for the same thing, school cultures are vastly different. Is your school culture bold, proud, thrifty, intellectual, entrepreneurial?

In Germantown Friends’ case, we knew we had to balance ambition with the school’s traditional restraint when it comes to fundraising.

6. Make Your School’s Story Your Campaign’s Story
Using your “what sets you apart” messages, translate the typical three-part every-school campaign to a unique and exciting philanthropic call to action. Germantown Friends’ daring, its Quaker values of social action for the good of its community, its sense of equality – that you don’t have to be rich to make a difference and be counted – led me to think about social entrepreneurism and a micro-finance model where the collective energy of many individuals could make a huge impact. The result was an unpacking of the usual three-part campaign into seven projects that together fuel a national treasure.

The Germantown Friends School Voices for the Future Campaign Call to Action:
7 Projects to Change the World

  • Fueling a National Treasure Endowment
  • Extraordinary Teachers Endowment
  • Faculty Innovation Endowment
  • Sustainable Urban Science Center
  • Middle-Income Family Tuition Relief (Later became Access and Affordability Financial Aid Endowment)
  • Community Scholars Program
  • GFS Generations Fund (The emphasis was on all generations participating in the annual fund, particularly young alumni. Later became simply GFS Annual Fund.)

7. Make Your Case Tangible, Doable, Fun
While the campaign message needs to be inspiring and lofty, it also needs to be practical and fun. When I wrote the Germantown Friends case I thought of the leave behind piece as a social entrepreneurism catalog – an approach that seemed fitting for a school whose donors are not ostentatious and have an ethos of bettering the world. The “fun” for this school is the ability to actually make a difference no matter how large or small the gift.

To date, the school has raised sixty-five percent of its goal and donors have accelerated pledges and turned bequests into outright gifts even in challenging times. Sally West Williams told session attendees that when the economy took a nosedive what made all the difference was the fact that the campaign’s priority had moved from typical stuff to the specific magic of Germantown Friends School.

Photo Credit


Institutions, Don't Waste Your Time

Tomorrow I will attend a friend's funeral. She was 40 years old and leaves behind three little girls under five. It's heartbreaking to all who knew her. At the same time I am working with a college readying itself for a major event in its institutional life. Dozens of members of this community have been drawn together to craft a great occasion. Yet during the last several months I've seen time and talent wasted in campus intrigues.

We tell ourselves campus politics go with the territory but they don't have to. When I think about the energy my friend's community generated to sustain her life, to encourage and nurture her children and to comfort and inspire one another over the last year and a half, I am in awe of the power of our collective energy.

Schools, colleges and universities are brilliant energy sources. Let's not waste our time on the insignificant.

Photo credit


ROI is not Materialis

The New York Times recently featured a story on making college “relevant.” The basic premise is that colleges have gotten wise to the fact that students and their parents see a connection between going to college and their ability to earn a living. (Imagine that!) A connection that has been both obvious and debated for decades.

The difference between this piece and so many others I’ve read is that it does not include an impassioned faculty member arguing that the only “correct” reason for attending college is to be an educated human as opposed to the crassness of getting a job. Rather the premise of the piece is that colleges and universities have decided if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em, axing philosophy departments in favor of “anything prefixed with ‘bio’” because students have “wealth as a goal” as opposed to “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.”

“The shift in attitudes,” the article’s author writes, “is reflected in a shifting curriculum.” One could easily get the idea that more mercenary students are pushing cash-strapped institutions to change their curricula. But the article leaves out some very important context.

The source cited for more money-conscious students is UCLA’s national survey of college freshman, the largest and longest-running survey of American college students. (It started in 1966.) The same survey also found that the most important belief among entering freshman is in raising a family and that "the importance of helping others” is the highest it has been in 20 years.

As John H. Pryor, director of UCLA's Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s which conducts the survey has said, “It would be simplistic to view today’s college students as materialistic because they feel it is important to be well off financially. In fact, students are also very interested in raising families and helping others, both of which are accomplished with greater ease if one is well-off financially.”

Another point of context is that the survey has also revealed that more students report they will get a job in order to cover college expenses than at any time during the 32 years this question has been asked. In addition they are more likely to use their own money to help pay for college than in years past and they are less likely to matriculate at their first choice college because of financial considerations.

With money and earning ability front and center leading up to and during a student's college years, it's no surprise that, as the article states, “Even before they arrive on campus, students — and their parents — are increasingly focused on what comes after college. What’s the return on investment, especially as the cost of that investment keeps rising? How will that major translate into a job?” But this doesn’t mean that “jobs and making money have replaced learning” as one sarcastic Twitterer commented about the article.

As a writer and communications consultant to colleges and universities, my job is to answer the question, "What makes hefty tuitions worth it?" I got into this business because I am a true believer in the power of education (from studying philosophy to bio) to change lives for the better. When students invest as much as $200,000 for that education, by necessity a better life better include being better off.

Photo Credit


College Admissions as Metaphor: Lessons for Consultants

As prospective students were learning this week if they'd been accepted early admission to colleges and universities around the country, those same institutions were letting many consultants know whether they'd been accepted as well. I don't remember so many RFP decisions coinciding with early admission season in the past, but for some reason the last two weeks have brought a number of yeas and nays to me and several colleagues.

Because I often team up with other firms I have been in the interesting position of knowing not only how I did but of seeing how other consulting friends have fared. One colleague, a talented golden boy, has been "accepted" by every school to which he applied including the Ivies. Another colleague was wait-listed -- make that short-listed -- at an Ivy, rejected by a little Ivy and accepted by a great public. As for me, I was accepted by an Ivy, rejected by another, and accepted by two top-tier liberal arts colleges. (Yes, I'm pleased.)

Now that the waiting is over, like families whose kids were accepted and rejected, these colleagues and I have been discussing the whys behind the decisions. I've taken away these lessons for consultants:

  • In the end, no matter how talented a consultant is, institutions that want to sell prestige choose prestige. Whether consciously or not, institutions "trade up," choosing consultants who have worked with the institutions they admire. This can hurt you with "reach" schools but also help you identify schools that would welcome your counsel.
  • The old adage about not judging a school by the tour guide works here too. To have a sense of whether you'll win the business, ask yourself if you have a great connection with more than one person at the school. Even if that one person is the dean of admission or chair of the board, it's not enough if you are not a good fit with the rest of the team. You may still win the business but if that key person leaves the value of your work for the institution can erode dramatically.
  • Never let 'em see you sweat. While every institution wants great value, an over-eager or Avis we-try-harder approach can backfire. Especially in this economy, institutions want turnkey results and a sure thing. Rather than instilling confidence, revealing too much of the inner workings of your operation and decision-making can detract from a perception of out-of-town expertise, translating to weakness.
  • If you're going after a reach school -- meaning you don't have similar institutions on your list -- you better have a special talent your competitors don't have. For prospective students that may mean being an Olympic fencer or holding a patent at the tender age of 17. For prospective consultants that can mean having a formula for successful search results or proven social media ROI.
I've often said that families choose schools that strike the right balance of prestige, cost, and outcomes. And so it is with institutions selecting consultants. When I consider the consultant choices made by several institutions this season, inevitably they each chose the consultant whose client pedigree, proven outcomes, and cost was right for them. Four years from now it will be interesting to see how many believe they made the right choice.

The good news for talented consultants, like talented kids, is there are so many fantastic institutions in this country -- a great match is possible for everyone.

Photo Credit


3 Mistakes Alumni Magazines Make

Want your alums to read more than class notes? Here's some advice from Swarthmore College's award-winning alumni magazine editor, Jeff Lott.

Jeff chaired the CASE Annual Publications Conference in Pittsburgh this year. After seeing him in action during a fast-paced critique session he calls "Triple Play" I asked him to write this guest post.

From Jeff:

One of my favorite sessions at the conference was an America-Idol version of publications critiques in which a panel of three experts is given just three minutes to offer some cogent criticism of a publication submitted by a member of the “studio audience.”

The beauty of Triple Play is that your school’s piece is under the gun for just 180 seconds. In reality, you don’t have that much time to impress your actual audience before your publication is headed for the recycling bin. A lot of the publications we saw were magazines with three common problems.

Design Overload.
This is not a new criticism, but today’s designers have way too many tools at their fingertips—a hundred fonts, a thousand graphical elements, a million ways to layer more images, colors, and information onto a page. Some can’t resist what I call exponential design: “If something looks good, square it.” Cut it out! Readers of teen tabloids will pore over these kinds of pages. But your educated, college-graduate audience needs a break. Calm, quiet design coupled with cool, easy-to-comprehend editorial will give them a chance to think.

Editorial Hierarchy.
A number of magazines ignored the following reality: Almost no one reads your carefully written articles, no matter how good they are. Research shows that only 10 percent of readers make it past the first paragraph of your body copy. So how can you get your message across? Most of us are skimmers—it’s how we cope with the flood of information we’re bathed in every day. So, if you’re designing or editing a magazine, tell your story through the following hierarchy:

  • Catchy headline with an active verb (avoid gerunds)
  • Summary subhead that, if it’s the only thing readers take-away, tells the story
  • Crunchy, fact-filled callouts that help fill in the details
  • Captions that don’t just name who or what’s in the picture, but tell something about them or it
  • Short, engaging sidebars, lists, and charts that provide additional entry points to the story
  • Last and least—the story itself

Magazine Architecture.
Go to a good newsstand and buy 25 different consumer magazines—from The Atlantic to The Bark, from Smithsonian to People. It will cost you about a hundred bucks. Back at the office, pick them apart. What are the common organizational elements? You’ll find that there’s a standard architecture to great magazines, just as there is to great buildings. And if you deviate too much from the expectations of readers—the conventions set by the magazines that they actually pay to read—you do so at your peril. Whether you start reading a magazine from the back or the front, architecture matters. Too many institutional magazines ignore the defining details that make readers comfortable, risking the impression that your publication is not a “real” magazine. To be taken seriously, you must be real.

If you would like help with any of these concepts Jeff has kindly offered to receive questions via email at

Photo Credit