Traditionally, the on-campus college experience provides most growing young adults ample opportunities for academic expansion, social exploration and career preparation. However, from sporting events, student-only concerts and Greek life to tutoring, professional prep and networking, all of the in-person benefits of college have been inaccessible due to COVID-19.
Over the past 2 years, it’s been largely up to dedicated higher ed creative marketers and communications pros to keep school spirits and admissions high during one of the toughest times in human history.
How did they do it?
Recently, at The Collaboration Summit we caught up with Randi Bohler, the Marketing and Communications Specialist at Savannah State University —Georgia’s oldest, public, historically Black college, and Sam Wallace, manager of the photo and video team at Western Carolina University to learn about the collaborative preparation steps they took to ensure their storytelling successes went off without a hitch.
From Randi, you’ll learn how her lean marketing team of 3 braved the pandemic by implementing a fierce strategy focused on highlighting student experiences, specifically the HBCU experience. From Sam, you’ll learn how his former first-hand student experience informed his directorial perspective when WCU’s marching band got selected to play in the 2019 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for the second time.
Watch their session to get inspired before your next round of quarterly planning meetings begin.
Let the ideas flow!
How to Amplify Your Campus Connections
1. Establish a shared vision.
Host a team brainstorm with whiteboard space and lots of sticky notes (virtual or in the office,) to get on the same page strategy-wise or do a deep dive in the mental archives back to a project you thought was executed well or could’ve been done better. How can the learnings become a framework for your upcoming campaign strategy?
In November 2020, Randi became the newest member of a three-person, two-year-old marketing team at Savannah State. Since the team is fairly green, Randi says their main team focus has been rebuilding their brand identity and brand awareness — from establishing social media presence to re-establishing media relationships.
In order to bring a succinct, strong brand vision to fruition, the small, but mighty team and the greater university staff have to share values and goals transparently.
Randi says, “Our main vision that brings us all together – not just as a department, but as a university is that we all know that our purpose is to serve our students, so we want to enhance their experience here at SSU and we want to continue to increase enrollment…Student success and their experience are our top priorities and knowing that and having that shared vision is first in collaborating and making sure that we’re successful in everything that we do.” Plus, having a clear metric to measure your efforts against like enrollment retention and new enrollment is key.
For Sam, as a former student who experienced the 2014 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as a Pride of the Mountains band member, he thought back on what didn’t work and his vision for their 2019 opportunity was laid out for him. “I really didn’t think much of it at the time because I was a student and I was living the experience in real-time and it was still one of the most surreal things I’ve ever done, but the university contracted one photographer out who was there the day of the parade and that was it and we have a handful of about probably less than 20 photos of the marching band on what is arguably the largest stage that any marching band can be on,” he says, “This was a big step for our team because for the first time we decided we wanted to embed our team with the marching band to capture this experience from start to finish – not only during the week of the parade, but the months leading up to it.”
2. Find stories in community.
If there’s one thing that the ‘Humans of New York’ project has shown the world, it’s that the average person has more than a lifetime of stories to share if we had the time to listen.
For higher ed institutions, there’s no shortage of stories waiting to be told and for Randi and Sam, it all comes down to focusing their creativity through the lens of their team’s shared vision.
For Randi, it was all a balancing act— knowing when to communicate vital information and show real moments over celebrating and honoring ongoing student and faculty successes. “We wanted to maintain that authenticity to capture the sadness we couldn’t ignore…Social media was more significant during the pandemic and we wanted to make sure that while we were communicating very real things, we also were showing students that we’re maintaining and encouraging student success and excellence,” she said. For instance, she showed how the team documented the on-campus participation in ‘Dress for Success Wednesdays,’ a national weekly practice where students at HBCUs nationwide wear stylish outfits that represent how they want to show up professionally.
She says, “Along with enhancing their experience we want to make sure we’re graduating successful, global leaders…With storytelling, our main focus was trying to promote the HBCU experience and our university and academic programs and student life in the midst of a pandemic.”
Sam alluded to the fact that it was some of the band member’s first and only time leaving the state of North Carolina or traveling to New York, so capturing their lived experiences on film so they could relive them later was hugely important to him. “With 535 members, there are a lot of individual stories within that,” Sam notes and that’s why the team embedded themselves with the band beginning in August of 2019—four months ahead of the actual event.
3. Capture every angle.
Picture this: A marching band from North Carolina travels to New York on 10 charter buses, 2 tractor trailers and takes over an entire hotel outside of the city center. Who wouldn’t want to document every second of a once-in-a-lifetime (twice, for Sam!) journey that grand?
Sam’s photo and video team spent every sleepless moment on the road editing, uploading and sharing photos and videos so internal partners had material to work with and archive for later, “It was important that we gave people an inside look as things happened, not three weeks after the fact,” Sam said. During the entire 3.5 mile parade, their cameras never stopped filming.
Not only were they documenting an achievement for the university’s largest recruiting tool, the photo and video team were responsible for documenting the experience and making it eternally captivating. As Sam put it plain and simply, “This is an opportunity for a mid-size university to put their brand in front of 22 million TV viewers on Thanksgiving Day, and 3.5 million just in the city watching the parade, so that’s a lot of people to take in what the Pride of The Mountains is and the university that it’s associated with it.”
To end her segment of the session, Randi spoke about the cross-campus collaboration that took place to coordinate the Spring 2021 commencement ceremony. She expressed perfectly why her team wanted to document every emotion from this ceremony, “It was so huge, it was a milestone…This one was super special, it felt like a step towards normalcy; it felt like we were moving toward a time where we could all be around each other again. They also had a special speaker—U.S. Senator, Ralph Warnock,” who is also from Savannah and an alum of the university’s Upward Bound program.
The images captured just show the pure elation of what graduation is supposed to be. Hurrah!
To learn more about how Randi and Sam set strategic visions for collaborating across teams to build and strengthen community, watch the packed 25-minute segment on-demand, here.
Then, dive into all The Collaboration Summit sessions for more thought-provoking professional insights to kickstart your second half of 2021.