Oct 31 2006

Hitting the IT Target

The IT department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison doesn't worry about how to communicate to its constituents. After all, doesn't every IT department have its own marketing group?

The IT department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison doesn’t worry about how to communicate to its constituents. After all, doesn’t every IT department have its own marketing group?

The key to effective communications is knowing what technology your campus customers use.

People ask me, “Why does your IT division have a communications group? Is that really necessary?”

Well, with 65,000 customers (faculty, staff and students) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a tech budget in the tens of millions, how could we not focus on communications? Or, to put it another way, how else will our customers learn about the new and changing IT services designed to make their work more effective?

Whether your tech division is large or small and whether it builds or buys technology, your campus customers expect you to communicate effectively with them. And communicating is not just telling them about your wonderful services, the latest outage or a security breach. It’s important to listen to them so you can feed that info into the development process.

The Division of Information Technology (DoIT) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided over a decade ago to create a marketing communications function. The reason was that technology was growing and becoming increasingly difficult to describe. It has continued to grow, changing in scope as needs and budgets changed. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Change With the Times

Our group has changed in size to meet the needs and available funding of the time. We currently have 11 staff members, with titles such as marketing specialist, writer/editor, new media coordinator and Web developer. Research is subcontracted from a vendor. Over the years, we’ve tried organizing by function, by audience and even by planning versus implementation.

There is no one right way to organize. The most important thing is to be nimble so the communications group keeps pace with customer needs and offers a wide breadth of communications functions with the resources available.

Prioritize and Plan

Your IT department probably has a mix of pending changes, outage notices, new service announcements and tips that you want to tell the campus about. How do you determine what is most important?

At the University of Texas at Austin, Strategic Communications for Information Technology Services creates goals and priorities for its department based on the goals and priorities of the organization. “There will always be more requests than hours in the day,” says Director Liz Aebersold.

“When things get hectic, we revisit our goals to see what projects are aligned with them, and what projects are helping us meet our goals. This check helps us stay focused and ensures that we’re working on the right things.”

It’s important to prioritize your messages based on what will have the largest audience impact.

We teach our customers to look for certain types of messages in certain places on the Web, by using e-mail and other methods. For example, outage notices are always posted on our help desk Web site, and specific service notices go on the home or log-in page for those services (with fonts and colors that draw attention).

Measure Effectiveness

Information Technology Services (ITS) at Penn State University uses Google analytics and Webalyzer to monitor hits on a variety of Web pages, particularly those associated with specific marketing campaigns. One example is its “Take Control” campaign from this past summer, during which IT handed out fliers to freshmen as they enrolled for their e-mail accounts. The flier advertised the student Web page, which displays information about all IT services for students.

“The hit rate on the student page was very high and continues to be so,” says Robin Anderson, ITS’ customer communications director. “During this same contact point with freshmen, we also got permission from nearly 75 percent of them to periodically send them an e-mail about services they should know about. We have high hopes that this permission marketing targeted at incoming freshmen will provide a wonderful opportunity to make contact with many students — and that those students will tell their friends to join.”

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we often evaluate the effectiveness of planned and unplanned outage notices. This can be a simple request for feedback from core campus customers, or we ask internal and external customers how things went from their vantage point and what could be improved next time. Results are plugged into future outage plans.

Listen Up

Research is one of the most important things we do — at both ends of a service release. (Visit http://doit.wisc.edu/research.) We review existing data on the key customer groups and gather new information.

“ITS occasionally uses focus groups for students and new faculty, to find out what they do and do not know about the breadth of our services,” says Penn State’s Anderson. “We also have conducted surveys related to specific services to determine awareness, level of usage and so on.”

Use Mixed Media

Students tell us they use e-mail only to communicate with “old people.” Our older customers tend to read the newspaper, while younger ones get their news on the Web. So we need to use mixed media to reach these audiences.

“Our communications plans often include disseminating our messages in a variety of formats,” says the University of Texas’ Aebersold, “including e-mail, Web, print, digital signage, video, podcasts and even in person.”

When using mixed media, be brief and point to other resources for details. If time and budget allow, back up the electronic messages with print. Use the media appropriate to the specific audiences and messages.

Talk This Way

The makeup of your campus audiences is changing in a number of ways, including their knowledge and use of technology. How are you addressing these students’ diverse preferences?

Increasingly, customers expect fast, easy-to-use and informed IT service. So listen to your campus audiences and read what they read, including online sites, text and course management systems. If you don’t know what they use, ask them. Appeal to audiences by citing things that are important to them.

When in doubt, use an interpreter or gatekeeper. For example, we have a core group of students who subscribe to a biweekly e-mail digest that keeps them informed about technology news, and they, in turn, tell others. Use your student staff to convert your messages into something students will pay attention to.

Frequency Matters

Communications researchers say it takes dozens of impressions to reach the maximum return, or action, on a given topic. So tell people what you’re going to tell them, tell them and then reiterate what you just told them.

Once you have sent an announcement, don’t assume most people have read it and will follow what it asks them to do. You need to keep your message in front of customers in a variety of forms. Encourage department and student gatekeepers and opinion leaders to pass along your communication. Follow it up with Web and print, where possible.

Figure out what the true message is, and stick to it. Use simple who, what, when, where, how and why statements to inform your audience.

Keep an eye on what’s coming next. What new technologies is the campus using, and how can you use them to keep people informed about what you provide? If you listen to your IT customers and interpret technology in ways and with media that make sense to them, your communications efforts will be very effective.

Brian Rust is marketing communications manager for the Division of Information Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a top-tier research institution with more than 40,000 students and 15,000 faculty and staff — all of whom use DoIT services.



Market research: Surveys, focus groups, anecdotal and sales research will help determine what customers want and how they feel about what we deliver.

Publicity: Include news coverage by student, local and national media.

Public relations: Work through issues personally with groups that serve as gatekeepers to wider audiences.

Promotion: Use paid methods to publicize your products and services (ads, brochures, e-mail, Web, postcards).

Planning: Put a strategy, timetable, assignments and budget in writing and then follow it.

Production: Includes writing, editing, printing and new media design.

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