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Ever seen the website promoting the animated movie “Monsters University”? Rebecca Salerno of Indiana University has, and she laughed in recognition—and cringed for her profession.
The tongue-in-cheek movie website satirizes the typical .edu site, with sections on school pride, diversity, and programs. Monstrous students recline with books on the grass, and profiles tout the faculty. (Dr. Timofus Trimboleek has won a grant to study the “long-term effects of direct Scream exposure.”)
It’s not just higher learning that’s stuck in a rut. Many organizations have “tired ways of doing things, and there starts to become a sameness,” says Salerno, director of Indiana’s communications creative services team. “You want to stand out as a brand and tell people what your story is.”
How to get out of your rut? At a time when the industry is consumed with cold words like metrics and measurement, Salerno suggests a warmer approach. In a talk titled “Buyer Personae! How to customize content based on the emotional states of target audiences,” Salerno offers tips for digging into your audience’s thinking and feelings for more relevant communications.
This matters especially in sensitive situations, as when a student goes missing or the university launches a safety campaign.
Here are some tips for getting the tone right.
1. Research your audience’s emotional state.
Too touchy-feely? Not when you are dealing with an audience that ranges from totally stoked high school students to apprehensive parents to nostalgic alumni. Nor when you’re trying to gauge the level of passion for your brand or organization.
Start by asking: Whom are we trying to reach? Is it prospective MBA students or all the undergrads on campus?
Then sound out stakeholders for what they know about your target audience: “What are they hearing that are things your customers really like or don’t like about your product or service?” Salerno says.
[FREE GUIDE: 3 helpful tips for your crisis comms prep]
Everybody knows that social listening is a great way to dig into people’s experiences of your organization. But this doesn’t have to be just for a major sentiment analysis to be submitted upstairs. Salerno urges her staff to listen to what people are saying before tackling an assignment. When writing a brochure about the orientation program, for example, they read what incoming students are saying on Twitter or sharing on Vine.
“Our writers find this really inspirational,” she says.
2. Make interviews count.
In an industry flooded with former reporters, it would be silly not to use in-person interviewing as a part of your research. Still, go the extra mile. Work on the interviewee’s turf, so that you can “see how they’re interacting with your product or service, what their lives are like, and what the challenges are that they face on a day-to-day basis,” Salerno says.
Also (ahem): Turn off the danged smartphone and give the interviewee your undivided attention. Listening is a lost art, Salerno says. Let people know you really are interested in their experience.
3. Create ‘personas.’
Organize your work with the help of a “persona,” or document describing the details of particular interview. For example, Indiana’s Alumni Association had created a program for unemployed alums, and communicators were trying to boost awareness.
After one interview, Salerno’s team created a profile of Joe, a 28-year-old graduate, with bullet points for information like his degree. (Incomprehensibly, this former English major had yet to land a job.) Other sections were labeled “general overview,” “needs or wants from the website,” and “feelings when approaching” the Alumni Association.
With quick bit of layout magic and a mug shot in the corner, the “persona” became a document with insight that could be shown to the internal client.
Another technique that works: Do like the IT guys, and track patterns using Post-It notes on white boards.
4. Find the narrative thread.
After pulling the information together, look for the storyline or hook that will capture people’s attention or inspire actions. With a thorough process in place, you will react more quickly when asked to deliver.
At Indiana, a student disappeared from campus and was never found. Another was hit by a car and killed. So communicators got together to create a campus safety campaign.
With structure in place to reach out, they tested an early concept on students. Guess what. “They hated it,” Salerno concedes.
Which meant the process worked. Staff regrouped and came up with a new campaign involving posters of toy animals, such as a giraffe that’s keeled over while a dog asks, “Hmmm… too many long necks?”
Success! Says Salerno: “We did some testing the year after we ran this campaign, and we found that the awareness of the safety issues and of the resources have just skyrocketed.”
5. Speak to your audience.
Grads who went to the alumni website tended bounce elsewhere. They weren’t sticking. Interdepartmental communicators partnered to create a more helpful hub for people.
Research (illustrated with those personas) revealed that recent grads were nostalgic for their college years, yet skeptical that the association could do anything for them. They wondered why so many alumni featured on the site were from the ranks of the AARP-eligible. So the college boosted social media sharing and added younger people to the site, among them grads with young children.
Indiana also highlighted a graduate in the fashion industry who blogs, and it created a fashion contest when the new website rolled out. The theme: “Show us your IU style.”
“They’re not just going there and getting stale content anymore,” Salerno said.