Years ago, in my penurious and somewhat traumatic 20s, I got into the habit of collecting interior-design magazines. My parents were splitting, and my family was scattering, and one day I picked up a copy of Elle Decor at an airport and suddenly felt as though I were teleported to Narnia. I didn’t have a house or even the disposable income to purchase nonessentials that cost much more than magazines. But my family moved often when I was growing up, and my mother tried to mitigate this upheaval by reproducing our last house in each new house, while rigorously maintaining a standard of perpetual “magazine readiness.” I guess it had a lingering effect.
A few years later, I reluctantly lent my collection of magazines to a (now former) friend. He had just bought a house that he had no idea what to do with. I, on the other hand, had nothing but ideas. O.K., they weren’t strictly mine, in the sense that these ideas were acquired, arranged, styled, photographed, published and distributed by entities bearing no relation to me whatsoever. They were mine because I internalized them. I gradually convinced myself that they were me.
Of course, I didn’t realize any of this until my friend returned my magazines to me with dozens of pages torn out, having either forgotten or ignored my admittedly ridiculous request that he make photocopies instead. I felt gutted, but I was much too ashamed to admit it. How could I, without sounding crazy? It was better, ultimately, to let the friendship slide into estrangement.
The whole embarrassing situation could have been avoided if Pinterest existed then. Pinterest is a social-media Web site on which users compile collections of pictures they find on the Internet or just browse the collections of others. The site’s name combines the words “interest” and “pin,” in reference to “pin boards,” which are also known in various creative professions as inspiration boards or mood boards — basically a large board onto which appropriated images (torn from magazines!) are juxtaposed to evoke in the viewer a certain feeling, atmosphere or mood. Once the exclusive province of advertising art directors, designers and teenage girls in boarding-school dormitories, mood boards and their electronic equivalents have exploded online. Not just on Pinterest, but also in the form of dopamine-boosting street-fashion blogs and cryptically named Tumblr blogs devoted to the wordless and explanation-free juxtaposition of, say, cupcakes and teapots and shoes with shots of starched shirts and J.F.K.
This kind of visual catch-bin blog has become disconcertingly common, for reasons that a cultural theorist like Walter Benjamin would perhaps be hard pressed to explain. Who knew there was such a large, mainstream market for artfully arranged pictures of other people’s stuff? Or that “curation,” that rarefied and highly specialized skill, would all of a sudden go viral? Pinterest went online in 2010, and by the end of that year it had 10,000 unique users. By January 2012, that number had increased to 11.7 million, making it the fastest site in history to break through the 10-million unique-visitor mark, according to TechCrunch. For this, it has been valued at $1.5 billion.
I’m not a big Pinterest user (more of a lurker, really), but the over-the-top monetary valuation doesn’t entirely surprise me. Long before I heard of Pinterest, I was already spending too much time on “curated” (read: reblogged) design/fashion/image/inspiration blogs. For me, it’s sites like Apartment Therapy, Ffffound, Poppytalk, Oh Joy and dozens and dozens of obscure, exquisite, utterly pointless but oddly compelling Tumblrs. (Some, like the addictive street-fashion blog The Sartorialist, are made up of original photos, but this is more the exception than the rule.)
In fact, in the past half-decade, I’ve probably spent more time fighting the urge to satiate my visual addictions — addictions formed in the process of satiating them, no doubt — than I have actually browsing through magazines. Not because I don’t like magazines. In many ways, I like them better. But they’re too grounded in space and time, too organized and linear, too collaborative and professional to deliver the synaptic frisson available from the stream-of-consciousness image blog.
I used to think this obsession was mine alone. But now nearly everyone I know — and by that I mean everyone who spends vast, barren tundras of time at her computer — goes to Web sites like these to escape, destress, perk up, calm down, feel something, not feel something, distract themselves and (they don’t call it “lifestyle pornography” for nothing) modulate pleasure and arousal. A friend of a friend calls his addiction to sites like these “avenues for procrastination,” but I think there’s something else involved. Like other forms of pastiche — the mix tape, the playlist, the mash-up — these sites force you to engage and derive meaning or at least significance or at the very least pleasure from a random grouping of pictures. Why not dive into an alternative world full of beauty and novelty and emotion and the hard-to-put-your-finger-on feeling that there’s something more, somewhere, where you’re not chained to your laptop, half dead from monotony, frustration and boredom?
Perhaps there’s a neurological component to all this; to the sudden rise of the mood board as mood regulator, a kind of low-dose visual lithium. And have no fear, the new field of neuroaesthetics, which investigates the neural basis for aesthetic experience, is all over it. One theory, for example, holds that if we’re rewarded in choosing one type of aesthetic experience over another, we will learn to respond to the particular characteristics of that experience. V. S. Ramachandran, in his book “The Tell-Tale Brain,” likened this to a behavioral experiment: if a rat is rewarded for choosing a rectangle over a square, it will learn to respond to “rectangularity” and start to favor rectangles in general. So maybe we are like the rats, and what we’re seeking while idly yet compulsively cruising Pinterest is really just the reliably unpredictable jumble of emotions that their wistful, quirky juxtapositions evoke. Maybe that is our rectangularity.
There’s a German word for it, of course: Sehnsucht, which translates as “addictive yearning.” This is, I think, what these sites evoke: the feeling of being addicted to longing for something; specifically being addicted to the feeling that something is missing or incomplete. The point is not the thing that is being longed for, but the feeling of longing for the thing. And that feeling is necessarily ambivalent, combining both positive and negative emotions.
A paper titled “What Is It We Are Longing For?” published in The Journal of Research in Personality, breaks down these “life longings” into essential characteristics. They target aspects of our lives that “are incomplete or imperfect”; involve “overly positive, idealized, utopian imaginations of these missing aspects”; focus on “incompleteness on the one hand and fantasies about ideal, alternative realities on the other hand”; result in a “temporarily complex experience” combining “memories of the past, reflections on the imperfect present and fantasies about an idealized future” (this is called “tritime focus”); and that “make individuals reflect on and evaluate their life, comparing the status quo with ideals or successful others.”
In other words, your average Pinterest board or inspiration Tumblr basically functions as a longing machine.
Pinterest’s sudden and spectacular rise has been met with some skepticism, and it’s often talked about in that particular dismissive way reserved for things that have the temerity to seem both frivolous and feminine. Not surprisingly, some of this loathing is internalized. Someone on Pinterest once posted a slide that read: “Pinterest: Where women go to plan imaginary weddings, dress children that don’t exist and decorate homes we can’t afford.” But to focus on the “aspirational” aspect is to miss the point. People don’t post stuff because they wish they owned it, but because they think they are it, and they long to be understood, which is different.
Pinterest didn’t create this urge to use visual evocations for little pleasure jolts; in fact, its success lies precisely in being behind the curve. The site’s co-founder, Ben Silbermann, has said that in creating the site, he was just picking up on something people were already doing — i.e., collecting beautiful things and using them as a way to express who they are to the world — and making it easier for them to do it. What the company provides is a clean, well-lighted place to collect found images and share them with others. In fact, the company discourages people from posting images they have created themselves, preferring that they venture out into the wilds of the Internet looking for beautiful things to bring back to the cave.
Silbermann suggests that collecting online is a form of self-expression for people who don’t create. “If you walk around Brooklyn and ask people how they express themselves,” he said in a speech at New York University, “everyone’s a musician or an artist or a filmmaker. But most of us aren’t that interesting. Most of us are just consumers of that. And when we collect things and when we share those collections with people, that’s how we show who we are in the world.”
Not everyone buys into this, of course. Here’s The Awl’s co-editor, Choire Sicha, for instance, on the subject of rebloggers who fancy themselves curators: “As a former actual curator, of like, actual art and whatnot, I think I’m fairly well positioned to say that you folks with your blog and your Tumblr and your whatever are not actually engaged in a practice of curation. Call it what you like: aggregating? Blogging? Choosing? Copyright infringing sometimes? But it’s not actually curation, or anything like it. . . .” To which a commenter added: “My Tumblr isn’t so much curated space as it is a symptom of deeper pathologies made manifest.”
“Curation” does imply something far more deliberate than these inspiration blogs, whose very point is to put the viewer into an aesthetic reverie unencumbered by thought or analysis. These sites are not meant (as curation is) to make us more conscious, but less so. That might be O.K., but it also means they have a lot more in common with advertising than they do with curation. After all, advertising trains us to keep our desire always at the ready, nurturing that feeling that something is missing, then redirecting it toward a tangible product. In the end, all that pent-up yearning needs a place to go, and now it has that place online. But products are no longer the point. The feeling is the point. And now we can create that feeling for ourselves, then pass it around like a photo album of the life we think we were meant to have but don’t, the people we think we should be but aren’t.
I believe that success is a behavior, not a moment in time.
When applied to social media infrastructure in higher education, success-as-behavior means a culture where ideas and strategy for social media come from many sources, are finely tuned by professionals, guided by vested administrators and leaders, and executed properly.
As I learned via recent (non-client) interactions,Michigan State is one university that is taking social media strategy seriously. The leadership at MSU has provided the resources and staff necessary to improve the university’s reputation through social media efforts.
To learn more about how MSU plans to succeed, I asked Paul Prewitt (@paulprewitt on Twitter), Director of Online Engagement and the leader of a new unit within Advancement Marketing and Communications at Michigan State, to comment on the content strategies and organizational structure that MSU employs to support its social media efforts. I discuss Paul’s responses in the following section and list the full Q&A at the end of this post.
Social media outcomes must be measurable for a university. There is simply no way around that fact. If a university is going to direct funding and resources to staffing for social media, especially if that institution is publicly-supported, there must be a visible return on investment. This does not mean exclusively how many “likes” or “followers” or “check-ins” that efforts accumulate, but more importantly, how social media facilitates donation of real dollars, helps gather valuable demographic data, improves message delivery, and sustains conversations with real people that otherwise might not have occurred. The “otherwise might not have occurred” element is the most critical piece.
At Michigan State, one of the ways University Advancement measures the success of social media behavior is through managing the accuracy of its alumni database. Using social media, MSU reaches out to and gathers valuable contact information from its alums, which it can then use to solicit gifts–another measurable outcome.
SUPPORT FROM SENIOR LEADERSHIP
As I’ve discussed before, content strategy that integrates social media is futile unless it has serious (and real) support from senior-level university/college leadership. This is particularly evident when departments within a university must coordinate messages and calls-to-action. Even if the organization espouses a culture of openness that makes it easy to share ideas, universities are historically hierarchical. This means that senior leadership must be able to understand social media tools and enable their departments to engage with others outside of their supervisor’s purview.
At MSU, careful thought went into establishing reporting lines and classic “dotted-lines” to ensure that communication channels are kept clear and persistent. Without such reporting structures, social media would likely become a victim of competing tasks and agenda items. By empowering a leader to champion social media content strategy through multiple reporting channels, the likelihood of achieving measurable results is much higher. Such a strategy does not guarantee outcomes, but it does ensure consistent scrutiny and analysis of how well the organization is engaging audiences via social media.
TRUST IN THE TEAM
An organization that is best organized for social media success is one that allows (and even requires) team members from various department to share ideas, discuss areas of concern, and get direct feedback from senior officials. If the “social media director” or equivalent does not meet regularly with the administration, then there is a huge risk that the outcomes of social media will not align with the organizational mission.
At MSU, this means an “open door” policy where not only are senior leaders available for discussion, but they have direct reports, such as Paul, who are responsible for fostering these interactions.
MAKE SOCIAL MEDIA SOCIAL
It appears that at MSU, the biggest opportunity for further improvement is through internal networking of peers and colleagues. MSU’s culture of openness is coupled with the expectation that each team member will contribute to meeting the desired goals of its social media marketing program. Paul and his team are beginning to lay the foundation for coming together as communications colleagues in a social media work group to document and share best practices, policies, and generally-accepted standards for measuring success.
One of the challenges of such a group is determining when to 1) coordinate, 2) integrate, or 3) separate efforts. This means determining the real value of certain communications to the institution as a whole and/or to its various constituents. These determinations are made when the people behind the efforts come together in real life and discuss how social media efforts can amplify institutional messages.
As I have witnessed in my experience at Washington University in St. Louis, a “Social Media Working Group” can be the foundation of a University’s effort to define and document social media policy and strategy guidelines. These are two unique items. First, a social media policy is an effort to provide structure and guidance to departments on campus as they decide to share content on Facebook, Twitter, etc. It is an important policy document especially during emergencies or moments of heightened awareness. Second, strategy guidelines are internal documents that enable departments and university officials to define how specific tools, such as Facebook, are to be used; discusses how to define audiences; suggests the proper voice and content for the tool; outlines rules for commenting and removal or correction of audience comments; and also describes how to capture metrics and performance data.
Typically, a social media policy is public while a social media strategy guideline document is written for each tool (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc..) and is kept as an internal document. For Michigan State, this list of social media accounts would be a great start for bringing together people into a social media work group: http://www.msu.edu/social/
Clearly, Michigan State University’s Advancement Marketing & Communications office is making a strategic effort to integrate the use of social media into the communicative culture of its organization. This means forming a dedicated and accountable staff, providing access to senior leadership, creating a culture of trust, and most importantly, understanding that the outcomes of social media efforts must be measurable.
Notably, MSU has an opportunity to widen its effort beyond University Advancement by reaching out and collaborating with other university entities. As you’ll see in Paul’s responses in the Q&A below, that is their plan. I believe that fulfilling this intention will keep MSU on the forefront of social media strategy.
MSU is an example of social media success.
Note: I am in no way affiliated with Michigan State University. These are my independent thoughts and observations.
Q&A WITH MSU ADVANCEMENT MARKETING OFFICE
Feedback provided by Paul Prewitt (@paulprewitt on Twitter), Director of Online Engagement, the lead in a new unit within Advancement Marketing and Communications at Michigan State.
Describe your organizational mission and how it is reflected in the structure of social media/web in your division and university. How did the current structure evolve?
Three years ago, MSU merged the Development and Alumni operations into a new University Advancement division. With this change, the communications and marketing for both organizations were also merged into one team. Both teams had separately developed web teams and were using separate email marketing tools. The combined web team took over all responsibilities for managing the MSUAA and the fundraising websites; however the content development and editing for these sites remained a communications function. Two years ago, as part of a new campaign staffing plan, it was decided that a new Online Engagement team was necessary to help develop strategy and manage content for all email and online content for University Advancement. Last spring, we began the process of creating this team.
This new team reports directly to the Assistant Vice President for Advancement Marketing and Communications and works very closely with members of the Marketing & Communications team as well as the web team. The Online Engagement team ‘owns’ online strategy, content development and email communications. The web team is responsible for site development and infrastructure and web hardware.
How often do staff and management discuss social media and content strategies? Are these meetings part of a regular routine or as needed? Please describe and provide examples.
Let me start by saying that my position and I are both relatively new to the MSU Advancement Marketing & Communications team; I started on Sept. 6, 2011. However, I can still give some insight to how the staff and management discuss digital communication strategies.
To start off with my boss Bob Thomas, AVP of Advancement Marketing & Communications, will openly say that the number one part of my job is to “be in strategic directional meetings” to enhance and improve our efforts with online engagement (not just social media). For example, I was included in a half-day long strategic meeting with the VP of Advancement, AVP of Advancement Information Systems & Donor Strategy, AVP of Advancement Marketing & Communications, AVP of Alumni Relations, and key high-level alumni volunteers to discuss the value of “engagement” and how to measure it here at MSU.
Secondly, and more importantly, the MSU Advancement work methodology is that of an “open door” environment. This allows staff (myself included) easy access to any of the senior management staff to discuss our efforts, ideas and thoughts.
As for the content strategy meetings, all I’ll say is that they are coming soon. I’ve been charged with helping to create an atmosphere where “print does NOT equal web.” My starting goal will be to make sure that online communications are at the forefront of projects to help us continue to make sure our online efforts are not developed as an afterthought.
How do you collaborate (or hope to) with other campus communicators? Is there a committee or group of people for sharing and learning? If so, what form does it take?
The Advancement Marketing & Communications team is a part of the Campus Communicators Group here at MSU. The group is designed as an open meeting to allow everyone the opportunity to share and learn from each other.
I’m also working with the Interim VP of University Relations and her team to develop a “new media” marketing group for Michigan State University. The purpose of the group will be to create a collaborative learning and sharing environment for new media efforts across the campus.
Also we are working on creating social networks for our colleagues across the campus to help them while also getting them comfortable with being in a social networking environment.
For example, the MSU Advancement HR Office has created a LinkedIn group for MSU Advancement Professionals. This group allows them to network with each other professionally and share (or request) resources to make their jobs easier; all while getting them acquainted with LinkedIn. Michigan State University is the first university to join LinkedIn’s College Pilot Program.
How do you measure the success of your social media strategies? Is this measurement reviewed and contributed to by senior leadership such as the President, Provost, etc?
The success of our strategies will be based around our ability to answer a simple question, “So what?”
Although it is common for Higher Education to get stuck on the “window shopper” metrics such as total page views, fans, members or followers I prefer to have much more valuable measurements. Don’t get me wrong, having window shoppers is definitely a must for any store but that is not how you measure success. My way of thinking on this comes from being in the advancement profession, along with having an undergraduate degree in business, where we always have a “bottom line” goal that we are working towards. Thus, just like the store, we appreciate the window shoppers but will measure our success by their impact on our bottom line.
So what are some of our bottom line measurables? The first and most obvious would be donations, but that would be a macro goal and we all know there are many micro goals that can be tracked along the way. The most important micro goal for us would be “constituent profile data” as we cannot ask our constituents for a donation without having their address, phone or email. Along with these measurable options I get to help define “What is engagement?” and how we’ll measure it here at Michigan State University Advancement.
Therefore, by using this model of “So what?” or as Bob Groves, the VP of Advancement would say, “Now what?” we will be able to have any senior leadership member at MSU help assess and contribute to our overall “new media” strategies.
What level of autonomy does advancement marketing have to respond quickly to social media and emerging content needs?
This is probably one of the best parts to working in MSU Advancement Marketing & Communications and the largest factor to my wanting to come here from Arkansas (yes, it’s noticeably colder). The entire team is given a high level of autonomy to help make sure that we get the best work done in a timely and professional manner. However, with autonomy comes accountability! Although we strongly believe in the “team” environment where “we succeed or fail together” each team member is held accountable for doing their best to help us succeed as a team.
With regards to our marketing efforts there will always be a level of acceptable failure. For “If one does not fail at times, then one has not challenged himself,” said Ferdinand Porsche. The challenge is rather to make sure that our failures are educational and we continue to improve based on our efforts. This will allow us to turn failures into successes as we grow.
Do you have enough staff to accomplish your goals? Why or why not? And, how does your social media staff interact with web (design, tech) teams? Please provide examples.
Some might find it surprising but when asked “What would you do with an additional $100,000 budget to improve social media efforts?” I will always recommend that the first choice be to hire the right person. Although I know of a few great tools that can quickly help to improve social media efforts at any university (that is not currently using them) I strongly believe that without the right people the tools are doomed to fail. Tools must be put in the right hands to see success.
However, with all that said, I would say that the MSU Advancement Marketing & Communication staffing model (PDF) has definitely put a good amount of human capital into achieve our online marketing goals. Also, another good part about our model is that we have pulled “new media” out from the “web services” team and have clearly defined the roles of both units.
I would honestly say that the “team” environment is what makes this model truly work. Anyone regardless of their position within MSU Advancement can share ideas or thoughts, knowing that we will all respect and value their ideas or thoughts. I know that sounds too good to be true but that really is the environment here.
However, for the Higher Education Administrators reading this, we have basically established an invisible dashed reporting line between the Director of Online Engagement and the Director of Web Services (they must be on the same page with all major projects). This puts the forward facing end user interactions (e-marketing efforts) in the Online Engagement unit and the web design and production within the Web Services unit.
For example, the AVP of Alumni Relations and I decided that we could do more with the MSU Alumni Association’s Facebook presence to increase “likes” and hopefully increase the number of subscribers to our e-newsletter. After finding some ideas on ways to accomplish this we meet with the director of Web Services to see what we could do (technically). Thus, the Web Services unit became responsible for producing any FBML and other web materials (used with the iFrame feature). Last, after the enhancements are implemented, the Online Engagement unit will be responsible for marketing the new feature and driving the success of the overall project.
Thus, as with any great marketing and communications group, the thing that makes us successful is our ability to operate as a TEAM. Together Everyone Achieves More!