Defining the Online Communications Office

I’m a week or so into building our new department here at Keene State, which I am proposing we call Online Communications. I actually like some of the more trendy names, but sometimes it’s good to use the idiom common in the field. Makes a lot of things simpler.

Now to the hard part — defining what we do.

I think the key here is it’s not just about technology. We want to be involved primarily in designing online approaches to communication — the construction of those approaches is something we may or may not do — the implementation might be handled by us, or by others at the college, by a third party vendor, or most usually by some combination of those three options.

So in that somewhat annoying 80s parlance it’s a “solutions” business.

Which leads to the question — why seperate online communications from traditional communications at all?

I think the answer to that is that in five to ten years these things won’t be separated out. There’ll be a person who manages community — both online and offline. There’ll be a communications director who came up through the ranks both blogging and pushing stories to TV News. Your fundraiser will talk about recent advances in distributed online fundraising with the ease they talk about the mechanics of capital campaigns.

But we’re not there yet. There are people with a wealth of experience in traditional media and fundraising who have very little idea how online media works.

In fact, a number of things in online media are counterintuitive to traditional media types. Radical transparency. Community contributed content. Conversational talk with bylines.

I’ll give just one example from the political world. And I’ll make it a small example. Not earth-shattering, but just enough to show what I mean.

Last year, Tim Tagaris, Internet Director for the Chris Dodd campaign, revolutionized the way political fundraising emails were sent out.

How? Political fundraising emails were highly formatted affairs — they had graphics, big header, carefully crafted prose. They looked like marketing web pages. They talked like marketing pages, in that conversational but not conversational way:

Campaign Contribution

I’m not saying anything about Hillary in particular here, it’s just an example — this is how all campaign fundraisers looked.

And to be fair, these work, and they’ll continue to work. There’s a place for the well-polished semi-conversational fundraising email that isn’t going away anytime soon. You’d be crazy not to base the majority of your email campaign on solicitations such as these.

But solicitations like these were really the *only* thing in the mix until last year.

Then Tim changed things, and added a new sort of email to the mix. Here’s what I got September of last year from Team Dodd:

from: Chris Dodd <>
date: Sep 27, 2007 9:43 AM
subject: Real quick


I only have a few seconds on my way back to Washington from last night’s debate.

The fundraising quarter is wrapping up and we’re just short of hitting our goal. Will you chip in $23 and put us over the top? You can contribute here:

I’ll be in touch soon.


It didn’t stop there. Here’s what Tim encouraged Chris Dodd to send out on November first last year:

from: Chris Dodd <>
date: Nov 1, 2007 11:22 AM
subject: Fw: Re: Update?

Dear Friend —

I only have a few moments on my way back up to New Hampshire.

I asked my Campaign Manager for an update on what we accomplished online during the month of October, and I was so pleased with her response I wanted to make sure you saw the email chain.

She tells me that in addition to a spike in traffic and mentions on progressive blogs, we could beat John Edwards October online fundraising goal if I emailed a few people and asked them to help get us there.

So, it might be one day removed from October, but if you chipped in $27 right now we can pass another campaign in this important indicator of support.

You can contribute here:

I’ll be in touch,


—–Original Message—–
From: Tim Tagaris []
Sent: Wednesday, October 31, 2007 10:18 PM
Subject: Re: Update?

Hey Sheryl,

Here’s your update:

For the month of October, we raised right around $400,000 on the internet alone.

By contrast, Biden set a goal of raising $500,000 online by the middle of November. He is halfway there, having raised $246,270 as of Tuesday morning.

Even more impressively, Edwards set a goal of raising $500,000 online in the month of October. For all the hype their internet team and Joe Trippi gets, we finished the month nipping at their heels.

Frankly, we’ve been so successful online over the past month because of the Senator’s leadership in the Senate.

People really responded favorably to his stand on preventing “retroactive immunity” for telecommunications companies that helped the Bush Administration spy on Americans.

They appreciate his Iran vote, consistent leadership on Iraq and really are beginning to recognize that when he takes a position on an issue, the rest of the candidates seem to follow his lead.

We are really on the verge of something special online — a tipping point, almost:

* Our web-traffic rankings have shot past Biden and Richardson.

* We have seen an almost universal surge of support in online polls. From 21% at Daily Kos, to winning the PA Dems online vote after Tuesday’s debate.

* References to his leadership on blogs across the country have spiked in the month of October, and I only see that number rising between now and the Caucus.

So … there is a lot of encouraging information coming out of the tubes. We’re gonna do everything we can to keep growing — something that is made easy as he continues to lead on the issues important in this race.


—–Original Message—–
From: Sheryl Cohen []
Sent: Wednesday, October 31, 2007 7:18 PM
Subject: Update?

Hey Tim,

The Senator is looking for an update report of how we did on-line in October. He knows we did well, but he’s getting a lot of questions about it on the road from reporters and supporters. Please send me some additional information/data for him — thanks much.


OK — does that seem gimmicky? Maybe. It doesn’t to me. But if it does to you, it’s because it’s so obvious when you see it that you can imagine it being easily copied.

The weird thing is that before Tim the idea of a candidate sending a plain text conversational email, especially a FW: RE: subject type — it just wasn’t done.

I actually know Tim, and I can guarantee you that he had an honest inspiration — why not treat email like, well, email? I’m not going to guarantee that a couple rough corners in the forwarded emails were not smoothed over.

It is, after all, politics.

But that Web 2.0 desire to deinstitutionalize communication, and make it more about people — to show some of the rough edges, to tie trust to people over brand — that was a breakthrough. And the minute the other campaigns saw it they recognized it. They all began adding plain text emails to their mix, directly from the people involved.

Tim’s not a marketer. At least not by traditional standards.

He’s, for lack of a better word, an online guy. His background is as a blogger and a video editor. Other stuff.

So why did the idea of sending a plain text forwarded message occur to him, and not the marketing folks?

I’m not sure. But I think it’s because a lot of traditional marketing teaches you to do exactly the opposite of what works on the web — or, as in this case, that traditional background prevents you from adding important tools to your online mix (after all, you are still going to send the traditional email appeals — you just need to broaden your approach). And until that changes, we’ll need the specialized online communications teams.

6 thoughts on “Defining the Online Communications Office

  1. Mike,

    Nice blog. I think you hit the nail right on the head. Online communications continue to be counterintuitive to most large organizations. The example you provided was excellent. Whether or not it was gimmicky is not the point. Instead, the point is that people recognized the format and responded to it because it felt right. Just like we all know that those “breakfasts” in Iowa and New Hampshire are gimmicky – they feel right for that environment.

    Here is another example by way of Jackie Huber’s Church of the Customer: This is a blog about branding a new Philly Cream Cheese product from Kraft. Interestingly enough, the brand campaign focuses on how to develop the brand using YouTube and other 2.0 technologies. Is it gimmicky? Perhaps, but in reality they are building the brand by putting the brand out to the community for a response.

    It seems to me that you are in the same business. You will need to be the solutions department and the creative driver for how to accomplish traditional goals with new tools and approaches. My suspicion is that you are perfectly placed to mashup a whole host of different technologies, approaches, tools, and yes, even gimmicks to help your “customers” accomplish their goals in ways that they have never imagined.

    Good luck!

    John Z

  2. Thanks John, I appreciate it.

    The breakfasts are actual a good example — that’s the idiom of the New Hampshire Primary. And your campaign needs someone that understands that idiom. That’s not too far different in a way…

  3. How’d that work out for the Dodd campaign?

    I know that sounds snippy or sarcastic, but the goal was to get nominated, right?

    Sometimes achieving the ultimate goal is the only goal…sometimes the survival of the cause, the campaign, or the institution depends on it.

  4. Hey, Michael. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    So in my mind here the goal here was to raise money — which they did surprisingly well at. In fact, the belief early on was that Dodd wouldn’t make it through the fall, never mind all the way to the caucus. His ability to stay in the race as long as he did was partially due to some nontraditional techniques.

    There’s a reason I think they call it Advancement, and not Winning — because it’s about increasing reputation and funds, and sometimes that’s incremental.

    With institutions (or candidates) if you are attaching metrics to *tactics* the metrics cannot be about winning. Candidates come into races with wildly different resources and advantages. Institutions are the same — we couldn’t compare our endowment efforts to Yale or even UNH, or compare our press to Harvard’s.

    The metrics have to be about advancement from a projected baseline. In online fundraising and online support the Dodd online team did fantastically well given their resources, which is why I mention them here.

    Part of my goal in the newly formed office is to make our online effort strong, vibrant, and innovative. And I’m going to trust those in the more traditional channels of Advancement and Public Relations know better how to invigorate their own sections than I do. In other words, I’m going to focus on doing what I know how to do well, which is the online component. And avoid getting in people’s way on the other stuff.

  5. I’m looking forward to OCO’s brave new world, and all the projects that will be coming down the pike in the coming year.

    I’m especially interested in seeing if we can convert our online efforts into actual giving. Done correctly, I think it will. But the challenge will be offering tools and services that are actually usable, then creating a viral interest in using them.

    A good place to start would be an Alumni Technology Forum to serve, in part, as an unscientific needs assessment tool. How do alums want to use technology? Do they want email for life? Class news and homepages? Class blogs and forums? In the words of The Kinks, we have to give the people what they want. Otherwise, why would they bother to hang around, let alone give?

    Upward and onward.


  6. Hey Michael:
    One thing that bothers me is the lack of transparancey of what’s going on in the classroom…If I were a parent of a prospective KSC student or an alum, I’d want to see Profs in action…teaching a class. Wouldn’t it be cool for your new group to highlight Profs in action by providing podcast or video links to actual classes?

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