Q&A with Penn State’s Rose Cameron on Innovation in Traditional and Online Universities – part 2

Rose Cameron is the Director of Innovation at Penn State University, making her the woman who brings a fresh perspective to the university and fosters an environment of innovation and transformation. Recently, Jay Sharman, of StoriedU, sat down with her to discuss the challenges of creating change in a university and what future trends she sees in higher education marketing.

You can read part #1 of StoriedU’s interview with Rose Cameron here.rose-cameron

Jay Sharman: Without giving away trade secrets, you’ve got enough data to show what’s working and what’s not. From a digital marketing perspective, what’s working in terms of engaging prospects to get them in the digital door?

Rose Cameron: I’m going to be really pragmatic here. We are still playing with a lot of different things. We are still trying to introduce new modalities.

I wish we could say that we’re doing this incredible marketing and that we are supplying all of this much-needed content to the students. I think that we’re getting closer to transitioning to a point of that. I think it’s very difficult especially if you’re a public university with people who are highly responsible with the budgets to make a fundamental change like that because here’s the challenge: they want to test new things but they also want to maintain their existing investment so they don’t see a drop in registrations.

I think that is one of the great challenges right now in education, to put aside enough funds to say “Hey, this big chunk of money right here may not have an immediate payout, but we know marketing is changing and we have to invest in testing those different ways that it may be changing.”

JS: You’re growing World Campus – what do you find is resonating with the Penn State offerings and targeted prospects?

RC: I would say that a piece that has worked well for us is very targeted to specific cohorts. We have a remarkably strong military cohort who we have seen significant growth in. We also have built some very strong relationships with specific groups within the military. That is definitely driving change, like our relationship with MCRD in San Diego or the Sergeant Major’s Academy in Fort Bliss.

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JS: That’s interesting. Those are direct brick-and-mortar relationships if you will. For one of your targeted cohorts, let’s keep the military student, for example, are your marketing efforts more heavily skewed toward paid social media/digital marketing/digital advertising versus traditional? Or do you have a healthy mix?

RC: It’s a healthy mix. The chap that we have, Adam Allen, who runs the military, is an expert in mixing media. I think one of our true strengths is [we go] beyond the initial touch – it’s in how we manage those interactions once they come in.

A large part of our success is our webinars we have for the military, prior to them coming on board because we realize a massive lifestyle change is required to do an online study. You really have to change your life schedule. You have to negotiate agreements with your family. You have to find space. You have to find bandwidth. It’s not easy and these people may be moving all over the place; they may be in highly stressful times. The webinar really gives them a very clear perspective of what is expected of them and the support that we will give to them. That has made a huge difference.

JS: That’s impressive.

RC: It’s very important to them. Then the support that we give them after that, figuring out how to use the funds that have been given to them, the GI Bill, payments, or scheduling, etc. That stuff, people look at it and go “Oh, how boring – housekeeping.” Guess what? Housekeeping, yes it’s boring, but if you come home to a filthy house, you notice it.

JS: I need you to pull that telescope up since this is what you’re paid to do at Penn State and apply it to the online university space just in general, not for Penn State, but in general. What do you see coming down the horizon?

RC: How I kind of map things when I look at innovation I would say – what is “mass?” What is experimental right now? What is emergent? That way I can focus our investment.

On the “mass” side – stop talking about it. Stop debating it. Just take the best practices and employ them. Those are things like incredibly clean, super simple user interfaces.

In the experimental arena – How do you do these things effectively? How are VR and AR going to be used in the future online? How do you make that cost effective? Where is Google cardboard right now? If you talk to them they’re saying they’re really looking to grow mass awareness right now and get initial adoption. It’s not going real deep dive but then you see things like what Case Western is doing with HoloLens and you’re blown out of the water.

Then let’s look at the truly emergent – I think what we’re seeing there is highly personalized education. That is kind of the Holy Grail. Why it’s the Holy Grail and why it’s so challenging is that it works on multiple levels. On a basic level, you need to have the flexibility of the content and a defined taxonomy for each element that you produce so that you can reconfigure on-the-fly and distribute on-the-fly. That demands a very sophisticated digital asset management.

On top of that, you then have the analytics. You look at things like IBM Watson, AI, where it’s scanning how people are interacting with the system and starting to define “Once this person is making their way through their studies, what are the best ways for them to learn?” What’s been most productive? Least productive? How do we advise that student to maintain their momentum and maintain their success?

Then on top of that how do you engender this sense of the student’s empowerment where they can access those different tools to their own specific needs where they can almost do a sliding rule of “This is how much I want to invest” versus “This is the amount of time I want to invest in it” versus “These are the cohorts or the professors that I want to interact with.”

This is really important because that level of flexibility has not been available to education. It’s been available to things like car insurance or mortgages, which are investment categories, but they haven’t been possible [at universities] because there are so many variables in a college education – in not only the area of types of content but areas of expertise and different learning styles.

JS: I think what you really triggered one of my places of nerd-dom is generational marketing. It just fascinates me. To your point, knowing that the core online university customers are Millennials, customization and personalization are that cohort’s signature calling card, right? They’ve grown up with an expectation of customization and personalization different from Gen-X and Baby Boomers and what you’re talking about is an extreme on the spectrum of where it could go.

RC: There is a reason that all of their products that define them start with an “i.” How do you put “i” back into education without undermining the quality of that education?

A lot of educators feel that the credibility of an institution is dependent upon the rigors they put the students through. I’m in total agreement with that, but where do you want to create the hard work? It shouldn’t be across things like navigation, connecting with your teacher, paying your bills and actually planning out your schedule. That effort should be focused on really getting down and dirty with your subject matter.

JS: Rose, this is awesome. Thanks for creating some spark. It’s great to hear your thoughts on what’s coming down the road for higher education.

RC: Lovely. I’m glad I could be of help, Jay.

Part one of Rose Cameron’s interview with StoriedU is available here. To make sure you don’t miss an interview with industry leaders, sign up for our newsletters above.

Questions? Get in touch with us on Twitter at @StoriedU.

About Jay Sharman

Jay Sharman is the CEO and founder of TeamWorks Media, a purpose-driven marketing company in Chicago’s West Loop. TeamWorks helps not-for-profit and higher education clients combine purpose and profit by creating innovative marketing strategies... More about Jay Sharman »

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