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Interview: Steven Kloehn, Vice President for Marketing & Communications, Carnegie Mellon University

Q.  You are Vice President for Marketing & Communications during a time when the world is more tech-savvy and diverse than ever before.  How is that changing the way we communicate?

A.  We’re seeing a vast diminution of the traditional media that higher ed communicators have relied on for so long to get their word out to a broad audience.  Accompanying that is a fragmentation of audiences. We are losing a consensus go-to source for information, and we are even losing consensus about what information is worth getting. Some people get it through social media, some people get it through comedy television. You just have to be expansive in your thinking about where people are getting third party communications.

Q.  What effect has technology had globally?

A.  Technology accelerates the pace of change throughout the world, whether it’s how factories operate or how we do our banking. It’s also accelerating change within higher education. There’s a sense that we have to be much quicker and more nimble than we used to be.

The benefit of technology for communicators is that we have far greater ability to reach people directly than we ever have and to target our messages at specific audiences. We recently launched a series of digital advertising campaigns that, for far less money than we would have spent in a traditional ad buy, reached 67 million people who had 1.4 million completed video views. We had a hundred thousand people click through from our ads to our website and spend three plus minutes per view on the page. 82% of those people had never been to before, so we were reaching people we wanted to reach who weren’t familiar with CMU. If we can adapt to this high speed of change, I think we can be very effective in reaching the audiences we need to reach.

Q.  You are leading a process to develop a five-year marketing and communications plan that articulates your university’s global reputation and visibility. How will your university engage with the “next class,” so to speak: Generation Z, those born between born between 1996 and 2010?

A.  I think this up-and-coming generation has two very different wants and needs. One is they understand how important technology is to every workplace and to all of human life. There are all sorts of ways in which technology is permeating traditional fields and I think this next generation is drawn to finding that practical kind of benefit in higher education.

But even as this current generation and those coming up behind them want these practical skills, they’re also very aspirational. They don’t want simply to excel at something, they want to change the world. They want to know that what they’re doing has impact beyond their own careers or their own well-being. As communicators, we have to help them understand how higher education provides that opportunity.

Q.  Among the top 10 countries for Generation Z, all but the U.S. are developing or under-developed countries.  Countries with the largest Gen Z populations include India, China and Nigeria.  What tactics might communicators use to reach out to those markets?

 A.  People sometimes talk about a “global audience.” In my experience, there is no global audience. There are a thousand global audiences and they’re all a little bit different. A lot of universities in the United States are drawing from India and China for students. Those are two extraordinarily different, huge audiences. The ways we communicate in India are different than the ways we communicate in China. For example, India has a vibrant traditional media. Their newspapers, their network television, are extraordinarily strong. So, using traditional media there is much more effective than it is in the U.S., for instance. China is a whole different sort of media market where much of that media is, to be candid, controlled by the government. You have to adapt your tactics for each market.

The benefit that we have as higher educators is alumni in all of those markets. If we can tap their desire to help and their local knowledge, that can give us a big leg up.

Q. What’s unique about communicating to the current generation of millennials?

A.  Social media is a hugely important channel with this generation and it’s a constantly changing one. A couple of years ago it looked like Snapchat might be dominant and now things have shifted toward Instagram. We must, again, remain adaptable and stay on top of it. But the truth is that this generation, like every generation of college-age people before it, doesn’t want to hear that much from the official voice of the university. Sometimes the most basic old-fashioned word of mouth marketing is the best way to communicate. If you can get “ambassadors” out there speaking to their peers, they will do the best job of getting our message out for us.

Q.  You were a newspaper journalist for 21 years. In 2008, you moved to higher education. How are things in journalism different now?

A.  I was lucky enough to be a reporter and editor during the last heyday of major metropolitan newspapers. Resources were still ample and some of the best newspaper journalism was going on. But even then, newspapers at that time were struggling with the same sorts of questions that I struggle with as a higher ed communicator now, most importantly: how do we reach these fragmented audiences?

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