Creating your own DIY community in higher-ed

How often do you find yourself in a situation where you have an idea, and everyone is in full support of the idea, but nobody wants to actually act on the idea except you? Or worse, people just don’t understand the idea.

What I’ve come to learn about silos is that the only way to prosper and endure them, is to OWN your ideas.

DIY to me


I grew up in South Florida as a very casual member of the hardcore scene. “Member” is a stretch honestly, but I’ve always had friends who were in it, and at arm’s reach. The culture of DIY (Do It Yourself) where you curate your own spaces for live shows, create your own zines and fully create/sell your own merch was always the most fascinating part of hardcore (oftentimes more than the music). It was a fully community-driven culture free of middle men and suits, essentially, but it was all about coming through with your ideas and finding the resources to do it yourself.

So connect this with higher-ed community management and digital media, where depending on your division’s setup, you’re basically by yourself. How do you get your ideas out there? And how do you get people on board with it? And at the same time, how do you align it with the overall goal? Always keep that in mind… everything you do needs to come back to your goal.

Carve out your community

Find the creatives in your division that will be on board with your idea. Create relationships with them, and bond over project aspirations. Basically shoot the shit with them so that when you come with an idea, they’re ready and totally with you on the process.

Over my time as a social strategist at FIU, I’ve formed a small little team of creatives that convene over small, special projects. These are the passion projects like the Survival Guide and holiday videos, that are more experimental at heart (compared to the work others do in the division), but add a value to the goals. This is your DIY community.

Some cool projects my community has been involved in:

Find your adopter

Oftentimes this will be your mentor and/or boss; or someone above you that really understands what you’re up to. This person is your community adopter. One who will be the voice that backs you up when you create something that, at first, may not be as visibly valuable to others. But with the klout this person has, higher-ups might be more inclined to be on board with your ideas. But always make sure that the division goal and/or your goals are in mind. As long as you connect your experiment with that, left-field ideas could potentially get the acceptance and value it deserves.

And listen, there is always value in younger, more experimental perspectives with people that are not as digitally-inclined. Even if people don’t understand it yet, they will.

A truly DIY approach


Sometimes all it takes is photoshop, a phone, 12 pennies and good vibes to create something incredible. I really dig what Meg Bernier from St. Lawrence University did with her students’ Instagram posts. She created postscards out of Instagram photos and used them as “thank you” notes. Painfully simple process for a really extraordinary idea. She used photoshop to superimpose the post on a postcard template, uploaded it to her phone and sent it the local drugstore to print for literally 12 cents. You don’t need a big budget to create an incredible community experience with students. Odds are you probably have cool stuff around the office you can use to make a student’s day.

Work with your resources.

Social and content is DIY

This is more an observation than anything, but…

The very nature of social media where one creates and curates content is in itself DIY. I’ve found myself in situations where I can’t physically be somewhere, or I don’t have the means to create something out of a camera. But tools like Storify or whatever you’re using to curate content helps you create content on the fly.

Not long ago, the Brazilian national team practiced at our soccer field. It was hush-hush so we didn’t know about it really. But Brazilian fans did, and they took to social with photos and videos of dudes like Neymar and Hulk playing on our field.

We created a quick Storify from users’ photos and that’s all she wrote really. I didn’t have a pro photographer on site, and I wasn’t there to even post about it. I rummaged through content and created something. DIY.

Bonus content: Here’s one of my favorite hardcore songs from one of my favorite bands

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Washington Post article on Syria, content strategy principles

Note: I wrote this post in 2013, but never published it (for some reason). After having it marinade for almost a year, I finally decided it was worth publishing. This was also at the peak of the blown-out-of-proportion Miley/twerk hype

The other day I read one of my favorite pieces of writing this year. It was a simple article written by Max Fisher for the Washington Post… the article titled: “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask“.

The title alone calls for a specific audience, doesn’t it? We gather the article is a list… which is more in tune with how younger audiences (myself included) consume info these days. Buzzfeed-style… bullet points that get down to the heart of a story, and if you got a .gif for it, even better. It also taps into how our brains deploy information, as in what exactly gets priority in the info-consumption stage of our day.

Shame that the boring Miley Cyrus news took priority over the Syria stuff that week, but it is what it is. People on the Miley media high probably have zero clue what’s going on, and this article taps into that, with a surprising reverence. This writer isn’t out to humiliate you on the basis that you have no idea what’s going on in the world… and he’s not going to blame the internet for your ignorance… in actuality, this article embraces the internet with open arms.

Coming from a journalism background, I’m sympathetic to the “Mommy knows best” mentality of writing news in a traditional inverted pyramid format, etc. But if the newsroom wants to stay relevant, they’ll also have to change things up, and that means compromising their format.

Main thing to learn from this article is the content strategy behind it. Links to prior WP stories, Omar Souleyman music video embed, links to parodies of the Syria article itself, etc. This article tries to paint the full picture, content-wise, with bits of Syrian geography, context and culture. It’s one-two punch social studies lesson.

This story could’ve simply been a very meat-and-potatoes look at Syrian conflict, but instead the proggy Washington Post decided to write the story “for the web” so to speak.

Always strategize stories when they’re in the idea stage. How can we flip the script on people’s pre-concieved notion of this type of story, and simply make it different? Tap into all aspects of the story, whether it’s a song, map, related story, etc, and use it as part of the story experience. Essentially, rubberbanding the concept of digital content strategy for a story.

Bravo to the Washington Post on this one.

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The hermit’s guide to conferences

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I only just started going to conferences like, not even, a year ago and I still find it challenging to go up to people and introduce myself. Conferences are not only about learning and workshopping new ideas and trends, but also collaborating with new people, and creating connections.

If you’re oftentimes shy like me, this can be a problem.

Worst of all, being a social media manager… It’s technically inherent that I’m supposed to be social, since it comes with the job. And I am very social… But behind an avatar. And I’m only fully social once I’m comfortable with the person/environment.

Either way, through my conference adventures I’ve come up with some really easy ways to socialize with people.

1. Wear a shirt from your favorite “___”

This one is tried and true. Nothing sparks more conversation like a band t-shirt or sports jersey. You’re bound to meet someone who shares the same interest, or none at all. Maybe the person doesn’t like said sports team or band.

Either way, a discourse emerges and a connection is made on some type of level. Conversations start on something that isn’t work-related and you slowly ease into professional dev talk. Before you know it, you’ve made a friend and someone you can sit with anytime during a lunch/breakfast/reception. From there, you’ll meet their conference buddies.

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2. Talk to presenters after their talk

If you’re really engaged mentally with a talk, go up and chat with the presenters. Tell them you really liked this one idea from the prez and start from there. Ask them what they think about certain challenges or how they’ve overcome specific obstacles from their prez. Make sure you tell them who you are so they can remember you as well.


3. Think of three questions you should ask everyone you meet

This one is kind of important, especially if you don’t have much to keep the conversation going with. Just have some questions in your arsenal ready for any type of moment. My favorite question to ask: “So what exactly are you trying to get out of the conference?”

This question gets people thinking about why they came there, and getting both you and them collaborating on possible ways to solve issues, or recharge the brain.

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4. Beer

Ugh, I hate admitting this but alcohol can really help out with camaraderie and easing you into conversations. Every conference I’ve gone to, people love their beer. If there’s a reception/after party at the conference, ask someone what they’re drinking and see what they recommend. They can give you insight on a beer they like, and maybe you can even buy them a round. It’s all about just easing into a flow of dialogue with someone. Before you know it they’re introducing you to their friends at the table on the corner.

5. Never fear a night in

Sometimes, you just need to relax and stay in. Whether it’s the first or second night, you’re allowed to not be social at times. Giving yourself one night of the conference to just stay in and work on other things can be very valuable. It gives you time to reflect, or time to just watch TV.

6. Follow the conference hashtag

Every conference has an extremely active Twitter hashtag. Conference attendees will be tweeting like crazy about all of the insights and stuff they’re learning, as well as possible plans/outings. Take advantage of the conversations and engage with them. Maybe set up a meeting with them, or just go up to them after talking and introduce yourself in person. Communicating on Twitter is a good way of easing into a real-life connection with someone in or outside of your field.

7. Keep in touch with your new friends

Stay up to date with the friends you’ve made on Twitter after the conference. This way you’re able to see the work they do, as well as share yours. Some are very active in the digital community, and they participate in live web talks or Twitter hashtag chats. Doing this will help you meet new people in the same realm… ones who will most likely be at the next conference you go to.

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8 ways to get the best out of your usability testing

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A lot of times, website re-design projects are fueled by a lot of assumptions and anecdotal data that usually steer said projects into doom. By doom, I mean poor content strategy.

A lot can depend on google analytics and there’s no doubt that hard data will provide a lot of insight into the direction you wanna take content.

But there’s nothing like getting a little DIY with the discovery process and actually being next to your audience member and seeing what they think, first-hand. Usability tests are probably the best way to put a face to a name (in this case a number) and you might often find yourself surprised by how much more smart your audience is compared to you. Making you say: “I didn’t even think of that!”

I’ve done some user-testing in the past and it’s always an eye-opener when you’re still ironing out those content details in the beginning of a project. So here are some ways to make the testing process easier.

1. Identify your calls to action

It’s important to really know why someone would go to you for your services. I mean that goes without saying, but boiling it down to 2-4 simple calls to action could really help you come up with the best tasks for your users. Let’s say you’re on an On-Campus Recreational Services site… first three tasks that pop in my mind are: 1) Hours of Operation 2) Fitness Class Schedules 3) Membership Rates. Model your tasks around how easy it is to find this information. If the user finds it too hard to scope these out, then you got a problem. If you’re blank on what kinda tasks to come up with, ask the unit’s marketing and/or communicator to identify them for you.

2. Get Organized

Every user test will be different because obviously every project has unique goals in mind. But just creating a very simple user testing template can really help the process a little. Keep in mind, too, that once you’re conducting the test on a user, ideas come up and spread making the user test a lot more fluid than just a standardized sheet. A user can identify very different insights about a site which can lead you to ask different questions… and believe me that’s more than okay. The template is just a guide, but really listen to what the user is saying/experiencing.

3. Reward your users

Pizza is often a reward for user testing, and who can say “no” to pizza, really? We like to change it up and give Starbucks gift cards. But ultimately the point of the reward is to incentivize the test and to give them more of a reason to help out. “It’ll improve your website experience” is oftentimes not enough.

4. Don’t be afraid of your users

Being part of a webteam often has you couped up in a cave. This can be damaging, I think, especially if you’re trying to really tap into what users think. Students can be intimidating, sure, but don’t be afraid to talk to them. They’ll appreciate it more in the long run. Come up with a couple of talking points beforehand that you can use as a way to introduce yourself and the test.

5. Pay attention to your user

I scratched the surface a little on this before but really pay attention to what your user is doing and saying. There have been many times where I was “following the script” and my user suggests a change that leads to different set of questions on my end.

6. Be careful with bias

Try to be as clear as possible when introducing yourself and what exactly you’re trying to do. Stress that you’re independent of the site you’re testing and that you simply want honest answers. Sometimes a user will think you’re working for the office/unit, or you give off the impression that you’ll be offended by any results. And try not to talk to them too much when conducting the user testing. Any little remark can influence where they go on the site, and you won’t be getting a truly organic user experience from them.

7. Get as usability testing app

If your budget can handle paying for a usability testing application, do it. There a couple out there… most of them you have to pay. We use Silverback, which has a free 15-day trial. This one comes highly recommended as it records, not only the screen and where the user clicks through, but also records the user with the laptop’s web cam. There are some other ones like Applause and User Testing that I haven’t tried but hear good things.

8. Regroup and rebuild

You got all of this data now… what’s next? Well, go through the data and really pin-point the big insights. Maybe there was a task that had more importance over the others, and made you look at the content a little different. Don’t boil yourself down to too many details… you might get too caught up and lose sight of the bigger content picture. Assess your 3 calls to action and work from there.

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Confab Higher Ed in Hotlanta

Confab Higher Ed is one of the first of its kind… in that it’s the first-ever higher-ed edition of a Confab event! I’ve been to a couple of conferences as a community manager, but none really come close to how sophisticated and badass Confab is.

This conference was at the Loews hotel over in Atlanta, GA, and seriously this hotel ranks as one of the my favorites. Great service, area and overall aesthetic… it’s also host to movie stars? Like Bill Murray, Jennifer Hudson and Jeff Daniels, who were all there during the conference! Proof below as Bill “Ghostbustin’-ass” Murray photobombs my photo… or maybe I just really photobombed his conversation with the Farrelly Bros.

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So here’s a couple of my favorite things from the conference, in general, ranging from presentations to food.

Best talks:

Ma’ayan Plaut’s “Make Content More Social”
This was the first talk I went to since I kinda missed Kristina Halvorson’s keynote, however this was a really great talk to start the conference out with. Good insights on where exactly content should live, and how to fit them into their appropriate channels. Got me thinking about how we appropriate our content, and how I should collaborate a little more with the content creators in my division.

Georgy Cohen’s “Fit to Print: Creating Purposeful News Content”
Great talk by the Meet Content co-creator about finding better, more appealing angles to news content. Turning a simple “alum donating money”-story to something that shows how exactly that money helps the audience. She also talked about how to package the story for social, and how to make news content more shareable. This would have me doing more collabos with staff writers.

Felicia Pride’s Transmedia Storytelling in Higher Education
This one was about digital storytelling and how to best select what channel to tell specific stories on. One thing I found interesting about this one was it shy’d away from the Post Once Publish Everywhere model, and followed a more Complement-Not-Duplicate flow. Wasn’t one of my favorite talks but worth noting.

Mike Powers’ Get Better Content With Analytics and User Testing
This might’ve been my favorite talk actually. Great measuring tips on Google Analytics, specifically for higher-ed, as well as how to translate it in English to leadership. He also showed us, which measures what grade level your content is in. Great slides, good pacing and Mike was really funny. Great prez!

Karen McGrane’s Keynote
I’ve seen a couple of Karen’s talks online via youtube… and she really only talks about Mobile Content Strategy since she is MCS. However, every time I do see her, the talk is a little different. This time, it was very different. Karen’s a master presenter and speaker (did she take Theater or Drama back in college?). She preaches the truth about mobile, and provides the numbers. She’s awesome.

Best Food:

Chocolate Nacho Bar: cinnamon sugar pita chips with the option to bathe them in chocolate pudding, marshmallow fluff and caramel.

Vortex: Ragin’ Cajun Burger – simple burger with a jerk sauce

Flying Biscuit: French Toast with bacon, potatoes and biscuit.

Georgia Aquarium!

Also, shout-out once again to the Loews Hotel for having an amazing terrace, with a view of Midtown Atlanta.

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