Crushing It In Chicago: Our 2023 AMA Higher Ed Experience

The stage was bigger and the pressure a little greater at this year’s American Marketing Association’s Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. The AMA organizers didn’t hesitate to point out a couple impressive facts. First, it was the largest AMA Higher Ed Symposium in the history of the event. This year’s conference eclipsed 1,500 people! Second, and perhaps even more daunting, was the acceptance rate for speaking proposals: Just a mere 11% of the proposed sessions submitted for the conference were accepted. And with such a slim acceptance rate, you could imagine that the organizers had no problem reiterating that all sessions would be amazing.

A lot to live up to, right?

On Monday, Cara Hoag and I presented “Not Your Parents’ YouTube” to a 300-person packed conference room in the Sheraton Grand Chicago. We came prepared.

Cara and I presented “Not Your Parents’ YouTube” on November 13, 2023, at 3:45 p.m.

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This AMA speaking opportunity was a little different from my previous two. When it came to this year’s conference, I had both experience under my belt and control over our presentation. In 2019 I was an AMA newcomer and when I presented last year I was collaborating with co-presenters from different states. So to be an AMA vet and to have the luxury of serving as the project manager for this go-around was fantastic.

After submitting our proposal in April and receiving news of our acceptance in June, Cara and I dialed ourselves in from August through November to prepare for our presentation. Over the course of that timespan, the two of us strategically spaced out the selection of content, outline of the presentation, construction of slides, rehearsals, and implementation of feedback. Because of our planning and pacing, we were prepared and confident when our plane touched down in Chicago on Sunday afternoon.

But that’s not to say that I still don’t get nervous. 😊

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Because of preparation, a crowd-pleasing intro video, and rich content our presentation went off without a hitch and was enthusiastically received. We had the pleasure of answering questions that reached the double digits during our allotted session time and then were swarmed at the stage afterwards with more questions. It was gratifying to field inquiries from major institutions like the University of Florida, Clemson, and Oklahoma State about how we managed to transform our YouTube channel from a lifeless communications landing spot into a Gen-Z marketing vehicle.

Cara and I all smiles after we answered the final question that put a cap on our AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Ed presentation.

Cara and I both breathed a sigh of relief that our presentation was scheduled for Monday. Not only did it ensure that more marketers could attend our presentation (attendance tends to dwindle on Tuesday and Wednesday) but it also allowed us to relax for the rest of the conference. Presenting on Monday relieves the presentation burden that no one wants to carry deep into the symposium. Also, presenting early allows other people who attended the presentation to approach us with questions they weren’t able to ask while we were on the stage. And, not going to lie, it is kind of nice to feel like a low-key celebrity.

Being a speaker at a big conference can bring a lot of anxiety. It is preferred to present early so the burden is eased.

Our AMA experience wouldn’t be possible if not for others. Thank you to the AMA Higher Ed committee for choosing us out of so many proposals and to AMA manager Christine Lucenta for helping us with logistics both prior to/during the conference.

Big thank you to our boss Holly Sitzmann for helping us with our proposal and for giving us honest feedback when we rehearsed for her. Much appreciation to our creative director Eric Limburg for creating our Powerpoint template. Our presentation would not have been the same without the intro video produced by Andrew Botterbusch of Peak Visuals. And, most important of all, thanks to our #WSU video team for making the topic of our presentation even possible. If it wasn’t for the talent, effort, and buy-in from Jason Refsland, Kara Billington, Rhynne Lee, and Devon Lockard-Dodd (along with WSU video staffers before them), our YouTube re-launch would not have been possible.

Last but not least, I would like to give a special thank you to Cara Hoag. It was such a pleasure to work with her throughout the entire process. We made a strong team and she did such an incredible job while presenting. There is nothing better than having a partner who is the ultimate team player, dependable, and talented.

What an honor it was to present with Cara Hoag. She made me look good.

I am leaving Chicago happy and fulfilled. It is always good to step outside your comfort zone and show what you know. I think it is safe to say that Cara and I made the most out of our opportunity. Don’t Blink.

Engaging in Everett

After the successful and educational WSU System Communicators Conference last October in Vancouver, it didn’t take long for us to do it again. Today we wrapped up our 2023 conference in Everett. Once again, marketers and communicators from across the WSU system came together to discuss our work, learn from each other, and look ahead to the future. This time we got to do it on the WSU Everett campus!

Our latest WSU System Communicators Conference took place on the WSU Everett campus (image courtesy of WSU Photo Services).

I wanted to share some highlights and themes from our time in the Puget Sound…

Travel Partner – I traveled with my colleague and friend Cara Hoag. We were supposed to take a motor pool car but a scheduling mistake meant that we had to take my personal vehicle at the last minute. Cara, our enrollment management marketing director, took it all in stride as we had smooth travel, lively conversation, and plenty of caffeine to/from Everett.

Cara and I spent a lot of time in the car together. She made the travel time go by quick!

Special Visitor – How do you make a WSU conference stand out? You have the top university leader make an appearance! Kirk Schulz, our WSU president, made the trip to Everett to talk to our group. He thanked us for our work, expressed his goals for our marketing efforts, and even fielded questions. It was really cool to have him in-person in such an intimate setting.

It was a privilege to listen to WSU President Kirk Schulz speak to our group.

Brains Behind the Agency – The leadership team I am part of within University Marketing and Communications is working with a newly hired and highly touted marketing agency called BVK. This agency is going to help us do BIG things. We were fortunate that Vince Kalt, BVK’s senior vice president, underscored this enthusiasm by presenting to all the marketers and communicators at the conference. In a series of three different talks, Vince gave an introduction to BVK’s services/philosophies and shared some research that his agency has already completed regarding WSU. The sky is the limit for us!

Vince Kalt flew to Everett to share how BVK will greatly benefit WSU.

Updates From Phil – Our University Marketing and Communications vice president, Phil Weiler, was the glue throughout the conference. Not only did he serve as the emcee and keep the itinerary on track but he presented as well. Phil gave updates on the work our department is doing, discussed a specific communication model, and even hosted an icebreaker event on the first night.

Thanks to Phil for keeping the conference on track and for presenting!

Campus Tour – After lunch on Tuesday, we were treated to an in-depth tour of the WSU Everett campus. WSU program coordinator Brandon Buckingham took us around the main campus building as he showed us the innovative labs, impressive classrooms, creative art, and student-focused features that define the campus. After seeing so many photos and videos of WSU Everett over the past three years, it was nice to actually view it all in-person.

Brandon Buckingham was a superb tour guide. It was nice to finally visit the WSU Everett campus.

Work Project – Tuesday also allowed us to complete the filming of a video project. My social team and our video team are working on a “Best-Kept Summer Secrets” video that includes all WSU campuses. WSU Everett was the last campus we needed to film so my colleague Kara Billington (videographer) and I worked with a couple students to highlight their student center. It was enjoyable to take a break from the presentation grind and engage with a couple of enthusiastic and high-energy WSU Everett students.

Kara Billington and I were able to film with WSU Everett students for a system video project we are working on.

Communication and Mental Health – We were so fortunate that Erin Carroll, the marketing and communications director of Student Affairs, presented on a topic that many of us feel nervous and unworthy to champion within our jobs. You see, the tendency is easy to either neglect communicating about mental health entirely OR to address it in a stigmatizing, out of touch way. Erin’s expertise was much needed and appreciated as she encouraged us to normalize the topic. My favorite part of her presentation was her challenge to be more thoughtful about the images we use within stories and social media posts that relate to mental health. Erin sure was impressive!

Erin Carroll provided us with invaluable knowledge and knocked it out of the park during her presentation about communication and mental health.

The Fun Breakout 😉 – During the afternoon on Tuesday, three breakout sessions were offered. I naturally attended the one about social media. Matt Haugen, our social media manager within University Marketing and Communications, presented on content development and the hierarchy/ecosystem of social media at WSU. I was proud that Matt represented our team and I enjoyed listening to others in the session talk about their triumphs/successes with social.

Thanks to Matt Haugen for representing our University Marketing and Communications social media team!

Debrief – This morning we had the opportunity to bring it all together. We broke into small groups and chatted about what we had learned at the conference and how we can apply it moving forward. We also shared the tools we are using to make us more efficient at our jobs. The honest discussion made me feel so proud to be part of our central strategic communications team as the progress we have made under the leadership of Holly Sitzmann was highlighted.

Chantell Cosner provided a recommendation of Asana, a work management platform, to our group.

Community – At a conference like this, you can learn a lot and grow professionally. However, I prioritize the opportunities to build and solidify relationships. You can’t put a value on going out to dinner with a fun group, connecting with a new employee, or sitting down in-person with a colleague you have only interacted with via Zoom. I feel lucky to have had these experiences during my three days in Everett.

When you are visiting a beautiful city like Everett, it makes connecting with colleagues even more fulfilling. I took this photo of an Everett sunset on Tuesday night.

Big thanks to our University Marketing and Communications staff, especially Amanda Beardslee and Maria Anguiano, who organized many of the logistics for this conference. Much gratitude to Corrie Wilder, the WSU Everett marketing and communications director, for hosting us. Finally, kudos to the planning committee and presenters who made sure we had a content-rich conference. I look forward to our next all-system in-person meeting in May when we will all converge in Pullman. Don’t Blink.

My Third Year at WSU: Progress

When are you not new anymore? From the perspective of a new job, especially in higher education, I believe it is the one-year mark. You need those first 365 days to understand the academic calendar, recruitment cycle, and days of significance. It takes time to learn an institution’s culture, assess challenges, and build relationships with people inside/outside your department.

But the “one-year” benchmark is for normal times. A pandemic can delay things a bit…

After a debut year spent at Washington State University reacting to the daily twists and turns of COVID-19, my second year as the social media strategist within WSU’s University Marketing and Communications was more of what I envisioned my first year would be. I actually worked from the office, tackled projects, set strategy, and built relationships. By the end of that 24th month, I didn’t feel new anymore. 

And with that, I was perfectly set up for my third year at WSU.

Today I celebrate three years as a Coug. My dad drew this to commemorate the anniversary.

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My third year as a Coug can be characterized by progress. If the first year was reacting and the second year was building, then the third year was activating. By the time March 16, 2022, rolled around, a strategy was in place, content avenues were established, and roles within our department relating to social media were defined. It was beautiful.

I started work at WSU on March 16, 2020, so I naturally had to wear the same thing on my 3rd anniversary of employment.

But even if you have a process that is spelled out, you won’t get anywhere if you don’t have buy-in. We have it within our department. From our designers to our photographers to our videographers to our writers to our web experts, no one thinks twice about devoting their talents to help our social media efforts. I can’t thank my colleagues enough.

Another theme from my third stanza at WSU was emergence. I crept from behind the anonymity of the screen to the front of conference rooms. I had the opportunity to do a lot of speaking this year. I spoke in Vancouver at our WSU Communicators Conference, presented with my fellow PAC-12 peers at the American Marketing Association Higher Ed Symposium, gave a flash talk to a senior group of Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) communicators, served on an APLU-sponsored panel, and gave numerous private presentations. Although not a natural speaker by any means, I did appreciate the chance to share the cool things WSU is doing to audiences comprised of professionals from across the nation.

I had numerous speaking engagements during my third year with WSU, but none more important than my presentation with colleagues at the American Marketing Association’s Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Ed.

As adrenaline-inducing an activity like public speaking can be, I much prefer keeping quiet and contributing to team projects. This year, I worked with a core group of my UMC colleagues on some high-profile integrated campaigns. The portfolio includes a major effort to celebrate a record-setting gift from Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL) and an initiative to highlight a nearly 60-year partnership with Boeing. After closing out the calendar year by promoting how WSU is leading the quest for cleaner air travel, we launched our #GoCougsMeans brand marketing campaign at the beginning of 2023. This campaign uses powerful storytelling to share the innovative ways that WSU is positively impacting the state. To say I am grateful to have the opportunity to run point on the social strategy for all these important WSU campaigns is an understatement. No outsourcing here!

Working at WSU doesn’t mean I must stick in my digital marketing lane. During this third year, I worked with two colleagues on our CARE team to foster unity within our department as we organized events and outreach. I sat on multiple search committees that allowed me to meet people in other areas and help hire new Cougs. I wrote award submissions on behalf of the amazing work our team is doing and was elated when one of those entries was presented the CASE Circle of Excellence gold award, the organization’s highest honor. To be empowered to contribute in other ways beyond what it says on my position description makes my job even more fulfilling.

A shot of me speaking during the WSU Communicators Conference.

This third year wasn’t without its challenges. My team responded to various negative developments, nothing more jarring than a former WSU student’s involvement in the tragic University of Idaho murders. I will always remember where I was on December 30 when the news broke and the morale-crushing work that ensued that day.

With that said, there was never a time when my co-workers and bosses ceased to support one another and persevere through the challenging times. There really is something to be said about that one-of-a-kind Coug Spirit.

As I wrap this up, I have a couple people I must recognize by name. First, I couldn’t ask for a better boss. Holly Sitzmann has supported me and allowed me to grow. Whether it be her attending my AMA presentation or accommodating my family schedule or just her overall leadership, I am grateful and so lucky. I also would like to give a big shoutout to Matt Haugen, our social media manager. Our department is fortunate to have someone so passionate and knowledgeable about WSU. His contributions to our social media program are immense and are reflected in many ways, including the ascension of WSU Pullman in the respected Rival IQ Rankings. This year, our social program ranked #23 out of 300+ colleges/universities.

We weathered some storms during my third year at WSU, but overall it was a positive year for me.

I am so happy to be a Coug! This third year was the best one yet. From the people around me to my hybrid schedule to the work I get to do, I have it made. I look forward to Year #4 and pledge to serve this university with pride and integrity. Go Cougs! Don’t Blink.

My Second Year at WSU: Growth

I ended the workday today in the exact same spot I started my first workday as a WSU staffer exactly two years ago. On March 16, 2020, I walked into my office in the Information Technology Building (true Cougs just call it “ITB”) and tonight I strolled out of it at a little past 5 p.m. During any other two-year stretch over the past several decades for American workers, those first two sentences wouldn’t hold much significance other than I didn’t screw up too much to get fired. But that was before something called COVID.

This was me during my first day at Washington State University on March 16, 2020.

After that first day of work in March of 2020, I was told to work from home for a couple weeks as we tried to flatten the curve. However, those two weeks turned into nearly 16 months before I would return to the office on a hybrid schedule. During those nearly 500 days out of the physical office I did question whether I would ever be on campus again. So, the fact that I did celebrate my second anniversary with WSU in the same spot I started it is a point of pride for me.

On my second anniversary of working for WSU (March 16, 2022) I found myself in the exact same spot (wearing the exact same shirt) in my office.

Speaking of points of pride, just having the opportunity to work at Washington State University is one. To work on the campus where my dad earned his degree and where I spent many childhood Saturdays cheering on the Cougs were motivating factors when I applied.

In fact, two years later those motivating factors still inspire me. But to be honest, my main inspiration is no longer associated with the past but rather the present. I have an incredible team I get to collaborate with and no shortage of meaningful work I get to perform. It makes getting up in the morning quite easy.

During my second year as a WSU employee, I finally got to attend a university event. Attending a WSU football game with my brother and dad was a blast!

My first year I was thrown right into the fire and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I wanted to contribute immediately. The pandemic was ramping up and it took us on an insane ride as we navigated and communicated throughout the numerous twists and turns of an unhinged virus. It was filled with constant statements, twice-per-month town halls, COVID-focused campaigns, academic schedule changes, and other pandemic-induced communications. Although I still got to do plenty of the duties listed on my social media strategist job description (paid social ads, analytics reporting, campaign generation, etc.) it was definitely more of a reactive year.

Things changed during this second year. It was less about working on the fly and more about embracing proactivity. I had the opportunity to craft strategy and experiment. I spent more time on content generation and social media platform building. More time planning videos and overseeing the growth of new social channels (looking at you, TikTok). More time diving into analytics and educating campus partners on the benefits of paid social.

Another difference between my second year and first year was that I actually got to work on campus. That’s me the right covering our Drive-Through Graduation Celebration in May 2021 (photo courtesy of WSU Photo Services).

Yes, I spent a lot of time during this sophomore year focusing on the core responsibilities of my job without as heavy of an emphasis on COVID stuff. But what I will really remember this second year for was the opportunity to branch out beyond social media-specific duties. I took on a leading role working with our enrollment management marketing agency. I was appointed to our strategic communications leadership team. I served on a committee with three other co-workers to foster community within our department. I chaired a search committee and served on a couple others. I volunteered to take the charge of submitting some of our department’s best work for national award recognition.

My dad makes has always made me sketches to commemorate birthdays and anniversaries. He sent me a photo of this drawing earlier today.

This growth was made possible by an amazing boss who has confidence in my abilities and my best interests at heart. I am so grateful to work under Holly Sitzmann, our University Marketing and Communications assistant vice president. Her leadership has made me a better professional while putting in perspective that work shouldn’t be all-consuming.

When it comes to my second year at WSU, I will look back on a few highlights. They include educating the WSU community on how to apply our modernized brand on social media, thinking outside the box with my team to implement creative marketing strategies when our football program played in the Sun Bowl, and presenting to the President’s Cabinet just last month. Again, these things wouldn’t happen without the support of my WSU mentors who include Holly, Dave Wasson (my previous supervisor), and more.

Working at WSU is pretty rad. I am so grateful for my hybrid work arrangement, chances to grow, and the talented individuals I get to work with on a daily basis. I am proud to be a Coug and I look forward to the opportunities and challenges that await in Year #3. Don’t Blink.

Rolling Out the Modernized WSU Brand

I recently had the honor of being part of something for the first time in my higher education career. Last week, our University Marketing and Communications team rolled out a modernized brand for Washington State University.

On the morning of Wednesday, September 15, we started the soft roll out of our modernized brand at Washington State University.

In my 12 years working for universities, I have assisted with rollouts centered on websites, endowment campaigns, news shows, and more but never a brand. To have a small hand in such a major undertaking at a place with such a proud history is pretty cool.

But let me stress again my small hand in this effort. For nearly two years, a rather small team of my colleagues have worked extremely hard to bring this brand to fruition. Yes, I said my colleagues. Except for some web design help for the new brand website, everything was done in-house. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s quite the feat.

A screenshot of the vertical lockup of our modernized logo. The classic Cougar head is featured prominently.

Credit these hardworking people I get to call my co-workers and bosses for going about this major endeavor in such a smart way. They knew that our incredibly popular and recognizable graphic, the Cougar head, had to be a focal point of the brand. Thus, it is featured prominently in the visual identity of the rollout. The Cougar head is now paired with a more modernized typeface and it looks really good. But my team didn’t rely solely on traditional marks…they introduced a brand new secondary logo too. You can see it here.

A screenshot of our brand new Washington State University secondary logo.

Of course a brand just isn’t about logos—you need to have a narrative that ties everything together. Our brand narrative is centered on possibilities and how they embody our “Go Cougs” rallying cry. The attitude with which we communicate these possibilities can be expressed through five key tone words—spirited, resilient, original, welcoming, and down to earth.

This is the home page of our new internal brand website. The page features the signature Cougar head logo and scratches the surface of our brand narrative.

Additionally, we rolled out important brand assets such as video lower thirds, background patterns, a web developer style guide, icons, typefaces…and…a social media tool kit.

The social media asset folder includes profile badges for the professional Washington State University community to use based on what part of the system hierarchy their social media profile represents.

Ah yes, that is where my small part comes into play. I consulted with Eric Limburg, our creative director, in the creation of new profile badges, headers, and patterns for the WSU community to use. It is my responsibility to make sure everyone is using these assets appropriately and one way I do that is by serving on the brand training team. The group is comprised of the major players who created the new brand so I am very honored to be included on it. Throughout the month of September we have given presentations to WSU faculty and staff. These sessions will continue into October.

The social media asset folder/tool kit also comes with pre-made headers/cover photos that the WSU community can use on their social channels. If you look closely you can see that the “WSU” pattern is applied to the images. I love this use of another brand element! It is slick and adds legitimacy to the social asset because when our external audiences see the pattern overlay on the header they will know it is a true official social channel of WSU.

Whenever I talk to the WSU community members about our modernization, I proudly say that many of them will work with the new brand for the first time on social media and that in turn our external audiences will most likely see the new brand in action for the first time on social media. Because of this, it is important that we are on the same page and get it right. I am happy to lead this charge.

With our modernized brand, I really think our team did the rich tradition behind this timeless logo proud.

I can’t extend enough admiration and gratitude to the following people for their tireless work over the past couple years to make the brand modernization a reality: Holly Sitzmann, Eric Limburg, Larry Clark, Danial Bleile, and John Sutherland. I work with an amazing team. Don’t Blink.