Jesse Alter, Head of College Community Communications at Imperial College London, sits down with us to chat about building channel-specific content strategies around audiences, and to stress the importance of being kind online.
Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?
From short stories in primary school to essays at university, I’ve always loved to write. After finishing my degree, I knew I wanted to work in a job where writing and editing played a key role. I initially started off in the print publishing industry before gradually transitioning over to digital, which eventually led me to roles in social media and digital communications. I enjoy the open canvas aspect of digital storytelling and the opportunities for experimentation; I’m also really passionate about technology, and I love the huge range of tools you have at your disposal to craft a narrative. Working in digital communications forces you to keep learning and pushing your creative abilities.
What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important in the communications sphere? Why these skills/attributes in particular?
Not only knowing what makes a good story, but why that story is good – what is it about the story that will resonate with your audience? The answer to that question may be different depending on the channel you are using. I’m a big proponent of developing channel-specific content strategies based around your audiences. It’s a lot of work to take this approach – you can’t just ‘lift and shift’ the same content across channels – but it’s worth it in the end, as you end up with content that is crafted specifically for a platform and your unique audiences on that platform.
What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?
One of the big challenges of working in higher education communications is managing the many audiences we have: prospective students, current students, professional staff, academic staff, alumni – just to name a few. Remembering that you are not the audience is especially important in my sector, as there are so many nuances to consider depending on who you are trying to reach, their relationship to the institution, and more.
What one thing would make your working life easier?
As a former social media manager, I’m used to interacting with negative comments and very public criticism on a daily basis. That constant negativity and aggression can wear you down, and it can make you doubt your abilities. I would say this: please be kind online. There is a person behind the social media channel, e-newsletter or website who has to read your comments and/or help you, so be kind to them and treat them with respect.
How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?
We are very lucky at Imperial College London to have senior leadership who truly value the importance of communications. My colleagues in the Communications division are included at early stages of project discussions, and leadership and project boards almost always include a representative from the Communications division. Communications cannot be an afterthought; we must be present from the start of a project through to the finish, and I am lucky to work for an organisation that understands that.
What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?
Remember that you are not the audience. Use data, build audience personas, engage with focus groups, but don’t make decisions based exclusively on your experience. We are lucky (though it may not always feel that way!) to live in a data-rich world, so make the most of it!
At React & Share, we’re obsessed with helping our clients measure and report their efforts - what measurements do you think comms teams should be presenting to internal stakeholders?
I’m really interested in engagement metrics – so, looking beyond the page views, shares and likes, and really drilling into how users interacted with your content. Web/user experience data such as scroll depth and where users clicked on the page, alongside social engagement rate metrics, can present an entirely different picture about how your content performed than if you only relied on top-line vanity stats.
Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think will be the next big thing in communications?
In the past few years, we’ve seen the rise in the importance of tone and authenticity in communications, and I think that’s a trend that will continue. People don’t want to engage with bland, generic comms anymore; they want comms that speak directly to them and are open, honest and human-sounding. Acknowledge emotions, don’t avoid the hard topics and own up to your mistakes. Perfecting that human-centred approach will be key for many more years to come.