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“If I get one more email about tips for online teaching, I will scream!” vented one of my professor colleagues in an email. My sense is that many academics can relate to this sentiment. Some are already comfortable delivering content online, while others are making progress on this front with the support of their colleagues. For another group, especially academics who are more focused on research than teaching, there are different types of challenges at play due to COVID-19.

The virus has disrupted so many universities’ research projects. Labs are inaccessible, travel for research has been halted and many decisions on grant applications are on hold. Some researchers who aren’t scrambling to provide online course experiences actually have more time than normal to prioritize other projects that have been on the back burner, such as building their online personas and communicating their research to external audiences. As communicators, you can be their partner by providing resources and support.

One such related activity is creating an individual website. For this project, it is helpful to have a model of some of the best practices that are being used by other savvy academics and experts who communicate their research and ideas effectively. An interesting reference point is the Thinkers50 global ranking of management thinkers. The ranking consists of many academics and is touted as “the essential guide to which thinkers and which ideas matter now.” For an idea to matter, effective communications is essential.

The individuals on the Thinkers50 ranking have a focus on business or leadership. It is a coveted ranking among business school professors, and while you might not be working with academics whose expertise is in these domains, the general principles are similar across other disciplines.

I went through the personal websites of each of the latest top 50 thinkers and reviewed the following key elements:

  • Is there a clear value proposition statement or paragraph that succinctly summarizes the work of the academic and its application to a specified audience?
  • Is content -- blog posts, articles in the press, podcasts, etc. -- published regularly (at least one new piece of content within the last three months)?
  • Is there a call to action for a book, program, consulting service, invitation to be part of a research study or some other related opportunity?
  • Is there an email marketing component (visible call to action to subscribe to receive specific content)?

In this analysis, I counted a personal website as an external site that generally is branded around the individual (for example, I also counted websites that are branded around an individual’s big idea. LinkedIn profiles or faculty bios within the institution’s website didn’t meet this criterion. While both are certainly useful and should be strategically crafted, a personal website provides a different value proposition and means to connect with audiences and share one’s research knowledge.

Here is the analysis of all top 50 thinkers.

Based on this, here are some examples and points to consider if you are advising your colleagues as they start or revamp their own personal websites:

  • A good example of a value proposition statement comes from Whitney Johnson: "We help high-growth organizations build high-growth individuals." It is very clear, direct and focused on an external audience. Too often, personal websites overemphasize the individual’s background -- achievements, awards, degrees, etc. Advise your colleagues to not fall into this trap, but rather to communicate how their content and expertise benefits others.
  • David Burkus, a professor at Oral Roberts University, offers a great example of how to effectively capture emails. His Resources page offers 29 different “lead magnets” -- downloads of his content that can be accessed once someone provides their email address. This enables him to segment his audience’s interests in his email marketing campaigns as he has the data to understand who might be interested in content on innovation, networking, leadership, etc. Encourage your colleagues to think about offering one valuable piece of content for free to visitors of their website to attract email subscribers.
  • Eric Ries’s The Lean Start-Up website is a great example of communicating key messages. There is a clear value proposition front and center: “The movement that is transforming how new products are built and launched,” then when you scroll down, you come across five related different principles.
  • Too often, individuals and organizations focus their content efforts on the medium -- blog or podcast or YouTube videos -- instead of the problem that is being solved. It is better to build content around the audiences’ concerns, just like Columbia Business School professor Sheena Iyengar has done. At the bottom of her website, there are five different boxes centered around “Big Questions -- Choose a Question to Learn More About My Work” and within each question is a link leading to a section that features additional resources.
  • Many academics, regardless of discipline, have a book that they can market. Harvard professor Susan David’s website provides a great example of how to position a book on a website. There is a nice background image of Susan speaking at a TED event and visually appealing book cover thumbnails. It is smart to offer a free first chapter of a book as the lead magnet. The “as seen on” media outlets provide further credibility.

Let us remember that in the midst of uncertainty is opportunity. The disruptions of today can serve as a call to action about the value of academics using digital communications to share their knowledge with the world, and communicators and marketers can play an important role in providing the support for academics to make this happen.

Kevin Anselmo is the founder of Experiential Communications.

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