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Will Universities Evolve?

Careers in marketing—particularly digital media, content marketing and analytics—are growing. Why are US universities failing to graduate marketable digital natives?

US higher education—long a source of pride and differentiation across the globe—is undergoing a true crisis of value and identity. Pundits wonder whether universities are the next “bubble” of the US economy, and university students are questioning whether their high-priced education and gargantuan debt loads—up 47 percent after inflation from 10 years ago—will position them for a college-worthy career.

“Our customers want marketing professionals who can measure and optimize marketing effectiveness—and the demand for those roles are essentially doubling annually,” says Alex Yoder, CEO of Web Trends, and director of The Oregon Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “The amazing thing is this: despite a slow economy, the supply in these marketing roles is just not there.”

Says Jim Sterne, chairman of the Web Analytics Association, “The need for analysts and content engineers who can determine the value of content is so great that our association’s online courses have been steadily sold out since inception in 2006. When times are good, companies invest in tools and systems. When times are tough, they invest in people who can optimize those tools and systems.”

The market needs well-trained content savants.

Put simply: US universities are not adequately training students to meet the needs of business in some of the most sought-after areas of marketing: social media, content marketing and content analytics. Clearly an imbalance exists between skills taught in classrooms and the skills sought in the marketplace—and this imbalance is only accelerating by the rapid pace of change in technology and product innovation.

Nowhere is this more evident than the schism that exists in many universities between business schools, schools of engineering and English departments.

Marketing students are taught about targeting, segmentation, the “4Ps,” classic operations, testing and business analysis. Their work product translates to the bottom line, but too few marketing students are given rigorous, cross-disciplinary training in writing, analytics and technology.

Engineering students invent products and processes that can be observed, measured and optimized. Too few schools make the link from engineering to digital media.

English, journalism and communications students are taught to express themselves in words, but are rarely trained about optimizing content for business value—a central tenet of real-world business writing.

We need to think about creating a new curriculum that addresses the new, multi-disciplinary needs of the marketplace. We need to train writers who are savvy about digital content and adept using technologies that optimize their work in real time. We need marketers who are top-rate communicators and who understand that high-quality content is a new core competency in marketing. And we need to call upon curriculum from engineering—methods in measurement and optimization—to train marketers and English majors.

What’s behind the cliques?

The silos at work in academia also have been a serious stumbling block for businesses, but in recent years many organizations have revisited their org charts to fix the misalignment between marketing, engineering and creative. Five years ago it was common to divide the roles of content creation and business measurement—the classic left-brain vs. right-brain gap. Yet any enlightened business will tell you today that creativity without conversion is a big fat zero. Many have not only created better cohesion between the two disciplines, but have appointed roles such as chief revenue officers, chief content officers and content engineers—all intended to bridge the gap between creative, technology and business analytics. There is even talk that in some organizations that the CMO serve as a proxy financial officer, sitting in front of his integrated marketing dashboard, making ROI decisions on social, mobile, web and cross-channel campaigns in real time.

To be fair, some university professors recognize the trend and have taken positive steps to become more cross-disciplinary. Reports Eric Sonstroem, English Department chair at the University of the Pacific, “I’m pioneering a course in our English department this semester that focuses on content engineering, teaching the latest tools of analysis, analytics and optimization alongside traditional business writing and marketing techniques. I’m determined that my students really understand how content works on the web, how it can be tested and measured, and how you can act on the data you get back.”

Yet within the US university system, such cross-pollination remains the exception.

“With the onslaught of ‘digital everything’ in the last decade plus,” says Terri L. Bartlett, president of the Direct Marketing Educational Foundation, “it’s no wonder our corporate and academic institutions are caught off-guard. The sooner we face this issue, the sooner we in America can do what we do best: innovate and collaborate. That’s what I’m betting on and what our organization is counting on.”

What’s being done?

Some universities and their business partners are indeed looking for ways to leverage their current curriculum towards a higher technological quotient. They see the need to produce graduates with the skills geared for today’s competitive environment. Yet teaching “internet marketing” classes—most often a minor repackaging of traditional marketing—is a quick fix when we need an earth-moving overhaul.

Recently at SXSW in Austin, I sat on a panel with an ad agency CEO to debate the question “Is too much math killing creativity?” The crowd was heavily weighted toward creatives, but when polled, these attendees overwhelmingly said, “no.” They agreed that numbers need to be assigned to all words and messages, and that conversions need to be tracked through the sales funnel, from the very first level of engagement all the way through to conversion to revenue. Most importantly, attendees agreed that marketers, bloggers and journalists need to be compensated on measurable results. The emerging paradigm in the news/media industry supports this. Organizations like AOL/Huffington Post, Google and Demand Media are equal content and analytics powerhouses.

We need to establish a new major: content engineering.

Perhaps cross-pollination is not enough. Why not create a new major that spans existing schools and subjects, yet adds a modern shine to the old school plaque? I would propose a content engineering degree that leverages the existing curriculum and talent in business, liberal arts and engineering, but also remains adaptable to train students in new competencies as the market changes. In other words, a degree in content engineering need not be revolutionary, but rather a synergy created by existing assets. It would include:

1. A capstone class defines the discipline and the core tenets of content engineering.

2.  Building-block classes in writing, statistics, analytics, market research and consumer behavior, quantitative decision-making, marketing, digital media and technology are each seen through the lens of content engineering and taught by professors who are committed to the concept.

3.  A one-semester, hands-on training in a content lab allows students to put their education to the test with real-world challenges. Corporations can go to the lab to innovate solutions, and, I propose, fund the lab itself.

4.  An intensive internship program gives students credit for working within companies and testing their knowledge in the real world.

We need to create a stronger culture of measurement in higher education, one that is market-based and rewards innovation. Anthony P. Carnevale, director of The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, has called for a fundamental shift in thinking about the way students are educated. He writes, “The old model, where you go to college and then go out and find a job, is largely outmoded. It needs to be replaced with a new model, in which college years are spent explicitly preparing for an occupation.”

Innovation is part of the US DNA, and has been for centuries. Today, our institutions of higher education are moving at a glacial pace, not keeping up with corporate demand for high-tech skills. Maybe the high-energy heat of market demand for digital sophisticates can “melt” the slow rate of change in higher education?