Guru Interviews: Shelby Thayer, Penn State University

This week, it’s time to expand our .eduGuru network and yours with the first (of hopefully more) Guru Interviews.  Shelby Thayer is a Marketing Associate for Penn State University and the blogger behind https:///  You can follow her on twitter at @shelbythayer.

Nikki: Can you talk a little about your current position in higher ed? What’s your current role? How does it fit into the larger organization?

Shelby: I am a Marketing Associate for Penn State World Campus. In that role I maintain the World Campus website (strategy, usability, analytics, maintenance).  World Campus is a Penn State campus. We offer more than 60 degrees and certificates, all entirely online. You can get a Penn State master, bachelor, or associate degree through the World Campus. This degree is exactly the same as a degree you would receive if you were a resident student at Penn State. There is no difference. Although we don’t offer every program now, we are continually adding degrees and certificates to our offerings.

We launched the World Campus in 1998.

[Disclosure: Shelby and I both met when we both worked together at World Campus briefly, though in different departments.]

Nikki: What are some of the strategies that might be unique to a campus that exists entirely online?

Shelby: Hmm …that’s a good question. Obviously tech support is very important for an online campus. The World Campus has our own tech support helpdesk above and beyond that of Penn State.  We also have to think differently about the services we offer to students.

For example, our students can’t walk into the Bursar or Registrar.  So we have our own student services team (Adult Learner Enrollment Services) who are here to help our applicants and students. They help walk them through admissions process. We have our own advisers as well to help our students.  We have a large student services section on our website, that can help students get information they may need.  We also work with the library to help our distance users utilize our library resources.  If they can’t find the information on our website, our Adult Learner Enrollment Services department is here from 8am - 8pm.  Obviously learning at a distance is a bit more difficult (service-wise) than being on campus. With all of our services, our goal is to make the online learner feel they have any service that the resident student has.

Nikki: I like reading your blog, Trending Upward.  When you blog, do you blog for an audience of marketing/analytics gurus, higher ed people, or do you go with what interests you?

Shelby: Thanks. Well, it’s funny you should ask that. One thing my blog has forced me to do is get good with Google Analytics.  We use Omniture here and, although the theory is the same, the way it’s done is different.  Most higher ed sites use Google Analytics, so it’s really forced me to do my research and test on my site.

I’d say my primary audience is Higher Ed because I’m constantly thinking about how what I say would relate to them. Otherwise I’d just write posts about Omniture tips, tricks and such.  I do find myself wanting to do that, though, for the analytics community. That’s why sometimes I stick to theory. Again, the theory is the same. The implementation is a bit different.

Sometimes I do find myself being too granular.  The analytics community in general is very complex in how they use analytics (e-commerce, etc.). Higher ed isn’t that complex.  Another thing I run into is that I’m not sure the higher ed community has embraced WA yet, either.

I find that explaining web analytics to higher ed folks from a usability standpoint gets better buy in than strictly from an ROI standpoint. In the private sector, WA is very much about ROI. Not so in higher ed. A public company advertises all over the place (print, web, email subscriptions, tv, radio, etc.). All of that is trackable via WA. Higher ed doesn’t have “widgits” to sell. It’s not e-commerce, so the approach to WA is a bit different: Whereas in e-commerce it’s about driving they eye toward the “buy now” button in WA, it’s about creating a page that drives users to where their information is.

It’s really the same concept.  It’s just not all about buying gadgets off a website.  It’s more about giving students the best information, helping them fill out an online application, creating a great search form for the course catalog, or getting around a large library website easily.  Again, I’m not saying that it’s not about conversion. It certainly is.  I’m just saying that when you say “conversion” to some higher ed folks, their eyes glaze over, when, in fact, getting someone to the correct course they searched ofr is a conversion!

A “conversion” can be anything you want it to be. It’s what the goal of a page is: Be it submitting an application. Or arriving at the correct journal article when you search.  That’s why usability and WA are so intermingled.  You can’t have one without the other. I’m trying to get higher ed peeps to see it as a priority.  Because it can help them create better website.  More usable websites.  Better functioning websites. And ultimately serve our customers (prospects and students) better.

Nikki: Before coming to Penn State you worked in private industry, right?

Shelby: Yes.  At a computer networking company in Syracuse.

Nikki: For .eduGuru readers who recently transitioned from the private sector, do you have any final advice for adapting?

Shelby: Higher ed is committeed (is that even a word) to death. Consequently, higher ed talks a lot, but sometimes doesn’t get a lot done.  It’s funny [when I am] reading reading your posts and a post that Head of Marketing had a while back about committees.  One thing I try to do, when going into meetings (even committee meetings) is always come away with action items. I find that if we have clear action items, things get done quicker. That’s not really related to higher ed per se, but I think it’s even more important in higher ed because there are so many silos sometimes it’s not always clear who will be doing the work. Clear, concise action items. It works.

2 Responses to “Guru Interviews: Shelby Thayer, Penn State University”

  1. Says:

    Very good interview. I’m just thinking of starting a masters degree online and that’s how I found this blog by searching for Penn State University. Thanks for the interview and the useful links!

  2. Says:

    This is a really great post, particularly for high school students. A lot of high school students don’t even consider online colleges for fear that they won’t get a high quality education. It’s great to see that Penn State is offering the same quality of an education to their online students. Thanks for sharing!