Vanderbilt University and its strong sense of identity

Show notes

In Episode 6, we’re joined by Lacy Pachal, Executive Director of Digital Strategies from Vanderbilt University to discuss our top stories: Community marketing at Vanderbilt; Brands taking their first steps into the metaverse; University of Austin appears to be a website.

Vanderbilt University and community marketing

Rather than an about page, Vanderbilt leads with “This is Vanderbilt,” a concise pitch for the university’s campus community and its students. Vanderbilt offers a powerful example of a university nailing its colours to the mast i.e. having a strong sense of purpose and a clear picture of the type of student it wants to attract. Each of Vanderbilt’s principles is punctuated with a student’s voice—directly relevant to the theme it portrays. The result is a convincing marketing asset, far more striking than a general about/history page, which offers little insight into a university’s community. 


Brands in the Metaverse

Facebook’s reposition to Meta has started making waves. Nike’s come out with Nikeland, built in Roblox, offering users the chance to play games and try on Nike gear. Disney has also thrown its hat in the ring and there’s been a surge of interest in companies like Sandbox and Decentraland – places you can purchase digital plots of land. There’s plenty happening, but I’d say we’re not even at the 1.0 stage yet. A good strategy could be to skip the Alta Vista years, sit tight and wait for the next Google, but you’d miss out on getting a head start. All of this will become part of your day job sooner than you expect. 

Nikeland | Sandbox

University of Austin

A group of “free speech warriors” have founded The University of Austin, which, to my knowledge, only seems to be a website right now. There’re no hallmarks of a university to be seen – like a campus, courses or students… but there does seem to be a truckload of Trumpisms floating about in its curriculum: the “fearless pursuit of the truth” and “preparing a generation of leaders to renew the promise of American society.” Honestly, do they ever read this stuff back and think “hmmm, that sounds a touch fascist, maybe we should tone it down a bit?” Reportedly, its “Faculty of Fellows” has shrunk somewhat since the institution was announced – probably because most were still employed at their respective “illiberal” and “censorious” universities. 

Austin’s website | WonkHE deep drive

Most Clicked #6 Transcript

Nathan Monk
Hello, and welcome back to Most Clicked. Liking videos and subscribing to our channels is the only payment that we ask for in return for the most popular digital marketing stories in higher ed, every two weeks.

I’m your host, Nathan from SMILE, a leading digital agency for the higher education sector. And today, I’m joined as always by my good friends, Matt from SMILE, and Kyle, not from SMILE. You will know Kyle, however, from the Education Marketer email newsletter.

Later today at 2pm GMT, we do also have a webinar coming up called “Everything will be fine… Probably.” It’s going to be a somewhat cynical take on 2021 digital marketing efforts in the higher ed sector. So look out for that on YouTube and LinkedIn. And hopefully, see you there later.

Kyle, you’re the man as ever with the examples. Would you like to introduce our special guest?

Kyle Campbell
Okay, well, today we’re going to talk about Vanderbilt University in the US. And we actually have the Executive Director of Digital Strategies joining us. And I’d like to introduce Lacy Paschal. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do for a living and it’s quite a title, I must say!

Lacy Paschal
So I lead the digital strategies team at Vanderbilt. And we manage the entire web presence for the university. It’s about 1700 different websites, we support about 8000 different users that kind of manage the content on those websites, which is insane. But there are many people that have input into what’s on the website. And my team is primarily of developers and project managers, we’ve got some content strategy, folks.

And we also obviously provide a huge amount of support and training for everyone who’s using our design system and all of our back end systems. And anytime, anything on the campus that has a digital component, we serve as a consultant on those projects as well. Or if people are wanting to buy anything, any type of system or tool or something that they’re going to be using for their website or for digital purposes. Usually, they’ll ask us to come in and kind of weigh in on it and do a review of kind of what’s going on. But yeah, we are the internet at Vanderbilt. That’s it.

Kyle Campbell
It’s very similar in the UK, just not quite at your scale. And I think it’s important because we have a large UK audience with a show to highlight the numbers you gave at the beginning that that’s not you know, exaggerated. That’s, that’s the actual number of people you serve. So I included this because it was part of one of the most clicked this week, and it actually came in an article about community funnily enough. I’m sure Nathan and Matt will talk about the web and how it all links together. But the piece that was was written about this week, looks at how Vanderbilt has a very strong sense of its purpose and who it serves. And it has this wonderful page on site called “This is Vanderbilt” and you unpack each of your principles, you give backup supplementary content to each of those representing – you even pull in the student’s voice after each principal and value. And this is something you don’t see very often on university websites. Such a focused vision of what it stands for, and why it matters to students. So, I’m really curious how you find this flows through the work you do especially in the area of content and how you ensure that this sense of what your community is, really makes itself heard in the work that you do.

Lacy Paschal
I think you kind of touched on some of how this page kind of came to be was. We have been working two years into a really large initiative at Vanderbilt called Future VU digital. And it’s actually the reimagining of our entire digital campus. And that’s kind of how we think about our website.

Our physical campus is obviously super important. We are a residential college’s University. So we absolutely believe in the in-person experience, and that students need that interaction with faculty and with the other students in person.

And actually, prior to COVID. What we were well into pitching this project and getting buy-in by our chancellor, all of our vice-chancellors. And we had the first vendor demo to find our vendor one week before we all went into quarantine. And so we had an in-person demo. And then everything else from that point forward was actually all done via zoom.

And it was super interesting to be working on reimagining the whole Vanderbilt web presence when everything with COVID first happened because if our digital campus wasn’t important before COVID, it was like the end-all and be-all of everything – so important – during COVID. So some people were like, “Oh, I can’t believe you guys are still going forward with this project with COVID going on”. And it was like, “Absolutely, we’re going to go forward with this project”.

And yes, it’s kind of crazy to be doing it while all of this other stuff was going on. Because, you know, we sit within comms at Vanderbilt. And so everything about COVID comms was also flowing through our division. And we were running this big project. But like our digital campus is, 100% of the students that come to Vanderbilt are interacting with us via that digital campus. And so that project started.

And to go back to your point about that “This is Vanderbilt” page that was developed, we very much believe in saying who we are, but don’t say who you are, without backing it up with like, “here are the proof points”. Like, yes, we say we’re “collectively striving to succeed”. Well, everybody can say that. But, what are we actually doing?

And that shows what we’re actually doing exactly what we’re saying. And here’s the proof points. And that’s actually what we call them as, like, here are the proof points. So if we’re going to say we are this, then here are three examples, where you can then learn more that backs up that. Yes, we do collectively strive to succeed. And we are a very collaborative community, and our students work together. And yes, it’s very academically vigorous, but we also highly encourage that collaboration and working together, because that’s what you actually are going to need in the real world later. It can’t just be cutthroat all the time, because when you get the real world, you have to work with other people. So also tied to that is – we have always been at Vanderbilt, I think this is just a good kind of example of it – we’ve always been a fan of you need to tell the students stories, and have it be that authentic student voice because while we can say as Vanderbilt, obviously, we are communications and marketing, we can say all day long, “hey, we think this is great”. Or we think this is like our values. But if you can actually tell the students stories and use their voices, again, as a further proof point of those things. And so we have quotes kind of all throughout the website, not just on this page, where we have quotes and stories that we link to all throughout the site, linking to student stories and faculty stories.

We’re also a huge undergraduate research institution. And so our undergraduate students actually get to do research with a lot of our faculty. And so we highlight those stories as well. So I think two of our big things are like “Don’t say something if you can’t back it up with real things that are actually happening on your campus”, or in our case, you know, obviously also on our digital campus. And then really use that student voice because students another thing that we do, and we have done this for years, and it’s super, super popular – is we have an undergraduate student blog.

Blogs have obviously been around forever. They are still super effective. And so our undergraduate students blog about their experience through Vanderbilt events, but also just like living in Nashville. And so the whole like the whole experience of like, what is it like to move to Nashville to live on campus? Go to school here, and everything around that. And it is definitely moderated by Vanderbilt folks. But we don’t change the kind of the tone or it’s more just like, let’s just make sure there’s not like expletives and a blog post. But again, that authentic voice is so important.

And students can tell when something is marketing. And when it’s like, we’ve written these quotes for people, students know that I mean, they’re like, savvy digital natives. We’re many, many, many years into our students being digital natives who have always been around technology. And so they can tell when there is that authentic voice of students actually telling about their experience, even sometimes when it’s not positive. We allow, you know, those stories can go out of like, yeah, sometimes things don’t go the way that you hoped they would go. Hmm. So we try to infuse that throughout the whole site.

We love that landing page as like a succinct place where we say this is who we are, we’re also kind of caught this is definitely in flux as well. And so we aren’t just going to leave these three things that we have there. We’re definitely fine-tuning and refining this.

That’s another great thing about everything digital is… digital is fluid. And as you need to adjust things you can. And so even now we’re having conversations about how we can further refine what we’re saying we are, and then as new proof points come up that we think might more closely kind of show what we’re doing. We kind of swap those out as well.

That was a nice answer to your first question.

Kyle Campbell
I’m assuming Matt and Nath, this is music to your ears?

Matt Lees
Yeah, I mean from a brand positioning point of view, your content is is brilliant. But for me from a design perspective, as well, the relationship between the content and the design is just so strong, it feels really high end, exclusive, editorial, love the typographic treatments that you’ve got going on and the colour palette. Nath found your site, brought it to the team a couple of months back. And yeah, it’s up there as one of our favourites that we’ve seen.

Lacy Paschal
I have to give a shout out to our vendor partners who are not paying me to say this statement: They’re in Boston, and I have been at Vanderbilt, and I’ve worked in Web and Digital my pretty much entire career. But I’ve been at Vanderbilt 14 years, the best vendor relationship like we have ever had, like they, they were a partner with us from that from day one. Like we went to them with kind of this, “this is what we’re looking for”.

And we really are looking at this project as not being a redesign, we didn’t just want to put new wallpaper up on the same old stuff that we really wanted to look at, especially in the end, you know, in COVID times were like in 2020, because that was when we were initially starting to work with them.

In 2020, if we didn’t have a website, what should a higher education website have on it?

And it wasn’t like, oh, we have this page, this page, this page, this page, and we’re going to move it over. But it was very, very intentional, what should a website have right now. And obviously, we are super early on in this project, the first phase of it launched in July, which was the top-level Vanderbilt site, undergraduate admissions and our news and research websites. And so we’re starting to work with our 10 colleges and schools. We’re almost ready to launch two of our schools now. So it’s a long project. But it is really with all of the schools and colleges, we’re doing the exact same thing of like, “okay, hey, Peabody, (which is our College of Education, Human Development). Hey, Peabody, if you were creating your website for the first time, right now, in 2021, what should you have on your website?”

And there is not a one to one correlation between their old website and their new one. And that’s really the first time we’ve ever done that of really looking at the entire Vanderbilt web presence as a whole and not looking at it as much as like 1700 individual websites, but like, “Where does the Peabody site sit within the overarching Vanderbilt digital campus?”

And again, yeah, our vendor partner with the design – it’s so streamlined, it’s so clean, we love the typography. But yeah, they were just a really great partner. And I think that’s like if you are going to work with a vendor partner, really finding somebody who they really felt like they were part of our team. And we were both able to give each other tough feedback.

Like sometimes we’d be like, “you know, that is not it” and they would receive that feedback so well and kind of go back and then we’d all get to a place where we were happy. And then they would tell us, “you know, you really need to not do this. I know you’ve always done this or like, all of you know, politically, you might think that this needs to happen. But let’s actually think about it this way”. And so there was definitely a lot of mutual respect in there. So again, shout out to our vendor partner. And I think it was just like a great kind of combination of people on their side and our side. And Vanderbilt was just ready to kind of do this

Matt Lees
And the dream project, by the sounds of it as well.

Lacy Paschal
Yeah, it was, it was so interesting. So we didn’t meet anybody from the vendor partner in person until after we had launched phase one. They were able to come to Nashville for a different project. And we actually ended up getting together with them in person. And it felt like we were meeting old friends because we had been on hundreds and hundreds of hours of zoom calls. We’re still partnering with them on other initiatives now.

Nathan Monk
Nice. Well, I could talk about this for hours, we’ll have to start doing special episodes or extended cuts or something like that. But thank you so much for talking to us about your site, your insight and your thinking. Lacy, if people want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way that they can do that?

Lacy Paschal
Definitely. You can find me on LinkedIn, Lacy Paschal, Vanderbilt. You’ll find me on Twitter: I’m @LacyDev, that’s probably your best bet.

Nathan Monk
Nice one. Thank you very much. Well, hopefully, you’ll stick around for the next two items that are coming up. And the next one, I think, is are we talking about Mark Zuckerberg once again, Kyle?

Kyle Campbell
No, Nathan, we’re talking about the metaverse.

Nathan Monk
Oh, right. Yes, totally, completely different!

Kyle Campbell
He is one of the metas. The fact that he named his company after it does not mean in any way shape or form involved, but he is involved.

But he’s started something, hasn’t he? I mean, it’s not like it wasn’t happening already. And there’s a lot of very talented people working in this space.

But he started something because you know, Facebook’s a large company and what it does matters – whether you like it or not. So there are the way designs happen now and a lot of brands are looking at what this Metaverse thing, whatever form it takes means. And definitely over the last few weeks, a few started moving beyond dipping their toe in and starting to take a little bit of a paddle.

And I’ve seen a nice example from Nike recently. Just probably looking at the metaverse in terms of a PR strategy, they build a space in the game called Roblox. So Roblox is like a very sandbox-y kind of game you can build stuff you can build worlds have people walk around these worlds and interact. And Nike has built like a call it fun park if you like based on their HQ people can play games and make friends

Lacy Paschal
My son likes Roblox!

Kyle Campbell
Yeah, well, this is it, isn’t it? And that’s the wonderful thing about that platform is it’s targeting that up and coming demographic who will view this stuff as normal.

But I just saw it and I thought okay, well Nike’s doing it as a few other brands going into it. There are a few decentralised versions in the metaverse kicking off. There’s one called Decentraland, which is selling plots of digital lands, and people are buying it.

There’s lots of experimentation going on right now. It’s like 0.5. It’s not even 1.0.

Yeah, if you look at it in the equivalent search terms of the web like that, and for me, it’s very exciting. And I like this kind of idea of pioneering territory in exploring these things and picking them up playing with them trying to break them.

Nath. You’re probably a little bit more sceptical than me. Am I right in saying that?

Nathan Monk
Sceptical/cynical, either way, I don’t know. The metaverse at the moment just feels more like an overarching umbrella term for things that aren’t websites that exist on the internet. You know, it’s not really a true thing yet. And the Roblox thing is cool. Is it metaverse? No, probably not.

This stuff’s been happening in computer games for a while. We’ve had concerts in Fortnite, but that’s not the metaverse. It’s just something that’s happening in the computer game. But now it feels like we’ve got a neat term to wrap a lot of stuff back in.

I think Nike have been super clever in jumping on the trend of whilst Metaverse is is kind of trending in the news. I’m excited about the future, generally, and Metaverse stuff too. But I feel like it’s a way off, you know? For me, it’s a very similar conversation to like VR, and how for the last five years, “VR is going to be the biggest thing since sliced bread”. And yet, everyone I know, that’s got an Oculus, loves it for the first week, and then throws it in the corner forever after.

It’s not mature. The concept is great. It’s just not mature. As marketing bods, and even as technical bods, we should 100% be aware of this and understand the movements that are going on. But I think I’ve got that level of cautiousness. I want to watch the experimentation happen. But I would never let it anywhere near a production environment right now as a university personally.

Kyle Campbell
It’s interesting that there’s a lot of conversation around people. resisting it. And the thing is that for me, I kind of feel it’s already been here for a long time. I mean, I’ve grown up playing video games like Pokemon, Legend of Zelda, and I’ve sunk 1000s of hours into these things. For want of a better way of phrasing it: I’ve lived in those worlds. Yeah, a million miles away. It’s just a different way of experiencing it, isn’t it? Like you say it’s a new way to categorise?

Nathan Monk
Yeah, totally.

Well on new categories. Let’s move on to our third story. Given that this is probably the most the last Most Clicked of the year, I think that this story takes the biscuit for the most outrageous Most Clicked item of the year!

Kyle Campbell
I mean, so much so that I had to read it a few times to make sure I knew what I was looking at. So check let my notes here to make sure I get it right. So a president of a small liberal arts college in Maryland decided to start his own university with a bunch of other people, which is fine itself. But this university doesn’t seem to exist. And it’s got a website, it’s called the University of Austin.

But there’s no students, no campus, there’s nothing that would suggest it’s a uni.

But one thing it does have is a truckload of ideology. And once you kind of scroll past, like the standard sort of imagery, and start reading what was actually on this site… It, it sounds like a bit of a Trump rally!

You’ve got things like they’re searching for “the undeniable truth”. And there are a few others in there that just got my attention: “Preparing for a generation of leaders to renew the promise of American society”. Whoa, okay – so you start to dig in this thing. And it just seems like a vehicle for a certain way of looking at the world. It’s crazy these things can pump up and is that there’s a higher ed sector, fragmenting somewhat. Is it possible today with digital, to connect – we have a bunch of people who would rally behind this sort of thing and make it happen. And would it be legitimised, but it looks like a normal sign to start digging. It’s mad.

Nathan Monk
That that for me is the scary thing; is that you university websites have such a convention to them that, anyone can start a university website by the looks of it. It fooled me. When you sent me the link, and I was like, “oh, okay, yep. I’ll find someone from this university” and then, whoa, whoa, this isn’t a university? Really? And yeah, when you read it, you like, “oh, no, something’s off there”. That’s a particularly interesting one. I think.

Kyle Campbell
It is also on the brand side Matt, that I thought was quite interesting that the site, even though it has literally no history, it’s positioned itself as some sort of renaissance painting.

Matt Lees
Yeah, there are all of these kinds of grand colours going on. Yeah, that typographic choice as well.

Nathan Monk
But, you know, maybe we can take something positive from this. And if we can, if you can leverage those design patterns and aesthetics for good, then you know, it shows how actually you could put something together that does speak to a very specific tone and an audience quite easily. I guess.

Lacy Paschal
My comment is I’m relieved that they don’t have an edu address!

Nathan Monk
Well, on that note, that just about wraps up all we’ve got time for this episode of Most Clicked. Thank you very much for watching if you’ve made it this far, and if you have made it this far, definitely go and check out the back catalogue now at

Also, please do consider liking and subscribing. It really does help us to put the next ones on. As I said, this is probably the last one for 2021. So as weird as it sounds, I’ll see you next year in 2022. Bye.

Nathan Monk
Nathan Monk

I'm proud to work for some of the world’s most influential brands that shape cities and define lives: Universities and colleges.

I provide advice to forward-thinking senior leaders on how to exceed their organisational targets by creating user-focused, digital-first strategies.