New York Conference

Dartmouth in Conversation

at The New York Changemakers Illuminate conference 2023

I recently led an ‘Under the Spotlight’ conversation on transformation at The Marketing Society New York 2023 Changemakers Illuminate conference.

My guest, Jon Hussey, shared his inspirational story of how he has driven huge change at Dartmouth College through balancing innovation with the right culture of such an historic organization.

Jon, Content Director, Advancement Marketing and Engagement gave us his very candid insights into how he has driven this change, which has achieved amazing campaign gifting results.

Here is a summary of our conversation:

How have you balanced innovation with the culture and rich history of Dartmouth College?

When I arrived at Dartmouth, I quickly realized there was something about being up in the woods, it just brought this level of passion that I had never seen before. So, I knew that I had that to work with. I spent 15 years in Washington DC which was much bigger with 250,000 alums, but the level of passion was not the same. So, there was huge opportunity. And what I did right away was realize that the community was going to be the biggest driving force behind making things happen.

We established the strategy right away of ‘Know me better’, which was a shift to putting alums first. As I looked at the institution, and what the community had been doing a lot of it worked incredibly well, but there was a lack of digital innovation, so I focused on building that and testing new ways of doing things.

Knowing what you know now, is there something that you wished you’d known at the start of your journey? 

Well, so taking the job at Dartmouth was interesting to me because I always worked in communications. I was always in branding and central never in development [gifting]. So right away I realized I had a ton to learn. I immersed myself in everything, I had to talk to my colleagues to understand the processes. And then I had to understand the alums. So, I just met and spoke with as many alums, as many donors as I could possibly talk to understand what they were passionate. Virtually every alum ever talked to talks about loving the green, they live and breathe the Dartmouth green. I had no sense of the strength and impact Dartmouth had.

What was the biggest challenge you faced delivering this campaign?

The biggest challenge is that we had to change strategy entire. We were still doing print ads, very, very print focused. We had to build a team, and then shift the strategy to be alum first and quickly. The challenge was how can we still communicate with our alums, a finite group of people, we would send a campaign newsletter every month. Often there were 10 items in that newsletter. And I just looked at the data and we were getting unsubscribed at an insane level. We had to make some serious changes in the way we communicated. We took a test and learn approach to content type, volume of content and frequency to find the optimum level. We needed to prove this to leadership to get their buy-in.

Nicola Nimmo and Jon Hussey

How did you drive change within Dartmouth, to push forward the data and digital transformation?

I was brought in to drive forward the digital strategy, it just didn’t exist. I joined in January 2020 and then the pandemic hit 5 weeks later. Whilst it was a weird time, I took this opportunity to really push change, and it certainly accelerated that. What we did in a few months would have taken a year plus to do. 

My approach was to look at how we could replicate connecting with the donors and alumni to replace the big events we were used to throwing to drive engagement. Part of our strategy was launching Dartmouth Next, a virtual live streamed program.

Essentially, we were creating a TV show. And so, we brought in Henry M Paulson, Annette Gordon-Reed and Jeff Immelt.

The impact of this meant we could run this along with supporting digital activity for two years. And that just shifted everything to more of a digital, and I think it's fair to say that really helped drive engagement and really reunited people.

What were the results, the impact?

One of the biggest was that unsubscribed dropped 250%. Our online donations went up 185%. That was just a huge number. And then just the nitty gritty, get into the click through rates. Click-through rates went from 12% to 20%. Open rates went from 40% to 70%. The changes were dramatic once we made those just bigger systemic, which is excellent, resulted in a huge, huge fundraising success.

How does this campaign advocate the reputation/importance of the Marketing Industry?

I think what we really did a lot of work to do is look at all of the content we put out, have a clear content strategy, and then understand what they are engaging and how we build that content strategy. The numbers showed the combination of emotional story telling and data, through understanding our audience better, helps us reach well beyond our $3billion gifting goal.

What inspires and motivates you?

When I was 17, when I graduated high school, I was one of those kids who just didn't really try that hard in high school. I just partied and just didn't work. It was the darkest part of my life. I came home from failing at college and just hit an absolute low. I had to get it together if is what I wanted to do. And so, I went to the small state school that was right by my house. I had a couple professors that were just incredible. And I found that passion and realized that higher ed changes people's lives. That turned my entire life around, and that is why there's no other place I would work. 

What is your biggest mistake? 

We’ve all done those management tests like Myers Briggs. I'm somebody who can be impatient, feeling like change must happen quickly. And then I realized it's going to take time. I’ve got to bring people along with me. I’ve got to use data to back up what I'm trying to do. I need to talk to them, understand where they're coming from, and I came in all gangbusters trying do it all. It’s now about just keeping your eye on the ball, move here, move there and move towards strategy.

What is your biggest learning?

I'm learning every single day. I discovered so much from talking with the community here at Dartmouth, understanding their motivations and viewpoints and building that in the overall direction. And now people are playing back to me what our strategy is, this has been my biggest learning.

What is the biggest opportunity for marketers in 2024?

At Dartmouth we have the good fortune of having a great first party data. And as we look at a future, it’s about knowing your community, and knowing what they're interested in and really truly getting to know them. 

What is the one key piece of advice or a learning you would like to leave our audience with today?

So, my son is now five years old and we have gone through the questioning phase. He asked why 400 times a day! And that's always my piece of advice in the marketing is just keep asking why, be curious and just keep asking why I find it in data. You look at one piece of data and you say, why did that happen? You ask it again and you get deeper and deeper and you really get to the core of what works and what doesn't work.

Nicola Nimmo is Managing Director MBAstack



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