THOUGHT LEADERSHIP FOR HIGHER EDUCATION SINCE 2001: Reach out to us.
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ESTIMATED READING TIME: 7 minutes

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[UPDATE: We published an update to this post on 9 September 2010; it focused on new PBO initiatives and lessons learned from the campaign.]

Powered By Orange, launched in March 2009 by Oregon State University, is the most comprehensive university social marketing campaign that we’ve seen to date.

With an integrated marketing communications plan already in place, OSU’s next step was to create a campaign to raise awareness of the university in Portland, Oregon’s biggest media market.

Unfortunately, the budget for TV time or outdoor advertising wasn’t available. But, drawing on insights from the original communications plan, a group of team members from the University Advancement division developed a plan and creative concepts to take advantage of an integrated social media campaign. They tested these ideas with a mixed group of campus staff and leaders, including representatives of the OSU Foundation, the OSU Alumni Association, college communications representatives, admissions staff, and others.

These ideas evolved into Powered By Orange, which is now well-entrenched at OSU and appears to be on the verge of going viral.

According to Luanne Lawrence, vice president for advancement at OSU, “The feedback was consistently supportive of the Powered By Orange concept. So, we developed the campaign a bit more and tested it at a few alumni events and in focus groups and discussions with faculty, staff and students. Each conversation improved the concept and grew it to where it is going (and is still growing).”

What’s Powered By Orange?

What’s Powered By Orange? Here’s the answer from the PBO website:

“It’s you — the network of alumni, students, faculty, staff, friends and fans connected to Oregon State University. It’s the positive impact you make every day in Portland and beyond – on the economy, the environment and the community. Use this Web site to tell your story and connect with the other practical idealists who are Powered by Orange.”

One of the key insights from the research that led to the integrated marketing plan was the necessity of connecting with younger alumni, who are critical to future giving. Testing showed that this audience in particular wanted reassurance that OSU was making an impact on the world. “Not only did the research gave us insights into the needs of some of our key audiences—but it was a no-brainer to reach out to young alumni through channels that they were familiar with,” said David Baker, OSU’s director of web communications.

In short order, Baker’s Web Communications unit, in collaboration with University Marketing, designed a website powered by WordPress to serve as the hub for Powered By Orange. Planning and execution of the site and social networking components, Baker said, “took a couple of months from first concept to site launch. We were able to move quickly because we had that research.”

[Note: for those interested in the details, Web Communications at OSU has six staff members: a director, assistant director/developer, web designer, writer, multimedia producer and a social media specialist. Baker said, “This last role is brand new as of last month, and we currently have it filled temporarily by a recent grad with a marketing background. If it works out (and it’s going nicely), we’ll make it permanent.”]

The PBO online ecosystem

The PBO website aggregates a significant number of social media tools and social networks.

    • A focal point of the site is a Google Map that allows people who are Powered By Orange to place a dot to mark their location. Baker said, “Lots of people are adding themselves to the map because they are connected to OSU and OSU has played a part in making them who they are. They’re showing that they are part of their community—and not just through their profession. In fact, this reinforces how community-oriented OSU students are.”
    • Content from the PBO Blog is featured prominently on the site; it is also syndicated to the PBO LinkedIn group and to OSU’s Portland Metro website. It will also be featured on OSU’s top-level pages, which are currently being redesigned.
    • OSU has also focused heavily on developing video content for PBO. A YouTube video is featured prominently on the PBO home page, and this is just the start. Videos are housed on a YouTube page that currently features 36 videos. The videos are created primarily by a graduate assistant with video experience, though Baker emphasized the importance of having a cache of Flip videos that can be loaned out to faculty and students; at OSU, Flip video is often edited into video shot with the university’s high-quality video camera.
    • The videos are syndicated into the Powered by Orange – 10,000 Beavers page on Facebook. And there’s an extensive Flickr gallery where people can post photos of Benny, the OSU mascot, in various places. An image of Benny can be downloaded from a gallery that includes computer desktop wallpaper; a doorhanger; and PBO website tags.
    • OSU’s Twitter feed (@poweredbyorange) and a LinkedIn group are part of the package, too.

PBO now far beyond Portland

Though originally targeted to Portland, the campaign took off quickly. “Believe it or not, we’re still in the quiet phase of the launch,” Baker said. “We haven’t done much promotion to speak of, no print buys, no advertising, no PR. But we already have more than 10,000 page views on the PBO site and more than 1,600 members in our Facebook group. PBO has resonated well with the alumni who’ve discovered it, both young & old.”

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With such a bold campaign, Luanne Lawrence knew that she had to be proactive in unveiling it for many OSU constituencies. She observed, “Like all other states, Oregon’s immediate financial future is dim. With a higher-than 12 percent unemployment rate and university reductions in the 12-22 percent range, morale was low. So, I decided to try to take PBO out on a road show to gauge its ability to create excitement, shared vision, anecdotes, and dreams of how to implement it. We also wanted feedback on how to make it better.”

She continued, “The response has exceeded my expectations. PBO has become something for people here to ‘hold on to.’ Faculty, staff and students are defining what the campaign means in their own way. My goal is to not control this campaign, but let others run with it. I want Beavers of all walks of life to define what it means to be ‘powered by orange’—to define their contributions as Beavers to their professions and communities; to use our main color, orange, to express themselves artistically, to make it their own.”

One big surprise of PBO, Baker said, is that this has actually happened. “Other departments and units at OSU became so interested in adapting it for their purposes. That made us change our thinking and change our direction to enable people to use the campaign to be their own advocates. We’re trying to be flexible in giving up control. The flexible theme resonates with people who are used to having control over their communications, rather than having it dictated to them.”

For example, the Athletics department simultaneously rolled out the “I am Orange” campaign. Luanne Lawrence noted, “We are seamless in using the color to self identify and create spirit … at least in this first phase.”

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The campaign handed out PBO stickers to this year’s graduating seniors, who showed up at graduation with the stickers on their caps.

Luanne Lawrence reported, “We intended to keep this in the quiet phase until September when we planned a major public launch, but now I prefer to say that we are in the ‘viral’ phase before the public launch. It has been embraced by many people already.”

“It has really taken off on campus—students really like it,” Baker said. This could be just one more sign that the PBO campaign may be set to go viral.

Tracking results

Baker emphasizes that OSU is not only in a “launch and learn” phase with the PBO campaign – but also is assessing its impact. Most of the feedback to date has been anecdotal – and positive. He noted, for example, “Feedback from Luanne Lawrence’s presentations to different groups has been very positive so far, as it has from the focus groups we’ve conducted.”

Baker is also tracking the PBO Twitter feed. “We only have about 260 followers, but they are mostly business owners who are interested in sustainability. This could be very useful in the future.”

When asked whether audience members were contributing content – in particular blog comments or homemade videosBaker noted that audience participation was heaviest on PBO’s Flickr gallery, where people were posting and tagging photos. “We found it very difficult for people to produce videos – which is an experience that is fairly common on other websites, too.” As for blog comments, he observed that the blog is an institutional blog and has less of a personality and, as a result, less engagement, than a personal blog might have.

In any case, OSU is quite satisfied with the results of the campaign so far.

Advice to others

When asked what advice he’d give to people at other institutions who wanted to launch a campaign like Powered By Orange, Baker noted three key points:

    • Do some groundwork. “One of the reasons we were able to do this so quickly is because we had spent a year doing research and planning an integrated marketing campaign for OSU,” he pointed out. Still, expectation setting is really important, he emphasized.
    • Launch and learn. Be prepared to make adjustments to your strategy and your campaign after you launch it.
    • Think of it as a grassroots effort that builds over time.

There hasn’t been much pushback on the PBO campaign, Baker reported. And, what little has occurred, Luanne Lawrence noted, comes from communications professionals who are uncomfortable with the notion that OSU is launching the campaign and doesn’t intend to control it. “I run up against some who subscribe to older models—pushing out press releases, paying for ads, controlling events, etc. While we still have these tactics in our mix, we are risking as much as we can to empower larger communities.”

Lawrence added, “This is not a high-comfort area for some in higher ed, so I have learned that it takes a tireless and enthusiastic leader to ensure that this approach is successful. If I weren’t a vice president with such a passion for making this campaign viral and in using a mix of traditional with very nontraditional media, I’m not sure this PBO campaign would have seen the light of day.”

In short, to ensure success of a campaign like this, one has to take risks.

And no campaign with perceived risks will be successful without a visionary and indefatigable leader. Clearly, PBO has two such leaders who are willing to venture out, but not recklessly. OSU’s approach demonstrates that research, planning, and thoughtful experimentation increase the odds that such ingenuity will be rewarded.

Update: See the post Kaukab Jhumra Smith, a contributing editor at SmartBrief, wrote about Powered by Orange for Smartblog on Social Media for some updates on the campaign.

Michael Stoner

AUTHOR - Michael Stoner

Was I born a skeptic or did I become one one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person? Find me on

11 Comments

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  • Chas Grundy

    I’ve been showing clients the PBO site lately to let them see how different [existing!] social networks can converge for the purpose of an integrated campaign… OSU didn’t create their own private social network and try to get people excited. They’re letting people contribute through channels they already use. As Lawrence noted, that means giving up some control, but it’s key to their success.

  • Mark Rothbaum

    Great post.

    This is a really cool way to put the school’s brand out there in a very interactive and community-focused manner. It also serves as a great jumping-off point for interacting with the various OSU social media initiatives.

    A few thoughts for making it more effective. Maybe ideas for any other school looking to implement a similar idea.

    (1) Some of the barriers to participation seem higher than necessary. Why not build a quick front end for placing pins on the Google Map? The implementation requires a lot of commitment by the user and opens the door to potential abuse. This may be a result of this being a first pass at this.

    (2) Why a Facebook Group instead of a Page? You don’t get access to the user’s homepage and Stream using a Group.

  • Michael Stoner

    Chas: Learn to give up control. Should be the first rule of social media, shouldn’t it?

    Mark: thanks for your comments; I’ll make sure David Baker sees them!

    On Twitter, @IUwebmonkey offered several pointed comments:

    “What I want to know @mStonerblog is how do u measure when something has “gone viral”? What is the number of posts, e-mails, comments, links?”

    and

    “And, if there is no metric for what has “gone viral”, then how can you ever predict something is “on the verge of going viral”? @mStonerblog”

    I appreciate the point: I might have gotten a little carried away with enthusiasm about PBO—and the reality that OSU’s constituencies seem to be responding to it. I’m particularly interested in David Baker’s observation that students have started to pick it up.

    But @IUwebmonkey is right. What’s the metric for “viral?” I don’t know. I’m not necessarily impressed by big numbers; I don’t care about the number of followers on Twitter, but about the quality of those followers. And right now, I don’t have good answer for what’s “success” or “viral” with a campaign like PBO. I’m impressed by the numbers that PBO has generated right now, though, especially since the campaign is young.

    And I do recognize that in the .edu world, PBO’s numbers are starting to look really good.

  • patmcgraw

    Fantastic post – thanks for digging in and getting insightful behind the scene details that help us (readers) understand what and why!

    Can’t wait to hear more about the results over time!

  • suedilmoore

    A bunch of smoke and mirrors.  I’m an OSU alum and I want content and news of achievements.  Let Athletics handle the rah rah spirit stuff.  It’s an academic institution for god’s sake not a game

  • mike drake

    PBO’s been a big flop on campus.  Ask faculty what they think.  Talk about a waste of time of energy. The university needs these talented marketing people focusing their attention on other things—like how to get more funding for higher ed in the state.  Loving the Orange ain’t going to do it.  Other schools should think twice and get the real story before following the OSU’s team’s lead.  It’s a textbook example of how NOT to launch something like this—NO internal buy in, a huge political snafu.  Hilarious that it’s being held up as a model.

  • David Baker

    Chas: “Why not build a quick front end for placing pins on the Google Map?” – that’s a great idea. We’re now planning a request form to make it easier.

    Chas: “Why a Facebook Group instead of a Page?” – University already has a page, and groups are supposed to have more viral capability. In hindsight, maybe a page is all-around better. ‘Launch and learn’ is the mantra of these types of efforts, though.

    sudelimoore: “I

  • todd simmons

    @mike drake – I don’t see a mike drake listed in the osu global directory, so not sure where the certainty that faculty don’t like this campaign comes from. that certainly has not been my experience as i’ve discussed the campaign with numerous faculty, staff and students in recent months. also: hard for a campaign that hasn’t yet entered its more public phase, as powered by orange will this fall, to be described as a “big flop on campus.” i do appreciate, however, your characterization of the talented pros working on our team.

    university advancement at osu is a communications division. we don’t fund raise or manage government relations. the osu foundation or office of government relations would be more appropriate units to engage on getting “more funding for higher ed in the state.” of course, we support the concept, but like every other public campus in america, are experiencing firsthand the challenges of public disinvestment in public higher ed.

    which is why the social media tactics of powered by orange make such great sense—integrated, economical, focused and measurable. we’re looking forward to even greater results when the campaign enters its public phase later this year. i encourage everyone to visit poweredbyorange.com over the next few months and judge for yourselves.

  • Unrelated to OSU

    The comment about faculty buy-in is laughable. Many faculty can’t see past their own little world. They refuse to acknowledge ideas that are developed by people without Ph.D. after their names. Faculty should get out of the way of the people attempting to promote, raise awareness and recruit students to their university.

  • Drew

    I must say I’ve been very impressed by the poweredbyorange campaign.  The word that comes to mind is “all encompassing”.  Wide and deep.

  • Should our Christian school's domain name be .com or .org? | Private & Christian School Marketing

    [...] One of the better recent examples of this at a university level is Oregon State’s “Powered by Orange” campaign.  To visit (see this marketing domain in use):  http://poweredbyorange.com/ (read more about the PBO case study at MStoner.com) [...]

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