Tag Archives: MIT

Cisco and the Trailblazing Interviews

Journalists make the best interviewers. I’m sure that sounds biased, given that I’ve spent most of my life as a journalist. But have you ever gone to a conference, for instance, where a non-journalist interviews someone on stage? The interviewer either lobs softballs that elicit rote answers or spews out multi-part questions designed to show how much the interviewer knows.

Long way of saying: If you’re a brand, and you want to build content around an interview format, bring in some journalists.

This is what Cisco has done, and it’s an interesting venture into the land of branded journalism. The company decided it wanted to collect interviews — to a large degree they are oral histories — from many of the pioneers who helped create the networked technologies we use today. To make these interviews as interesting as possible, Cisco is pairing the pioneers with veteran technology journalists who then do the interviewing. The tagline of the series: “Insights from tech luminaries captured by noted journalists.”

Also interesting is Cisco’s hands-off approach. I just did my first of these for Cisco, an interview with MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte. Cisco did not guide me in any way. Didn’t ask me to ask anything. Certainly didn’t push any Cisco agenda. And once I brought in the video of the interview and the edited text Q&A, Cisco didn’t touch it.

In the end, I believe this benefits Cisco. Readers, hopefully, see these interviews as a public service — the capturing of important historical stories. And that should engender good feelings toward the Cisco brand.

Beyond that, by taking a hands-off approach, Cisco is able to get good journalists to do the interviewing, and convince people like Vint Cerf, Bob Metcalfe and Chris Anderson to participate.

What’s lacking in Cisco’s approach is presentation. The possibilities are so great for creating a rich and vibrant web page or app that would draw in students and technologists. Instead, the main landing page is just a text list, like something from the web circa 1996. A snazzier version would no doubt multiply the brand benefits.

Still, as branded journalism goes, Cisco has the right idea with this series.

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Hey, Universities: Online Courses are Branded Content!

The New York Times today published the sixteen-zillionth story about free online courses that universities are shoveling onto the web. Almost all of those stories treat the online courses as if they are — or will soon be — a low-priced web-based version of attending college classes. And that’s dead wrong.

The online courses are branded content. And if universities thought of it that way, they’d be smarter about the race to put stuff online.

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Here’s the big, gigantic elephant in the online courses room: You can’t take, say, MIT’s online courses and get an MIT degree. The same applies to all these traditional universities, and it’s not likely to change anytime soon. If it did, and people could get a respected degree over the web for a few thousand dollars rather than going to a college for $100,000, we’d have an Innovator’s Dilemma moment in education — the cheap newcomers would disembowel the traditional players.

Which is exactly why it won’t happen soon. The established universities control the Higher Learning Commission, which would have to accredit online universities. (More detail about this tension here.)

So if the online courses aren’t really courses, what are they? They are content — a way for universities to give something of value to a larger audience and build respect for their brands. The content can boost a university’s current brand by luring real, paying students, and it can lay groundwork for a future brand in online education. But it is brand-building content, not college courses.

If universities think of it as content, they might package this stuff with a little more pizzaz, and more carefully curate what they put out there. Lectures by a boring professor sitting on the web for all to see is brand damaging. So is a lecture filmed in a hall that has 600 students jammed in. Until it becomes possible to skip college and build a great career on a web-based degree, universities should put some marketing folks in charge of their branded content.

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