Brand Breakout Summit/2020: Press Ahead—How Modern Tribe Helped Take University Events Virtual

What if you spent months planning a huge event, only for it to be impossible? In the highly competitive world of college recruiting, admit weekends have taken on an outsized role due to COVID-19, and universities have had to cancel or postpone annual, sought-after events. Learn how Reid Peifer, Partner and Chief Creative Officer at Modern Tribe helped an Ivy League university find their breakthrough moment to create a virtual admitted-students weekend and a commencement celebration using WP Engine and WordPress.

Video recording of session

Slides from the session

Reid Peifer, Partner and Chief Creative Officer at Modern Tribe discusses: 

  • How to pivot and respond quickly to external forces that influence an event you’re planning. 
  • Actionable tips for moving a traditionally in-person event into the digital space. 
  • How to identify the key things that set your event apart and not compromise on them.

“Make it digital” is not a strategy. Instead, we want to identify how we can create a compelling digital experience that is going to help prospective students create a vision of their future at Stanford and commit to going there.

Full text transcript


– Hi, I’m Reid Peifer, I’m the Chief Creative Officer and one of the partners at Modern Tribe. We’re a digital studio serving the WordPress community for the last 15 years.


Now today, I’m talking about a project that we recently undertook with our friends at Stanford, where they had to take a real-world event and pivot to use their digital platform and figure out how they can move forward in today’s current environment.


Now we’re all responding to these wildly fluctuating outside influences and like many of you, trying to figure out how to pivot and respond quickly is really essential to moving forward.


Now today I’m gonna run through and frame out what the challenge was and then from a really high level, think about our approach, our workflows and how we were able to use the tools to get to some really successful outcomes in a really condensed timeline.


Now if you don’t work in higher ed, an admit weekend is a really essential part in the perspective student’s user journey as they’re trying to decide where to go to school.


It’s that spot where maybe they’ve applied to some different schools, maybe they’ve been accepted, but they’re gonna come to campus and ideally, experience everything that it has to offer, so that they develop this vision of themselves being really successful at Stanford.


Now by definition, these events happen in person, right? And most universities and

colleges across the country just canceled these events outright, but Stanford wanted to choose

to find a way to move forward and take what was traditionally is an in-person event and find a virtual or a digital solution that’s still gonna achieve the goals and outcomes that incepted the event to begin with.


Now the question is, what could this event be and how could we find a way to move forward?


So together, we worked with the team to create a digital experience that leveraged both a ton of live and pre-recorded video sessions in addition to some really interesting interactive elements that let perspective students engage with different faculty and staff and departments all through this virtual interface.


How does that happen in a span of what amounts to two weeks? We start at the top. Like any good project, we start with objectives.


Now if Stanford had come to us with a punch list of can you build this and this and this? Then it becomes a simple resource in question, right? It’s math. Do we have the capacity to build this in the amount of time that we have? Instead and better, they came to us with a series of outcomes and objectives that they wanted to achieve.


This opens the door to all kinds of creative problem solving. It allows the best ideas to bubble up. Now I got some jokes for ya. All right, you’ll see lots of these kinds of comments in the culture at large, as organizations, in particular higher ed, but really anybody, regardless of vertical, tries to find ways to take these real in-person events and move them into the digital space.


Now it turns out that just makin’ somethin’ digital is kind of a lousy strategy. You end up with what we call sort of a photocopier effect, right?


Just updated for today’s day and age. You have a thing, it’s a facsimile of the real thing but ultimately it ends up being sort of disappointing and unfulfilling.


And if you’re part of the higher ed community you’ll see this narrative really clearly as people react to the ideas of digital commencements and things like that.


It highlights the delta between that real event and what would be the digital version. So instead of a goal that just says make it digital, we want to identify how can we create a compelling digital experience that’s gonna help prospective students create some vision of their future at Stanford and commit to going there. That’s a goal that’s gonna produce really positive outcomes.


Now any time you’re operating with some extreme constraints you have this opportunity to examine ’em and try to flip that story and see what opportunities those give you.


So for Stanford and the space here, we’re obviously moving from a real world event where we’ve got to worry about humans showing up in person to a virtual event. That immediately opens the door, increases the amount of access that we can have at the event.


This becomes a real positive and something that we can lean in to. Instead of being a constraint, this becomes one of our opportunities to explore.


Now anytime you’re operating on the sort of radically condensed timelines or under duress, compromise is gonna be essential.


If you’re gonna get anything done, if you’re gonna move forward in any way, you’re gonna have to be flexible and willing to pivot to find solutions that work. But, the danger there is that you’re gonna compromise the things that really matter to you.


So at the inception of the project, we wanted to identify what are those values, what are those key things that we just really don’t want to compromise as we try and find ways to execute?


The first is operating and executing at a really high level. We can’t throw a $10 theme and a YouTube video and expect that that’s gonna meet the quality and the expectation that people have with sort of this high level Stanford education.


Secondarily, this commitment to accessibility and inclusion in the work that we do. That’s a value that’s shared between Modern Tribe and the team at Stanford. And to be honest, that would have been a really easy space to cut corners.


It would have made it much faster to execute if we had compromised in those areas. But the reality is this is what makes the work good. This is what makes the work matter.


So we want to identify those things and be intentional about embracing them as the project progresses.


Now these are strange times, which means we gotta work in a slightly strange fashion, right?


When people are responding to these kind of timelines, they generally fall on a gradient.


On one side you’ve got the workflow folks. The people who say, I’m gonna do how I do, I’m just gonna do it faster, right?


My workflow is what it is, I know it, it produces good work, I’m gonna go faster.


The reality is, most of us have workflows that have already been optimized and don’t contain lots of free space that you can just capture.


So by doing this, what you do is sort of a blanket depression across the quality of all of your work, right?


Do what we do normally, just faster really means do what we do normally, just not as well. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got the cowboys, the wing-it folks. The people who are just like let me in there, I’m gonna do something great.


And I love those people. I really do. I think I was one of those people at a different point in my career, but the reality is, very rarely does that result in good work. It usually results in catastrophe.


Instead, what we want to do is identify intentionally where in our workflow can we make concessions or cuts to accelerate our workflows? And we do that at the beginning of this process.


The question isn’t just what can we do, but how can we do it? And that becomes really important.


Now in addition to just thinking about a timeline, there is often this knee jerk reaction to ditch meetings and talk less and do more.


And I guess I can understand that spirit as well, but we actually want to do the opposite. We want to over-invest in communication and ensure that everybody is clear and working towards a common vision. That requires communication.


So in addition to thinking about your timelines and your workflows, there’s this big part about relationships that plays an essential part of success here.


One of the attributes that, when I look at this project, the things that really made it successful was how well our team was able to work with the folks at Stanford. And we did that by trying to break down the walls and the barriers between us as an agency and them as client, right?


We want to embrace them as part of the team. So not only are they a stakeholder, they’re a team member. And we do that because the shorter that we can make this distance between our team doing the work and any kind of decision maker, the faster we can operate. The greater that distance, the greater the space between your team and whoever’s gonna make the decisions, the slower you’re gonna work.


Now to do that, you’re gonna have to really embrace this idea of transparency. You gotta be comfortable with everybody seeing how the sausage gets made. And that’s a cultural skill. That’s something that you build over time.


Something you have to ingrain into how people think about the work, how they talk about the work, and how they communicate with your clients and your partners.


Now in addition to thinking about your client relationships, or your partner relationships, we want to look at the team members themselves as well.


Now, whether you’re a project manager or a designer or a QA person, regardless of your role, we want everybody contributing ideas and potential solutions.


Now additionally, if somebody’s a junior or they’ve got a director title, it doesn’t really matter. We want to ensure that everybody is able to contribute in all the ways that they have the ability to.


That kind of democratization is what really can increase the output and the value

that your team can engage on. Normal circumstances, role definitions can be really helpful to ensure effective collaboration.


We’re good with that. But in these types of situations, you want all hands ready to go and willing to contribute in any way you need.


Now we’ve talked about philosophy, we’ve talked about overall approach, we’ve talked about project management and relationships, but there’s a role for your tools and your infrastructure that’s gonna play into your overall success.


Any organization that responds well to crisis or that responds well to these types of immediacy, they set that practice and they built that foundation in the past.


It’s not something you pick up in the moment. This project’s no different.


One of the cool opportunities that our teams were able to identify was our ability to use some work that we executed back in 2016. Kind of a long time in internet years.


In 2016 we worked with the folks at Stanford on a project celebrating their 125th anniversary. It was really neat, included a lot of engaging and interactive storytelling elements and it was that that became the foundation for our virtual admit weekend that we built today.


Now we were able to do that because at the time we emplored this modular design and build system strategy. Now all of our work, we want the brand strategy and the content strategy and the design system and the technology, we want all of those systems working together gracefully, It’s a big system of systems.


The design system, in particular, is a set of rules and principles and patterns and tools that are used to create any touchpoint on your digital platform. What that means is, rather than just design a home page and a prospective students page or a course catalog, you’re designing a system that can produce any of those things.


Now this may sound like a tiny semantic detail, but if you do it well, the system produces not only those things that you need today, it becomes a system that can produce what you need four years later, when you’re responding to a global pandemic.


I’ll call out here that this work was actually done pre-Gutenberg.


One of the spaces where organizations really sort of run foul, is there design systems are not built in-sync with their actual technology.


So at the time, to achieve this, we needed to build a whole suite of modular content management tools on top of WordPress, to enable this type of approach.


To enable the design system and the content tools to be one in the same. Now, you’ll see how this breaks out into a series of components and panels and modules or atoms, however you choose to think about it.


And if you’re familiar with Gutenberg and where this is going, you can see how these ideas are pretty interconnected.


Now, there are attributes of a healthy design system. First, it’s comprehensive and consistent. Those are obvious. It’s flexibility really speaks to how well it’s able to adapt and evolve over time.


So in this case, the system that we had designed four years ago is able to grow and evolve and we’re able to add to it so it becomes a really good foundation that grows and enables us to solve this new set of problems.


These last two bullet points, achievable and this idea of governance, are what become really essential to it working though. Achievable in that the design system has to be replicated in the tools.


You have to be able to actually create content using the system itself and this idea of governance. Now any of you working in the space today as you start to use tools like Gutenberg or any of the block editors out there, this is a space you’re gonna have to spend a great deal of time and attention, ensuring that your systems are gonna grow gracefully over time.


It means the thing we built four years ago still works today and doesn’t have any of the kind of degradation that you often see on digital platforms over time.


In addition to the theme infrastructure and the content management structure, there is a really important infrastructure story here.


Now, a lot of universities, or a lot of organizations that we serve in this predicament, would never have gotten a new website host or a vendor through procurement in the amount of time that we took.


The ability of Stanford, through their relationship with WP Engine, to spin up a new website and scale their platform wide becomes really essential into the overall success.


Scale usually means page use and load times and can my site stay up if I get this crush of traffic. And that’s great, super-important, and that’s a really important part of your platform, but the capacity to scale wide is just as important and it’s not a value that you really realize until you’re in a state where you need it.


Lastly, there’s this idea of interoperability. Now, if you’re here, you’re probably a WordPress

fan to begin with, but much of us, many of us, as we look out across the landscape, you’re gonna see some of the bigger, older software companies shipping sort of all-in-one massive solutions.


They’ve got cool acronyms, everybody’s excited about them. Now, that may be great

for some organizations, but most of the time, when we look at our clients’ platforms, what we actually want to see is this idea of flexibility and evolution. Can they grow over time gracefully and how interoperable are they? How many things, how well can it work with a whole ecosystem of other tools? That’s where your platform starts to be worth more than the sum of all the individual parts.


So this project obviously, we’ve got live streaming capabilities with Vimeo, there’s a product called Slido for interactive elements in those live streams.


Social integrations and things like that and even a tool called Streamtext, which I wasn’t otherwise familiar with, that enabled us to do captions on live video on the web, and we implemented it in a matter of days rather than a matter of months.


All of those things come together to produce this very compelling and engaging digital weekend for prospective students.


And when you think about outcomes, you know, we’re web folks, we’re excited about things like page views and conversion rates and bounce and time on site and all those things, right?


Those are metrics that get us really excited about success. But the metrics that actually matter are how effectively the folks at Stanford were able to engage with their prospective students.


And how much value can they get out of the tools that we were able to provide them.


And we’re excited to see them take those tools and not only execute things like the virtual admit weekend but now build out multiple solutions for graduation celebrations and similar challenges as they move forward.


Now hopefully you’re not in a position where you need to radically change your plans in that amount of time, but this is a new reality that a lot of us are gonna have to get comfortable with.


And hopefully there’s something here that’ll enable your organization to respond in a healthy and productive fashion. Thanks a lot for your time today. I look forward to your questions and some discussion.


– Appreciate you joining us today. And doing it virtually. This is an exciting time. For me, I love the presentation. You’re a dynamic presenter to begin with, but then the subject matter is great and it speaks to both sort of the brand and the agency experience. Two weeks is incredibly short timeframe for something of this magnitude. So kudos to that, first of all. And kudos in the shift that you experienced, right?


So highlights for me, the great actionable tips for both the culture and the technology about how to think differently, how to be more nimble and agile. I loved that you said, “Make it digital is not a strategy.”


Like I said, like we used to say, just put the SEO on it or just put the dev on it. And this isn’t how we work, so we shouldn’t work normally. So again, kudos, and a great presentation. And I think it does speak to the agility that you have to have as an organization to think differently about what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis.


– Yeah, it’s been, you know, certainly there’s the cliche of these are unprecedented times, right?

And we need to figure out how to respond, but super-proud of how the team was able to be creative, think out of the box, really think about how they could get creative solutions to some really big problems and focused on how to sort of hit those objectives and get work out the door.


You know, it’s been really interesting to get to participate in, primarily as a cheerleader. I got to act as cheerleader on that project, so the teams involved, both ours and the folks at Stanford, a lot of really good work happened, really, really fast.


– That’s awesome, and amazing work too. I’m gonna go to participant Q and A here. And actually, you touched on this briefly in your last comment. How was success defined with this process and how is it evaluated?


– That’s a good question and I think I guess as somebody that works in the digital space, I get really nerdy about metrics. And there are a lot of those metrics that we sort of fall back on as web people, things that we can sort of measure.


But really, like the whole point of this is for an organization like Stanford to engage in their community. Like how can they actually make those connections with real people.


And those are things that traditional sort of digital tools don’t always quantify, or don’t even always want to measure. So for the folks at Stanford it’s really about how they can make those connections, how they can get students to commit and be excited about joining Stanford. Those are the metrics that sort of really matter.


Then for us, it’s our job to somehow find a way to translate those into measurable things within the platforms and tools that we build. So looking at things like engagement and interactivity as how we look at success rather than just page views and time on site and things like that.


– Yeah, it’s interesting too, because it seems that especially in a time like this, like we talked about this a little bit earlier, education, it got hit hard first and they had to figure things out fast.


And it seems like Stanford is sort of on the leading edge, from an enrollment perspective,

should be set up pretty well from that perspective with this.


– Yeah, I mean, you know, every organization is different and you know, as we sort of watched higher ed engage with this, they were really out on the sort of, the front of it.


So much of how that works is just lots of people hangin’ out together and being part of that community. So organizations were sort of forced to deal with it, I think, before a lot of other spaces really even got into the conversation.


So, you know, I don’t, I wouldn’t begrudge any organizations that kind of took the best thing that we can do right now is kinda close up shop or you know, sort of shut a lot of these things down.


And you know, it is really just a testament to leadership at Stanford wanting to both do that, prioritize care and concern for their community, but also stay really stay really committed to their goals and find creative ways to keep movin’ forward. So it’s a real testament to that leadership there.


– That’s great, and the partnership, right? Between brands and agencies oftentimes.


– Yeah, yeah, we’ll take that for sure.


– So here’s a question that actually you ended the presentation talking about how this was unexpected, right? So who could predict what would be coming and the adaptations that would need to occur?


So given that we can’t predict the future, but how would you advise agencies prepare themselves for the unexpected?


– We’ve got a really, I think sort of unique take on that.


We might sort of represent like an interesting approach in that years ago, very early on in sort of the birth of our agency, we prioritized finding ways to build, we called sort like a wider base or a much more sort of diverse foundation. And for us that meant really thinking about different ways to look at our agency and serve people in sort of different way.


So over the years we now have a very active agency, and that’s sort of what I’m representing today, but we also hatched a products wing within our business. And that started as sort of just like a little sibling to our agency, but is now sort of grown.


And the whole point of that, the whole point of trying to build out that products arm was so that we did have this sort of nice diverse base. That we were well-equipped to sort of weather a lot of storms, or respond to a lot of changes.


And thinking beyond just sort of like the business model and the structure and having different revenue streams. If you’re an agency you might be modeling different service arms or maintenance models and things like that. Sort of diversify your offering.


There has been sort of a real intentional investment in making sure that our approach is really nimble, that our technology stack is really nimble.


We’ve got sort of a wide range of technical and strategic expertise, so that as markets shift

or as things happen we’d be able to sort of quickly respond to those in positive ways.


– That’s really helpful and I think, you know, as I read the question I was thinking,

yeah, this is also the brand track. So I’ll put you on the spot a little bit to maybe pivot that question and say either with the experience with Stanford, kind of looking through their lens or other brands, other businesses that you’re working with, does the same apply in terms of either diversification or preparedness and how they may think about this or are thinking about this?


– Yeah, it’s certainly a really good question.


I think one of the things that brands can start to do to prepare for whatever is out there, as you examine your sort of digital platform, we traditionally think of those channels as namely that, right?


You think of your website as a channel or maybe it’s a tool, things like that, for your audience, but for us, we also want to make sure that the orgs that we serve are thinking about those as literally the toolkit that they use to build and respond to all of these things, right?


So while you may not be able to sort of model your structure or your service offerings to pivot in really dramatic ways you can look at your entire infrastructure and realize that all of those things have sort of multi-levels of functionality, right?


Not only does your website serve as the sort of primary channel if you think about it in the right way, if you think about it as a tool in your toolkit, now you can start to pivot and respond in really sort of rapid ways.


It’s one of the things that we were able to sort of help Stanford do. Think about their

platforms and their tools in sort of different kinds of ways.


– That’s a great answer, actually. A great way to think about it from both a brand and an agency perspective. I think we’ve got a couple minutes left. I’ve got one more question here that we could probably get to. Let’s try to answer this in the time.


Can you explain more about your process of building a foundational system to help your clients and you grow in the future?


– Yeah, yeah, I mean, there’s a lot to that. We typically look at any of this work as an overall environment, right? So rather than just a thing we’ve been tasked to build, we’re building a website or a took or an application or any of those kinds of things, instead of just focusing on

that, you always want to start and take sort of two steps back, right?


And see how does this thing fit into this wider, larger picture. And then when we start

to dive into the work we obviously want the brand strategy and the content strategy and the design system and the technology system, right?


All of these systems have to work kind of seamlessly. They have to empower each other to work

and fit this entire platform, entire ecosystem.


As we get into the work I think there’s sort of like two really basic questions you can start to ask. If you ask these then all the work starts to get easier.


The first is, how do users get in and out?


How, whether it’s user journey or customer journey, like whatever terms you want to talk about that, you want to start thinking about how they get into the space that you’re working and how they get out of it.


Rarely under the things that we build, the last stop on somebody’s journey. And so that, just by taking that thought process, already we’re starting to make connections to the thing that we build and everything else.


The second is data. How can the thing that we’re building, how can it take data in?


How could it look at interacting or interoperating with any of these other systems to be more valuable?


How could it take data in and then as people go through, how can that system we’re building send data out in a safe and secure way?


How can we think about all the things that have happened in the little bit that we built, how can it enrich everything else in that overall ecosystem?


So if you start with sort of those kind of foundational questions and you have to answer them with how you build it, you’re gonna see that you’re gonna get the sort of much more foundational, broad system rather than little solution in a box.


– That’s a very helpful way to kinda frame it up and think about it.


With that, we’re coming up on time right now.


We wanted to give you a huge thanks again, Reid.


Great presentation, great insight for everybody here.


Can’t wait to see you again. And to everybody else on the line, thank you so much for joining us.


Hope you enjoyed this track. I hope you enjoy Reid’s dialogue as well, and enjoy the rest of the Summit.


Thanks, Reid, thanks everybody.

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