External Communications

The Open Educational Resources Movement (OER), as titled by UNESCO, consists of an ever-growing number of institutions/organizations making available a broad and deep body of open educational content. The OpenCourseWare Consortium (OCWC) is a collaboration of more than 200 higher educational institutions and associated organizations dedicated to advancing education and empowering people worldwide. This OCWC External Communication document has been developed to help institutions/organizations promote and publicize their OER/OCW projects. It offers five suggestions for communications elements that can be employed on any project, taking into account limited resources and expertise. The final section suggests next steps for the OCWC to discuss. Please contribute at: http://wiki.ocwconsortium.org/index.php?title=CommunicationsToolkit

  1. Communication Plan
    1. Initial Considerations
    2. Who is your Audience?
    3. Tools
  2. Press
    1. Research
    2. Build your infrastructure
    3. Create and distribute your message
    4. Tracking
    5. Tools
  3. Developing your website
    1. Initial Considerations
    2. Tips
    3. Tools
  4. E-visibility
  5. Evaluation
  6. Next steps

Communication Plan

Initial Considerations

There are multiple methods of analyzing your communications project, but all come down to this: you want to understand the scope and aims of the project before you jump into it. The heuristic below is not the only heuristic you can use, but it provides a simple way to start thinking about your project as a whole.

Answer each of the following questions.

  • Acquisition: Who do you intend to reach and how do you intend to reach them?
  • Conversion: What messages will change your user’s behavior so they use and create OCW?
  • Retention: How will you open dialogue with users and gain their loyalty and support?
  • Maintenance: What will you do to develop the community of users and advance the dialogue?
  • Measurement and optimization: How will you get to know your audience and ensure it can find what it is looking for?
  • Benchmarking and goal setting: How is your site doing compared with other OCW sites, what visitor numbers can you expect, how will you know when things are going well and not so well and adjust?
  • Resourcing and budgeting: Where will you obtain the time or money to implement your plan? How do time and budget constrain your plan?

Who is your Audience?

Campaigns that address everybody address nobody; you will have to at some point define a limited group of people you wish to target. Since it is best not to spread limited resources too far, you may want to concentrate on one key audience or find out who else in your institution is already approaching these people coordinate your campaign with them.

We’ve broken potential audiences here into potential users, advocates, and targets. In general, you will want to define your potential users and consolidate some support among potential advocates before approaching your targets. Remember, too, that divisions between users, advocates, and targets are not always clear-cut. Today’s communications targets can become tomorrow’s advocates, and very often potential users are your strongest supporters.

Some Typical Users of OCW

  • Self-learners
    Self-motivated learners: younger students, international students, talented and gifted, current students, prospective students, alumni, retired students, self-learners, career movers, refugees, prisoners, homeschoolers, home-bound.
  • Communities of interest: networks of informal learners who group around passion subjects
  • Organizations: colleges, community colleges, AP programs, civil services, armed services, health services
  • Faculty members, training professionals


Some Typical Advocates of OCW initiatives

  • Open initiatives and projects: Creative Commons, Free Culture, Public Knowledge
  • Other OER initiatives
  • Current and prospective university students
  • Senior managers/administrators at your university
  • Forward looking faculty
  • Edubloggers
  • Student organizations
  • Related Development initiatives: libraries, unions, museums, charities, local government, online centers
  • Disability services

Some Typical Targets of OCW campaigns

  • Individuals and institutions skeptical or critical of copyleft/ OER, etc.
  • Funding sources
  • Media outlets: traditional and alternative; analog and digital
  • Policymakers

You can add to the list of potential audiences on the Communications Toolkit wiki at http://wiki.ocwconsortium.org/index.php?title=CommunicationsToolkit.


You will find a structured template and advice for creating a Communications Plan at Smart Chart: www.smartchart.org


When is press coverage a good tactic? It can be very successful in raising awareness and driving lots of visitors to your site if you get coverage in some mainstream newspapers. It is no/ low-cost and easily scalable. And it can demonstrate to doubters some of the beneficial PR that the project may generate if scaled up.

On the other hand, press coverage can be damaging if there are large rifts in your organization, since it can give the impression to those on the inside that debate about the project is over, and that it is moving on regardless of community input. And if press coverage is not coordinated university-wide, chaos can result. Everybody from the press office to your tech team should know when major press coverage is likely to spike traffic or generate inquiries.


Get to know your University’s press office. They are likely to already have many of the resources you’ll need, and any press release you send may need to go via them. Ask if they can provide media training for your experts.

Do a risk and opportunity evaluation. What topical issues does your OER work relate to? What issues in the University might your press angle have a negative effect on — talk to your PR office!

Make a list of press contacts. Review press titles – mainstream and specialist, offline and online and bloggers. Target writers who concentrate on internet, content, education and IP. Include the editors of magazines/newsletters within your University. Create a database/mailing list of contacts that you can quickly contact.

Learn the language and format of press releases. Make use of OCWC press releases and review releases from other OCW sites. Create boilerplate text that can be moved into press releases, explaining the history of the project or defining key terms.

Seek out awards. Find out what educational awards you can enter as these often give good press exposure, and make a nice “news peg” to hang a story on.

Build your infrastructure

You want to make it easy for the press to write about you. Stories are often written on tight deadline — make it easy for the press to quickly assemble the resources they need to write about your project.

Create a media section on your site with:

  • Contact details to a named person
  • Links to any press articles on your project on 3rd party websites
  • RSS-enabled news feeds
  • Press releases with social bookmark buttons
  • Podcasts and video features
  • Testimonials

Create a media sheet, detailing who you are (very short bio) and what you’re doing, as well as why you’re doing it, any articles/coverage you may have received, faqs, testimonials and quotes, case studies, details of experts that could be interviewed. It should look presentable, and convey the message as well and succinctly as possible. Upload it to your media site, and print it out to have beside you in phone conversations.

Create and distribute your message

  • Before writing consider, why is this news? Is it timely, unique, surprising?
  • Optimise your press releases to ensure visibility in Google, Yahoo by using appropriate keywords
  • Write a regular blog and track bloggers in your RSS reader regularly to respond to other blog posts. Try to split your writing time between writing posts and responding to other bloggers posts.
  • Don’t overuse your contacts. Make sure when you send them something it is going to be useful to them.
  • Don’t call a journalist on Monday — they will always be too busy.
  • Know the name of the person you want to speak to.
  • Don’t send press releases to a generic email inbox.
  • Always call before sending a press release. Be brief and bring their attention to your release, “I think this may interest you, can I have your email to send you a release/media pack?.”
  • Highlight something unique to your site (particular course, emphasis on field of study, etc.)
  • Contact organizers of global and local educational events and educational organizations that your university partners with. Ask your internal contacts to distribute news to the people they work with.
  • Ensure you have time to deal with enquiries in the days following the distribution of a release.



Develop your website

Initial Considerations

If things go right with your communications plan, your targets will most likely end up at your website. In making the sale, this is the final push, and you want your site to work toward “conversion”: getting your readers to take a defined actions favorable to your cause.

Don’t start with the look of the site. Start with two questions:

  • Who is coming to your site?
  • What do you want them to do?

Do you want them to contact you? To contact someone else? To show up at an open house? To support an action when it comes to a vote?

Start from those end points, then think about what the people coming to the site need to get to that decision point. FAQs? Case Studies? Testimonials? Think about likely paths people might follow, possibly starting out by wondering what OCW is in general, then moving through some questions about cost or credit or university support. Try to imagine every path ending in an action, whether it is signing up for a mailing list, attending a meeting, or submitting a proposal. Think of “low-threshold” types of committment people can make: subscribing to an RSS feed, signing up for updates or a quarterly newsletter, or sharing the page through their social bookmarking account.

Seperate support pages out from introductory and marketing pages. Your marketing site is about what people need from you to jump in. Your support site is about what people need from you to do their job once they have jumped in. Mixing the two can confuse both audiences.


Website Tips

  • Ensure you meet usability and accessibility standards.
  • Engage in a usability study every time you launch a new feature on your site during the prototype stages and post launch.
  • Monitor your site to ensure it can cope with anticipated traffic levels and investigate any instances of the site running slowly or not working.
  • Ensure you have an agreement in place with your front of house staff/ IT HelpDesk for how enquiries relating to your OER will be handled.
  • Provide orientation documentation if you have functionality on your website that isn’t simple to understand.
  • Ensure visitors can communicate with you.
  • Be honest — if email is your choice and you can’t reply to every email say so, and thank people for their feedback or help your users help each other by providing a forum and moderate this regularly.
  • Compile the most commonly asked queries into FAQ’s and provide a link to these from your ‘Contact us’ page.
  • If you are receiving email look into your University’s enquiry management systems — you may be able to use these and you should be prepared to forward on queries that aren’t related to OER to the relevant people.
  • Try to answer all questions, even if they don’t pertain to your site (ex., they may be interested in applying to a particular program your university offers, and your putting the user in touch with the appropriate department/link shows the potential value of your project to the university at large)
  • If you publicize an email address online use the format person [normal sign here] dot com to help avoid spam.
  • Compile positive feedback and include on homepage.
  • Interview willing users and put their story and photo on homepage saying how OCW has positively impacted them.
  • Ask people to sign up to a newsletter and publish this on the website
  • Think about the tone of voice across the site. If you aren’t a communications professional it may be worth employing a freelance copywriter to do a few days work.
  • Show interesting facts about your visitors on your website — where do they come from, how long are they on the site for, how many of them are there.
  • Publish publicity materials online and ask your visitors to help support the project by spreading the word.
  • Add a share this resource link to every page and encourage visitors to share links with their friends.
  • Add social bookmarking links to every page.
  • Think about using video to communicate with your visitors.
  • Consider running an online survey to gain user feedback and share the statistics with the users and the press if they are newsworthy



E-visibility refers to the visibility of your site online. Can people find it? Do people interested in your project bump into it? Do you show up on Google? Are you linked into blog and forum discussions?


Search engine optimization is the process of making sure that your site floats to the top of relevant search results. While there are no end of guides to show you how tweak your site to improve your rankings, a couple simple things can make a huge difference.

SEO Tips

  • Give pages meaningful names and titles. Don’t name your page on your Ancient History course “anchis.htm”. Try “ancientˍhistory.htm”, or better yet, use a system like WordPress or Mambo which will handle naming conventions for you. The same goes for page titles: Don’t title every page in your site the site name. Give your pages individual, descriptive names.
  • Get people to link to you. Get people relevant to your effort to link to you. Links from authoritative sources boost your rank. If you are an OCWC member we will link to you, but make sure you ask other relevant sites to link to you. Encourage “deep-linking” — where people link not to your main page, but directly to a relevant FAQ, course, or blog post.
  • Forums are great for pulling in visitors, because they often contain unusal combinations of words. If you can make your forums open to the public to read, do it. The same goes for newsletters: archive them on the site, and make sure the archive provides a prominent link back to the main site.
  • Above all, get involved in your area’s discussion. A site that is an island will not rank high. Evangelize your project. Get onto forums and link to your site in your sig line, or comment on blogs with your name pointing back to your site.

Paid Search

One of the easiest way to increase your visibility on Google is to use AdWords. AdWords are the paid results that appear when you are searching for an item. They are targeted based on the search term typed in, so they can be very narrowly targeted at just the people you want to reach.

Normally running these ads costs money, based on the number of people that click through to your site. However, Google does offer a grant program that provides an in-kind donation of AdWords to 501(c)(3) organizations. More information about that program is here.



What do you need to measure and how? This section looks at evaluating your users so you know how to best develop your site for their needs, measures that might help you gain institutional buy-in and how to measure your communications activity so you know what works and what doesn’t.

Things you may want to measure

  • Use of the website – unique visitors (split into current staff, student and new and don’t include hits from your office), repeat visits, time spent on site, bounce rate, referrals, entry and exit points, geographical location of visitor
  • Number of instances of remixed content
  • Improved brand awareness
  • New partnerships / contacts
  • First time contact with the University through the OER website
  • NA number of users of OER website who convert to registered students
  • NA number of users of OER website who convert more quickly to registered students
  • Registrations on courses with OER content increase
  • Improved retention on University courses from prior experience with OER website
  • Greater number of current students going on to do a new course
  • Increased enquiries from people stating they heard about the OU OER website from a personal contact
  • Number of leaflets distributed
  • Number of attendees at events

Demonstrating Value to Your Institution

  • If your University conducts an annual study into brand awareness ensure there is a question relating to OER.
  • Include a question about use of OER in course feedback forms.
  • Report quarterly on development of new partnerships/collaborations/contacts.
  • Provide weekly traffic reports.
  • Track movements between OER pages and the registration to course/prospectus ordering pages of your institution’s website.
  • If you track how an enquirer came to know about your university/college when they call or sign up for a course, ensure your OER website is an option available for them to choose from.
  • Track the number of enquirers that state ‘word of mouth’ as a motivator and compare to annual data.
  • Track amount of press coverage in educational media.
  • Amount of traffic generated to website following specific activities (such as adding your site as a link to another site, mention of your site in an article).

Tools and Tips

Next Steps

  • OCWC to consider employing e-advocacy techniques to capture supporters’ details, keep them informed and set them small, achievable and supported goals to spread the word.
  • OCWC to set up a global educational calendar literacy day, where members can advertise educational events and PR contacts (e.g. for World Health Day we push the courses on your site that are relevant to it). One joint PR could have more impact than several.
  • OCWC to compile and share analytics data for benchmarking and data of useful referrers to target for link building

What isn’t covered?

  • Publications / Branding
  • Merchandising
  • Events management (the ‘unconference’ etc)
  • Internal communications