An Interview with finalsite’s Rob DiMartino

If you are going it alone in your website development for your school, one thing to seriously consider is using a company that provides web services specifically for schools, like finalsite. Finalsite has been working with independent schools on their web presence and strategy for 12 years, and counts many Catholic schools are clients.

I got a chance to speak with Rob DiMartino, a director at finalsite, about finalsite, working with Catholic schools, and the challenges and technological opportunities facing schools today. Rob is also speaking at NCEA later this month in New Orleans. Check out the interview below, and also make sure to follow Rob on Twitter at @robdimartino.

CSWD: You’ve worked with a lot of schools one on one, and in your finalsite bio it mentions that you work to “maximize the internet experience” for schools. What do you mean by that?

Rob DiMartino: I think it’s a lot more than software and good luck. It’s a lot of mindset to tell you the truth. The internet has only been around for so long and a lot of schools are kind of stuck in the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mode. So we really try and educate our schools on how to think differently – instead of pushing out messages to their audience, think about what their audiences want to hear. A lot of transparency, a lot of building efficiency, but also long-term planning as well because gone are the days of static view-book websites. It’s an interactive, engagement experience, so how do you embrace your audience, how do you engage them, and how do you add value to their day?

C: What sort of tools does finalsite provide that allows schools to make it an interactive and engaging experience for their audiences?

R: I think at a basic level – we started this about 12 years ago – it’s the content management tools. Was that an innovation before its time? Absolutely. People didn’t want to take control of their own content or control or their own destiny. But now its a must-have for everyone from schools to business to just a singer trying to get their information out on the web. You need to take control of a CMS. And then you talk about the innovation with even this interview with Skype (note: this interview was conducted over Skype) – having global communications to an audience who you don’t know who’s out there. So, using things like iCal feeds and RSS feeds to create your own media station so to speak – to manage your own message and syndicate it throughout the world if you’d like. Or just simple things like media environments; getting video clips, audio clips, pictures up to tell the experience of what a day in the life of your school will be. I those things are definitely key on the marketing side of the fence.

For just communication and trusted communication you get into the iGoogle type of environment where you want one stop shopping for everything from an RSS feed to the Boston Globe to what the weather’s like to your stock quotes. Where schools have an advantage here is you get that one stop shopping with the day in the life of your kids, and I think everybody can agree that our kids are priority number one. I know especially with mine I want to have some insight into a day in their life, so how can we use this technology to enhance that experience?

C: In terms of communication, what tools are being proven most useful for creating that day in the life experience? Is it things like RSS feeds, Twitter, or Facebook? What’s working?

R: I think definitely you look at the iCal feeds (and Apps), of being able to get the lunch menu, your kids sports games, your classes, right on your iPhone or Blackberry. That’s huge, but a lot of schools don’t know how to get there. That’s why they’ve kind of looked to us for our expertise and guidance. You know Facebook obviously is kind of a wild west environment – you don’t know how to use it, you don’t know how to leverage it, you don’t know how to play around with it but you (have) people on Facebook an hour a day and you’re stupid not to at least take a look at how you can engage your younger alumns, your parents maybe, your students, but with that comes a lot of risk as well on acceptable use. How do you teach them digital footprint? How do you teach them what should be up on the site? In terms of just a marketing environment on Facebook you can do a lot of different things with just pages and Facebook ads to get to your target markets. But a lot of our folks are using RSS feeds to post from their website so they do it once and it can go to 18 different places on the web. Public, private, portals, in email blasts, but also link directly up with LinkedIn  and Facebook – the social environments that I think are two of those areas that are really taking off.

Twitter still is kind of an unknown. You get people who get it and you get people who don’t get it, but it is definitely an effective personal learning network tool but it’s also very instrumental in, you know, updating sports games, quarter by quarter updates, connecting people to places of Foursquare. I think the biggest thing is not the tool, it’s the strategy, and how do you look in the mirror and get your team to say “you know what, this isn’t more work, it’s building for better communication and it’s fostering better relationships, and it’s overall good to advance the school mission.”

C: Do you work with any Catholic schools?

R: We work with probably about 100 Catholic schools across the globe, yes.

C: Do you find that there are special challenges that Catholic schools face?

R: Not really, I think the educational industry in general really has some difficulties with change, but if you can get the lightbulb moments with one person on the staff that can then kind of spread the word on how this technology is a friend and not a foe and embrace it and know that we’re teaching our kids for their future and not their past, we’re educating parents about what’s to come in the future and not the way that they’ve learned. A lot has changed educational environment from communication to parenting styles to least of all, the technology, and I think in that way if you can get people to see a value in, you know what, let’s make a budget line item for communications instead of having Uncle Joe do it on a Dreamweaver site that you can’t control. I think that’s the biggest paradigm shift that we’ve tried to change is, “You know what? Your website is either helping you or hurting you. Ask the tough question, and answer it correctly. And then come up with an action plan to move ahead.”

C: You mention that finalsite started with a CMS 12 years ago – can you give us a little history of finalsite and how you guys came to be where you are today.

R: Jon Moser is our President and founder, and he really had a vision of de-centralizing content – giving ownership to many people, and being able to tell your story through the web and connect to passionate users. I was lucky enough to be one of the first four on the director’s team, and again that was a long time ago. Flash forward 12 years and we’re working with about 500 (independent or just leave it schools) –  schools in 40 countries and about 50 states in the US, and it really has been nothing more than a little bit of word of mouth advertising, coming to market with a product that was very awful, but having people that trust us and having people that are  honest with us to say “you know what, this is not good – could you do this, or could you do this?” So as we’ve grown we’ve grown in a controlled growth pattern, so we want to keep our integrity of being in that still startup mentality and really being here to help our schools, to opening offices in Singapore, London, Memphis, San Francisco – and our home office is in East Hartford. We continue to be fortunate to come to work every day and work with a lot of people who are smarter than us and they give us good feedback. I think one of our key assets is that Jon Moser and our team, when hiring people, hired people that had the same passion as we did and had the same vision of helping our schools do better for the future. And it’s a long-term thing – it’s not a quick sale – it’s a relationship, so we practice what we preach. We’re a human company, but we deal with technology, we deal with support, we deal with helping our schools ask the tough questions of “shouldn’t we change our process if we have to do it four different times in four different places” and build efficiencies and build sustainabilities.

And again, I think we’re still at the tip of the ice berg in terms of technology, but in terms of mindset we’re still lagging behind. The schools that have worked with us, I think focus on value. They focus on “we want the best web experience out there possible.” We know that its driving admissions, it’s driving revenue streams in alumni and advancement. How can we maximize that in a two dimensional website or web experience?

C: In your experience, how crucial is the web experience a school creates to the long-term success of the school?

R: You just look at the sustainability models of a lot of schools, and a lot of Catholic schools have unfortunately have had to close doors which is awful. I’ve got three kids that all go to a small Catholic school here in Connecticut – I’m the vice chair of the board, I’m the chair of the advancement committee – and you gotta ask hard questions and you have to be able to adapt but not sell out your mission and just evolve the way the world is evolving in evangelizing through the web. You’re basically selling the experience on the web and that’s where maybe a lot of Catholic schools haven’t done the best job. By nature, we’re humble. We need to start telling people how great Catholic foundation and Catholic education is for our kids and bringing up the next generation of Catholic school leaders as well.

C: Speaking of Catholic education, you’re speaking a few times at NCEA 2011 in New Orleans. What are you talking about?

R: I’m doing a talk on social media, we’ve got a talk on the online experience, so I think those two. Again, this is something that I live and breathe every day in my personal life with my kids and in my professional life with being all around the globe talking with schools and doing things – always striving to do better. With NCEA, it’s close to home to me personally to talk, not just from a finalsite perspective, but also as a parent and an educator as I’ve got an undergrad in education and a master’s in education. My dad was a teacher at the college level, my two sisters, so I’m kind of the black sheep.

I’m presenting with Ed Hardiman as well, who is the newly-named President of St. John’s prep in Amherst Mass, and Ed’s a good friend. He’s got five kids – besides the numbers we’re kind of in the same boat on how can we help NCEA schools understand the power of this, the complacency factor. If you’re not doing something, or if you are not putting it high enough on the priority level, than you are doing yourself a big disservice.

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