Mark Trenchard

“The business we’re in is about generating knowledge,” said Mark Trenchard, director of web services and digital experience for Stanford University School of Medicine. “I always see that as the highest-level product that humans produce.”

If a company is in the knowledge business and is dedicated to the ideal of generating knowledge among a customer base, how does it generate return on investment?

We tend to think of academic publishers — or frankly, almost any kind of educational publisher — as companies with altruistic visions of spreading knowledge at whatever the cost. While non-profit businesses are magnificent institutions, there is no sin in profiting from knowledge.

The web has evolved into, at the most, a less-than-ideal market for anyone wishing to profit from the art of producing information. Indeed, it’s possible, and companies are doing it now (maybe yours, and more power to you).

There is still plenty of viability in being able to reach out to your customers through the web, when the web is not the thing you are trying to sell. But for many, it’s severely difficult if not impossible to establish a true value for information.

Easy for You to Say

You may think Trenchard might have an easier time than most, sustaining the online presence for an institution whose home page, at the time of this writing, features the faces of seven living Nobel Prize laureates.

That’s what you may think, until you realize Stanford Medicine’s online presence is an amalgam of some 825 separate Web sites, producing 200,000 visible pages at any one time, for an audience of 4 million page views per month.

“When we’re able to produce good experiences, and people have good understandings and feelings about the brand that we are, we have the ability to change their minds about the paradigm-shifting ideas we have,” he said.

Disrupting markets is an easy enough thing to accomplish for a market like technology, where the market has never been settled at any time since the American Civil War. It’s like taking the credit for making the biggest splash, during a tsunami.

Medicine is not a field that historically appreciates disruption.

“You can’t do that by just publishing and hoping people will come,” Trenchard told CMSWire, knowing full well with whom he was speaking and why. “You have to start to segment your audience; you have to understand what influences they have, and how you can positively improve sentiment.

“By improving sentiment, that leads to all kinds of returns to organizations like ours,” he said, ratifying the ideals of so many of us who are guilty as charged, of having pinned our hopes and even our mortgages on the “Field of Dreams” business model.

“It gets policy makers to take up our causes. It gets lawmakers to assist us. It gets donors and benefactors to put more into the things we’re looking at. It induces more collaboration and diversity of opinion around the world, that helps us accelerate research and innovation and ultimately delivery of healthcare.”

Trenchard suggested that publishers with an interest in moving mountains and remaking webs cease thinking of a brand’s web presence in terms of eyeballs. Rather, he believes that a successful online brand will bring the presence of customers into its own orbit.

He calls the principle something familiar: gravity.

What he’s looking for is customer presence — the accumulation of the relayers of knowledge into what he calls an orbit around the brand.

No, not a community of people commenting about how the last people commenting really suck. But people who exercise influence on behalf of the brand.

“So the brand that is not something that you try to get as many eyeballs to see, necessarily,” he tells us. “It’s a brand that you want to create gravity around, and successfully bring in other people’s orbits and influences and circles — and within the quality of the brand experience, end-to-end, in all the touchpoints, you now can have influence.”

Settling Into Orbit

Trenchard admits at this point that he is in somewhat of a position of luxury, not having to sell widgets, implement sales funnels and track conversions.

But that brings up a curious train of thought: So many businesses take themselves off the high road, even in their own minds, by succumbing to the notion that they’re just here to sell products.

Let’s be honest: Stanford sells products. A lot more people are alive today because Stanford sells products.

But this goes both ways. In my own experience with other institutional publishers, executives close their ears to any phrase or utterance that has the least resemblance to typical consumer marketing.

Disruption? Customer experience? Centers of gravity? Leave us alone with your metaphors, they’ll tell us, so we can continue publishing our monthly newsletters and retire comfortably.

That being the case, why would Stanford want a competitive market full of other Stanfords? Why not leave the market undisrupted, let the newsletter publishers go home to their fishing ponds, and reap the bounty of their ignorance?

“That’s a fair question,” responded Trenchard.

Certainly the university isn’t giving away intellectual property, and is competitive enough to know the value of its brand in a competitive atmosphere ... or the lack of one.

“As an entrepreneur who came to academics," he said, "I think that you can generate money through ideas and through innovation and collaboration.”

Stanford’s Nobel laureates, he reminds us, achieved the goals for which they were lauded by means of collaborations — “across people, across institutions, and across time. The real way to change paradigms in the world — especially organizations like universities that usually are not global ... these groups have to start to work together more and more.”


If that’s the case — if the whole point of publishing online is to organically accumulate new knowledge through collaboration — then isn’t the centralized publishing model espoused by the typical content management system, outdated?

“Well, certainly the ones that are prevalent in academics, I would say, for sure,” Trenchard responded, “because these platforms are selected, architected and invested in, in ways that are usually one-way.

For instance, he explained, if a single academic department had total freedom to publish a fixed set of content in precisely the way it dictates, then a CMS would be just fine, suiting the single, practical need of a quiet, academic department.

That is, assuming that were the way the academic world worked.

“When I look at our eight-hundred-plus web sites and I think about our audiences,” he said, “I am astounded when I go to graduation and I hear the degrees people are getting, especially in their Ph.D. and graduate sciences, because I have no clue what their theses are about. They’re so deep, so focused, so targeted at a very deep topic and subtopic.”

A scientist or a student, seeking information on a disease, is looking for a very specific topic.

The next evolution of web platforms, Trenchard believes, will break down the barriers that web technologies have erected over the years, so that a home page welcoming this person may have a better idea of what to present that person with — not just the Stanford brand and a great view of the campus, but maybe a hint at a cure for something.

“If I happen to have a hundred thousand pieces of world-class content over ten thousand deep areas of knowledge,” he continued, “if I come in, I feel I need to sniff out what you’re looking for and I need to assemble a digital experience for you — we’re not selling you [something], we’re not being creepy, we’re helping you find the content that you’re looking for. And we need to test it, to make sure we’re doing a good job at predicting and helping you find it.”

He’s alluding to a system that can apply tremendously more semantic automation than is possible now with current content management systems (CMSs). He has a laudable goal, and his brand is the most respected on the planet.

Does anyone in the technology field have a respectable explanation for why this cannot and should not be done — for why this level of disruption would be a bad thing?

“We have a lot of those building blocks,” said Trenchard. “But those are building blocks that a lot of schools and a lot of non-profits don’t have. And it is very vital, to achieve what I’m talking about, you have to be able to bubble up and get that content into the right relationship, into the right orbit, so that people get it.”


This November 3 and 4, at the W Hotel City Center in Chicago, CMSWire will sponsor two solid days of all-out discussion and introspection on the topics related to digital customer experience delivery.

DX Summit 2015 will feature Forrester’s Mark Grannan, plus numerous other industry leaders in the DX space including: Tony Byrne, founder and CEO of Real Story Group; Tami Cannizzaro, senior director, Marketing at eBay; Mike Gilpin, CTO of Siteworx; Bruno Herrmann, director of Globalization at The Nielsen Company; Deb Lavoy, founder and CEO of Narrative Builders; Meghan Walsh, senior director, Global Marketing at Hilton Worldwide; and Melissa Webster, VP, Content and Digital Media Tech at International Data Corporation (IDC).

If you’ve been needing to establish a new center of gravity, perhaps you should set your course for Chicago. As a wise man once said: Engage!

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