My parents had some interesting techniques. One of them was to choose, with great intent, certain movies for us to sit down and watch together. But I’m not talking Disney. These were real, serious movies. They’d often do it separately from one another, and they’d choose films to watch individually with me and my brothers and sister.

I came to realize that there were life lessons at play, but at that time, who the hell knew. The most vivid memory of my dad doing this was when we watched Escape From Alcatraz. Message from dad received: keep your nose clean or you’ll end up dangling off a prison island with an irritated Clint Eastwood type. For my mom, the movie I’ve always remembered watching together was the 1979 television remake of The Miracle Worker, about young Helen Keller.

To this day I have no idea what the real motive there was. They never explained or gave context to these lessons while we watched. I guess they hoped we’d figure it out for ourselves. But what I’ve always recalled about it was how, through all of the conflict and tortuous scenes of someone who simply could not connect with the world around her, she was able to persevere, break through, and find new ways to take life in. Pretty remarkable.

It’s a lesson we could all stand to revisit from time to time… how we experience information. When’s the last time you set aside the piles of quantitative data and research findings and did some qualitative digging of your own? Found new, untapped sources of information? Simply got out and beat around campus to put some human context to what those many pages and slides are telling you?

Don’t misunderstand. Having hard data through sound quantitative research is a critical first step in any branding initiative. And, as I’ve written about before, I do love me some data. But you can’t really deny that it lacks the emotional oomph and sensorial depth it takes to really, truly understand what’s going on around you.

It can’t just be about what you’re being told. When you qualify that information with things you’re seeing and hearing and sensing and feeling around campus, it makes all that newfound knowledge that much richer. Not to mention, it also can shed light on areas where the data may be telling you one thing, but the vibe around campus is telling you another.

And don’t feel the need to put a lot of structure to it. Some of the best insights I’ve gotten during visits to campuses over the years have come from spontaneous conversations both on and off campus from people who have no agenda, haven’t been prepped, and are simply speaking from the gut.

Again, I’m not suggesting going all guerrilla, all the time on your campus community. But it might make sense to put together a small team, find good times to send them out, and see what they come back with. Camouflage is optional.

It’s inexpensive. It’s quick. And above all, it’ll offer a true sense of what’s happening around you.

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