One of the long running arguments in the higher education environment is whether web communication should be centralized or decentralized. Should there be an office that shepherds web communication or should it be left to the departments, divisions, programs and other entities in the university or school? [click to continue…]
A colleague recently asked me if I’d consider using a collapsible content component. My short answer was “no”. [click to continue…]
I was recently, and painfully, reminded that web content management systems (CMS) are software. And software, as you’ve probably noticed, is patched and upgraded every so often.
Patches and upgrades always mean a change to your CMS. Sometimes the changes are “invisible” and “transparent to the user”*. More often, the changes have real impact on your content. [click to continue…]
Lists. They’re tremendously popular. Web writing experts tell us to break out any content that could be considered a list. Lists are so important to web content that they have their own html elements.
They’re important because:
- Lists help our readers grasp our content quickly
- They’re good for data that can be presented as a list
- They provide visual breaks to our content
- We can use them to manipulate what our readers remember
But are you using lists effectively? Did you know that the order of items in your list is important? [click to continue…]
A number of years ago, I did a presentation called “Higher Education’s Web Offenses” at a HighEdWeb conference. I used one of my favorite Mark Twain pieces, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, as the basis for my presentation. The point I tried to make was that colleges and universities were still (in the mid 2000s) leaving important business decisions to unqualified amateurs. Yet it’s 2013 and we’re still expecting amateurs to make important business decisions.
It’s not just that they can’t write
We’ve tried cajoling, browbeating and bribery. But the simple fact of the matter is that most people cannot write. I see more evidence every day than I care to admit. Why we continue to let people who cannot construct a sentence, let alone a paragraph, write our most important business communications is beyond me.
But the real problem is that we’re in the business of copywriting, even if we don’t want to admit it. I’ve been working in higher ed for 20 years and I am very familiar with with just how anathema “marketing” is to the faculty; the reality we must not just face but embrace is that we are selling a product.
There is no cultural relativism
Where mere description was more than sufficient 15 years ago, we must go above and beyond now. We are not competing on a level playing field of peers: our content, our sites are viewed in the context of all sites on the internet. Our readers expect our sites to be on par with the best-produced, well-funded, and best-written sites out there.
Expecting a department secretary to be an expert copywriter isn’t cognitive dissonance, it’s suicide.
You need a full team
I’m preaching to the choir here: your core web marketing/communications team should include a copywriter, designer, information architect, content strategist, and photographer. I know: I’m way off the deep end.
You can skimp on some of these requirements if you have a CMS with well-designed templates: that’ll reduce your need for a designer and information architect. Depending on the capabilities of your CMS, you’ll still need someone with some design skill: individual pages and subwebs within your site will require some design work with the CMS tools.
Can you get by without a photographer? Maybe. Do you have a deep and very current library of professional images? My guess is likely not. What about your students? Do you have an art department? Journalism or communications major? Chances are real good that you have several students on campus who’d love to do a photography internship.
That leaves us with the copywriter and the content strategist. The core of your website is the writing. You must have the best copywriter you can afford. Retrain the writer(s) you have, if necessary. By hook or by crook, your writers must shift gears and embrace copywriting. Your school cannot afford the alternative.
What about the content strategist?
I’m a big fan of Indi Young’s Mental Models. Once you’ve seen and actually held in your hands one of the diagrams that comes out of her process, you’ll realize just how flawed personas are.
My parents are artists: my mom is a visual artist (painting, sculpture) and my step-father is a published author. I am very familiar with “let’s pretend.”
I grew up immersed in writing culture. I read Writer’s Digest for pleasure. I read books on how to write fiction because I had a passing skill at writing short stories. One of the recurring themes in self-help material for fiction writers is character development, also called a character sketch.
When personas first “hit the web” I immediately recognized what they were: character sketches. As a writer, you need to get in the head of your characters. You need to understand as much as you can about them to make them convincing. All the questions that go into making a persona apply to a character sketch for fiction. Writing fiction and getting “into” a persona are the same thing: let’s pretend.
Personas require research
Personas are synthesized from interviews and background research you do on your users. They’re a legit practice if you have the time and mental energy to get into the persona headspace.
The real problem with personas is that they are fiction. They are based on conjecture, second and third person ‘observation’ and data collection at a distance. Because they are not built from primary research on primary data sources (actual people), they boil down to “what I think this kind of person would think or do.”
I am sure there are diligent practitioners of the persona in the web industry. In my experience, however, they’re too much investment for how little and how poorly they’re used. And, this is the part that irks me to no end, they’re constantly and continuously open to interpretation. Don’t like how someone interpreted a persona’s needs or potential action? Re-interpret it yourself. Voila, instant morass.
Mental models: ditch the superfluous
People use the web to accomplish tasks. Indi’s mental model process is built around identifying those tasks. You can group those tasks into a pseudo-persona but there’s no detail about the type of sweater the person prefers nor his or her favorite color. It’s all about the tasks.
Tasks are easy. You can:
- determine if a given task is appropriate for your website
- figure out how to make a task accomplishable
- test the usability of your solution
More to the point, you can create checklists from tasks. “Did we accomplish X? Yes or No?” Very simple. And you can stuff your page tables with appropriate tasks. “This page must support X task.”
Try that with personas. “Did we make the blue cardigan-wearing aunt feel good?” How the hell would you know?
Should your college or university have a centralized or decentralized web development practice?
This post (edited from an email) was in response to a question on the UwebD listserv. The original poster asked:
We’re wondering what the experience has been for schools that have centralized web development – where most of the content web development work is done by a web office, instead of a more distributed authorship model where everyone throughout a college or university is trained and various offices and departments update their own stuff.
Why you have a decentralized model today
Here at the University at Buffalo, we have a largely decentralized model. I think just about every school/university that has a decentralized model does so for one reason: they don’t want to acknowledge the true cost of “the web”. Doing it right is not cheap. And that scares people.
I believe that, by and large, that administrations don’t truly grasp the importance and scope of marketing their institutions. Especially the role that their websites play in that marketing.
You have to know and market to your audiences
Within the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences (26 departments, a fair number of offices), we are moving to a centralized model. We are partners in an ongoing communication transformation process at UB. Some of the key, foundational changes included identifying our target audiences, researching and documenting their needs, and building websites that talk to our most important audiences. Our most important audiences are all prefixed with prospective: prospective undergraduates, graduates, MDs, PhDs, post-docs, faculty, research collaborators. We are, after all, in the business of recruiting students and hiring faculty.
We do have places in our websites where internal departmental information sharing needs are met. But those are properly segmented away from the main of the department’s site.
The fundamental problems of decentralized
Which leads me to the why we’re centralizing: most people cannot write. That, in and of itself, should be setting off alarms for administrators. But, instead, we have department websites that “reflect the special character of our department”. I fail to see how a page that’s been “Under construction” for the last three administrations reflects the special character of anything.
On top of not knowing how to write (which cannot be cured by any amount of “writing for the web”), staff/interns/flunkies in departments have absolutely no clue how to market themselves, their programs, the university, the region, etc.
Moving from decentralized to centralized
We’re in the process of transforming department websites in our school, taking them from decentralized to centralized. I have a staff of three writers (one full-time, two part-time) who write every word that goes into a transformed department site. We work with the departments to gather the information, but we don’t ask department staff or faculty to write web content.
We have two kinds of content: evergreen and news. Evergreen content is everything from ‘about us’ to program descriptions. As one of my colleagues aptly observed, even course descriptions are marketing content. We don’t expect that content to change dramatically from one year to the next. It requires periodical review to ensure it’s still current, but we do not “refresh” a website merely because it’s April 1st.
We expect departments to be active marketers
Departments have one audience for their web content: my office. Departments are expected to tell us what is happening in their department: who’s won travel awards, recent research announcements, et cetera. Those go to one of my writers, who spends almost all her time writing articles that appear on the main school site and department sites. We work closely with University Communications to convert their press releases into articles in a timely fashion.
Departments must also put their events into our calendaring system, which are then imported into their sites. Between these two activities, department sites are always “fresh” and reflect the vitality of the department. That sword swings both ways: failure to keep us in the loop on news and keep up the calendar reflects on the department’s vitality.
Faculty are expected to be active participants too
We have another tool: a database where faculty are required to provide profile information (education, publications, grants, etc). That information is pulled into department sites in a faculty profile listing. We also use that information to pull out ‘recent faculty publications’ in a certain section of department websites.
When faculty tell us about their about-to-be-published research paper, recent grant, travel award, et cetera, we tell them “it has to be in your faculty profile before we do anything.” When we write an article based on this news, we link to the faculty member’s profile. If what the article talks about isn’t in the profile, it creates an immediate disconnect. Fortunately, faculty get that.
Administrative support is critical
We’ve been lucky: our Dean/VP recognizes the importance of marketing the school and its departments. And the role of our websites in that marketing. And has properly funded that effort. That’s why we’re moving to centralized: because it’s no longer amateur hour. Marketing can no longer be left to the departments, who give it the same level of attention they give to making photocopies.
To me the real question is: why would you trust such important communication to rank amateurs?
“The web” does not belong in IT
One final thought: as much as I love IT (I spent many years in IT), marketing is not an IT function. You wouldn’t ask the guy who inks the press to design your marketing materials. Why do you think IT knows anything about marketing?
I’ve seen a few content management system implementations in my career, both as implementer and as client. Here are just a few lessons I’ve learned along the way.
A common mistake is thinking that a CMS will bring down the cost of web development (or whatever you want to call it) at the institution. Nothing could be further from the truth. It will be way more expensive than you ever imagined.
What you will really need
Your CMS isn’t going to run itself. And someone will have to be responsible for making decisions about policy, updates, priorities et cetera. You’ll need some kind of governance structure. It should not be in IT and it should include key stakeholders. Your key stakeholders will vary but at the very least, I recommend at least one high-level administrator in your communications office and several people who represent your user population.
2. Project management
A lot of it, starting well before implementation and on-going after launch. The last thing you want is a lot of ad hockery once you’ve launched your CMS. Your project management process will require guidance from your governance structure.
3. A system administrator
You want to keep the thing running, right?
4. A software developer
If you believe your CMS is plug-and-play, I have some property you might like to buy.
Seriously, you’ll need at least one person who can hack at, tune performance and program widgets for your CMS. I have yet to see an out-of-the-box CMS that did everything a client needed.
5. More hardware
You need more than just the production server. You need development systems, QA/testing servers and possibly more. Most CMSes benefit from some kind of front-end caching. Add that to your server list.
6. Continuous training
Not just for your early users… every person that comes into the CMS will need training. And retraining, because your CMS will change, you’ll add new features, people forget et cetera.
7. A help desk
Your users will have questions. Most of them will use your CMS very infrequently. The longer they go between uses, the more they forget. Oh, and your CMS will break. Users hate that. They need a place to report when it breaks.
Frequent, open, bi-directional and informative. Developed a new component or added a new widget? How do you think your users will find out about it? And you need to open your ears. Your users, especially frequent, power users, will have a lot to say about the CMS. Some of it can even prove useful.
Your users need a lot of it. Your vendor might provide some, but likely it’s written for and by their developers. You need user documentation. You need a place that the help desk can point to when someone calls with a problem. You need a place you can point to when you announce new features, components or widgets.
10. A contingency plan
What are you going to do when the CMS crashes and takes down your website? Not just for low-impact, middle of the semester crashes, either. I’m talking about when it crashes during drop-add or a campus emergency. Do have a plan for those situations?
11. More money, more time, more people
Sorry, you need all three. There’s no way around it.
Plan for the service (because you launched a service, not a product) to grow more expensive over time. The bigger it gets, the more resources it will need.
It takes way longer than you think it will to do anything. For any estimate of time required, just double it. If you come in under time, you’re a hero. If you’re on time, you were prescient. And if you’re over, well, adjust your multiplier.
And you will quickly reach a limit on what your people can do. That single developer you though would do everything? Well, on day two after your launch, that person isn’t just developing new code. He’s doing bug fixes on existing code. He’s tweaking templates for your designer. Every new component/widget you add to your CMS adds to the support cost and subtracts from time that can be allocated to development.
1. Who is the audience
The very first question I ask when anyone proposes any kind of content: who is the audience?
Too often the response is along the lines of “people”, perhaps with the rising inflection of a question. And when I push it a little further, I have the pleasure of hearing them spin out a tale about how they’ve spent months working on the history of the department, complete with many photos of mostly unremarkable dead people. And I repeat my question: “who is the audience?”
It is absolutely critical that you, the web professional, know who your website is supposed to reach. All too often, it’s “anyone who is interested,” a set that includes your mom.
Whether you acknowledge it or not, you build websites for specific audiences. In colleges and universities, the two most important audiences are “prospectives” and “currents”. Prospectives are the people who aren’t yet associated with your institution that you want. Currents are everyone who’s already on campus.
In my job, we have identified and prioritized our audiences. The top, and most important audiences, are “prospectives”:
- Prospective undergraduate students
- Prospective master’s students
- Prospective certificate-seeking students
- Prospective MD students
- Prospective PhD students
- Prospective post-docs
- Prospective residents
- Prospective fellows
- Prospective faculty
- Prospective research collaborators
Our list does not contain:
- Your mom
2. What’s in this for your audiences?
There may be something in the pet project that is actually meaningful to one or more of your audiences. To quote Oingo Boingo, “why should I care?”
It’s not fun telling someone that their pet project, the department history and timeline including everyone who ever looked sideways at the department chair(s), is not compelling content for any audience except themselves. All too often, I’m reminded of the tedium of home movies and vacation slideshows.
But hear them out. Granted, my gut reaction to the epic department timeline is “If this is so important, why didn’t it make it into the book,” there may be a nugget of useful information (or even two!) in the morass of the pet project.
3. What is the call to action?
Pet projects tend not to have a call to action. They are mostly about “sharing information”.
Every bit of content, every page on your website must support a call to action.While there might not be a direct call to action in this content, what larger call to action it supports? Ask the person advancing the pet project what action they expect a reader to take based on this content.
4. Is it appropriate to your audiences?
I call this “the olds test”: is the content written for and germane to your audience demographic? With a few exceptions, I’m willing to bet that most prospective undergraduates don’t watch Turner Classic Movies. Well, maybe some watch TCM Underground or Essentials Jr, but TCM largely has a well-deserved reputation as a channel for “the olds”.
Many of the films on TCM have extremely common plots, plots that have been recycled many times over in more modern films. More than a few have been remade. Unfortunately, the original films, as brilliant as they are in their original form, are not germane to prospective undergraduates. The pacing is glacial, the language archaic, the dilemmas foreign, the dress wildly outdated, and the acting… well, it’s not what today’s prospective graduate would call acting. And the films are in black and white.
Pictures of the University’s president from the 19th century? Definitely for “the olds”.
PS: Yes, crap without an audience still makes it on the web
As in every arena, there are clients and there are clients. The former may be open to persuasion, receptive, to expertise or simply not have any authority. The latter are habitual non-listeners who are well accustomed to getting their way. And they have authority. It’s usually the latter who are responsible for crap on the web.