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?