The politics of .edu web strategy

I never realized how politics web sites were until I started working in higher education. Simple things like where commas should go, what should reside on the home page or how many links there ought to be on a particular page can become battles that would rival a local ballot initiative.

I’m not going to win web strategist of the year by telling you something as rudimentary as “politics stifle creativity and hurt web projects by bogging them needless through mud.”

But I’m not blogging for an award, just trying to shed the truth on a pervasive problem in our industry.

I don’t really know what the solution is, though. I mean, it could be as simple as “get out of the way and let the people who know what they’re doing, handle the tasks they are charged with…” but that’s too simplistic.

Web strategy isn’t really about web people, after all. They’re just the do-ers, the folks who implement the will and the visions of those who are responsible for protecting the brand. I don’t believe there are scores of web people yet prepared or wanting to serve in high level roles aimed that require a diverse skill set encompassing communication, web and yes…print. But they are out there and where they don’t exist, we need to create them.

Innovation has taken a back seat to pragmatism and many in the academy are being left behind, because they’re too busy squabbling to keep their eyes on the road. It’s easier than ever to take bold steps forward, but in order to get there, we have to trust the folks empowered to make it happen. It’s their responsibility to explain their steps and to be open to feedback and willing to compromise. But I don’t think it requires a Congressional-sized committee, either.

At the request of the awesome Mike McCready, here are a few constructive tips for navigating the higher ed political waters:

I would say:

1. Pick your battles: You can’t win every fight, so really be selective about the times that you’re going to engage and push back on some subjects, while letting others go realizing that there’s no real point in losing energy on those.

2. Create allies: You can really smooth your path by taking extra care to treat everyone on campus fairly, but especially keying on the departments and areas that will need your assistance a lot. If those people respect your input and feedback, they can prove to be allies when you need them later on.

3. Be knowledgeable, but not a know-it-all:
No one likes the character of the web guy who comes into the wrong, demeans everyone else and acts like they’re too stupid to get it. That might’ve flown in ’99, but it’s ’09 and these days, more people, the middle and the bottom of institutions are getting savvier about their web knowledge. It’s mainstream now, so we’ve got to be mindful about what we communicate and ensuring we communicate useful tips that help them see how everything connects.

4. Listen:
This one should’ve been first. People will have legitimate grips and we can tend to dismiss their comments as sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher when we hear them over and over. Engage your users and really understand what’s on their minds and what their needs are. Even in situations where you can’t deliver what they need, it might be a great way to understand how to ensure the site continues to meet the needs of various constituencies.

Just because you can…

How many times have you found yourself building a random app or something else, only to realize that there might be a faster way to do it? Or situations where you realize that, “well..there’s no program for this, but..the longer I do it, the more I realize it’s a lot of work and not particularly worth the payoff.”

I was in the midst of one of those “this would be awesome and I could code it in a few hours” type of projects, but about an hour into it, I realized that even once it was finished..I’d probably have this strange sense of “Well, that wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I thought it’d be…” much like I did once I created my own college football ranking or other random projects I’ve created.

Not that some of these projects aren’t satisfying, they are. It’s just…there are other things I could be doing that are more productive and would make a better use of my time.

Not everyone has it easy on the web

My neighbor found out that I knew how to do computer things and has been asking me to help him a lot with the new computer he bought for himself.

Yesterday, I was helping him setup his internet and it occurred to me how confusing all of this would be for someone who 1) isn’t computer savvy and has a 2) poor command of the English language (he’s Bosnian) and even if I can figure out how to get it into Bosnian language mode, I felt like it was still a huge gulf for people who’ve largely been left out of the tech wave of the past decade.

I know this isn’t news to anyone who works with end users who abhor computers and refuse to use them unless they absolutely have to. But it’s interesting to get that perspective when you forget — and I hadn’t really thought of technology from the perspective of someone like him until I was faced with trying to teach it for the first time in a while.

As I contemplate real life relationships and the trading card friends phenomenon of our social networking existences, I wonder what we’re really trying to accomplish. Are we trying to live vicariously through our teenage selves, who would’ve been thrilled at the chance to have “friends” in far flung places, who might wish them Happy Birthday (Oh, you remembered! Even if Facebook reminded you?!) , but really are just using them to prop their own self esteem up?

Maybe the weird stares that come from “real grown ups” who don’t understand why you’d want to hear from someone you hardly know and let them into your world have it right?

Perhaps it’s worth the effort to compartmentalize between your “real” friends and the ones you want to keep at arms length?

I suppose there are lots of different ways to go about this. Maybe you can just view people as transactions just waiting to be leveraged. Or keep a more distant view of things. I’m sure that gets easier when you have a network, because then you spend less time preening yourself for folks who were best off left how you remembered them then and spend more time on those you’ve already built bonds with.

As things evolve, I think we’ll just continue to build networks that bring us closer to our “inner circles” and keep others at a distance. We don’t need constant updates about their lives, to find out what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and who they’re doing it with.

Literally.

Facebook as a concept was great when it was centered around college and university networks because that’s about community. While cities, companies and others might simulate that in some way, it’s just not the same.

Insularity provides room for authenticity, because once you’re comfortable with the folks you’re surrounded with, you let your guard down. Perhaps it’s folly to think that such things should be invested onto an open network where someone else is charged with guarding your personal belongings — pictures, personal data, graphic representations of your relationships in plain view — all for a small price.

The freedom to close the door, but still participate.

When I think of the inanity of most of the tools I use daily, it makes me think back to when I first moved to Wyoming. I realized there had to be a way to take social tools — many of which were still in their infancy — and make them useful for ordinary people.

We already know the web can help folks fundraise wads of cash, let advertisers inundate us with more images of more stuff we just have to get and of course, allow us to waste more time than ever sending clever chain letters to our friends.

But what about something useful?

Some of us mock end users lack of awareness or make assumptions about what people know versus what they don’t. Once you roll your sleeves up and show them that it’s just not that complicated they become converts and bring others along the way. It can be empowering to save people time, money and help them reach out to others.

Too many folks are being left behind.

Isn’t it time to make web products that reach beyond the early adopters?

Making sense of personal branding

There’s a lot of chatter on the blogosphere these days about the merits and strategy behind personal branding or the idea of marketing yourself and your career as a “brand.”

While there are pretty positive takeaways from much of the advice out there, the fact remains that living your life as a brand just isn’t feasible for most people. And let’s be realistic and consider that if someone is really going to be conscious about their brand strategy and start plotting their live in ways that allow them to sell their experience to reach beyond their current jobs, life situations or whatever else; then it’s something they’ll have to commit to 24/7. Most people aren’t going to do this and even if they do, eventually other things change our path and we go in a completely different direction than we started.

Social media is an avalanche, once you get started…it’s hard to roll it back.

Once you put yourself out on the web, how do you decide the boundaries? Do you speak generically about “real life” things that anyone who knows you will can decipher? Or is it writing about ideas? If you’re blogging, do you pick something topical where the boundaries are easier to navigate? Or do you speak more broadly? I’ve noticed this in my own habits online over the past decade or so of personal sites, blogs and online identities.

The interest thing in the debate about Twitter v. Facebook these days, is the running account nature of Twitter. It’s a whole lot of out-of-context conversations (or for someone, just stream of consciousness thoughts) that you might not be particularly interested in having someone dredge up a year after you wrote them or even a month. You can delete them, but what they forget?

I think the trick is, realizing that even with the premise of “authenticity” that there has to be a comfort level embedded within it. You can be as open (or not) as you want to, but realize that only you have to be comfortable with what you’re saying, how you’re saying it and understanding why.

Where personal branding methods really hit home are with newly minted college grads and folks who are more actively involved in various forms of social networking. When you throw your name on a profile for some niche site and forget about it, all of that content affects what people find out about you when they google for you.

I’ve always been a pretty strong proponent of ensuring that the first thing someone sees online is something that comes from you. While you can’t control everything out there on the web that people find out, the least you can do is present them with the best information you’ve got and allow them to make their own decisions based on what you’re offering up via your personal brand.

Don’t be Foolish, use Twitter

As promised in my post about why Twitter isn’t any better than high school, here’s a gushing post about the sheer brilliance of Twitter.

To the person on the outside looking in, Twitter is akin to passing notes to your friends about the most inane matters possible. To the more cynical among us, it’s a reflection of the general “me first, me second” tendencies of millennials and Generation Y. When you tell them the majority of the users are over the age of 30, that it’s largely a tool for business and that Dell made a $1 million bucks last year in revenue JUST USING TWITTER they sit upright in their chairs and have more to tell you.

Look, social media is really about being social. You have to see it, hear it and engage it. And my friends, Twitter is all about engagement.

Here’s what’s great about Twitter:

1. Customers front and center People might not a Twitter from a Twiddler. In a world where sound bites can kill political campaigns and folks have seemingly infinite content possibilities, Twitter is network of audiences ready and engaged to hear what you have to say.

Tell them you’ll save them money or share some interesting news and they’ll keep following you. Unlike a blog, a newspaper or even a radio station, Twitter can pretty much go ANYWHERE I go. Through text updates, I can get notice of a major event almost instantly. So whether it’s a sale or something worse, Twitter usually breaks the story.

2. Let’s build our relationship… In the old days, how did mom and pop stores thrive? They build relationships with their customers. In the era of the big box retailer, shopping mall and Walmart behemoth, some might think that relationships have gone by the wayside. But it’s just not true. In the past, if you made a customer upset due to poor service or something else, they might tell a friend or a family member via the phone. The likelihood that you’d see a shift in business as a result of one angry customer was relatively small. Today? A customer who is upset with your brand could Twitter about it and word spreads instantly to legions of others who can air their similar grievances, causing harm to your brand that you knew nothing about. That is, unless you’re proactive.

3. Meet ‘n Greet 2.0: Those conversations with colleagues from around the globe have never been more dynamic. The water cooler now takes place across time zones and it’s happening in real time, without leaving your desk. It used to be, that after you met someone at a conference you had to fumble through cards to remember who they were. Or more recently, you’d add them on something like Facebook or LinkedIn, which was either too close or too distant for them to be useful. Now? Twitter is the new business card.

What do you think is great about Twitter?

Don’t be Foolish, use Twitter

As promised in my post about why Twitter isn’t any better than high school, here’s a gushing post about the sheer brilliance of Twitter.

To the person on the outside looking in, Twitter is akin to passing notes to your friends about the most inane matters possible. To the more cynical among us, it’s a reflection of the general “me first, me second” tendencies of millennials and Generation Y. When you tell them the majority of the users are over the age of 30, that it’s largely a tool for business and that Dell made a $1 million bucks last year in revenue JUST USING TWITTER they sit upright in their chairs and have more to tell you.

Look, social media is really about being social. You have to see it, hear it and engage it. And my friends, Twitter is all about engagement.

Here’s what’s great about Twitter:

1. Customers front and center People might not a Twitter from a Twiddler. In a world where sound bites can kill political campaigns and folks have seemingly infinite content possibilities, Twitter is network of audiences ready and engaged to hear what you have to say.

Tell them you’ll save them money or share some interesting news and they’ll keep following you. Unlike a blog, a newspaper or even a radio station, Twitter can pretty much go ANYWHERE I go. Through text updates, I can get notice of a major event almost instantly. So whether it’s a sale or something worse, Twitter usually breaks the story.

2. Let’s build our relationship… In the old days, how did mom and pop stores thrive? They build relationships with their customers. In the era of the big box retailer, shopping mall and Walmart behemoth, some might think that relationships have gone by the wayside. But it’s just not true. In the past, if you made a customer upset due to poor service or something else, they might tell a friend or a family member via the phone. The likelihood that you’d see a shift in business as a result of one angry customer was relatively small. Today? A customer who is upset with your brand could Twitter about it and word spreads instantly to legions of others who can air their similar grievances, causing harm to your brand that you knew nothing aboutThat is, unless you’re proactive.

3. Meet ‘n Greet 2.0: Those conversations with colleagues from around the globe have never been more dynamic. The water cooler now takes place across time zones and it’s happening in real time, without leaving your desk. It used to be, that after you met someone at a conference you had to fumble through cards to remember who they were. Or more recently, you’d add them on something like Facebook or LinkedIn, which was either too close or too distant for them to be useful. Now? Twitter is the new business card.

What do you think is great about Twitter?

How to ruin millennials

I read Brazen Careerist because if nothing else, Penelope Trunk makes startup failure sound like good. Her witty brand of sex, career advice and life experience makes it an interesting read, even if you find yourself confused half the time about what her point is.

For months, I’ve noticed a trend that started to make me really uncomfortable. More and more young women who post on that site, seem to model themselves after her. They’re early-to-mid twenty-somethings who seem to think blogging about their sex lives, job horrors and general apathy is going to get them “noticed” and somehow, they’ll become more marketable as a result.

What she’s encouraging them to do is career suicide.

Now, let’s be clear. The folks blogging this stuff and putting themselves out there are grown adults and can do whatever they want. It’s their lives and no one puts a gun to their head and encourages them to blog on Brazen Careerist. At best, the site has been a great repository for Generation Y’s motivated denizens to congregate and talk about how they’re going to fix the world the boomers have screwed up. (sorry, I had to.)

But when you start to think about it, you realize that Brazen Careerist isn’t just a place to get somewhat strange career advice from someone who has virtually nothing in common with the people on her site, it’s a “startup.” And said startup is aggregating the content of young souls, the majority of whom haven’t found themselves yet and asking them to talk with authority.

It’s a recipe for disaster.

I relate well to being empowered to write with authority at a young age, because I did it in my late teens and early 20s. Pre-social networks and everything. The validation is intoxicating and you feel like “finally, someone gets me!” Only to step away from it after a few years and figure out that what you were writing might not actually be what you think. Or you live some, experience a few things and start to shift your beliefs.

If you’ve already created this persona for yourself, all sorts of unauthorized people will have unfettered access into this world you’ve created for them. There is no “off” button and unlike Penelope Trunk, these millennials aren’t getting paid 10k a speech to give a glimpse into their own generation.

The criticism of millennials is that they have no work ethic, that they don’t understand the value of hard work and want to rush to the front of the line without paying their dues.

A lot of that is true, but it’s borne out of watching parents laid off of jobs after pouring decades of work into a firm, only to be told that they are no longer needed. It’s because they’ve been allowed to borrow tens of thousands of dollars for an education that everyone told them they needed, only to discover that either 1) they need more or 2) it wasn’t nearly as useful as the pricetag said it would be.

The bottom line of today’s work world, is the rules haven’t really changed that much. Yet.

Despite all of the hoopla to the contrary, boomers aren’t going anywhere in the workplace. They’re staying longer and later, blocking entry to the jobs that those underneath them are pining for. The work environment is still based on a lot of the same rules that were applied decades ago.

So I don’t care how many social networks get created, it’s not going to be okay anytime soon to bash your employer publicly.

Nor will it ever be in vogue to tout your experience and energy on one hand, only to reverse all of the goodwill and positive vibes you get by writing something in the voice of someone else, because you admire them.

Penelope is just relaying stories that work for her. Sure, she gives advice. But with any advice, your mileage will vary. Taking anything anyone says and using it the holy grail foundation for what you’re going to do is just bad news.

I’m not just picking on Penelope Trunk, because I’ve been sending her articles to friends for months now. But I just see too many young people following what seems to be a trend that so many millennials think they need to follow someone else’s blueprint to success. It goes for ‘stars’ out there that I admire whether it’s Chris Brogan, Gary Vaynerchuk, Paul Graham and Seth Godin, too.

Sure, they’re all smart people who have a lot of eyeballs focused on them. They say stuff that other people listen to and implement. So while we can learn from them (Lord knows I have) we should all — especially millennials — take a step back and try to forge our own path based on our experiences.

Leading social media folks are just bodhisattvas (or televangelists?), trying to help you reach some sort of Web 2.0 enlightenment. They’re not telling you to do it their way because you’d fail if you did.

Somewhere along the way, thought leadership turned into cult followings. Trying to be someone else just isn’t going to get you far, so do the best can you with what you’ve got. There is no fast way to success, no magical potion or secret formula.

Debunking “You have to go where the students are…”

“If all your friends were jumping off a cliff, would you jump too?” – Someone’s mom.

Following students to social networking sites like Facebook and alumni to LinkedIn are a pretty popular trend right now. The common refrain is, “You have to go where the students are to reach them.” But this pervasive refrain ignores a very powerful message embedded within that statement that says, “What we’re doing on the web right now doesn’t work for us, so we need a better way to get it to work for us.”

Extending that a bit further, it’s akin to saying that the telephones on campus aren’t working and we can’t call anyone, so we all bought cell phones so we could reach each other.

If the latter statement were true, someone would rush to fix the problem in a heartbeat and wouldn’t need to ask why it needed to happen. With the web? It’s still considered a piece of community property that no one wants to cede in a lot of places.

You can’t suffocate a message

It doesn’t last long for you to hold onto it, as if it belongs to you and no one else. You have to get it out. The problem is, social networking sites aren’t the venue for most institutional messages. It validates to students that “our web site is useless for the purpose of getting information, so just go to Facebook.” But if the third party site goes down, what do you do? Send them back to the institutional web site?

Colleges and universities with deep pockets or access to top talent can usually respond to these sorts of challenges faster than others, which is no big surprise. But using social networks can’t be viewed as a panacea, instead, we need to establish why we’re using them and adhere to that purpose. If web sites are rigid and inflexible, we need to fix them.


The reasons you shouldn’t invest your energy in a social networking presence for your institution:

  • It implies that Facebook owns your school’s message.
  • Weakens the brand and creates a viral effect where students tell others — family, friends, potential donors — to visit a third-party site to get institutional information, rather than the web site.
  • Replicates bad on-campus communication to the web, by circumventing the need to fix those problems by simply working around them.
  • On the other hand, a social network can be a great tool to:

  • Extend your brand into a new domain, especially for prospective students who don’t have access to on-campus information that might be relevant to them.
  • Share “winning moments” or other information from you web site that might be of interest to students, alumni and others.
  • Integrate it as a solution that redirects them back to your site.
  • The institutional web site has fully arrived as a “marketing tool” on many campuses and the uneasy balance between trying to reach the students of the future, while connecting to their parents, alumni and pretty much anyone else with a rooting interest in the school can be a difficult task at times, especially for smaller schools and community colleges.

    You don’t have to go where the students are to reach them, you need to adapt your web strategy to reach them more effectively. There’s no better place to that than on your college’s own web site.