Looking for love in all the wrong places: Hiring, higher ed and hackers

Hacker Barbie
Image by nic221 via Flickr

Once upon a time there were webmasters.I’m sure there are still some out there. Webmasters did the web site. The whole thing. Themselves. Maybe they had help, perhaps they didn’t.

Then the web content editors showed up. At some colleges and universities, individual colleges or departments will hire separate web people to do specific web tasks that cater to what they need.

Now you have admissions folks doing social media, blogging and maintaining web sites too. Not to mention all of those people with Facebook pages unchecked, posting videos to Youtube and…

It seems like many institutions that house their web site content operations outside of the IT bubble, got together on the twitter backchannel and decided that it would be a good idea to hire developers as strategists hanging in PR, communications or whatever else you want to call it.

I’m not sure where this idea came from, except maybe from the old fashioned idea that developers = web sites. That might work fine in a development shop and even there, you have all sorts of people from account managers, strategists, technical project managers and others getting in the way before a hacker can get his or her hands on Firebug.

For higher ed, this is a problem. From what I’ve seen and the folks I’ve talked with, there seems to be a resounding theme at campuses large and small, for the reasons to have a developer in tow: To circumvent IT. In other words, when the person in charge of communications wants someone to develop something quickly, these leaders don’t want to have to go through the hoops of dealing with programmer staff who are usually overworked or say no for other reasons.

The “get in done yesterday” gumption I possess appreciates this attitude of “let’s do it ourselves.” But here’s where that’s a problem: most of the schools I’ve talked to about this don’t seem to have any real of their strategic intentions. They just imagine scenarios where something may preclude them from implementing some grand plan they’ve concocted.

For an internal political climate that generally prides itself on collaboration or at least, some surface level of communication; it’s thinking like this that causes a lot of the breakdowns which occur years later when someone decides to undertake a redesign, routine meetings of institutional web strategy or something else.

My original thought with this post, was to talk specifically about the roles that each institution should have. But after looking at my notes a bit, I realized the constant across the board: The role of web strategy is undervalued. This is not just endemic to higher education, either. People seem to conflate strategy with marketing, sales or whatever else they seem to think it goes with. But it’s not the same.

A great strategist can provide the blueprints, road map and lead the charge to victory. I’ll make my own bad parallel here. Web strategy has gone the way of war planning. Messy, ugly and largely ineffective. It seems that many institutions go outside of the house to hire companies to bring the strategic effort and then rely on their internal people to carry out the strategy developed by someone else.

While this works in a lot of cases, because of the talent these companies possess, it really does devalue the role that in-house folks can play in helping you craft, cultivate and effectively manage your message on the web. What’s worse is, once the paid consultants leave the building, you’ve got an ownership vacuum. Unless there’s a great deal of collaboration and/or people in-house with the political will and the expertise to implement said strategy, it could be a lot of theory that gets left on the table, only to be revisited in 2-3 years when the word redesign gets cued up again.

I’d argue that having an in-house strategist is more important if you’re going to drop high five and six-figures on outside web strategists to help you build a web site, hone your content efforts and begin to create a real social web strategy with teeth. You need people who work in tandem with your institutional marketing leadership (as part of it, ideally) to craft a message that everyone buys into and is able to communicate that to an outside strategist, who can bring it to life.

If you’re not working with outsiders, but your own internal team to develop a web presence, this is also a critical piece. Maybe you can’t afford to hire a lights out designer, developer and strategist who all understand the role of their other team members, but are primarily awesome at their own role. In these instances, you’ll want effective communicators who can convey specifically what you institutional goals are through your forays on the web. Too much of the social media and redesign discussion often devolves into:

“Ooh, that’s pretty. Let’s go with that.”

“What’s [insert competitor down the road] doing? Can we do it better?”

“This doesn’t work for me. I’m important. Why aren’t you catering to what I want/need? Now?”

“Let’s wind up our brand as tightly as possible, so maybe it’ll lose oxygen and resemble something not living.” (Loose translation.)

For all of the good companies out there, not everyone cares about what you’re doing. And even the firms with the best of intentions, especially those without higher ed experience, don’t necessarily understand how to translate the nuances a higher ed site needs to communicate. Whether you can afford to bring a consulting firm in or not,  it‘s critical to have a steward of your brand internally who understands the tools that people are using to communicate. The web strategist brings to the table a blend of communication skills that meld various marketing techniques to the fore. If you don’t have someone who is truly web savvy that you trust in a role like this, you need to find someone. It’s too important to have an integrated web or marketing strategy and not have an outside-of-the-box thinker on your squad providing strategic insights with as fast as the web moves, could lead to a huge waste of  time and money.

I’ve found it incredibly useful to have a technical background as a strategist in previous roles, because it makes working with IT so much easier. So the desire to have someone technically literate makes sense. However, in an era of budget cuts and belt-tightening across the board, I’m convinced many institutions have yet to understand how to value web strategy when they’re already spending heavily on people who manage print and instead choose to make web an auxiliary effort spread across a number of people in different departments; using a web content manager or something similar to serve as a conductor to this disparate orchestra of musicians who each playing on a different sheet of music.

It’s possible to manage this conundrum (I’ve done it), but it’s hardly the most effective way to operate a 21st century communications operation. Web strategy is not a nicety that you can afford to treat like an extra while carrying out increasingly outmoded forms of institutional marketing and communications. Just as newspapers and television outfits are learning to adapt their models fully for a new era, higher education marketing communications needs some innovation of its own.