in Digital Web

A failure to commnicate: Web strategists and the big picture

I’ve been thinking for a while now, that there has to be a way to better integrate the work of web strategists with the institution at large.

I feel like taking web people and sticking them in the little corner called “IT” and calling it quits or say, creating new departments for them that are the equivalent of interdisciplinary studies (PR + IT and a dash of marketing or admission or alumni = Chaos Soup!) are just ways to apply old thinking to a new problem.

The way I see it, the job of the web strategist in (shudders) Web 2.0 (/shudders) is to serve as really a marketer, who uses technology. Folks who know how to hack code, create awesome Flash video, make expensive and poorly developed proprietary content management systems workable should be in IT someplace. Trying to blur the lines and create these quasi-techno folks who end up strewn about campus in admission, athletics, public relations or alumni just creates confusion and makes it very difficult to know where the chips lie, whose responsibility lies where and even if you’re the most organized college or university and all of the folks get along; you’re still going to run into problems with cohesiveness and uniformity in your messaging.

My point?

The role of the web strategist is different. The web strategist is a marketer, first. Someone who understands the institution up and down, inside and out. This person can’t just be the web monkey posting things to the web that they don’t understand. Or someone who people just call to complain about spelling mistakes on their pages or to ask how to update their ancient content that HAS TO GET OUT RIGHT NOW OR ELSE THE WORLD WILL END. (emphasis theirs…)

Web people folks need to be engaged in the process. Some folks are really good at this already and have been given the freedom to create roles within their institutions that are bold and innovative. But still too many are unable to reach the wider audiences of the institution (students, parents, faculty in some cases) with bigger ideas that will push the boundaries of our thinking, because we’re still too sheltered in our approach.

I often say that today’s youth are different than the first generation of web users who were in their teens and who adopted the web as a hobby. Millennials bathe in digital media as a way of life. They’ve been texting in school to their friends and as such, have been born as digital consumers rather than producers. This changes the rules of the game a bit for people trying to reach them and I think the shift happened so fast, many colleges and universities are still scrambling to keep up with the times.

The problem is, most don’t understand what’s actually happening, they’re just using a few anecdotes to craft a vision of what’s really going on at the ground level. Many folks are still doing the same things. Now we just have a few cooler videos to show and can attempt to “create relationships” through digital tools that weren’t available 15 years ago.

But it’s not enough.

Despite the mad rush towards the corporatism that has overtaken higher education (out goes admission, in goes enrollment management and so forth…) we don’t apply entrepreneurial solutions to very common problems. There is a failure to respond rapidly, because we have dinosaurs and humans living in the same ecosystem and to the two simply cannot co-exist.

  1. Great responses, guys and great insights. And I’m with you by and large, Skip, that it’s just going to be a generational shift more than anything that’ll solve this ‘problem’.

  2. I’ll go one further. We all know we get initiatives — presidents and provosts and deans just love ’em. In the old days, the first thought would be: we gotta make posters and flyers for this.

    Now the first thought is: we gotta make a website for this. Well, okay, for some that’s still only an afterthought.

    But along came Yet Another Initiative[tm] the other day, this one for a smoke-free campus. And because of where my head was at just then, I thought: what this really needs is a social networking site. People trying to quit could talk to one another. Department heads could talk. *Everybody* could talk. Pictures of someone throwing away their last smoke. You know.

    So, folks are even further behind the curve because the curve keeps curving.

    I actually disagree that web folks need to be more engaged. Or, rather, I think we need to be engaged in particular ways. Because we can’t make the change. Like someone with a neurosis, they’re only going to change if they *want* to change, and they have no particular reason to want to change. Especially if changing means more work.

    IMO: it’s gonna take time. Or, to put it another way: we don’t solve this problem, we retire it. Wait for the generational change. And in the meantime, we’re living smack in the middle of “an awkward transitional phase” as the historians will call it. *meh*

  3. Nailed it on the head, Ron. Across higher ed, I sense this prevailing feeling that the web is still a secondary thought in the marketing/PR strategy. It’s like, “Oh yea, and we need to put that on the web, too.” Or worse, seizing on the latest web technology without understanding the goal using it will fulfill. It is evolving though. More institutions have and are moving in the right direction, but it is a slow process. Aside from the generational issue, as you pointed out, I wonder how much of the issue is political. In my own experiences and talking with colleagues, higher ed is very territorial. Which conflicts with the open/collaborative nature of the web in general.

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