Things to ask before you redo your web site (for higher ed)

Now I’m piggybacking pretty heavily here on a post by Seth Godin today, but I felt it was a timely post and one I’ve touched on before. As you might not, the real reason I started this blog in the first place, was as a place to log my thoughts in the process of the various web redesigns I’ve been a part over the past few years.

So much the redesign process in higher education is about pleasing a ton of people who often times don’t understand what really goes into getting a new site up and running. Other times, the process involves a metric ton of folks who all have their own ideas of what the site ought to look like, do and how it should work. It can be exhausting for the people charged with figuring it all out and making it work, especially if they’re working alone or don’t have the best support system.

Seth’s suggestions were useful for business, but for higher ed I think the things to ask might be a bit different, so I put together my own list of questions you ought to ask before lifting a finger to start your web site redesign: (in no specific order)

  • Who are we trying to reach?
  • Who are we reaching effectively right now through our other campaigns?
  • Can we save money by melding print content onto the web? Will this help us reach a wider audience?
  • What about auxiliary, constituent and other organizations attached to the school who have separate sites? Will they be folded into a new site, if at all?
  • Does athletics need a separate web presence? Have we included them in the process?
  • Will a new site help us communicate who we are better to our intended audiences?
  • What are we doing right online right now? How can we improve on that with our existing web presence?

I’m just scratching the surface here, but it really depends on the college or university. Ultimately, redesigning your web site is akin to erecting a new building on campus. It’s not just a piece of marketing material, for the time it exists it’s part of your physical plant. People will see it more than they see obscure buildings on your beautiful campus. If it’s an eyesore, if it’s difficult to use and fails to provide information about your school that people are looking for; every visit will be like getting lost in a huge building with no one to guide you.

What are your suggestions? What should people ask before embarking on a web site redesign?

Writing a bio for athletic coaches

I get a lot of strange site traffic, but the most popular search query on my site is for people looking for advice on how to write a bio.

Well, I’m back on the topic again and this time, the subject is related to strategies for writing athletic coach bios. One thing you’ll notice is that no two coaches bios on college or university web sites are the same. Now part of that owes to the fact that there are simply coaches with more experience, who feel it necessary to cram as much information as necessary into their bios — feeling it will give them an edge with future recruits — and others whose biographies seem as if they went directly from the coach’s pen to the web site unedited.

This topic became more of an issue once I agreed to serve as an assistant coach for our tennis team this spring. As a web guy who just happens to play a sport, I’ve looked online a lot at athletic bios to develop an official style for our new site once it launches. I’ve noticed some common themes in most bios and it’s led me to come up with a few things I think are important to keep in mind when preparing biographies for coaches.

1. No spin zone The marketing copy needs to be on other pages of your site, but not in the coach’s biography. Sure, players are going to read to see if a coach is experienced, if he/she has sent players on to be future coaches (or at higher levels, to the pros) and what his or her experience level. But their bio simply isn’t the place to try to sell the success of your program. You have more visible pages for that, so use them.

2. Ready On Day One In my view, the most important job of the coach’s biography is to tell a player (or their parents) why this particular individual is qualified to serve in this role. You need to accentuate their experience first. Success matters, too. But it really depends on the person you’re selling. If you’ve got a coach that’s won lots of accolades, has coached winning teams to championships and sent a few players to the pros, then you’re probably awash with things to talk about and it’s unlikely you’re reading this.

But for those folks who have coaches who are relatively inexperienced or whose resumes are harder to elucidate, remember that certifications or accreditation, past experience, awards and successful playing experience are the areas that matter most here.

3. K.I.S.S. Rule Under four paragraphs. There really isn’t a reason to go longer than this and if there is, you’ll know it when you see it. For assistant coaches, no more than two sentences unless said individual is an experienced assistant or a situation (e.g. football) where you have a large cadre of coaches to account for.

There has to be a middle ground. I know some schools do an excellent job with these, but the ones I’ve seen done best aren’t at the Division 1 level domain of major college athletics. It’s actually at smaller colleges where athletics aren’t as prominently featured.

If you contain content to the more important facts about your athletic coaches, it’ll result in tighter bios that present information better, are designed more cleanly and allow people to get a quick impression of the talent your folks posses.

Does your institution have a style requirement for coaching bios?

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Four things to think about before your college redesigns its web site

I’ve been pondering what to blog about for a while, but my lack of creativity stems largely from what I’ve been doing for the past few months. As I prepare to pull the trigger on the 4th redesign I’ve been involved with (only two of these from start to finish, the others I either joined at nearly the end or joined in progress and left before it was finished) in higher ed, I can say that there are some universal themes I’ve picked up that are worth sharing:

1. Make sure you understand why you’re doing a redesign.
Everybody wants to change their look. That’s delightful, but if you splash paint on a house, is it a new house? No. You need to really look introspectively at your institution and understand what’s motivating you to make the change. If it’s as simple as “Keeping Up With the Joneses U.” then you should come up with better reasons and save your money.

No matter who works with you on the college or university web redesign, you’re going to need to make sure that you know your institution.

2. Keep your web project team small and nimble. (or Hire a chef, pick a menu and get the hell out of the kitchen and let the pros work.)

Higher education is a pretty political place. On campuses everywhere, each division, department, office or person thinks THEY are the most important component, for whom without [insert here] the school would fold up and die a horrible death. The fact lies somewhere along the margins.

So while it’s important to get buy-in, there is such a thing as giving people “too much” information. From the time I initiated my first redesign, to now, I’ve come to realize that maybe things aren’t as rigid as I thought and I’ve shed some of my former IT guy aversion for giving “end users” too much information at various stages of a project that they don’t really understand the totality of anyway. I’ve seen first hand how getting buy-in early and often is a good way to quell rancor on campus and to create allies in the process who’ll buy you room to breathe and space to do work your magic.

But the process can quickly become bogged down by letting too many people weigh in and give their “input” and this is something you need to avoid, lest your college’s web site project become bogged down by all sorts of people who aren’t ultimately responsible for its execution anyway.

Web site redesigns might need the entire community to be successful, but they’re not community projects.

3. Hire professional firms that know what they’re doing
While it might be preferable to after “all purpose” firms that have a jack of all trades knack for “doing it all,” you’re doing your redesign project a grave disservice by throwing all of your eggs in one basket that way. I’m sure there are lots of big box firms out there that do a delightful job at redesigns. I’m sure they’re endorsed by all sorts of your competitors too, which is why you went with them, lest you fall behind the pack.

Whatever the political reasons for your choice of firm, be sure to check out smaller, independent firms of good web people who know standards and employ them. These folks aren’t trying to rip you off, will relate well to your staff and the folks implementing the site and have links to the best and brightest in the field.

You’ll be glad you did.

4. Think outside of the box

Web sites need to communicate an idea and your content needs to be vibrant and full of life. If your web site is just a copy of your print materials, you’re wasting your time.

You need to have a tie-in, but more importantly, you need to be able to communicate an idea. For every prospective student that makes it to your campus for a visit, there are going to be two dozen who can’t afford to and will use your web site as the decider in where they’ll go to college.

Whether this is a fair criticism or not, I feel that we’re not pushing the envelope enough. Big schools with deep pockets are being bolder, but smaller institutions of all stripes aren’t keeping up as well. By and large, the admission process is almost exactly the same as it was twenty years ago. Think about how much has changed since then. You can’t buy records or tapes hardly, folks don’t use rotary phones and yet, we’re still driving our primary marketing through the Pony Express.

I’m not saying that mail isn’t effective or there is a replacement for it (Especially not the web…yet.) but there have to be bolder, more ambitious ways we can use the technology and social media in general to connect with people in ways we’ve never done it before.

I have some ideas about that, too. But you’ll have to get those another time.

Redesign: How soon do you turn over the keys?

One of the things we grappled with during my first web redesign several ago was figuring out how soon to turn over control of managing their own pages to the various constituents on campus. For some folks, this isn’t a consideration. Either the site approval authority mirrors that of the institutional checks and balances or there is some other method in place. But what about those times when you have to do it from scratch?

That’s when, friends, it can be an adventure.

First off, let’s consider how you even get to this point. In the past reference and at present, the situation is dictated by the college or university switching from a static HTML site done in Dreamweaver to a dynamic site managed via a content management system (CMS). The old way, usually meant (for me, anyway) that people would send their changes down to the PR office and I would make them or discuss them with them, if there were issues. But with a CMS? It’s all up to them.

Depending on your CMS, this can be an easy problem to fix or a potential disaster. The first time I dealt with it, it ended up figuring itself out. Our site launch deadline ended up being a little earlier than I anticipated and so, we ended up having to scramble to figure out how to address the issues with the new site. What I did there, was bring people in slowly. People who need changes to existing content and I would literally meet with them, show them how to make their modifications and go from there. It ended up being the easier way to do it, because I found that group trainings weren’t as efficient as I’d have liked. Each individual person not only came to the table with their own technology abilities or limitations, but each person’s use of the CMS would be different, depending on what area of the site they were using and where.

So while I did conduct group training, I would use those trainings as gateways to learning how to use the CMS period and would implore people to setup subsequent training with me to learn how to configure their specific area’s pages.

My present situation is a bit different, as there is already a defined process in place. The real question is, whether or not we’re going to let the web mirror our own institutional quirks or not. It’ll be a lot easier for me, than it was in the role I cited earlier, because the individual areas are already responsible for providing content and this isn’t an exercise in trying to “sell” them on the reasons they need to use the web effectively or to replace old content as it’s been in other circumstances.

I think the bottom line is, understanding that once you give up control of the day-to-day input of content into the site, you’re not going to get it back without a fight. So it’s important not just to understand who’ll be approving content up the ranks, but ensuring that people throughout the institution are very familiar with institutional style guides and requirements for how web content is able to be published. Nothing is worse than having to explain to folks for an hour why they can’t have flashing red text on their pages or why their name can’t appear in green text, because green is their favorite color.

Consistency is key and ensuring that everyone is on the same page early, is how you’ll save yourself a ton of headaches as you prepare to roll out your new web site.

The web person and the mess they leave behind

When you’re leaving a situation or getting into a new one, it’s always the peril of the singular web person that you think, “what was this past person thinking?” Unless they leave copious notes or you’re replacing someone you’ve had the opportunity to be trained by, what do you do?

How can we make it easier for our successors to thrive?

Maybe folks say, “well, I don’t care.” But I’m at my third institution and I can tell you, that it’s always one of the first things I thought about in my first job. I kept thinking, “if I left tomorrow, this thing would be a mess for someone to have to inherit.”

When I left Wyoming, my successor was a coworker and so I was fortunate to be able to train her for the weeks prior to my departure. But you don’t always get that lucky. So what do you do? Are you making sure that your deck is prepared for someone to step into your role?

(Or are you just going to tell me you plan to be where you are forever?)

Web site redesigns: Lessons Learned

I’ve had the unique opportunity over the past half-decade now to work on web site redesigns at a number of colleges & universities in some form or fashion. What’s been most interesting to me over that time, is realizing how different each project is.

Despite that, the nuts and bolts are the same, by and large. It’s figuring out how to lead people the way you want they want the project to go, that can be interesting. I’ve learned there is no one-size, fits all way of going about it.

While there are things I’ve done the same at some schools, other places need you to go off the map and pursue the challenges in other ways. Those opportunities to do something you might have done before differently is what make doing web site redesigns an exciting process.

There are a few of the things that come up often in my thoughts during the redesign stages:

1. Long after the design is approved, some key stakeholder will start to get tired of looking at it and want to change it.
Even if that stakeholder is you. It’s important not too worked up about that. At the end of the day, unless you have limitless time, money and staff at your disposal, no design will be perfect. But if it’s an improvement over what you have and it’s been approved by your redesign team, you have other things to worry about.

2. Content migration probably won’t be your friend.
Obviously, the more pages you have, the harder it is to move it all. In some situations, we’ve gone through and actually cut pages before a redesign. This is usually at colleges where we were transitioning from a static HTML site to a content management system. In one particular instance, we had pages from 6-9 years old on the site that were still around, so when you can cut out old content that’s being dredged up in search, etc., it can save you a lot of trouble off the bat.

That being said, more portability between tools will make data transfer a lot better in the future. I understand all the barriers to transferring content, etc., but I’ve maintained for years now that companies should be less concerned with trying to “trap” people onto their software platforms and find better way to serve them. Gaining and preserving loyalty ought to be more important than trying to squeeze as much money as you can from a client. Data portability has to be must going forward as people continue to create their newest, hottest “CMS to end all CMS.”

Seems simple to me, but given the marketplace, you’d almost think there was some secret that prevented such common sense.

3. Communicate.

While it’s more likely at bigger schools to have lots of hands in the pie, some smaller schools have a skeleton crew managing entire projects. While it can be great to be left alone to solve all of the problems and to stretch the boundaries of your expertise, it’s also important to keep people in the loop all of the time. Not just when things are going well, but when you need help, too.

4. Excite your audiences.
Seems to be a delicate balance between creating anticipation and having people nagging about a new site. It takes balance and some level of internal marketing to find that “sweet spot.” But it’s a worthwhile thing to do, as there are so many parties interested in these sorts of redesigns, that simply keeping people informed along the way, can bolster the image of being a forward-thinking institution.

5. Be slow to hand over the keys
I’ve gone through a few redesigns where we went from one person (usually me) managing all of the content to a CMS where we handed out those responsibilities across the campus. I’ve always believed in going about it in a deliberate way — from training to implementation — because once you hand over the reins, you’ll have a devil of a time reining in the content development process and your role changes considerably. Providing lots of education to people, preparing them well in advance for what’s to come and being an accessible, helpful shepherd of their web content experience can make your job easier and improves relations across the campus.

Nothing is worse than a bunch of territorial silos across the campus aiming at each other, to ensure what they have to say is more important than everyone else. It distracts from the institutional mission and makes the job of the web manager much more difficult.

Make no mistake, that a web redesign can be a boon and make your life a lot easier. But you have to think through every step of what you’re doing, because while you can’t predict everything, being proactive can save you a ton of headaches as you push to complete the project on time.

Web Redesign and defining your college

If you’ve ever moved someplace new after spending a significant period of time in a place where you were well known, it can be liberating when for the first time in a while no one knows who you are. In an era of networking profiles and google-me first penchants, it’s not as if folks have no context for who we are before we meet them, but there is usually a big difference between someone’s bio and the way they communicate at the water cooler.

Well the same goes for a college or university. It’s easy to change the look and feel, the colors of a site and to say “we’ve got a new site.” But does that new look and feel extend to the attitude? Does it reflect your values and your identity as an institution?

These might seem like strange questions, but they’re not.

Because all of the time you can invest trying to redesign a web site, migrating content from an old site to a new site, obscures the fact that if your site fails to really speak to the vibrancy of your college or university, then you’re failing to capitalize on the opportunities that a redesign presents you.

When you do a redesign, at least for a while, people’s eyes are on you. They might be lost at first, but what the changes say is “We’re trying to do things a different way.” And you’re asking your visitors to “take a second look at us, even if you’ve been here before.”

That’s a unique chance that you might not get again (until the next redesign…) and so, it’s critical to make sure the planning process includes a top-down assessment of KNOWING your institution and ensuring that the web content you publish reflects that identity.

Does everyone always need to be involved?

When it comes to planning for the web and preparing things at a high level, is it really necessary to involve end users or even high level leaders in the process? Can we not just empower the people who have the expertise to actually do what they’re trained to do?

Or is there real value in creating a committee for everything?

It’s actually a question I’ve been pondering for months and I finally decided to just “throw it out there” to the wider community now to see what riffs people would have on it. I know the answer to the question and not only do I think it’s important for people to be involved “at their level” but I think it’s critical to identify who the stakeholders are, ensuring a cross-section of people from different constituency groups around campus to get maximum “buy-in” before going forward.