I know that many of you are in the same camp as me when it comes to the ideal way of setting up effective web governance. The prime idea being that “web communications,” as a discipline and as an organizational unit, isn’t something that answers solely to marketing, public relations, or information technology. When you answer to one, you shortchange the others and do a disservice to your visitors. In reality, until the web’s role in higher ed grows, most of us are stuck in one place or another, without quite the level of authority or autonomy we would hope for. It’s important to pay attention to where you are and not let it color your work as a result.
Why does this matter to content strategy? For one, a whole lot of higher ed sites still don’t have a real content strategy on the books, but many see the importance in it. As a result, eventually it will get the attention that it needs. As that happens, it’s good to know where the trail in front of you goes (or at least should go). A lot of schools are also moving their web offices out of IT and into a more marketing or communications driven office. Just listen to some of the higher ed web folks on Twitter, and you’ll notice conversation increasingly littered with discussions and articles about marketing, recruitment, content, and communications. Less and less is about the “tech” side of the web, despite the fact that the two are yin and yang. You either wield the power of both (at least a little), or you can expect to excel at neither.
Sorry, I’ll stop with the web Confucius stuff now.
The reason you need to be vigilant is that despite our changing roles, the vast majority of our web content is not marketing content. Now, I can hear the marketing people clamoring already: “ALL content is marketing!” The more I hear that philosophy (and its corollary: everyone is a spokesman) the more I can’t really decide if I agree or disagree with it. I think that’s because while the theory is sound, the practice is not, unless every person who works on your site also happens to be a marketer, or everything on your site has to be approved by one. Otherwise, vast swaths of your site are little more than brain dumps of dry-write (the kind of stuff folks write when they are asked to write it, meeting minimum requirements with no regard for use). That’s just what they are, and there’s not really a better way to put it. And that’s why today’s post is important. Maybe another way to look at is that all content is marketing content, but that doesn’t mean it’s primary reason for being is marketing. A good marketer can make anything into a tool for “the sale,” that doesn’t mean that’s why it was created in the first place, or that it should be transformed into such a tool.
Until we live in a world where our website is ruled by marketers with an iron fist (gods forbid), we must keep in mind that a large majority of content is both different from how we treat our marketing face, and requires a different approach. That doesn’t mean marketing doesn’t get a place in your content strategy (I’ll address that in a moment), it just means that it is only a component of the document. You need to make sure that each component is given due diligence in your plan for managing the stuff on your site and make sure that it all isn’t treated the same.
The Non-Marketing Stuff
Basically, the huge chunk of stuff on your site that isn’t marketing serves one of two purposes: learn some information or do something (I don’t consider ‘we need the past ten years of meeting minutes from this committee on our web site’ to really qualify as a bonâ fide ‘purpose,’ per se.). This content is generated at nearly every level of your university hierarchy, and in most cases it isn’t usually vetted by an actual web writer. In fact, it’s normally just thrown up there by whomever wrote it. These are the folks that need the most help, and will benefit the most from a content strategy that helps to set up a framework for things as simple as reviewing and editing.
Assume a person runs a page with content designed to help a student set up an organization. From year to year, it’s likely that the codes and rules for this will change. Helping your user understand that it is part of the strategy that “policy-centric” content must be reviewed annually will ensure that a visitor’s goal of doing something isn’t compromised by out of date content. Furthermore, the strategy would hopefully help define where that information should live, to make it easier for the student to get to as well. Then, as time goes on, you have a way to tell if something has actually been neglected assuming you’re using a CMS or other system to document the content workflow.
Consider for a moment just how deep your rabbit hole goes. Folders in folders in folders in folders. Under normal circumstances, addressing an issue like that is, first and foremost, a usability or information architecture issue separate from marketing. Cumulatively, these issues have no bearing on marketing, but rather have bearing on the general quality of the site. It doesn’t take a marketer to fix them, just a well trained individual with some helping guidelines. That’s the key to success: training is part of content strategy. Your users don’t need to sell their pages, they just need the guidance to create them well for your visitors. Selectively determine what will be hijacked for marketing later.
The Marketing Stuff
Despite all this, that 1% of your content that is clearly marketing needs attention too, and should be considered when you start compiling your list of dos and don’ts and hows and wheres. Identify content that clearly needs marketing whizbang. This might be the top level pages of departments, or your admission site. It might even be as broad as “all pages in the top ‘layer’ of the site.” That’s okay as long as you lay it out and have the authority to actively control that content. While content strategy is more than marketing, it does include it, and it deserves a certain amount of respect. In that process, you might actually find that you need to take more content into consideration in marketing than you initially thought. Don’t be afraid of that. That’s just a little thing I like to call paying attention.
Incorporate goals into the strategy so that when review time is up, not only are you checking for accuracy and timeliness of the content, but you’re making sure it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. This isn’t absolutely necessary elsewhere, but in a marketing world obsessed by ROI, it should be almost automatic for your marketing content. This is all about follow through and accountability. And maybe something isn’t performing as expected - that’s totally alright. What isn’t alright is not adjusting your strategy to reflect that. Follow through. A lot of this part of your strategy should apply specifically to this content though, and nothing else (not by default anyway. There’s nothing wrong with someone asking for some analytics to help them better craft a normal page.).
As opposed to the ‘everything else’ of your web site, marketing content needs constant attention, like a puppy that never grows up. It needs fed, watered, cleaned, and walked all the time. Average stuff doesn’t. Not that it couldn’t benefit from it, but in a world where we must prioritize resources, if we only check in on a faculty recommended reading list page once or twice a year, we will survive. Clearly defining the differences between marketing and non-marketing content, and how it will be used and audited ultimately allows you to best organize and apply your time and people to the issue at hand.
Walking the Walk
We can’t teach every single person contributing to our web sites to be a marketer. That is unrealistic (and unnecessary) and not even remotely part of most people’s job descriptions. But we can try to teach them to be an active content creator, and a good one at that. We just need to arm them properly and show them the value in taking time to do things ‘by the book.’ I have worked with a lot of people (a lot), and while many have the web dumped on them, a lot are certainly willing to learn if you are patient and take the time to help them. They are even more receptive when things are clear. Content strategy is part of that. It will help them understand how to be clear and present in their web content, rather than brain dumping dry-write page after page. It is a tool, and the better it is crafted, the happier they’ll be.
It ultimately helps them see where they fit in, what considerations they should give to what they are putting out, and what is expected in terms of maintenance. It should also offer options if they don’t think what they are doing is necessarily in line with the strategy. That’s where you come in as the expert. Walk your walk, talk your talk, and help your people out. When trouble arises, they expect to be able to come to you as the expert. A strategy will give you the ability to make consistent, educated decisions when those folks come to you. We make up enough other stuff on the fly as it is.
Every once in a while you might have to step in to help someone out, or provide an interpretation or clarification. That’s a good sign, believe it or not, because it means folks are paying attention. It means they do care about what’s on their site. Talk to them if you don’t believe that, because it has certainly been my experience that while some are better at maintaining a site than others, they all effectively care about their site when you boil it down. Don’t discourage it, and don’t get frustrated by it when they come to you. Content is a big job, but it’s even bigger for the folks we ask to help out who aren’t used to this world. Most of the frustration in our environment builds up when people aren’t properly trained and aren’t well supported. That creates the frustration and resentment. That doesn’t help anyone.
Content strategy is about doing everyone a favor. You and them. It formalizes the environment and the ‘rules.’ Not Rules, but ‘rules.’ Like the rules that govern schoolyard kick-ball. They are easy, widely understood, might vary a little from place to place, and might get bent just a hair to keep things going smoothly. To put it another way, content strategy is a quality of life issue, while your marketing strategy is about the quality of your clothing.
That’s it, I’ve said my piece (again). If you can’t tell, I’m big on the importance of content strategy for [higher ed] web sites. Between this post and the last one, if I haven’t convinced you that you need to at least start thinking about this, then I probably never will. But remember, we all want to make our jobs a little easier, and when we stop flying by the seat of our pants so much, that will actually happen. This is a place you can give yourself a good, powerful tool for the future - something that guides your whole site, not just the part whose boss you answer to.
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