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Then and Now; the Role of Your Website in the era of Social Media

November 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Engagement on the Web: Then and Now | by Derek DeVries

Ragan’s PR Junkie reported on an Intellimon/Bradford University study that concluded Facebook and Twitter suck at driving traffic to business websites.  Some of the key findings of The Traffic Report study:

  • 29 % of respondents said Facebook is effective for driving traffic to their websites.
  • 27 % of respondents said Twitter is effective for driving traffic to their websites.

This makes perfect sense.

The role of a website has changed dramatically in the past few years as social networking has absorbed most of the disparate means of communicating for which people flocked to the Internet.  Back then you used to have to use a variety of different sites/services to get what you needed; chat here, IM there, message boards here, media sharing there.

Now most people can get pretty much whatever they need in one place (like Facebook); so the incentive to leave the warm, safe, comfortable confines it provides has to be pretty high.  Too high for most business websites (which are usually just digital pamphlets / catalogs) to provide.

This trend will likely only accelerate (facilitated by improvements in the technologies that power social networking sites).  Contrary to the hyperbolic cover of Wired Magazine, the “Web” isn’t dead – and it won’t die.  It will have a place for the needs that can’t be met by the social networking behemoths.

If you’re wondering where to invest your finite budget, here are some points to consider:

  1. Developing your own site means worrying about ADA compliance, and compatibility with mobile devices.
    Social networking platforms have this baked in already.
  2. Developing your own site means you’ll need a compelling draw to bring people to it.
    Social networking platforms already have the people.
  3. Developing your own site means answering a variety of technical and aesthetic questions, the results of which may or may not matter to your audience depending on how they view your site (if it’s through an aggregator; your thoughtful decisions are irrelevant).
    Social networking platforms answer the questions for you.
  4. Developing your own site means engaging, interactive content is expensive and time-consuming to produce.
    Social networking platforms use open architecture so you can save time/money building on an existing infrastructure.

…and so on.

There’s still a place for a well-designed website, but you need to step back a moment and consider whether your situation is one that warrants it.  Increasingly you may be able to get away with a boxed or turnkey solution for your website – and focus more of your energy on social media.

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The Case for Investing in the Mobile Web Continues to Build

August 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Students Accessing the Web

Too many resources are sucked up by the process of designing and re-designing our websites.  We’re wasting valuable time poring over navigation, color palettes and spiffy Flash animation.

None of those aesthetic flourishes matter for a great many of the people who actually visit the site, because they do it through aggregators or on mobile devices:

How grcc.edu Shows Up on a Blackberry Curve

How grcc.edu Shows Up on a Blackberry Curve

PRSA Tactics had a brief (“Survey: Blacks, Hispanics are Most Active on Mobile web” by Kyra Auffermann) in the “Diversity Dimensions” section that cited Pew Research Center numbers that reinforce the case for everyone (but especially higher ed institutions given the dramatic increase in minority enrollment during this economic downturn) to do more to invest in making information and services available to the mobile web.

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Among the findings (which continue to show that mobile phones are the primary connection of minorities to the web):

  • Rate of Cell Phone Ownership:
    • African Americans & English-Speaking Hispanics: 87%
    • Whites: 80%
  • Rate of Wireless Internet Use:
    • African Americans & English-Speaking Hispanics: 46%/51%
    • Whites: 33%

The days of establishing a hub and forcing people to make a pilgimage to it are in the past.  The new dynamic is reaching people where they are, on their terms.  Increasingly that is on social networking platforms, and increasingly that is mobile.

Why Higher Ed Websites Suck (Follow-up on XKCD-Inspired Discussion)

August 16, 2010 Leave a comment

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Mike Petroff at .eduGuru had a clever rebuttal (“Redesign Your University Website According to xkcd”) to the criticism posed by the recent XKCD cartoon chastising college/university websites.

Having been involved in higher education web design for the better part of my professional life, I thought it might be valuable to break down the “whys” behind the problematic aspects of so many sites.  The common theme for most of them is trying to reach too many audiences with the front page of the website.

Things on the Front Page of a University Website (and why they’re there):

  • Campus Photo Slideshow
    Limited technical resources, a lengthy approval process, and an inability to shrug off the old constraints of print media are to blame for the ubiquity of campus photo slideshows.  The prevailing belief is that people like to see people who look like them (and apparently also pictures of the buildings they’ll be studying in) so that’s what makes the montages the dominant content.  Problem is though, colleges have such a diverse constituency that in an attempt to depict it all an incomprehensible mashup results.
  • Alumni in the News
    Most schools see alumni as an important constituent group; they contribute money, they give their time, and they serve as good evidence to the community that the school is successful in its mission.  Administrators also figure that students are compelled to attend by seeing examples of the outcomes of education.
  • Promotions for Campus Events
    Current students and community members one of the many audiences served by college websites, and as a nod to the outdated principles of traditional advertising, most schools think that advertising events on a high-traffic page will result in higher attendance.
  • Press Releases
    Yet another of the many disparate audiences that colleges/universities cater to is the media, and the public relations side of the college try to make information as accessible as possible.  Most schools also use press releases as their method of disseminating news to students and the community.
  • Statement of the School’s Philosophy
    This is one of those mandatory “the president/chancellor/board of trustees says” items that no one really reads, but which is given disproportionate attention.
  • Letter From the President
    Again – another “president says” item that everyone feels is mandatory.  These letters are also included in printed materials like the catalog where they’re also summarily ignored (and often the letter on the website is exactly the same  as the letter in print).
  • Virtual Tour
    For whatever reason, college administrators are enamored with the spaces in which they work and figure this will be a selling point to prospective students.  To be fair, this may be the case for large universities that have impressive, sprawling, ivy-covered campuses – but it’s not the case for the majority of schools.

Things People go to the Site Looking For (and why they can’t find them):

  • List of Faculty Numbers and Emails
    Actually many school sites do have faculty numbers/emails, and of those – many have them accessible from the front page of the site in a “people finder”/”phone directory.”  Trouble is, the lists are often incomplete or hard to find.  This is attributable to a couple of factors: 1) many sites are organized by department, so one needs to find the department of the faculty member to find their contact info, and 2) many adjunct faculty are not listed because they change regularly from semester-to-semester and most schools don’t have a publicly-available database of this info.  That’s not to say that there isn’t a database – there is in the form of the human resources department.  Understaffed IT departments usually don’t have the time/resources to write the scripts necessary to query these secure databases.
  • Campus Address
    This is actually an unfair criticism; most college/university sites have the campus address in either the header or the footer of every page on the site.
  • Application Forms
    This is also a curious inclusion as most schools prominently display an “apply now” button on the front page of the site (and nowadays the link usually goes to an online application form – as opposed to a printed copy that one would need to mail/fax in).
  • Academic Calendar
    Ideally the academic calendar should be merged with all of the other campus activities calendars into one super-calendar tool that is easily searchable.  Unfortunately as is the case with many other enterprise databases, the tools are either powerful OR user-friendly; never both.  Most schools have complex space reservation management systems (because in addition to scheduling thousands of sections of classes, they have myriad events happening on campus and often maintain catering/room rental operations) – but it’s difficult to crowbar these into being user-friendly calendars.  Conversely, static web pages or simple databases can’t handle the load that event schedulers require, so a lot of schools have both.
  • Campus Police Phone Number
    Good point.  I have no excuse for this not being on the front page of the website; though I would say that it’s unlikely in an emergency that anyone would take the time to fire up their laptop/mobile browser and go surfing for the campus police number – they’d likely just dial 911.
  • Department/Course Lists
    This is another unfortunate case of enterprise databases clinging stingily to the data they hold.  While departments are usually a common part of any college website navigation scheme, the course lists are not.  They’re either hidden behind the wall of a database (with an insufferably complex search tool) or they’re locked inside of a static PDF.
  • Parking Information
  • Usable Campus Map
    The campus map is an unfortunate case of trying to appropriate static content designed for the world of print materials for the web, so JPGs and PDFs are turned into web content.  Fortunately the tide is turning, given how open Google and Bing are with their interactive maps – so now many schools are able to embed helpful, dynamic maps into their sites (without having to have a Flash designer on staff).

It Took a Cartoon to Spark Thoughtful Higher Ed Web Design Discussion

August 4, 2010 1 comment

I’m an avid reader of the web comic XKCD by Randall Munroe, which offers a daily dose of hilarity in the form of snarky, science/geek-laden humor depicted by stick figures and often charts and graphs.  One recent strip (below) featured a Venn diagram illustrating the problem with most college/university websites:

XKCD Cartoon: "University Website" by Randall Munroe

The instant I saw it I forwarded it to the web team at Grand Rapids Community College, which is gearing up for a redesign of the site.

The comic is a superb example of how comics/cartoons and a bit of humor can parsimoniously strike at the heart of an issue in a way no lengthy academic treatise can.

The comic has been passed around many higher ed circles, and was recently featured in an article by Inside Higher Ed (“No Laughing Matter”) about all of the other web development staff who did exactly what I did the minute they saw the cartoon.  In the comments section, a discussion was sparked and unfortunately much of it focused on “clicks” and navigation – which I don’t feel are the heart of the problem with too many college/university websites.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I had to say:

Navigability is important, but thinking about websites in terms of navigating by clicks ignores how the web has evolved, which has resulted in the dominance of search engines.  It’s far liklier that a prospective student is going to run across the information they need on a college/university website by searching Google than by typing in the domain of the school and picking their way through menus.

Search is doubly-important when it comes to mobile web use (which a growing majority of our students are relying upon as their main connection to the Internet).

Any college/university website that can get students to the information they need in a couple of clicks likely doesn’t have enough information on it to be truly valuable to students; higher education is very information-dense and even portals are strained to provide enough real estate for links to all the content students need.

This is why navigation schemes are inherently problematic, and why they’re de-emphasized as we move toward the Semantic Web where search (and recommendation) are king.

I would rather see an emphasis put on freeing the data locked away in our vast enterprise systems than paring down content to streamline the front page of a website in order to meet an impossible standard.

Rather than trying to please everyone by imposing click limits on navigation – it’s more important to be developing a big footprint online and tagging content so that it’s easily indexed by search tools (and social media platforms).