It is the ocean. A never-ending sea of waves, storms, battles, and challenges. Where we think we see an island of solitude, it’s merely an illusion brought on by fatigue and frustration. What is it? Managing the content of our web sites. First piece of advice, go read Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web. I’ll be here waiting for you to get back. No, I’m not kidding.
Done? Good. Now, more than likely, you’ve learned that you need to forget everything you know. The old conventions don’t work any more, and the new ones are highly suspect too. If Halvorson does only one thing in her book, it should be showing you that large or small, it is possible to put a process in place that can be successful at managing all the stuff on your site. It’s just a matter of accepting the fact that the way you are doing things now is, more than likely, not ideal. I’m going to warn you right now that the bulk of my message today is going to be “blaze your own trail, and be ready to make people angry doing it.” I repeat, you are warned. If I’m lucky, I’ll push a few buttons. All of what I say here isn’t meant to apply to everyone, but every part will certainly apply to someone. But I’m not one to shy away from inciting a few people if it means getting a point across.
Here’s the thing, content management/strategy is HARD. It’s hard on normal sites, and it’s the biggest damn elephant in the closet for higher ed sites. The only way to really approach it is to go big, or go home. In my time in higher ed, I have learned that a lot of us aren’t willing to go big. That’s crap, and as a community, we’ve got to get over it.
Go Big or Go Home
Are you a web person? Are you a marketing person? Do you have ANY control over your university’s web presence? If you are reading this, then odds are the answer is yes (if not, thanks for reading anyway). The first thing I want you to do is go put someone in charge of web content. Not development. Not graphics. Content. Step two, give them authority. If you can’t give them authority, find someone who can. They will ask why, and you’re going to convince them (again, if you read the book, like I told you to, you already have your talking points lined up). Ultimately, how to convince them is entirely up to you.
You put out some kind of magazine on campus, yes? Doesn’t it have someone in charge of editorial oversight? Don’t TV shows? Don’t magazines? The fact of the matter is, every major source of content needs someone in charge of bringing it all together. Pull your analytics, show that your web site is the single largest interaction point for people. Trust me, it will be more than TV, more than advertising. Build your case, because the facts are already in.
- “But that isn’t my job!” Yes, it is. Because if no one else is stepping up to push the effort, then someone has to. ANYONE can offer a persuasive suggestion. Specifically, if your job involves the web, then it’s time to get off the bench and be a leader.
- “But there’s no money for another position!” Yes, there is, you just might have to go out and find it. There is always money for important things. All you have to do is make your case (hint: how much money do you throw away on billboards every year?). That is easy to do here, because as far as campus communications go, there simply isn’t anything more important than your website. You cannot imagine how serious I am about that point.
- “But… but… but…” No excuses. In higher ed, we have a habit of doing that. Politics, budgets, resources… we are masters at excuses. STOP IT. You cannot believe how serious I am about this point too.
Look, we’re here to do a job, and that job is web. Schools aren’t the only ones that need websites. You are in competition with everyone else for your visitors’ attention, and it is our job as industry professionals to make our superiors understand that you can’t have corporate expectations on a non-profit budget (thanks #eduweb). The compounding problem is that it isn’t just internal pressure that creates corporate expectations, our users drive that just as much, and rightly so. The web is a huge, flat world. Whether a site is big or small, user expectations are still high. And the crux of the issue is that because we are big, because we are the ‘pinnacle of knowledge,’ we end up on a pedestal to begin with. As a result, when compared with another site of similar size, an average visitor can be expected to demand more from us. We cannot, cannot, blame them for that. We have an obligation to show them we care. That’s a huge job that takes huge effort. It’s why we are here.
Your CMS Sucks
It’s true. Do you know how I know that? Because content problems are not technology problems, and a content management system is a solution to a technological issue. Content is made and consumed by people, therefore content problems are people problems. As a visitor to site X, how much of the content there is generated solely by a computer? Hint: 99.99% isn’t. In fact, a CMS will frequently create or expose entirely new problems in your workflow. It’s a fact of life, and it doesn’t matter how good the system is.
Most people, especially non-web folks, buy in very dearly to the idea that a good CMS lets you delegate control of your web site to the people who should run it. They think the ability to re-use content is golden. Autogeneration of PR RSS feeds is a holy grail. It’s also a mountain of new features and workflows that a bunch of non-technical people end up having to learn and use. It mechanizes processes that would previously involve human interaction, diluting the message and severely restricting its power. This isn’t exactly a good scenario. But, because all these issues - workflow, technological, content - are so closely intertwined in our environment, it oftentimes seems like if you are solving one of the issues, then you are solving several. That is simply not the case.
Ultimately, whatever platform you have in place for managing content, it shouldn’t get in the way of crafting content. The two realms are almost entirely mutually exclusive. Your content can be made anywhere (even, heavens forbid, Microsoft Word). Your review and update cycle has nothing to do with your CMS. All of the things that really matter, can happen with or without your CMS. A good CMS might try to help that along (for instance, setting content expiration or review flags), but that is merely an augmentation (and it can be for better or worse). I don’t care if you still manually update pages over FTP, you can have a content management strategy that is just as good as someone with a $100,000 CMS.
And for God’s sake, don’t try to force a square peg in a round hole. If you started using part of your CMS for a reason that ultimately doesn’t mesh with the human side of the equation, stop using it. Don’t try to force your people to adapt to it. That only breeds resentment and poor execution. Making changes to adapt to problems is not a failure. It’s a sign of growth. Identify and respond to deficiencies appropriately. Maybe you end up wasting some value of the CMS. So be it. The value of your people is paramount. No people, no website.
The Central(ization) Problem
Here’s the thing, and this is a theory I hold pretty solidly to: web decentralization (in our world) is not a long-term, viable solution. “Why is that?” you may ask. Go ahead, ask. Here’s why: we frequently use phrases like “putting the content experts in charge of their content” (especially when you get that shiny, new, sucky CMS). The reality is that content experts aren’t necessarily experts at making content. It’s true. For every person that is working on content on our web site that I feel actually “get’s it,” there are twenty that really don’t. In a lot of cases, offices and departments view maintaining web pages as the process of checking contact information once a year and putting a new picture of the front of the building on the first page. Maybe one of every two departments will also want to put up a form for something that ends up filtered into a folder and never viewed.
I place no blame on them for this though. We ask deans, faculty members, and secretaries to keep web pages up to date. These people have more important things to do, such as the things that are actually in their job description. I use the automotive analogy a lot in discussions on this topic. Cars are ubiquitous. Everyone can drive one. But when it breaks, you take it to the mechanic. Maybe it’s as simple as changing a spark plug. With modern cars, I don’t fault you for one minute for going to an expert to get it taken care of, because cars, like content strategy, can be damn hard. And even if they wanted to do it themselves, some people just can’t learn how to be a mechanic, no more than I can be a painter or football player. It’s not their fault. It’s not that they are stupid (in most cases, far from it in fact). The reality is that the web is our life. We work day in and day out to keep up and study user behavior and understand scanning habits and this and that ad nauseum. Then we turn around and ask someone who logs into our CMSs twice a year to maintain the page.
Do you see the problem?
For a lot of us, this practice grew out of the first years of the millennium, when we had too many requests, and too few web gurus. The technology was still basic, and combined, it resulted in bottlenecks where updates were just taking too long. At the time, that made sense. Today, it doesn’t. The technology we use to do our jobs (such as the CMS) is a lot better now. We, as the experts, are better empowered and prepared to deal with the environment. The big thing that is lacking is organization and planning. But if we hope to continue developing powerful, coherent, consistent web sites, there has to be one flag and one caption.
Another analogy (last on, I swear… I think). A cruise ship has a captain. It also has teams for engineering ,communications, food, stewards, etc. The captain doesn’t necessarily get his hands dirty in the engine room, but by god he makes sure everything is working together to get from port to port intact and on time. Website have lots of components. We have many different teams contributing work. So who serves as your captain? The system simply falls apart due to the complexity and miscommunications that occur when no one is clearly in control, top to bottom.
It Sounds Like a Fine Theory…
“…but our campus is too big. Every college has their own CMS, and different areas run different campaigns.” I don’t care about the excuses, in case I wasn’t clear about that to begin with. I never said this stuff was easy. In fact, I specifically mentioned that it is damn hard. But if you don’t like being overworked, underpaid, and given nearly unattainable goals on a day to day basis, then what are you doing here? Governor Christie (R-NJ) recently told teachers at a public forum who were complaining about budget actions the state was taking that if they didn’t like it, they know where the door is. That hurts, but it’s true. You have to really love this stuff to put up with it, and it needs and deserves us desperately. For every ten complaints I get about X, Y, and Z, it’s the one compliment that really makes it worthwhile, because I think the ultimate goals are worth every single late night and headache. And don’t forget that sometimes you have to separate the logistic challenges of our environment from the job at hand.
Tackling the mountain (I mean ocean… wait, I said no more analogies, crap!) that is content strategy requires patience and effort. But more importantly, it takes you. You have to believe it can work. There is a state of mind that goes along with this, a philosophy that you must, absolutely must believe in. There are plenty of books, articles, and sites that can help with the nitty gritty of the strategy itself. I’ve caught flak in the past for advocating putting in work on your own time, but I stand by it. I look at what we all do day to day, and can’t help but think how much easier this kind of stuff is compared to how hard my parents and grandparents worked. In a way, we actually have it pretty darn good.
Look, all I want you to walk away from here is motivation. Motivation to:
- Be a leader (and sometimes being a great leaders means not everyone likes you)
- Be an expert
- Be an evangelist
- Discover and address the core problems in your content cycle
- Do some extra footwork (yep, even if it’s on your own time and unpaid)
But it’s the first three that really matter. The rest comes naturally. And trust me, it will pay off for you. I promise. That’s because content is a people problem. When you build social capital with people, when people trust you, when people respect you - the solutions are shockingly much easier to find.
Photo credit: Some rights reserved by eflon