Call it the summer of web discontent. A struggling economy is putting pressure on colleges and universities to win over site visitors by differentiating online. Many of the hard working folks at these schools are under extreme pressure to mediate and solve web turf wars, while improving overall web effectiveness as the new academic year approaches.
One college website manager recently told us: “On our campus there has never been so much interest, and so much conflict, around issues of who wants what from our website as there is today.”
We’re reminded of the proverbial story about the “Color of the Bike Shed,” in which everyone has an opinion about how to build the shed, no matter how trivial the detail. When it comes to the Internet, everyone’s an expert.
Flare-ups can range from big-picture strategic struggles (“What’s the purpose and mission of our website?”) to the mundane (“Why can’t I design my own department page with colors I want?”) and dozens of issues in between.
Look inside the college, and that’s where the conflicts really begin – where everyone thinks the bike shed should be painted red, or blue, or green, or black. Beyond the typical core of “who owns the website?” – IT, marketing, communications? – is a veritable army of faculty, staff, administrators, admissions leaders, student organizations, academic departments, student life groups and others who each want (or think they want) a piece of the action.
It’s enough to make higher education web professionals dig a foxhole and dive right in, not to emerge until after Labor Day.
However, we are seeing the website wars at colleges and universities as a time for positive reflection. Among .EDU laggards in web adoption, there is a fundamental shift occurring at schools realizing (finally!) that their website needs to be their strongest, most effective marketing and communications vehicle – accompanied by the proper level of investment, staffing and policy.
It may not require hand-to-hand combat, but we’ve identified some helpful tactics to guide you – and your campus stakeholders – as you prepare for the coming year and an actionable strategy to make websites, not war:
- Build your web army. No matter what realm you live in – IT, marketing, communications – multiple departments and disciplines need to come together to make a successful and effective website possible. Don’t impose a vision, but build consensus around a vision. Hold listening sessions. Let people from across departments to voice their concerns and ideas. Their input is important to building buy in. You don’t always need to see eye-to-eye, but remember that the enemy isn’t each other, but with corralling content, managing customer needs and balancing success metrics.
- Revisit your web strategy. Start by asking yourself (and others) why your website exists. Once you’ve agreed on that, ask whether the current site – the user experience, design, content sections – support it. If not, gain consensus on what needs to change and start changing. This may not be an overnight accomplishment, but it can be hard to move forward as a team if you’re not all working toward a common strategy.
- Establish your website as the primary marketing and business artillery. Drive that theme up into the organization as much as possible. If you need leverage, look at what your closest competitors are doing online – and start asking Admissions how well they’re doing against those schools. Your website may end in .edu, but you’ve still got a bottom line to deal with.
- Control your content. By now most colleges have a web content management system. This is good. It can frequently turn bad. Often, authoring rights are given out like lollipops to make everyone happy and silence the critics who demand more control. Revisit, with a content audit and inventory assessment, the pages these people have pledged to “own” and determine if they’re living up to their promises. If not, make it known – and push for accountability. And weed out the overgrowth.
- Control website sprawl. Too often, colleges and universities have seen their websites, subsites and microsites blossom like kudzu until they are wildly out of control. Managing this many sites – and creating a unified experience – is a challenge. Rein in the outliers and impose realistic restrictions on who, why and how new sites/microsites get built. There are many valid reasons why a particular department needs another new microsite. But it doesn’t hurt to impose policies and guidelines to live by.
In many ways, the web mediators in higher education have the most challenging of battles to fight. But there is hope. So this summer, as you prepare to kick-off another academic year, we’d like to leave you with another piece of advice: always wear a helmet. And, don’t forget to take a vacation.