For quite a while now, newspapers have been fighting upstream against other news outlets, blogs, and content sources in a battle for readership. Hell, even things like Twitter can be better and faster for getting eyeballs on an issue than mainstream sites. They’ve had many run of the mill issues, like simply lacking aesthetically pleasing designs with good information architecture that invite users in. But then there have been more specific problems like paywalls, popover ads, and interstitials which have been subject of much derision (and savvy users have been capable of working around them since nearly day one). Read More
What’s new in 2.4? Jump right in and view the changelog.
Nearly five years ago, I released the original version of the WordPress Content Framework, developed in the wee days of WordPress 2.5. When you start up WordPress for the first time, you get your stock theme, and a Hello World! post, but really little else. The WPCF was originally developed as a tool for me to whip up a quick WordPress sandbox that was prepopulated with an assortment of different pieces of content and information to help with the development of themes and CSS for WordPress. With the debut of that theme (which I’ve long since retired), I decided that I should make the content available as a downloadable content pack for WordPress.
When you’re developing CSS, or a full theme, or a plugin, having a good base of different content, formatting elements, comments, categories, etc can be very helpful to make sure that you’ve covered all your bases properly. On the WordPress Theme Viewer, they have just such a site set up. When you test themes, a bunch of test data is displayed in the theme so that you can see how different elements interact with it. But, to my surprise, there was no where that you could download this data at to load into your own site. No demo site database, no WordPress eXtended RSS (WXR) file floating around, and no one seemed to have an idea of where you could get it.
As I talked with folks in the community, some suggested copying my current site. Others just said to toss some junk in. Quasi-reasonable, both answers, but that’s not a good solution. I want something consistent that I can use over and over. Using my own site content isn’t a good idea, because I doubtlessly do things that others don’t, and don’t do things they do. Random content isn’t thought out enough, and might miss some elements that need to be tested. My solution was to create my own site, complete with seeded content to test formatting and display. It comes with pages and sub-pages, categories and sub-categories, menus, comments, and more. There are images, there are formatting elements, and a little bit of other stuff in between. In short, most everything to make sure that you get all your formatting elements covered when designing a WordPress theme.
I also want to make this available to everyone, and will endeavor to keep it up and make it better as needs grow. Please, feel free to make comments or suggestions, and I’ll incorporate new things into it as they are made. I will also entertain the idea of creating an entire SQL file of a site, for those wishing to go that route rather than importing WXR files. WXR files are limited in what they can contain, so it won’t bring in things like blog names, descriptions, links, link categories, and other such things. It is being made available as a WordPress eXtended RSS file, which you can import into your empty WordPress install through the Import page under Tools in nearly any version of WordPress. I created and tested this in 3.5.1 originally, and the latest version works up through version 4.1.1, though it may (and likely will) work in other versions. If you try it with others, let me know if it does or does not work.
For the life of me, I’ll never understand why content providers actively make development decisions that directly prevent users from accessing their content. They are missing one of the core principles of human communication – eliminate noise in the signal. If you put hurdles in the way of your users, they’ll simply leave. I think it’s worse because I expect so much more from Boston.com and The Big Picture.
Let’s face it, higher ed has problems. They have a lot of problems. Whether it’s bad coding, poor graphic design, or a lack of upkeep, someone is always talking about something that’s not working and getting plenty of sympathy from the rest of the web development community. Article after article, conference after conference we talk about all the different things we have trouble with and try to understand why it doesn’t work and what to do about it. One area that’s been getting more and more focus, in part thanks to folks like Meet Content, is content strategy (regardless of whether or not you think it’s a “Real Thing.” I’m looking at you, Karlyn). With the start of a new year, many of us are taking some time to revisit our policies and practices, and get ready for a better 2012. But there’s one big problem when it comes to content strategy for us:
We’re gonna fail.
The thing is, there are ultimately so many factors working against us, that it’s extremely difficult to find success in any kind of realistic content cycles. There are a handful of folks doing okay, and parts of sites that venture off on their own have also managed to find success, like the Financial Aid department at Ithaca College. The tough part is that despite all of the case studies and conference presentations, schools find they cannot replicate the success demonstrated by someone else. But as I’ll discuss, there’s a good reason the ones that are doing well are managing it, and it requires tough decisions.
We’re too damn big
I’ve talked to more than one DI level school that has, and I kid you not, millions of web pages. Millions. Millions. Think about that for a second. If you checked 100 pages a day, every day for a year, you wouldn’t even manage to check the quality of 50,000 pages. If you had only one million pages, that wouldn’t even cover 5% of your site. One of the first steps in starting a content strategy is a content audit. How much of your site are you prepared to commit to that when you’re so huge? Yes, a lot of that is automatically generated or archival. Yes, not all of it is meant for normal human consumption. Yet the fact remains that when a problem is so big and you can’t even pinpoint where to start, many will choose to do nothing. Since many university sites lack any comprehensive business or marketing strategy when it comes to the creation and maintenance of content, literally every piece of information gets put out there, and it’s put out there by hoards of individuals that are ultimately not qualified to edit web sites. So we grow. And grow. And grow. Then there comes a point where you see folders that literally have ten versions of the same page, and you’re faced with the challenge of figuring out which one is “right.”
Remember my mantra. Repeat it to yourself in your sleep. Tattoo it on your forehead. Wax it into your chest hair. Do less better. Stop pretending that some day you’ll come around and find a way to control this problem. You won’t. Your users will keep producing content that will eat your site alive over time, at a rate that will outpace your ability to police it, until it’s impossible to find the pieces that are of value to your visitors. Think of it like the signal to noise ratio of your site. There is a DEFINITE line that you must mind. One of the best ways to know that you’re getting to close to it is when you get this phone call:
“Yeah, hey, we were wondering… when you do a search on the site for Billybob’s Big Adventure, our page is like the 1,337th one that shows up. It really should be first, but instead right now you see Billy Bob’s Big Adventure from 2010. See, that’s old and we changed it to Billybob for The Twitterz. Students are complaining and we have an ad going out in 7 minutes, 26 seconds to promote it. Can you fix that and make it show up first?”
Maintaining good content is an expensive process, both in time, labor, and money. Not maintaining a bunch of crappy content is sort of like running up a balance on your credit card. When the bill comes due, the interest will eat you alive.
If you aren’t, imagine you’re an army of one. You leave. What happens? How many keys do you hold? How well documented are your processes? You’re the motor, the driving force behind all the important web strategies. Do you think you’ll be replaced by someone just as motivated? Just as skilled? Just as willing to work until midnight without logging comp time? Will you be replaced at all? When we experience turnover in our offices, that’s bad enough (Though I do believe the applicant pool for our positions is getting better with age). If you are one of the keystone’s of your web office, how many months of productive web time are lost when you leave? That’s a tough blow to come back from, and on it’s own can have high costs for your overall site quality.
What if your boss or VP left and was replaced with someone that had a different vision of strategy for the web? What if that person decided to gut years worth of hard work and cycle building (because they don’t trust their tools – see below). How would that impact your ability to maintain the site?
An even bigger challenge is if you have a hundred or more people across campus contributing to the site, how quickly are they getting recycled? Are you even told when these folks leave? Do you keep track of the attrition rate? 10%? 15%? More? And these aren’t usually people that know the web, love it, and breathe it like you and I do. They’re the ones calling with questions about putting an image on the right side of a page. Nevermind their writing skills. With constant turnover, and typically mediocre training programs in place, you never get to train a solid foundation of thoughtful, understanding web contributors. In cases where you do, then you stay awake at night worrying about private sector competition for those people. This is also the nightmarish trick that will turn an apparent short term success into a long term failure.
The idea of a sort of “critical mass” in your editor pool where they become somewhat self sufficient and able to help each other and stay productive, for most universities, is a myth.
Wrong chain of command
I was at my last university for going on six years. In that time, I’d had three bosses (four if you count the time I had to answer to the VP directly for a few months until my current boss was hired), four offices, and have been part of three different organizations: OIS (our version of IT), Marketing, and finally Marketing and Communication (an evolved and restructured version of #2). This is an incredibly common story. When you can’t stay in one place for more than a couple years, it’s nearly impossible to get solid processes and cycles in place – they always end up disrupted and thrown into disarray by the changes.
Ultimately, none of these kinds of offices – IT, marketing, development, PR, etc – are the right place for us. It’s a responsibility shell game. Web communications is a system and discipline unto itself now, and it needs to be recognized, authorized, and resourced as such. Anything else is hiding it in a silo, where it’s efforts and priorities are colored by the strategy of whomever is in charge. Moving it around doesn’t solve that issue, it only changes the flavor.
Hint: if it tastes purple, see a doctor.
We’re too established
Higher ed is changing. Slowly, but surely. Many times, it’s a tortoise and hare race, and more than once the slow pace of higher ed has been a good buffer to my benefit. But, the cycle of change isn’t coordinated enough. Our foundations are old, but solid. There are cracks, but it’s not compromised yet. Look at the pyramids. They show their age, they’re a little worse for wear after the weather, the wars, and the abuse. They also aren’t going anywhere. This is the source of much infighting in higher ed. I am not a fan of decentralized web management. I feel it breeds resentment and accomplishes little success in its results. People use decentralization as a “solution” to the “We’re too damn big” problem without consideration for how it actually functions. It’s a mismatch in the problem-solution process.
The thing is, we’re too “established” in the politics of how we got here. One of the main reasons we let everyone have a site and do their own editing isn’t because its good for the users, or good for the content, but because we don’t want the headache or the bad press for trying to take the capability away. What the hell kind of screwy strategy is that? It’s just yet another shell game – this one of responsibilities. Creating any kind of good content strategy is going to require changing the way people work on your web site, and that is diametrically opposed to the long standing tradition of “this is my site, I’ll edit it how I like.” Culture, by very use of the word, is a hard thing to change.
Sometimes you just gotta rip the band-aid off.
Looking too much at startup success
I try to read a lot. Sometimes I’m a bit more successful at that than other times. One of the huge constants I see though is that a lot of the success stories we look to outside higher ed come from tech and startup firms. MailChimp is a great example. Their Voice and Tone site is a thing to behold. And you can’t have that. Not yours. Tech firms get it. They understand the role web plays in their business strategy, and they address it properly as a result. Start ups (tech or otherwise) have the advantage of building their processes correctly from the ground up. Instead, we’ve bolted it all on, like that guy in town driving the 1989 Buick Reatta painted in gold fleck with a plywood spoiler (I REALLY wish I had a picture of that right now to share). We can’t use those examples because we aren’t them. And as I previously stated, we can’t even look within our own industry many times because schools are too unique – we can’t just replicate others’ success by rinsing and repeating.
Part of finding success is making sure your solutions fit your problems. We share many commonalities from school to school, but every problem we face requires some introspection and tailoring. It’s okay to get input from colleagues elsewhere to make sure you’re on the right track, but make sure you’re working towards your own solutions.
Focused on finish lines, not cycles
Pretty simple here. We have to get the people we work with or through to understand that the maintenance processes of a website are not something that is ever complete. It’s a cycle. You’re always doing it, and it’s not something you can ultimately step back from and wash your hands of.
That’s what she said?
We don’t trust our tools
One of the biggest and most common complaints I hear from web folks at other schools is the lack of internal validation they get on campus. They offer an opinion, are ignored, and end up having to cede to the HiPPO. For some reason that still defies much logic, we hire experts (or at least people that could be trusted with giving the advice), but administration has no interest in taking their feedback with more than a grain of salt. Slowly, I see this changing, but it’s still part of the “We’re too established” principle that will be around for a while. The web is built around challenging old world concepts, so answers to questions usually involve risk and speed (not the drug. Hopefully), and that’s uncomfortable for higher ed administration.
So what do we do? We pay consultants to tell us what we already know to slow things down a little. Something we already knew gets drawn into a six month ordeal. And when it’s all said and done, we still don’t empower our people and validate that they were right all along.
This is why our “recipes for success” often come out looking burnt and tasting like purple.
So, What Do We Do?
I hate griping for so long without offering some kind of solution, because that’s not very productive (though I know you just sat in your office for 30 minutes reading this, so don’t gripe to me about productivity. Also, I’m sorry I’m such a long winded jerk). You can boil this down to some pretty simple takeaways.
- Wake up – stop running the rat race. Acknowledge the fact that more than likely, the way you’re doing things isn’t really a plan for long term success. You need to be clear headed and have a strong vision if you’re going to…
- Get high level buy in – your boss, your boss’s boss, and your school president. Sit down with them mano-a-mano and sell your process to them. Change has to come from within, but it won’t come at all if you don’t have some big iron behind you. This will also help you as you build towards acquiring proper authority and chain-of-command.
- Prepare for pain – if you’re going to make real headway and do some actual good, you’re going to need to piss some people off. In the words of Colin Powell: “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.”
- Identify the right problems – one of the biggest mistakes we make is not really understanding the root of our troubles, which then leads to…
- Identify the right solutions – decentralization is not a solution. Make sure you have properly matched a solution to the problem you need to solve. And make sure it fits your organization and needs. Understand that all the articles and workshops in the world won’t prepare you completely for what you’ll need to do at your school to get things on the right track.
- Set the right goals – because this is how you’ll validate all the pain and build a new foundation using the right models.
- Do epic shit – seriously. Break the establishment. Smash that egg and make a delicious, digital omelet.
I apologize if you expected a bit more than some simple platitudes regarding how to get your web content on the right track. I can’t offer more than that, because the real solution is just doing a lot of hard work. And I don’t care if you call it content strategy, or marketing strategy, or web marketing strategy, or whatever. There are a million right ways to do this, and only a few wrong. The key is to work your butt off towards the goals you set, and you can’t go wrong. We’re all in the same game and playing for the same team. The difference is how you come at steps 4, 5, and 6 above. Focus on what will work for you and make your plans successful.
Blame Travis over at EMG for this article – he pulled me into this question on Facebook about what higher ed should be doing about Pinterest. It was something that shouldn’t have riled me up, and yet it did. It doesn’t help that many of you may have also caught the article over on the CASE blog about Pinterest as well, and are now wondering: “Is that for us?” It was written to showcase the work Oberlin is putting in to their Pinterest account – which I applaud their effort, if not their methods. Warning: This is a rant. You can jump to the end if you’d like to read the Storify I put together to summarize the discussion several of us had this morning on this topic.
Back around 2008 or so, I made fun of Twitter. Why the hell would people want to “microblog,” I asked. But, the idea of Twitter was pretty new and I’m nothing if not even handed (usually), so I set up an account to at least try it out before writing it off. Nearly 28,000 tweets later, I think the results of that are clear. I’m doing the same thing to Pinterest now (in criticizing its purpose and usefulness), and yes, I recognize the hypocracy in that. Pinterest is novel, sure. But I definitely think that higher ed should not be himming and hawing about whether or not to use it (to be specific, I’m talking about usage institution-wide, as a marketing and community engagement tool – as a classroom tool, that’s another discussion). Pinterest has been compared as a more visual alternative to Tumblr by some. I think for current examples, that’s a relatively fair comparison. In that light, consider this:
Remember Plurk? Do you recall how it was going to revolutionize the Twitter audience and experience, and instead mostly faded into obscurity and instead became the MySpace of microblogging? And in their defense, I do feel like Plurk was ultimately a better tool than Twitter – sometimes it’s just hard to fight the power of first-to-market. Imagine then if we’d all ran out and set up our walled gardens in Plurk, how much could have been wasted. And imagine if you’d invested time and effort into Plurk without doing the same for Twitter. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try new things. As Dylan Wilbanks pointed out:
@fienen I agree it's not worth the time to just jump on this week's trend, but someone has to pioneer.
— Dylan Wilbanks, Human Grumpy Cat (@dylanw) January 12, 2012
But also feel that there is a fundamental difference between the mentality of “We should do this because we think we can do something new and awesome” and “I wonder if we should do this new thing because it seems cool and trendy and might be popular later.” Much of higher ed falls in to the latter group, in my experience. Being a pioneer is hard. I like hard, but it’s a rare place that can always innovate, and always try new things, and be successful enough at it to keep it up (*cough*Google*cough*). The other thing to consider is that we’re just now really settling in to our social media properties. For most institutions this is Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, with a few branching out into LinkedIn, Google+ and Tumblr as well. In the case of Plurk/Twitter above, how wise do you think it would be to invest effort into Pinterest without first having gotten the hang of Tumblr? I know that’s a fragile discussion, as first-to-market is no guarantee (just ask Friendster and MySpace), but it’s certainly a good place to start and ride it out until the community at large tires of it in some cases.
And that brings me to the core issue.
Do less better.
If you can’t sit there and tell me that you’re at all the “common” spots, and that you’re doing great at them, then why would you consider branching out even farther? I won’t fault you for name reserving an account just in case, but if you are investing time and effort into setting up a presence there, are you prepared to break down what that investment is worth? In the case of Pinterest, the largest part of the audience is currently women between the ages of 25 and 34. Is that your target audience? Is that time more valuable than other methods of sharing user generated content through existing networks and tools? If you are established on Facebook and Twitter, we now have the resources to really dig in to the value and opportunity in those channels. That gives you the luxury of being able to wait a bit on Pinterest and see just where it is six to twelve months from now. That’s not being overly cautious or lazy, that’s being strategic. That’s showing that you know you have limited resources for community engagement, and that you’d much rather put them to use where it’s worth the most. As Krisna put it:
@fienen I'd rather have stronger interactions with what we're involved in now than to have everything & do a mediocre job across the board.
— Krisna Poznik (@krisnap) January 12, 2012
Think about your core questions: who, what, when, where, why, how. In the long run, some brands will likely find successful ways of using it. But you must remember that the more specific your audience and community is, the more specific your strategy for them should be. For us, consider:
- WHO do you plan to reach on the site? WHO will be your voice on the site?
- WHAT do you expect to share, produce, or facilitate? WHAT does the audience expect to get?
- WHEN are you going to plug it into your workflow/editorial cycles?
- WHERE are you going to get or find content at? WHERE will this fit into other existing strategies.
- WHY are you investing the time here, instead of at X, Y, or Z?
- HOW will you promote and create value in your new property? HOW will you add value to the channel?
One of the best uses I could see for Pinterest would be at a school that has highly visual arts or similar programs. Pinterest is a visual medium, and certain programs on an individual basis could find promotional success there. If you want to jump in, that’s where to start. Be strategic about your use, and pioneer creative marketing techniques tailored to the items you’re selling. Institution wide? No. Have a plan, have KPIs (key performance indicators), define how it fits your marketing and customer service strategy. Yes, you can curate and share other user generated content about the school too, but Pinterest is hardly unique in enabling that kind of functionality. How do you plan on adding value to the channel? Bottom line, if you feel like you must do it, be smart about it. It’s hard to learn from a failure when you didn’t have a plan to begin with. If you at least go in with some kind of strategy, come success or failure you can learn from the situation and do better next time.
It’s almost like higher ed is developing ADHD. So many were slow or late to the social media game, that there is now a panic that we’ll miss a boat (hint: you will miss boats. It’s going to happen. It’s not the end of the world). It’s like our immune system responded to Web 2.0 by overreacting. It’s okay to pace yourself and move slowly, as long as you’re also smart about it, and not putting it off just because you want to wait for waiting’s sake. In the end, if you’re asking “Should I be on service X,” then the answer is likely no, because it means that you already don’t have any idea what you’d do there (in the case of Pinterest, you’re going to mainly be sharing and promoting community generated content. Why do you need Pinterest to do that?). Instead, focus your efforts on being successful with The Big Three (FB, Twitter, YT), and wait until you’re comfortable enough to be smart and agile within the bigger sandbox.
I know this sounds like the “Twitter? Why Would I Want That?” conversation all over again. But I personally believe it’s much closer to the lessons learned from services like Plurk. We need to get used to the fact that new services will quickly become a dime a dozen, and it will be much more important to be smart about our resource investments rather than putting a hand into every single basket that comes up. Several of these points and a lot more are discussed in the Storify below. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.
The LATCH principle believes that there are only five ways to organize information, and anything else is a subcomponent of those five. Do you agree, or is that idea to rigid for today’s data structures?
If you’ve ever wondered how you might approach creating a style guide for speaking as a brand consistently across channels and using different people, MailChimp’s guide is an absolute must read.
Several days ago (or more, seeing how long it actually took me to get this finished, whoopsie), Twitter user @stomer brought up a question to the Twitterverse regarding a common tool we use any time we work in social media these days: “This a fair description?: categories are like table of contents items, tags are more granular like items that would be in index?” I happened to be on right when this hit the feed, and replied: “Categories are for organizing, tags are for identifying.” It was a simple exchange which prompted a third comment from @jdwcornell asking for some expansion on this idea, to which I am happy to oblige.
Categories and tags are two functional elements that many of us who use things like blogs, Flickr, YouTube, or many content management systems are familiar with using on a day to day basis. It’s easy for us to see how they work and what they are for because we have such a high level of exposure to them. But that’s us. I know that I’ve found myself on more than one occasion explaining the tag cloud on our university’s home page. These systems are very smart, and apply these things in cool ways, but users can tend to be, well, not so savvy. To some people, functionally, they seem very similar, which is exactly why I came up with my simple description that categories are an organizational tool while tags are for item identification. Generally this helps people get over the hump of understanding them. YouTube does a pretty good job of exemplifying this, where they have just over a dozen categories (like “Pets & Animals”) that you choose from, and then a blank field where you could freely tag a video (like “dog, boxer, barking, trick”). The first tells you where it goes, the second tells you what’s in it. Flickr lets you tag photos as well, and you categorize them through the use of sets. In that case, you get to name the sets (as opposed to YouTube where they are predefined by them), but they are basically serving as a category the same as anywhere else.In our case, we use both categories and tags in the university CMS (we use dotCMS). When a user creates content for the university in the content management system, we ask them to do both of these things. The first question that usually follows is: “What?” This is quickly followed by the second question: “Huh?” In all fairness, I can’t blame them on this. Both of these fields can be used on the front end of the web site (or not, depending on what it is), but we also use them in the CMS to enhance internal searching for content. Under this setup, categories form the basic structure of the college: office names, departments, organizations. Tags then allow specificity in identification. The result of this is searching for content categorized as the “Admission Office,” and then tagged with “checklist,” or “forms.” Or if you needed more generic information, you could search for content tagged as “contact information” and pull it from all the areas, or categories. This exposes the idea that the tags are simply identifying what is in the content. We use a similar mechanism for the calendar, categorizing by area, and tagging by topics. Then, any department or office can get a customized event feed of their category, or more general areas can pull from them all by tags. Seeing this type of stuff in action usually really helps people understand the difference when they didn’t before.
To make further comparisons, categories are kind of like folders. They are designed to help users located related content based on the implied relationship of the category name, usually based on a theme or topic. Generally, categories are predefined by some kind of administrator ahead of time, and aren’t added willy-nilly. For instance, there’s the “Admission Office” category in our CMS. It’s there in a list for the contributor to select from when they make content, and so they couldn’t make a new category called “Admissions Office” or “Undergrad Admission Office.” They are bound to what we have set up. This makes them useful for building things off of because they are predictable and structured.
Tags are almost never preset like that. Instead of folders, these would be like contextual post-it notes you stick on papers in the folder. You might agree on a policy to use some kind of convention (like always pluralize words, never capitalize, don’t include spaces, etc…), but generally there are no restrictions on their use, and authors can create and assign them during authorship of content without any extra help. In many ways, tags are a type of visible meta information, and you will hopefully break out a thesaurus if using them well. Not to confuse the matter, but it is possible to also create tags that can serve the purpose of categories, a kind of “super tag,” if you will (but it would rely on use of a convention to function properly). That kind of functionality will normally depend on your infrastructure, but the idea is that a tag, in a way, is basically a type or subset of categories. But they tend to be much more fluid and less predictable than categories. I could pull information based on the tag “student,” for example, but at the risk of missing stuff tagged “students,” or if you have the ability you could use the tag “student” to match things like “student employment,” “student events,” “student groups,” etc… In this way they are less useful functionally, but far more useful in identifying, connecting, and relating items. And looking at the big picture, properly implemented tags get picked up by sites like Technorati to help identify and group similar information from thousands of web sites on a macro level (for more information on this, take a look at the rel=”tag” microformat).
So there you go – categories organize, tags identify. Ultimately, their basic function and usage might change depending on what you’re using them in (a blog, Flickr, a CMS, etc…), but that basic principle will generally always stay the same no matter where you are. When users question their function, try to give them a simple example to go off of. If they don’t get it in our CMS at first, I tend to find refering to Flickr and YouTube to be nice examples that everyone seems to get. For more information on the discussion, I recommend the Categories vs. Tags articles at Haacked, or Usability Post.