Why Higher Ed Sucks at Content Strategy

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.”

Only You Can Prevent Gray Goo

Only You Can Prevent Gray Goo

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.

Employee turnover

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.

...knows a thing or two about being an army of one...

…knows a thing or two about being an army of one…

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.

Where do you keep yours at?

Where do you keep yours at?

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.

  1. 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…
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. Identify the right problems – one of the biggest mistakes we make is not really understanding the root of our troubles, which then leads to…
  5. 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.
  6. Set the right goals – because this is how you’ll validate all the pain and build a new foundation using the right models.
  7. 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.

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