Each time we are engaged in a higher education website redesign, we find ourselves in a conversation about the purpose of the [.edu]. It serves many different audiences with vastly different needs. Our belief is that a great college or university website serves the needs of prospective students first. If we can serve that audience well, we can impact all other audiences at the highest level.
Once we've generated consensus around that idea, the conversation generally turns to content ownership: Is the content on the institutional website the property of the university, the author, or some combination therein? Website governance is a critical component to every higher education redesign project.
Some universities have established governance policies, but most do not. There is some high-level authority over content by the web committee (whose power likely peaked around 2007), and then there is implicit (but undefined) ownership, by department heads, chairs, and deans.
We all know what happens next — central MarCom is left to sort it out.
The president or chancellor has told central MarCom they need to improve the university website to maximize its ability to recruit more students. This is a serious charge! Arguably it is the most critical work in the entire university for central MarCom. There's a reason for that: the website is hands-down the single most important tool for higher education marketers.
But once everyone's agreed that marketing needs to get a handle on all website content, everyone starts to get a little uneasy. Typically, what comes next is equivalent to a counseling session about how to confront someone with a hoarding disorder. There are a couple of archetypes that always emerge during this part of the conversation:
- Professor Smith has meticulously organized his syllabi on the university website for the last 22 years. Even though the university deployed Blackboard 5 years ago to manage all course-related content, he prefers to publish in HTML directly to the public website.
- Vanessa, in the bursar's office, spent the better part of 2016 creating a 46-page FAQ that is supposed to guide students through every aspect of managing their financial aid and tuition payments. While Google Analytics shows the average FAQ page view only lasts for 11 seconds, you must tiptoe around the subject of Vanessa's work because of the time she invested in it.
- Pat, in student affairs, hosted a sizeable professional conference in 2014 and has 10 pages of images that demonstrate the vibrancy of the event. While Pat knows the content isn't accessed regularly, there is a firm belief that it demonstrates the strength of their professional abilities to host such an event.
Inevitably, there is always some degree of resolution to this conversation that not all content is equal, and the redesign process is the right time to create new processes and procedures. Like confronting a hoarder, no one wants to tell them the things they have collected or created are not valuable. In one way or another, they do hold value — just for a tiny audience.
In many cases, content doesn't need to be purged; it just needs to be put in the right place — like the university intranet, student portal, learning management system, internal file sharing server, or even Facebook. Long last, there is a way to communicate this to all affected parties and bring them along with you in the effort to reorganize, declutter, and purge.
I'd like to think that Marie Kondo is out there cheering us on. Tidying up is the most important thing we can do for our website visitors. It establishes purpose, creates a welcoming environment, and improves search results. Most importantly, it provides clarity of who we are as an institution and what is most important to us, allowing our brand to be front and center and not an afterthought to someone else's content.
When approaching your next website redesign, I challenge you to be bold. Here are the six tips I give to everyone in that situation.
1. Include language in your university's website redesign RFP about content elimination.
2. Begin working with your campus stakeholders to articulate the primary function of your university website.
3. Revive the power of the web committee as a voice across campus for change.
4. Implement a governance policy that works for everyone and accomplishes your marketing goals.
5. Use analytics to drive decisions about website content.
6. And finally, build an army of supporters who will help you support a content strategy that values quality over quantity.