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TAMU Webmaster's Blog


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An Upside-Down Process

February 25th, 2013 by Erick Beck

We are taught from elementary school when we first start writing compositions that the first thing we should do, before we ever start writing, is to identify our audience. The same thing holds true for building web sites. But do we really do it? Some do. At least in a rudimentary way. We put together a committee, ask that questions, and after a lot of argument come up with something. In today’s higher ed it is usually “prospective students and their parents,” at least when talking about the university’s main page. What do we do after that though?

We often write the chosen audience on our production documentation, check it off the list and cease thinking about it altogether. The web committee then moves on to deciding content (we are a modern selection committee, we realize that content must come before design.) We send out surveys, make sure we talk to every department on campus to get buy-in, maybe we even survey other universitys’ sites to see what they have that we don’t. What’s missing from this picture? Where in that process is the audience that we are supposed to be writing for?

I once attended a conference where one of the presenter summed up in one line what we should be doing…give your viewers what *they* want, not what *you* want. That completely turns our process on its head. It means we have to do research, make value judgments, and even risk alienating constituencies on campus who might not like what that means for their content.

The tricky part comes in determining how far to go with this new paradigm. Something like branding is definitely something that we want, but that doesn’t mean we should get rid of it. It doesn’t interfere with, and if done well should even support the mission of the site. We are still trying to attract those prospective students, and branding should reinforce the information they are trying to obtain.

One thing to watch out for is turning your site into an extended university org chart. Think instead in terms of navigating content by services…for example provide a link to “tutoring” rather than “The Office of Classroom Excellence.” The audience doesn’t care *who* provides the service, it is the service itself that they are looking for.

Also, be careful of the language that you use. We have our own extensive jargon, and fall into it too easily. Being at the university every day we are exposed to (so much so that we take for granted) a lot of terms, concepts, organizational makeups, etc. that mean little to the general public. Write for the audience using terms that, again, they place meaning on rather than what we hold dear.

We tried to take this approach in our last implementation of our university website. We removed most of the links that were previously aimed more at faculty/staff and an on-campus audience, even if they were the most popular link on the page. We took flack for doing so, but it was short lived, people adjusted, and the site is now much more aligned with its purpose of serving the prospective student and their parents.

Monday, February 25th, 2013 Web Content
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