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Information and insight from the A&M Webmasters

Web Content

An Upside-Down Process

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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 Comments Off

Linking Policy

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According to a new requirement of TAC 206, each institution of higher education must publish a notice of the policies that “govern the use of, copying information from, or linking to a state website.” So we added a Linking Policy page to our Site Policies page. If the content of our Sites Policies page applies to your website too, you could simplify your professional life by linking to it, since it includes legally-required links such as a Privacy Policy as well as a Linking Policy.  Let us know what you think about these pages –  we’re open to suggestions.

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012 Web Content Comments Off

Error Reporting Made Easy

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Read any web design book, blog, or article, and they’ll tell you that a good, user-friendly, custom 404 page is one of the most important elements that you can add to any site. And they’re right. But we as web administrators know that “good” and “user-friendly” are wide open for interpretation. Most of the time users hit the page, ignore it, and go about their business. Users seldom bother to report the broken link, and when they do they very often don’t include all (or sometimes even any!) of the information we need to track down and fix the link.

With our new website we’ve tried something different, making it as easy as possible for users to report bad links. We did this on purpose – we knew that with the new design there would be plenty of them. The university site had been poorly limping along on a very bad information architecture for years. Directory structures were illogical and poorly named, and the access file contained almost two hundred redirects for sites that had been on the server but moved years ago. We decided to clean house with this new version of the site, knowing there would be some (a lot) of short term pain, but that in the end it would be a better environment.

We have left or recreated many of the most-used redirects and old directories through a combination of symlinks and rewrite rules, but with the amount we started with there are still many that are now causing 404 errors. Enter the new custom error page…

Screen capture of 404 Error page

The most important thing we did on the page was to add a “Report this broken link” feature and make sure it was prominently highlighted. Through a few server side include tricks the mailto link will open the user’s mail client and populate the first line of the message with the requested page and the referring page, if applicable. This insures that we have all of the information we need to find and fix the broken link.

With this feature prominent on the page, we have increased the number of reports from several per week to several per hour…and not all to the newly non-redirected site. Several have been to files that have not been on the server for years, but are still linked from somewhere on the Internet. Bad links that have existed for years but have never been reported. The difference, it seems, is in making it easy for the user to do so.

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Tuesday, January 25th, 2011 Web Content, Comments Off

Wanted…Your Videos

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One of the elements that we wanted to add to the new university site, as well as other sites we’re developing for campus, is a tighter integration to our other static sites and to our social media. For the purposes of this post, that means video on YouTube.

If you have explored the new development site for you will have noticed that the second-level pages link to YouTube channels and playlists that are relevant to the page topic. We had considered using inline videos on these pages, but thought linking to the playlists would give greater exposure to more videos.

Over the next several weeks we will be going into YouTube to refresh and add new content to these playlists, as well as create new ones for areas that don’t currently exist.

The great thing about YouTube is that we can pull your video in through these channels and feature it on the university website. I therefore encourage you all to start making more video available and visible. If we don’t already subscribe to your site send us the information and we’ll add it.

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Thursday, December 16th, 2010 Web Content, Comments Off

Website Preview

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We previewed the prototype for the new university website to Brand Council this morning, so most of the campus communications offices now have an idea of where we’re going. I’m happy to say that their response was overwhelmingly positive.

We would now like to extend an invitation to our followers here to preview the site as well (and send us your feedback!) The URL is

Please keep in mind that this is still a working prototype so few things are set in stone, and there is some placeholder content still in place. The exact makeup of the page content is still changing, and will change more based on the comments you send us. We thought it important, though, to get your feedback before anything became final.

As a frame of reference – the site’s main audience is potential students and their parents. To that end we have emphasized those content areas that are most referenced by that group.

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Wednesday, November 10th, 2010 Web Content, 4 Comments

eduWEB: the role of writers

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One of the purposes of the eduWeb conference was to bring together marketing and web people. One show of hands suggested that the audience was evenly split. I myself am fairly evenly split, having written both PHP code and annual reports – both coder and copywriter.

According to Sarah Stanek, Senior Writer at California State University East Bay, the underappreciated members of the web team are the writers. Writers need to be at the first web meeting, not the last. They need to become trusted as the content authority. The writer should be the managing editor on the Web team. Professional writers can offer four things: ability, authority, access, and accuracy.

How can experienced writers make a website better?

  1. They can encourage each member of the team to agree in advance on word count, voice, content lifespan.
  2. They can help to break log jams in the workflow. Stanek’s advice: ask for corrections and edits to the website, make them, acknowledge they’ve been made, then go live.
  3. For students, they can provide deadlines. For administrators, they can suggest topics to write about.
  4. They can help review blog posts before publishing, if necessary. “Boring is okay, long and boring is not,” says Stanek. Moderate comments quickly. Don’t be afraid to close comments either.
  5. They can write interview questions (but not the answers). Put ideas in their heads, then put cameras in their faces.

Under the influence of social media, some web strategists are calling for professionally-generated content (such as marketing copy) to be replaced by user-generated content (such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter) because “it sounds more authentic.” But Stanek sternly insists that professional writers do not sound inauthentic.

In fact, says Stanek, “student bloggers write about ten times more formally than I do.” At a major university, over-formality may be a more serious problem than students writing ungrammatically. But that’s a whole other issue: where do people get the idea that stilted writing makes them sound smarter? I think the University Writing Center has a 12-step program for that…

True, journalists who cut their teeth writing for newspapers and magazines need to adapt their style for the Web, but any professional knows how to adapt. Writers have had to deal with an electronically-oriented audience for a long time.

Besides, in the past forty years, people haven’t changed as much as all that, even if buzzwords have. “Blogging is not a meaningful verb,” Stanek says. “The word is writing.” Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the message,” in 1964. That is, simply because a story moves from a newsletter to the Web, the message changes. If only because the screen is harder on the eyes than paper, writing for the Web needs to be shorter and scannable.

A “pencast” of The Role of Writers session (audio synchronized with notes) is available.

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Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 Web Content 2 Comments

Another New Webmaster: Bob Timm

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My name is Robert (Bob) Timm, Texas Aggie Class of 2010. I joined the Aggie Web Development Team today with the goal of providing the campus with a mobile version of the TAMU homepage. Not limited to just iPhones, but every mobile browser on every mobile phone. My experience extends from a couple years of web development and a phone app company I started this year, Roboconn Mobile Development. I look forward to providing this campus with some unique tools that have never been available to anyone before. So stay updated, changes are right around the corner!

Bob Timm

Friday, September 11th, 2009 Future Projects, Mobile Web, Web Content, 1 Comment

eduWeb – Measuring ROI

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Higher education has historically not measured ROI because it has not rigorously defined what to measure.  You cannot measure progress in anything unless you agree what to measure and how to do so… and then do so consistently.

Measure and compare vs. last year.  Set your goals and attempt to improve.  Then measure exactly the same way next year.  It takes ~3 years of this to get a consistent reading.  If you change things too soon then the measurements will not be consistent and the comparisons therefore will be skewed.

Determine what to track and how to measure it.  We have a lot of variables in higher ed, so we need to know which affect others, if they do so at all.

It is a good practice to not only measure against yourself over time, but also measure against your competitors (i.e. peer universities.)  This is the only way you can tell how you stack up and if your progress is going faster or slower than theirs.

This is often hard to do because most institutions don’t like to share information.  The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System conducts surveys and provides a lot of information about higher education institutions.

The goal of measuring ROI is to see where your investment is going.  Marketing costs should decline over time, everything else being kept equal.  Upfront costs from new campaigns will tend to work themselves out over time, and mature campaigns should be more cost effective than new ones that have new elements and new costs.

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009 Web Content Comments Off

Free Webinar

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Passing along a free treat.  The folks who did the best presentation at eduWeb are going to be doing a similar presentation based on the same topic as an online webinar.

The report is based on 1,000 high school seniors and asks what do they expect to see in a university website.  The answers were very illuminating; those of us ready to begin a new site redesign should definitely listen to what they have to say.

  • Hear about content, design, and navigation expectations – the good, the bad, and the ugly
  • Learn about student willingness to read, scroll, and complete information – what might work and what will not
  • Find out how students utilize college social networks – what are the new boundaries for institutional outreach

This presentation will address the important emerging trends affecting prospective student marketing and how this should tie back to your web development and communication strategy. Please join Stephanie and Lance Merker, President and CEO of OmniUpdate, Inc., for this free 30 minute webcast.

Date: Tuesday, August 18, 2009

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This webcast is ideal for college and university administrators, admissions counselors, marketers, webmasters, web developers, and decision-makers who have a voice in the future of their college or university website.

Register Now

Interested but won’t be able to attend? To receive a web link to the recorded version of this webcast, email or call OmniUpdate at (800) 362-2605 x206.

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Monday, August 3rd, 2009 Analytics, Web Content 2 Comments

eduWEB – Crazy Times Call for Crazy Changes

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This was the second keynote and honestly I didn’t get a lot out of it.  The speaker came across as a mercenary, paid marketer from the corporate world who tried to apply that mentality to higher ed. For example, he insisted that there are no “peer institutions” but only competitors, or even better, enemies.  Maybe I’m still a bit naive, but I want higher education to be above this kind of cut-throat mentality.

A few bits and pieces that I picked up in the middle, though:

Google is not a search company, or an advertising company, but an information company.  The corporate world has long been disgruntled with Google’s history of inventing cool new applications that have no monetary value.  But if you see them as an information company, every time you search for something, or click on a map, or watch a video on YouTube, you are feeding them with valuable information.   You’re telling them at somebody is interested in “red trains” or ” XYZ style of music” or “Chicago, Illinois.”

Of visitors to YouTube, 77% of those intending to watch only one video wind up watching several.

Think big — “and” not “or”

Thursday, July 30th, 2009 Web Content 1 Comment