Rescue the Content.

Content is everywhere. Sometimes you just need to rescue it from it’s original state.

On every campus there are content pools—places where content lives and is waiting to be found. Diamond-in-the-rough content can be rescued from:

  • Admission blogs.
  • Semi-annual newsletters published by academic departments.
  • Last year’s Twitter posts.
  • This month’s student newspapers.
  • Recurring email messages sent to current parents.
  • New student orientation materials.
  • Today’s photos from a Greek Life Facebook page.
  • Annual fund letters.

Look all around your campus for pools of content. Rescuing from a content pool leaves you with content that has potential. You’ll find content needing a little polish but definitely providing a head start as you try to keep up with producing more and ever changing content to enhance your brand and marketing efforts. Be aware: The content you can use often hides within paragraphs of longform text.

Rescuing content as part of a green content strategy is different than curation. Curation selects polished content for the right place, at the right time. Rescue comes before curation.

As you search for content to rescue, give top priority to imagery. Forward-thinking .edu sites rely on photography that romances and captions that pack a punch. More and more, home and landing pages on websites are visual. Visual content is more successful at making the case; it is an immediate, powerful, and memorable expression of your brand.

The companion to visual content is less text! Say just enough and say as little as possible. Going green with your content strategy means diving into the pools of content on your campus and coming up with raw bits of wonderfulness. When you rescue content, the easiest next step is to transform it into microcontent:

  • The two-page alumni profile in your magazine becomes the perfect photo accompanied by an inspirational quote.
  • The 500-word article about an annual campus tradition in the student newspaper becomes a #hashtag and a photo mosaic.
  • A current parent’s comment on Facebook becomes a typographic design element on a web page for prospective families.
  • The career center’s survey data about outcomes becomes the backbone for digestible and compelling infographics.

Microcontent can stand on its own and often is more enduring. Use evergreen microcontent to reinforce your reputation. Forget the “Read more” link. Just allow the content bit to make an impression and then get out of the way.

With a little work, everything old is new again. A green content strategy includes Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. And, advisedly, Rescue.

(This first appeared in the conference program for HighEdWeb 2014. “Rescue the Content” was also published on October 21, 2014 on LINK.)

Using the Web to Make Your Print Work Better

You know the drill. First, determine your message. Second, pick the tools to communicate it well.

For most of us, the tools we choose include print and web. (My earlier post makes the case that we still need both.) For a different twist, let’s think about ways to use the web to make your print work even better.

Rely on your social channels to help you make choices about photography and copy in print pieces.

Monitor social media for data you can use to make better content choices.

  • “Popularity” on social platforms offers insights about the types of photos that resonate with your target audiences. Knowing what your audiences’ preferences are—measured through likes, retweets, shares, favorites, and comments—allows you to make better choices when selecting photography for print pieces.
  • You can “test” language, themes, stories, and ideas on social first. Watch for reactions and responses and then use that information as you develop and repurpose content for print. Let evidence of engagement on social channels inform your content strategy.
  • Use social hashtags to listen in and find out what your target audiences think. (Sites like Tagboard allow you to search by hashtag across social platforms.) Informed by a hashtag review, collect and curate user-generated content for a fresh and authentic diversity of voices for a more compelling print piece.

Use the web to measure the effectiveness of print.

Set concrete goals for brochures, postcards, viewbooks, and magazines and then use web analytics to measure your success.

  • Collect metrics tied to the calls to action in your print piece.
    For example: 1.) This postcard will result in 500 visits to a custom landing page on the website; or, 2.) The number of prospective students who view a companion video will increase by 10 percent during the first 60 days after the viewbook drops.
  • Conduct A | B Testing.
    Mail out prospective student information containing URLs that showcase student life via profiles and videos. Post mailing, monitor web traffic for a specified time period to see how many direct URL accesses occurred to those pages and determine how effective the campaign was in generating interest for your message to prospective students. 
Or, use A | B testing to compare digital and print communications. For example, include a call to go to a URL like http://www.college.edu/apply_a/ in an email campaign, and a URL of http://www.college.edu/apply_b/ for a print postcard. Both of these URLs point to the same destination page for applying, but proper use of Google Analytics will allow you to see how many came from each by viewing the source.

Repurpose digital content for print.

Create once and publish everywhere!

  • Collect the “best of” the web and use it for print. Reuse on-message blog posts, most shared Instagram photos, and popular student profiles.
  • Connect the dots for your audiences. Use the photography, color palette, iconography, theme lines, subheads, and headlines from the web to reinforce messages and brand in print.
  • Use hashtags on print pieces to encourage the target audience to explore digital content.

Thinking about a website redesign?

We’re back to school. Fall will officially arrive in a few days. You can’t find a place to park, so you know your campus is in full swing. All that — and you really need to redesign your website.

At many colleges and universities, a website redesign is a campuswide initiative that is broadly inclusive and requires getting buy-in from multiple internal players and stakeholders. On other campuses, the marketing and communications team is fully charged with the redesign and can move swiftly, bringing in key partners like admissions and advancement. Regardless of where your campus falls in that spectrum, you need to prepare.

If a website redesign is on your mind in September, we have some advice:

Set goals.

Perhaps you want to infuse new messaging from a recent brand platform into the site. Maybe you need better navigational paths, but the site’s information architecture is pre-2004. It could be that students and alumni are regularly reminding you about the limits of your site on phones or tablets. Focus on what you want, not on what you have. Spend as little time as possible cataloging what’s wrong with your current site. Instead, spend that time identifying goals.

Start with content.

Pour a cup of coffee, silence your phone, and read through the top-level landing pages on your current website. Well? Does it reflect the school you know and love? Consider a more detailed content audit of marketing-critical pages. A look at 25 or so pages will tell you a lot about where you stand with content. You want your website to be authentic to your campus. Content can make it so.

Make it better.

We all start a website redesign filled with high expectations and excited by possibilities. As you’re working through the challenges of committees, tendencies toward the status quo, and vanilla content, keep in mind that you don’t want to end up with the website you started with. You will need to advocate for improvement and take some risks to get there. Don’t lose sight of what you set out to do.

Stop thinking about your website like a project.

It doesn’t make sense to focus on your flagship communications platform once every five years. The website is not a once and done proposition. Create a plan for staffing, funding, and governance to sustain and enhance your site into the future. Make this your last redesign project.

Related posts from the mStoner blog:

Measurement: Why do we fear it?

Does your direct mail piece result in annual gifts from alumni? Do prospective students use the hashtag that you include in a social media campaign? Does your website content for admissions lead to increased inquiries?

Marketing and communication plans are easy to create when you don’t have to pay attention to the facts. If you don’t measure results, all marketing tactics are equally reliable and successful. Measurement makes us uncomfortable so we claim that measuring results is too difficult, not an exact science, and not possible given our limited tool set. Frankly, measurement of marketing and communications tactics is anxiety-producing in part because it might lead to evidence that what we thought would work doesn’t work as well as we’d hoped.

In a time of shrinking resources and increasing expectations, marketing and communications professionals must rely on measurement to determine strategic priorities and make the case for pursuing particular tactics and opportunities.

First, we need to get SMART. We need to avoid creating metrics akin to New Year’s resolutions. A goal of “becoming a millionaire in 2015” is not as realistic as adding $10,000 to your savings account. Secondly, what we can measure easily may not tell us what we need to know. The truth is not everything that can be measured is worth measuring.

Start thinking pragmatically and concretely about measurement. Three ideas for getting started:

  1. Include links to custom landing pages in digital advertising to monitor the effectiveness (for example, clickthroughs and conversions) of your calls to action.
  2. Use event tracking in Google Analytics to record activity with particular website elements.
  3. Evaluate the effectiveness of print by reviewing accompanying website metrics (for example, this postcard will result in 500 visits to a companion landing page on the website).

As a real world example, let’s consider measurements within a recent social media campaign at Fordham University.

The goal of #Fordham4Me was to influence the yield of admitted undergraduate students planning to enroll in fall 2014. We knew that a measurement tied to an increase in the number of students enrolling at Fordham wasn’t realistic. Instead, we evaluated the success of the #Fordham4Me campaign using these metrics:

  • Reach 90 percent of all admitted students.
  • Prompt 100 admitted students to generate content.
  • Attract 150 new followers on Tumblr and Instagram.

The results for #Fordham4Me were strong. On Tumblr, we had 3,200+ page views, 900+ visitors, and 63 new followers. On Instagram, there were 6,238 public likes, 511 public comments, and 99 unique participants.

Measurement of marketing and communications activities over a period of time can offer insights for senior leadership as they plan for additional staffing and resources. Metrics can:

  • Demonstrate success in a particular initiative and make the case for funding a new position.
  • Prove that particular activities don’t have value. Data helps not only to establish priorities , but also to determine what a team can stop doing.

More on measurement from the mStoner blog:

Digital Magazines in Higher Ed: We expect a lot, maybe too much.

I was a judge for the digital magazine category of the 2014 CASE Circle of Excellence Awards. As always, the CASE judging activities were fascinating, inspiring, and a wonderful professional development experience. If you ever get the chance, say yes. I was blown away by many of the 2014 entries and, in case you haven’t seen them, here are the CASE Circle of Excellence Award winners in the digital magazine category:

Because I had the chance to judge print magazine categories in 2012 and 2013, reviewing the digital entries this year felt a bit like closing the loop. Still a wonderfully complex hybrid of the print and digital mediums, college and university magazines typically appear in print at least a couple of times a year. (Alumni have come to love and cherish the mailbox version.) In my consulting work, the teams responsible for magazines regularly talk about ways to use the digital space for magazine content. Magazine editors and writers I meet have both a gleam in their eye and a knot in their stomach. They fully understand the opportunity that a digital magazine presents and the challenge for meeting the ever-increasing expectations of sophisticated alumni readers. They can all tell the story of the well-intentioned senior administrator on their campus who made this casual aside, “I’ve been meaning to send you a link to the _____ College’s online magazine. It’s really awesome and I think we should do something like that for our magazine, don’t you?”

My participation in this year’s digital magazine judging was eye-opening for an unexpected reason. I began to think and worry about the pressure digital magazines create for small communications teams. As a former director of a campus creative services unit, I have enormous respect for those who publish a magazine. Mostly because I know firsthand what it takes to manage the design and production process and, as a former colleague of mine once said, “In the print world, the word publish really means something.” Print ain’t easy, people. (The web ain’t easy either but I maintain you have control for a longer period of time and more flexibility when something goes wrong.)

So how does a small college or a leanly staffed university get the time and money needed to even think about launching a digital version of their magazine? Especially now, when the easy solutions of the past are viewed as way below the bar. People want what they want. And they want the New York Times experience.

My advice? Keep in mind readers are expecting you to:

  • Provide a rich content experience.
    The best digital magazines make a commitment to producing lots of regular content within a rich experience that is interactive and sensory. They let go of a traditional magazine publishing model, instead using a different pattern that doesn’t mimic print and typically means publishing every day. Rich media has to be a part of the content mix and requires a commitment to high-impact photography and well-produced video. The magazine experience should also include sharable content, predictive content, and dynamic, taxonomy-based options. In other words, allow me to comment and let others know what I’m reading, show me what you know I like, let me filter, and tell me what’s popular.
  • Make it available everywhere.
    I understand more resources are needed when trying to meet device-agnostic expectations but magazine readers want your content everywhere — on any kind of phone, and on any kind of tablet. And although apps allow you to control the user experience, lengthy downloads for an app require a commitment some just aren’t willing to make.

What’s a small team to do?
If you don’t have the staff needed for a Bostonia experience, consider using WordPress for your digital magazine. A few examples:

Financial Aid Websites: What’s the challenge?

I’ve been thinking about financial aid websites lately. It’s June, and with most of the deciding done by May 1, many prospective students and families are in the midst of a relationship with a financial aid office.

What are the challenges? How is the content for financial aid different and how is it best presented on the web?

It’s complicated. Communication about financial aid is difficult because so many scenarios exist and so many federal standards and policies must be part of the content mix. Although admissions sites can target an audience of prospective students and influencers, the financial aid office must serve those who are applying, those who are admitted, current students, and al of their parents. I took a quick spin through eight financial aid websites and here’s what I noted:

  • There is increased use of video for explaining the process.
  • Infographics make financial aid information more digestible and understandable.
  • Financial aid content typical begins on the admissions site with links to detail on the financial aid office website.
  • The net price calculator is often highlighted and just as often hidden.
  • More highly-designed sites with profiles of students as a way to personalize the financial aid process.
  • Friendly, clear, concise, and helpful content that speaks to parents as primary consumers of the information.

Certainly, there is an incentive for colleges and universities to work hard on their financial aid content since the “Can I afford it?” question remains one of the top asked by prospectives and families. A summary of just a little of what’s out there follows:

University of Missouri-St. Louis – http://umsl.edu/future/
This Future Students site won a Silver Award from CASE District VI in 2014. The Financial Aid landing page (you land there after you click on “Check Out Tuition & Expenses”) presents a few key pieces of information using infographics. I like the early messaging around aid and this site highlights UMSL’s net price calculator.

Davidson College – http://www.davidson.edu/admission-and-financial-aid/financial-aid
The Davidson site won a CASE Bronze Circle of Excellence Award in 2014. On the financial aid section of the site, you immediately see an effective video about their net price calculator and the “Davidson Trusted Me” quote from a student personalizes the content.

Duke University – http://admissions.duke.edu/application/aid
This site won a Best Prospective Student or Admission Site award in 2013 from eduStyle. The financial aid section is fairly unique among typical university financial aid sites and more like marketing-critical, top-level landing pages on most university sites.

Bob Jones University – http://www.bju.edu/admission/tuition-aid/
This site won an eduStyle Award in 2013 for Best Prospective Student or Admission Site. A video (found in the bottom, left corner of the site) explains the financial aid process.

University of Pennsylvania – http://www.admissions.upenn.edu/
This site was nominated for an eduStyle Award in 2013. The presentation of financial aid content begins by clicking on “Afford an Ivy League Education.” The “Costs & Financial Aid” section is visually interesting and a welcoming way to make the case. Also, the “How Aid is Determined” page presents information well.

Brown University – http://brown.edu/about/administration/financial-aid
This site uses video to effectively profile students who benefit from aid and the net price calculator is also prominent. The site also offers an A to Z index approach that makes sense for the detailed and dense financial aid content.

Boston University – http://www.bu.edu/finaid/
This site includes splashy, rotating feature content and I like their presentation of “Frequently Asked Questions.”

Who’s doing this well? Do you have a favorite financial aid website? I’d love to see it and feature it on the mStoner blog. Let me know.

Putting Paul Smith’s Website to the Test

Shortly after the relaunch of the Paul Smith’s College website, we did some usability testing. Usability testing can occur on a live or beta site and the intention is to evaluate levels of success or frustration as users try to accomplish tasks on a new site. As part of a usability testing script, we might ask:

  • “How would you find a list of majors and minors?”
  • “What would you click on to learn about alumni events?”
  • “Where would you go to register for classes?”

For more on usability testing in the context of a website relaunch project, I recommend a three-part series about testing written by mStoner’s Quality Assurance Manager, Kylie Stanley Larson.

What did we uncover during usability testing for paulsmiths.edu?

Testers referenced the bold typography, the large imagery, and the plentiful white space as welcome design elements. They also described the new paulsmiths.edu as easier to use due to more intuitive navigation. These testing results made our hearts sing. But there’s more — the testing also provided a path for future site enhancements.

Imagery and Graphics

Research, anecdotal evidence, and testing sessions for many clients tell us that website visitors are influenced by high-quality imagery and graphics. Our Paul Smith’s usability sessions confirmed that knowledge and helped us understand the extent of their impact. All individuals participating in the usability testing commented on the visual assets on paulsmiths.edu — all noted the homepage slider, the Instagram feed, the video feed, or the infographic as compelling. When asked how the visual experience might be improved, users:

  • Repeatedly noted a preference for images that are directly related to the page content or site section.
  • Requested more photography throughout the site.
  • Expressed hope for higher quality imagery, both in terms of resolution and composition.

Website work is never done and a focus on visual content will pay off.

Website Tools for the Internal Community

The Paul Smith’s usability testing also confirmed that the on-campus community uses the website as a tool. Convenient ways to get info related to living and working on a campus are paramount.sugar_shack

  • Testers missed quick access to… <waitforit> Weather! One student said, “I go to the site to see how cold it is outside…I haven’t been able to find the weather on the new site. I don’t want to have to dig through the site to figure out how I should dress that day.” Paul Smith’s unique location in the Adirondack Park of way Upstate New York makes this a legitimate request.

psc_in_the_kitchen

  • Other testers pointed out that menus for one dining location were missing. A student said, “I always look at the Lakeside menus. It’s one of my big links.” Food on any campus is important but Paul Smith’s corners the market on education for hospitality with programs in culinary arts and baking. I can personally vouch for the quality of food on the Paul Smith’s campus.

An .edu website should take into account the transactional needs of the on-campus community.

Our best advice?

Remain committed to a cycle of planning, measuring, and auditing. The quantifiable data you can receive daily from analytics, and periodically as you conduct usability testing, is invaluable and will help you know when it’s time to make corrections and changes. And, decisions about the prioritization of enhancements can be grounded in data about user preferences. Your website is not a project, it is your most important communication asset.

Every day, a team of people needs to come to work thinking about what’s next for the website.