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Digital and Web in Higher Ed

Seven trends that will shape 2013
University Business, January 2013

Can you believe it? I’ve been writing this column about digital marketing in higher education for seven years.

So much has happened since February 2006. Together we’ve witnessed the first blips of Web 2.0, the development—and demise—of many social networking platforms, and the rising tide of new media that later turned into the social media tsunami. Over the past seven years, we’ve also seen the end of the desktop browser compatibility war, the start of the battle for the mobile and responsive web, and growing interest for digital analytics in higher education.

The seven years of this column have been a fantastic and hectic journey of emerging technologies and changing practices in higher education.

Yet, this is the first time the column is being published in January. So, after 38 articles, I finally get a chance to make New Year’s “predictions” about the 12 months to come. Unfortunately, I don’t own a crystal ball yet. But, all this time spent tracking and analyzing trends should help with the exercise of grasping what’s to come in 2013 for internet technologies in higher education.

The Multiplication of Connected Devices, Going Responsive

So, what did you get (or give your loved ones) for the holidays? A new tablet? A smartphone? A mini tablet, maybe? We now live in a world of multiple devices with very different screen sizes, resolutions, and features. The only thing they have in common: their capacity to connect their user to the web. Size doesn’t matter anymore, but your web content needs to be accessible and easy to search, read, or interact with at all times.

According to “The New Multi-screen World: Understanding Cross-Platform Consumer Behavior,” a 2012 study conducted by Google, sequential and simultaneous uses of multiple devices are rising. As a result, higher ed institutions should focus on offering a customized but not disconnected web experience to their users, no matter what devices they own. Expect 2013 to be the year of responsive websites in higher education.

The Birth and Long Life of “Traveling” Content

Long live the traveling content! After severing its once exclusive ties with the printed world of newsletters, brochures, and catalogs, content is starting to break away from the web page, as well.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher describes this trend very well in Content Everywhere (Rosenfeld Media, 2012), a must-read book. It includes case studies and interviews taken from various industries, but higher ed gets the lion’s share, with examples from ASU Online, West Virginia University, the University of Notre Dame, and Columbia University.

In Wachter-Boettcher’s view, you can’t keep up with all the new contexts—channels, platforms, or even devices—where your audiences want to (or will) interact with your content. When it comes to content, technological innovation is now painting an ever-changing landscape.

This moving target requires a new framework. It’s now imperative to design and build “content that can have multiple purposes, and whose meaning can stay intact through multiple contexts.” In other words, it’s not only time to create the content that your constituents want to read, listen to, or watch. It’s also time to package this content in a way that will let them decide where and how they want to perform these tasks. Welcome to a world where your content will travel. A lot.

The Visual Content Takeover

We witnessed the intense growth of the visual web in 2012. The fantastic popularity of Instagram, the astonishing rise of Pinterest, and the viral success of infographics have confirmed that visuals can bring big wins on the screen. A picture was known to be worth a thousand words, but its value has skyrocketed in our attention-deprived world.

Facebook hinted at the strategic nature of this trend when it gave visuals the prime real estate on its redesigned Timeline pages and in the newsfeed last year. Shortly before its IPO, when the social media company acquired Instagram, it even put its money on it.

The multiplication of devices offering retina-display screens on the market should further feed our hunger for perfect pictures. The coming year will see the development of best practices in this area along with a backlash for poor or shallow tactics in the visual department.

While higher ed institutions have no shortage of powerful picture-perfect moments to feed this visual web beast, they should keep accessibility considerations in mind. Institutions need to ensure they don’t contribute to developing a web that could become totally blind to the needs of visually-impaired users. After all, it is the law.

The Digitalization of Higher Ed Marketing

Digital marketing channels haven’t killed traditional ones. Over the past seven years, marketing leaders and web strategists have been adding new tactics and tools to their now overflowing and cluttered toolbox.

With so much to do, it’s time to reassess strategies and tactics. Ask whether your institution tries to reach its audiences where they are now or where they used to be. When students watch their favorite TV shows on the web, or when alums read their news online on tablets, does it make sense to do exactly what you’ve done for the past 20 years? Of course not.

Reshuffle your budget priorities to use the right channels to join your target audiences and get the most bang for your institution’s buck. The digitalization of marketing is happening. Not because it’s cheaper (anyway, it won’t be for long), but because this is where you can reach your constituents.

The Increasing Role of Analytics

In 2012, analytics reached a tipping point in higher education. The industry, pushed by the quest for the holy grail of accountability, has finally started to buzz about the promise of data-driven decisions. Learning analytics, business analytics, IT analytics, and enrollment and marketing analytics are now on the radar of higher ed leaders. While there’s still a lot to be learned and done before decisions can truly be data-driven, many are moving in this direction. Expect to hear more success stories this year from the early adopters of digital analytics.

The End of the Social Media Free Lunch

All good things have to come to an end, right? Social media platforms stole our heart—and a lot of our time—by satisfying one of our core needs: the desire to stay in touch with each other. For free. When they got millions of users totally hooked, Facebook, Twitter, and the like proceeded to serve these millions on a silver platter to marketers. Still, mostly for free. This “social media free lunch” is now over.

Facebook may well try to preserve the sanctity of the newsfeed by filtering out the annoying messages from the brands users chose to like. Or, it may want to monetize its platform better by making its sponsored posts the way for brands to reach the majority of their fans. Both arguments are up for debate. What is not, is the fact that institutions interested in engaging most of their fans will need to add a social media advertising line to their marketing budget in 2013.

The MOOC Side Effect: Focus on Academics

The 2012 acronym of the year in higher education was definitely MOOC, massive online open course. Coursera, edX, and Udacity among others have put a stop to business-as-usual in online education. And, there is no doubt they will have a profound impact on the industry at large.

Yet, at a more granular level, they have already changed the expectations of numerous prospective students by introducing millions to well-produced and totally free online courses. Designed, produced, and taught in collaboration with institutions, these online courses also provide a live showcase of the academic quality of the participating universities. Given the incredible reach and attention these courses have received so far among learners, they might well contribute to refocusing marketing messages on the academic core of higher education: degrees, certificates, programs, and courses. With so much attention placed on the basic element of the academic experience, the course itself, more universities and colleges need to see the content pertaining to their academic programs as the important strategic piece of content it is. In 2013, the academic program page has to become the ultimate conversion web page for higher education.