You are here

Internet Technology

The End of Online Writing?

Disruptive forces and their impact on content for the web
University Business, September 2012

Can you remember the times when PDF files were placed (dumped?) on your website to make their content available online? As you know, those days are gone. PDF-powered websites just don’t cut it anymore—if they ever did. While the file format battle has been won on the web, the content format war is raging in higher education and elsewhere.

Are there any people at your institution who still see writing for the web or social media as a copy-and-paste job from your brochures, viewbooks, or other catalogs? Hopefully not.

Thanks to the rise of content strategy and the social media revolution in universities and colleges across the country, the one-size-fits-all approach to content for print and digital publications is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Good online content today is not what it used to be 10, five, or even two years ago. At the center of the web experience, online content has been undergoing a profound transformation. And, it’s not over yet, as the following trends and technologies will keep acting as major disruptive forces until the practice of online writing is reshaped.

“It’s the ‘Attention Economy,’ Stupid!”

Attention is the new currency in the digital world where everybody can be a publisher powered by social media. With so many big and small content publishers, it has become impossible to read, see, or watch all the content—even about a specific niche—made available online or delivered directly to you.

It’s not just a product of the ADD epidemic, but the result of the incredible amount of content accessible via a simple click. High school students are literally bombarded with admissions communications and marketing pieces from the colleges on their short-list…and the other institutions trying to get there.  
This summer, during Teen Talk, a focus-group session presented at Stamats Integrated Marketing Conference in Chicago, most of the 16 participating college-bound seniors confirmed this to the audience of higher education marketing professionals.

These students barely had the time to open any of the numerous print or electronic publications they received. With class, sports, extra-curricular activities, test preparation, college search, calls from recruiters or admissions counselors, spending time with family and hanging out with friends, high school seniors have the schedule—and the information diet—of busy executives.

Good online content today is not what it used to be 10, five, or even two years ago.

According to the 2012 Noel-Levitz “E-Recruiting Practices and Trends at Four-Year and Two-Year Institutions” report, your admissions office might be part of the problem. “A typical prospective student now receives 18 bulk/blast emails from a four-year private institution, 12 from a four-year public institution,” notes the report of this April 2012 web-based benchmarking survey of 256 colleges and universities. The median number of marketing emails sent to prospective students has almost doubled over the past six years. When they know it can go up to 30 messages for a single institution, no wonder some prospective students just hit “delete” without even opening them.

Mobile First and Foremost

As I explained in my April 2012 column on the State of the Mobile Web in higher education, the Year of Mobile has finally arrived in higher ed. According to the survey I conducted in February 2012, 59 percent of colleges and universities now have a mobile solution to serve the increasing number of mobile phone owners on their campus and elsewhere.

Recent Pew Internet Project research related to mobile technology revealed that 88 percent of American adults have a cell phone and 67 percent of those aged 18 to 24 have a smartphone. Moreover, the current level of cell phone and smartphone sales leaves no doubt that mobile is becoming central to our digital future.

In this context, more and more web designers and developers in higher education have logically adopted the “Mobile First” approach popularized by Luke Wroblewski, author of the seminal book about the topic. According to Wroblewski, it makes more sense to design web experiences—and websites—by focusing first and foremost on the needs of mobile users.

The homepage redesign of the University of Notre Dame, launched in April 2012, was built following this approach. The team made sure the minimum common denominator between web experiences on a mobile phone and on a huge desktop was not an afterthought. They designed it first and enriched it for wider screens.

Multiple Connected Devices Rule

“Mobile First” doesn’t mean “Mobile Only.” Multiple device ownership is a reality. People do and will access their favorite websites from more than one device. Computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and others are now part of the connected device mix used on campuses. For example, according to the 2011 Student Life Studies Technology Survey at Texas A&M, 96 percent of students owned a cell phone, 92 percent a laptop, 16 percent a tablet, 10 percent a netbook, and 9 percent an e-reader. That’s why it’s important for institutions to make sure they keep (or start) offering web content that works well on these different devices.

A World of Fewer Words, Data ... and Visuals

Social media has changed the digital world forever. With so much time spent on successful platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the like, online expectations have been shifted toward bite-sized, data-rich, and visual content. The overnight and popular successes of Instagram, after it was acquired by Facebook and just before its IPO, and Pinterest embody this trend.

On Facebook, since the introduction of the new Timeline format in March 2012, a photo is definitely worth more than 1,000 words through increased reach and engagement via likes, comments, or shares.

In the sea of content, context and timing can impact your website, your Facebook page, or your Twitter stream.

As YouTube has become such an important part of the digital life, short to-the-point video content is now expected and often widely shared. Infographics presenting bite-sized information and interesting data points have proven to be the ultimate content format for virality.

So, what do these disruptive trends and technologies mean for online writing?

Although we are not witnessing the upcoming demise of online writing forecasted by some, it’s time for a big change. 

Just-enough just-in-time content

The famous “Omit needless words” coined last century by William Strunk in The Elements of Style has never been more appropriate. Conciseness is the key. Your copy should be short enough to keep your reader’s attention while still making your point. In the sea of content, context and timing will also make or break your website, your Facebook page, your Twitter stream, or your emails.  

Responsible content for responsive websites

In the world of multiple connected devices supporting a unified experience, online readers expect the moon. Blue, if possible. They want just enough of your web content on their smartphone, but all of what they might need and are used to getting from their PC. Yet, they also expect to be able to find extra content as well, if they search for it. With the multiplication of responsive websites in higher education comes the need for responsible content, written to adapt—as designs—to different devices via a set of rules. So, get ready to give your copy the necessary structure to implement these filters.

Writing visually

Our brains crave pictures, as they can be processed more quickly than text. In this digital attention economy, visuals are not optional anymore—unless you can limit your text to 140 characters on Twitter or in text messages. For maximum effects on social media platforms, the pictures complementing your copy should invoke emotions, what makes people share online.

Effective online writing takes time and expertise. It also requires on-going practice due to the dynamic nature of the formats, platforms, and genres. It’s not academic writing. It’s not PR writing, either. “If you’re a good offline writer, you’ve got what it takes to become a great web writer,” says Michael Powers, director of web services at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. An ex-college professor of English, Powers teaches a four-week online course at Higher Ed Experts on higher ed social media and web writing. He is a man on a mission: Train better online writers.