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Time to Get Strategic With Content

Why it's worth the investment and how to get started
University Business, Nov 2011

How many 140-character messages were tweeted today? How many posts have been published in the past 24 hours? How many photos have been posted, and liked, on Facebook since yesterday? Hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

Today, everybody is a publisher on the web: universities, colleges, big companies, small businesses, traditional media outlets, citizen journalists, academics, researchers, hobbyists, experts, mothers, kids, college students, and ... their grandmothers. If you own, or can borrow, a device connected to the internet, you can tweet, Facebook, YouTube, and blog, potentially reaching dozens, hundreds, thousands, or millions of people.

As a result of this massive adoption of social media, the web has become a very crowded place, overloaded with thousands of content pieces fighting for our attention every day. Want to read something of value about the web in higher education? You’ll have to sift through hundreds of articles, posts, tweets and other links before you can make your pick.

The challenge of breaking through the noise might not be new, but the nature of the web has made it reach new heights.

Hence, standing out on the web has become a real challenge. While the mere volume of well-crafted, quality web content has increased exponentially over the past few years, the number of hours in a day hasn’t.

Attention Is the New Online Currency

Breaking through the noise might not be a brand new challenge, but the multiplying nature of the web has definitely made it reach new heights. This is even more challenging for higher ed institutions, where decentralized publishing practices, atomized among colleges, offices, centers, departments, faculty members or researchers, are a tradition.
Budget, technical expertise, and access to publishing tools or members of the media used to work as barriers of entry to regulate the flow of published content at institutions of higher education. Not anymore. Since social media has taken over the web, these levees are now gone in most cases. While some universities try to contain the current content flood with new policies, many have already witnessed the limits of this approach. 

Have you? If your students are sent countless emails on a weekly basis from different departments, offices, and event organizers at your institution, you’ve probably noticed that something is wrong.

When great timely stories written for your alumni or other magazine are kept secret for three months or more—until the next print issue gets out—and no related information is released sooner on your website, your Facebook page, or your Twitter account, or to the press—even if it would make sense, you may feel there’s got to be a better way. You would be right.

In a world where universities have become content behemoths, there’s a dire need for a better solution to manage print and electronic content across the institution. Although a web content management system might be a piece of the puzzle, you’ve certainly realized that this isn’t the proverbial silver bullet.

Content strategy  can be perceived as political, messy, costly, and time-consuming.

College and university leaders “need to understand the true source of their content problems is not technology. It’s a lack of content strategy,” says Colleen Jones, author of Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content (New Riders Press, 2010).

Haven’t heard of content strategy yet?

You’ll find the best definition to date in another book, this one written by Kristina Halvorson who has popularized the practice through her talks at conferences, in articles, and in blog posts for the past couple of years. In Content Strategy for the Web (New Riders Press, 2009) Halvorson defines it as “the practice of planning for the creation, delivery and governance of useful, usable content.”

CMS, redesign, social media, mobile web: so much to do, so little time. Why should colleges and universities spend time on content strategy?

For Georgy Cohen, manager of web content and strategy at Tufts University (Mass.) and co-founder of the blog “Meet Content,” content strategy is what gives all of those channels, platforms, and projects a meaningful structure and purpose. “Content strategy is not a ‘thing to do’; it’s the purpose and the process behind the things we do,” she explains.
Now that institutions are major web publishers, they have no other choice than to act like professional publishers to break through the ambient noise and reach students, parents, alums, and donors. 

What makes a good publisher beyond the profound understanding of the audience interests? It has always been the capacity to plan strategically the design, production, delivery, and maintenance of the content for a given publication. Like any good publisher, institutions need strategic planning to mobilize and coordinate resources and sources, manage demands of various initiatives, and provide the right content to the right audience through the right channel—at lightning speed.

On the Right Path

While there’s a great interest for web content strategy in the higher ed web/social media professional community, examples of comprehensive implementation don’t abound. Content strategy, like any issues related to governance, can be perceived as political, messy, costly, and time-consuming. As a consequence, the majority of the few known higher ed examples have been limited to specific projects, redesigns and/or CMS implementations—and not incorporated in day-to-day processes.

For example, at Ithaca College (N.Y.), content strategy helped administrators rethink and revamp the financial aid and billing website. By focusing on how the site could meet student and staff needs, this redesign, facilitated by the firm decimal152, put web content back where it really belonged—at the center of the project. It was an instant success. Once the site was launched, the volume of calls received from frustrated families trying to pay their bills was slashed immediately.

The University at Buffalo (N.Y.) Web Content Initiative team took advantage of the desire to get a CMS coupled with a redesign to dramatically improve website practices. Piloted at the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, this project included extensive research around “mental models” by Indi Young and comprehensive information and messaging architecture by the agency mStoner.

In this ongoing initiative to dramatically improve the web presence of the institution, content strategy was used as the foundation to inform and guide change on the web. “The key deliverable to our project is creating best-practice prototypes of different kinds of UB sites (academic, administrative, and service-oriented) that will be used to inform web development by all the units at UB,” explains Rebecca Bernstein, web strategist from the university communications office.

At Victor Valley College (Calif.) and The University of New Brunswick (Canada), some elements of content strategy are also incorporated in the discovery phase of future web projects.

At Indiana University of Pennsylvania (Pa.), where work on a comprehensive multichannel content strategy is in progress, it’s not the prospect of a web redesign that put things in motion. In this case, the most immediate reason to dive into a content strategy was the challenge that social media presents, and, to some extent, an opportunity created by a change in the organizational chart.

“Between print, the web, media relations, video, Facebook, Twitter, we’ve got something like 16 different tools we can use for any particular communication. It’s clear we need to be strategic about which tools we use for which tasks,” says Mike Powers, previously director of web services and currently interim director of communications. Content strategy at IUP is seen as a way to devise manageable solutions to feed all these content-hungry tools. With print, web, video, photography, and media relations under one roof and as a single team, it was possible to hit the ground running and follow best practices taken straight from Halvorson’s book.

In just a few months, Powers and his team have already managed to implement a content strategy group, an editorial calendar covering all the university communication channels, from billboard to Twitter and Facebook to TV, as well as a message hierarchy mapping out institutional “pillar messages” into more usable information. Next on their to-do list is a content audit to find out if what’s published on all these tools is aligned with these messages. “From there, we’ll be making decisions about what we need to change to better reach our goals,” says Powers. 

This will take more time, but there’s no doubt that IUP is moving in the right direction with its multichannel approach to content strategy.