Content Strategy for Higher Ed: Tips from Confab

by Rebecca Del Giudice

On November 11-12, 2013, Confab: Higher Ed took place in Atlanta. This was the first time that Confab, a content strategy conference founded by well-known content strategy expert Kristina Halvorson, held a session focused on a particular industry.

While I did not attend Confab, I did sit in on a great recap session put together by the folks at Meet Content, a web firm that specializes in content strategy for higher education. At the recap session, some of the people who had presented at the conference shared summaries of their own talks and what they had heard from others. There were also several people who had attended the conference and gave their views on the most important takeaways.

As someone who provides content strategy and editorial support to higher education clients (among others), I found the session very helpful. Here are five themes that emerged:

Empathy: One of the big themes of the conference, and one that every editor can relate to, was empathy. As Lisa Maria Martin, User Experience & Information Architecture Specialist at The George Washington University, said in her talk, “People make content. And people have feelings.”

The theme of empathy resonated with many of the recappers. Empathy means understanding your audience’s needs, and it also means finding ways to work with your content owners (in the case of higher ed, this could be everyone from the dean’s office and alumni relations to faculty and students, etc.) Sometimes in our day-to-day struggles with making and maintaining great web experiences, we forget to look at our work from others’ point of view. That could mean remembering to value your business partners (who may not understand what you do, but who contribute institutional and academic knowledge). Or it might mean taking a step back and thinking about how your latest web page or social media post looks to students, and whether or not it is meeting their needs. Staying in our silos with our blinders on does not allow us to grow and to help our audience get the information they need in the best possible ways.

The mobile mandate: Many of the recappers, especially Jenny MacIntosh of Boston University,  talked about the impact of Karen McGrane’s talk. McGrane, the author of an influential book on mobile content strategy, mentioned some striking statistics from the Pew Internet survey:

  • 35% of Americans still have no internet access at home
  • 20% of Americans have no internet access at all
  • 91% of Americans have a cellphone, and
  • 63% of Americans are using a smartphone

What does this mean for editors? It means we must champion mobile. The fact that a significant percentage of Americans, including prospective students, can only access our content via their phones, provides a renewed sense of urgency to ensure that our websites are easy to view and engage with on mobile.

Reuse and transmedia storytelling: The concept of COPE (create once, publish everywhere) resonated with Confab attendees. It is more important than ever in this era of shrinking budgets and understaffed departments to leverage content in as many ways as possible. But with this idea comes the equally critical idea that you should be prepared to meet your audience where they are. This means determining what stories you want to tell and making sure those stories can be told across multiple channels, not just where your university is comfortable or has an existing presence. One example came from Ma’ayan Plaut from Oberlin College. In her Confab talk, she mentioned that in one case she had posted an event to Buzzfeed instead of to Oberlin’s social media accounts, because she knew that was where her target audience was. 

The idea of transmedia storytelling takes COPE a step farther. It asks you to leverage the same story on different platforms, but also to take into account that you may tell different parts of the same story and the platform determines what you highlight. For example, you might have created a series of alumni profiles that includes interactive video, still photos, and text with pull quotes. You may decide to pin the pull quotes on Pinterest, post the still photos to Instagram, and highlight the interactive videos on Vine, and you might put all of the content on your website. For each channel, take into account how your audience engages with you and what parts of the story will resonate the most.

Speak in a language your audience understands. This one is near and dear to most editors, and in higher ed it’s no different. We struggle with overly wordy, non-web friendly text that our colleagues want to post on the website. Remember the empathy theme and look for ways to help your colleagues understand why it’s important to use clear, easy-to-understand language and avoid jargon. Jargon will turn off prospective students, alumni, and others who visit your site. Jargon is another example of lack of empathy, because it is as if you don’t care that your audience doesn’t understand what you’re saying. One recapper recalled a great suggestion: look through your analytics and search logs to see what terms site visitors are using. Do those terms match up with the vocabulary you’re using on your website?

Make students the hero of your content. As an editor in higher ed, you should ensure that the content you review puts the spotlight on students, not the college, whenever possible. There is a natural tendency to make the university the hero in an effort to promote your school to outsiders. But showcasing your amazing students is the right way not only to support their achievements, but also to show how much students can thrive at your institution.

For more on the Confab Higher Ed event, check out Meet Content’s recaps and the Confab site.

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Disaster Planning for Editors Part II

In last month’s post, I reviewed some of the ways editors can prepare for natural (or national) disasters. This month, let’s take a look at disasters of a very different kind.

Public relations disasters
Public relations disasters are, of course, on a far smaller scale than acts of war or mother nature. PR disasters don’t cause loss of life, but they do cause loss of business, reputation, and possibly revenue. A PR disaster might be a precipitous drop in your company’s stock price, the resignation of a CEO, or a scathing customer review that goes viral. Here are some ways you can prepare ahead of time so when disaster strikes, you’ll be able to react quickly:

  • Think through scenarios. List some scenarios that are likely to happen to your company. Some examples might be: Your company stock sinks; your CEO, owner, or president resigns; stockholders complain about a company policy; a customer’s complaint goes viral on social media; one of your products is recalled; trolls hijack one of your social media campaigns and bombard the Internet with negative messages about you, etc. There will likely be some scenarios that are very specific to your company’s line of work that you will want to consider as well. What would you need to know in each scenario? How would you want or need to change your communication processes?
  • Identify legal and compliance approvers. Communications in response to PR disasters usually require additional approvals beyond that of your regular communications. Who needs to approve stock- or executive team-related special messages, for example? You might need special compliance approval for any stock-related statements, or you might need sign-off from members of your company’s board of directors if you are dealing with a CEO resignation or other high-profile change in management.  Know who the approvers are before you need them to approve anything.
  • Meet with your PR and legal colleagues now. Talk about the approaches to communication they would take in situations such as a steep drop in your stock price or an irate customer whose complaints have been picked up by the media. Ask them what you cannot say in these situations and what types of language you must avoid. Ask them what you can do (if anything) to try to help assuage the situation.
  • Determine the lines of communication. If a negative review comes through your social media accounts, who is responsible for sounding the alarm, and who needs to be informed?  If the board is about to fire the president or hire a new one, who will give your team a heads up so you can update communications as necessary? Make sure you have established relationships with the people who need to keep you informed and vice versa.
  • Start drafting communications in advance. If you take the initiative to draft some templated language now, you’ll have more luck influencing the messaging than you would during a crisis when everyone goes into paranoid mode. Offer to create drafts that could be tweaked to accommodate different events or situations. The drafts should have some of the basic elements you recommend, such as brevity, calls to action, links to more information, and limited legalese.
  • Keep an up-to-date content audit file. Every web team should perform a content audit on a regular basis. This audit should result in the creation of a master file that lists all of your content (websites, social media profiles, etc.). The file should include page URLs, titles, keywords, publication dates and author names, and any other data your team needs. If your content audit file is current, you can quickly figure out what needs to be updated following an emergency. For example, if your CEO resigns, you should be able to open your audit document and search on keywords like CEO. You will quickly see pages and sites (executive team bios, quarterly messages, CEO social media accounts, etc.) that mention your CEO’s name so you’ll immediately know how much content needs to be updated.
  • Figure out how you will leverage social media. If your company is on social media, how will you address a customer complaint or negative company publicity? Sometimes taking too long to respond to a situation via social media can make things worse for your company, so make sure your social media team has clear guidelines on when to engage or not engage with an angry customer or customer reactions to negative company news.
  • Document the plan and train your team. Once you have put together some basic guidelines with your legal and PR colleagues, include this information in your new hire training, content manuals, style guides, etc. — wherever you have documented processes for your communications.

Go through your PR disaster plan a couple of times a year with your team so everyone will have a refresher and know what their responsibilities are if something happens. Hopefully you’ll never need to implement your plan, but you’ll be glad to have it ready if disaster strikes.

Disaster Planning for Editors, Part I

When you think about disasters, you probably think of hurricanes, earthquakes, or acts of terrorism. You probably don’t think of editing! But those of us who edit websites, applications, and social media should have a strategy for when disaster strikes.

If you live in an area that’s prone to weather events or earthquakes, you probably already know what you’re supposed to do to protect yourself. You should have a first aid kit and potable water, food for your family and pets, etc. If disaster hits when you’re at work, you likely know where you are supposed to go if your building is evacuated. But what if the disaster takes down your servers or makes your website incredibly slow? Your IT department probably has a plan for data recovery and server backup, but do you have a plan for communicating with your customers?

Here are some ways you can help your team prepare for a disaster well before anything happens.

  • Know what your most business-critical channels are. Which website or application needs to be restored first? What social media channel has the most followers/fans so you can prioritize your messaging?
  • Make sure everyone has a backup, including you. If an unforeseen event impacts your team’s availability, you should have a designated team ready and waiting to step in.
  • Distribute an emergency contact list. Each staff member should have an emergency contact list (include cell or home phone numbers and home email addresses).
  • Secure remote access for critical team members. Make sure your fellow web editors, content managers, and developers have remote access to your content management system so they can update the website from home (or a designated work space, if your company has a back-up work location) if needed. Have your team test out their remote access to make sure it works, especially if they are using home computers.
  • Build helpful error pages. This is good usability practice, but it becomes critical when your website is inaccessible. Don’t use the dreaded  “404” error page. Work with your developers to find out what the experience will look like from a user perspective when all your servers go down. Is there a way they can ensure your audience sees a custom message from your company? Create an error page that includes helpful links to other applications that might still be accessible and phone numbers for customer service. Include links to your social media sites as well, because if the disaster has only affected certain areas and is not widespread, you will likely still have access to your social media accounts and can update your customers through those channels.
  • Determine who will need to approve emergency messaging. When something unforeseen happens, your company will likely want or need to issue a statement. This could mean that people who don’t normally approve your content will now be approvers. Make sure you know who needs to sign off on any emergency statements instead of trying to figure it out in the midst of chaos. (Find out who the back-up approvers are as well, in case the designated approvers are not available.)
  • Be supportive and helpful. If there is a national disaster that does not impact you directly but your company wants to comment on it, make sure your messaging is nothing but helpful and empathetic. Some companies have made the mistake of using a tragic event to promote their product (for example, American Apparel encouraged customers “stuck inside” during Hurricane Sandy to use the time to shop their website; Epicurious suggested that customers try their cranberry scone recipe in response to the Boston Marathon bombing). It’s far better to say nothing than to offend people or take advantage of a tragic situation.
  • Know which reputable charities your company supports. If customers might look to you for suggestions on what they can do to help, make sure you give them accurate information. Know your company’s stance on charities before a tragedy happens and do your research so you don’t direct your customers to an organization you don’t know anything about.
  • Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. What questions would your customer have for your company in the event of a disaster? If your company provides an essential product or service, what expectations might customers have about your availability during or immediately after a disaster? Any messaging you craft should address these expectations.
  • Review your content with the disaster in mind. Rethink your existing and planned content in light of the event that has occurred. Is there anything on your website now that you should remove or edit to reflect what has happened (either from a factual or empathetic standpoint)? Or is there content you have scheduled that you need to postpone or scrap altogether?  For example, say you were planning a series of travel articles about the Gulf Coast, but the Gulf was just struck by a deadly hurricane. You will likely want to postpone that series until the coast has recovered from the damage. (Don’t forget pre-scheduled email newsletters, partner content that you might not directly control, and quarterly or monthly communications will need to be reviewed too.)

In my August post, I’ll review how editors can help plan for a very different kind of event: the public relations disaster.

“Content Strategy for the Web” – Key Points

by Alison Lueders, Great Green Editing

My summer reading tends toward mysteries – Dan Brown’s “Inferno” – that sort of thing, But this month I read Kristina Halvorson’s “Content Strategy for the Web.” Ideally web editing occurs within the context of a content strategy. Here are some key points to ponder while you sip that cool lemonade or iced tea.

Some definitions

We don’t create content for its own sake. It usually exists to meet some organizational objective.

According to Halvorson, “Content is what the user came to read, learn, see or experience.” And content strategy does several things:

  • “defines how you are going to use content to meet business objectives
  • guides decisions about content throughout its lifecycle
  • sets benchmarks against which to measure the success of your content”

Content strategy crosses disciplines, including:

  • messaging and branding
  • web writing
  • information architecture
  • SEO
  • metadata strategy
  • content management strategy

Sound complicated? It is, but Halvorson exhorts us to “call it what you want – just get it done.”

Web writing – “a whole lot more than smart copywriting”

Halvorson describes web writing as “the practice of writing useful, usable content specifically intended for delivery online. This is a whole lot more than smart copywriting. An effective web writer must:

  • understand the basics of usability design
  • be able to translate information architecture documents
  • write effective metadata
  • manage an ever-changing content inventory”

I hadn’t seen this distinction expressed quite like this, but I found it helpful.

Developing a content strategy

The book describes the steps involved in developing a content strategy. While these can flex significantly in practice, the basics include:

  • stakeholder alignment – getting key people to support your content efforts
  • audit – identifying what content you currently have
  • analysis – understanding the world in which your content lives
  • core strategy – setting the long-term direction for all your content initiatives
  • content – defining the substance, structure, workflow and governance of your content

People

It’s telling that the last 4 chapters of the books discuss “people issues” – from content job descriptions to governance approaches to ways to pitch content efforts to upper management.

In my experience, it’s not developing the content or implementing the technology that’s the biggest challenge. It’s managing the people issues.

Adaptive content – what does it mean for web editing?

In discussing the future of content, the book makes the point that “we need to start thinking about content as something that lives beyond a particular publishing platform.” So true. As web editors, is our work really confined to one platform? Or is our focus increasingly on content, regardless of form?

Bottom line: The book sums up the importance of content this way: “Better content means better business.” I really believe that. The book does a great job of explaining why this “no-brainer” idea is both important to understand – and really hard to do right.

What books about web writing and related topics do you read? Share your favorites here!

Search Audits – Finding Out Where You Stand

by Alan Eggleston

Photo: Alan Eggleston screen capture

Photo: Alan Eggleston screen capture

One of the first actions I take for a client – whether I’m providing SEO services or simply writing or editing copy for them – is to perform a search audit. In addition to doing the thing they ask me to do, I want to know, where do they stand today in a search, and how can I build on that (and certainly not make it worse)?

When you decide to make changes to your website, you should know where you stand in a search, too. And you should take actions that will do it no harm. The best way to know where you stand is to do a search audit.

What is a search audit?

Like any kind of audit, a search audit is an analysis. In this case, it looks at the basics of your website and attempts to see what results a basic search returns and how your website contributes to it. Here is what I do in a basic search audit.

My basic search audit

First, I set my search tools to “any time” and “all results.” I also clean out my browser cache, history, and cookies; these, plus location, can affect results. (See Google’s Search Settings for more details.)

Next, I do a basic organic search using the relevant keywords and phrases for my site and see where my site shows up and how my site compares with my competition. This isn’t an exhaustive search, more of a cursory search to see if my site shows up in the very important first three pages of returns, how I’m competing with others whom my potential customers may also find, and for my most critical keywords and phrases.

Afterwards, I look “under the hood” of the site – in the “source code” to see what optimizes the site or what acts as roadblocks to search. I’ve talked about these before, but to summarize:

  • Meta tags: Does every page have a unique page title, description, and list of keywords? Does every image and graphic have an alt tag?
  • Positioning of elements: Is the top of the page code heavy, or are indexable heads and text at the top?
  • Head tags: Do headlines and subheads use the H1, H2, H3 (etc.) head tags to add weight?
  • Strong tags: Are keywords bolded or italicized with “strong” and “emphasis” tags on first use to add weight?
  • Links and anchor text:  Are keywords given authoritative links using a variety of external URLs and anchor text that tell search engines they are meaningful and highly relevant to your page?

To look at source code in a Windows browser, right click on the page and in Chrome scroll to “view page source”; in Internet Explorer scroll to “view source.”

I also verify that there isn’t anything “black hat” in the source code that could earn penalties, including hidden text, keyword stuffing, link stuffing, and so on.

More robust audits

If I’m doing SEO work for the client, I do a more exhaustive audit including more keywords and phrases, identifying and searching for specific competitors (a competitive site analysis), and searching through greater results depth. For very competitive industries or for clients where local results are particularly important, I focus more on local results.

I also look at inbound and outbound links more thoroughly. Search engines penalize for linking to spam and sites that aren’t relevant to your topic, so it’s important to ensure you don’t accept link exchanges or links with no real connection to you or your organization, including links further down the link matrix. One way to review links is through the links reporting in your analytics program (Google Analytics includes this feature, which also allows you to disavow negative links).

This is also a good time to consider how you approach social media interaction. Facebook, LinkedIn, blog, and other social networking likes, retweets, shares, forwards, and other interactions that indicate an acceptance of your content add value to your site, and if what gets passed on includes a link to your site, all the better. So be sure to add links to interior pages to your site and a way to pass them on.

Also good to check is whether your site is registered with certain professional and industry directories, which provide opportunities for links, and listings like Yellow Pages, Maps (Google, Yahoo, and Bing), Google Place, and Local First.

After the NSA PRISM surveillance revelations, some people looking for additional privacy have started using less prominent search engines, such as StartPage and Ixquick. Google and Bing remain the dominant search engines, but for the immediate future, don’t forget to account for this shift in source of traffic.

It’s all about building traffic

All these elements and more can affect how search engines view your site and, thus, your search ranking. Your whole purpose should be to optimize your site for searches so people who want your product or services can find them. Performing an audit will help you find where you come up short and improve your site. That is your goal, right – bringing in more traffic?

Job Hunting for Web Editors

May is a big month for graduations. Congratulations to all the news grads out there!

If your next step is seeking a job in the wonderful world of web editing, read on.

Overall Employment Prospects are Improving

Ostensibly the labor market overall in the US is improving. Nationally, the unemployment rate dropped to 7.5% at the end of April 2013. (Here in Florida it dropped to 7.2%.) While I celebrate this direction, there is still a huge number of unemployed, and new grads face an uphill climb in this economic environment.

If you are considering a web editing role, scan this job description from the Princeton Review. It is not exhaustive, but does speak to the transition going on from print to online editing. It goes without saying, but you want to educate yourself about any job role you pursue. Make sure it syncs with your skills and interests.

Web Editor Job Prospects are Uncertain

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Handbook, there is no such thing as a web editor. This wonderful tome, which projects job growth by occupation from 2010 to 2020, is a tad behind the times in terms of categorizing newer roles like web editing.

You can glean useful information from their “Media and Communication” category. This contains the titles of “Editor“, “Technical Writer” and “Writer and Author.” And for these jobs, there’s info on salaries, projected job growth rates, education requirements and more. But “web editor” and “blogger” and “content writer” aren’t there yet. It’s a bit like panning for gold. If you sift through a lot of information, you may find some nuggets that still pertain to web editing positions.

Web Editor Jobs on LinkedIn

It’s not surprising that an online resource like LinkedIn does a better job of categorizing and presenting web editor-type positions. When searching just today, I found:

  • Web editor – 241 jobs
  • Content editor – 347 jobs
  • Blogger – 88 jobs
  • Online writer – 269 jobs
  • Copy editor – 148 jobs
  • Social media editor – 189 jobs

This is just scratching the surface. The lack of standard nomenclature for web editing positions makes the job search more challenging. But there are jobs out there. Be creative in your search terms. And consider roles that sound interesting, regardless of what they are called.

I’m not suggesting that LinkedIn is the best source of web editor jobs – just one source.

Share your wisdom

Where do you recommend that job hunters look for web editing positions? It would be a lovely graduation gift to our readers to share where you have succeeded in finding work. Please post your responses in the Reply.

And Happy May!

A Passion for Commas

by Alan Eggleston

A writer friend, Will Conley, posted a thought piece on his Facebook page, a small excerpt here:

Hey, Passion. Righteous Indignation called…

When I first read it, I thought it sounded like poetry, almost Shakespearean, thus:

Hey, Passion.
Righteous Indignation, called.

Commas2

And Will responded, “Oh, how a comma says so much.”

That got me thinking, too. People treat punctuation so off-handedly, yet punctuation is as much a tool of communication as are words. And no punctuation mark is more simple yet speaks more complexly than the comma.

The comma commands order in a series. It separates warring clauses. Just as important, it announces an introductory phrase, says farewell to the concluding phrase, too.  The comma hands us off in a letter greeting or conclusion, and sets off parts of a whole such as location or time.

You won’t see these many diverse roles for the period, the exclamation point, or the question mark – let alone the colon, semi-colon, slash, or dash!

Yet no mark is as misunderstood, misused, abused, or underused as the comma. I once accused someone on a corporate approval route of using a comma shaker when reviewing copy, because he seemed to indiscriminately add commas, and then I couldn’t make any sense out of many of them. One of our publication editors even added commas of her own, in an attempt to provide some consistency between all the writers and reviewers. Oh, the humanity! Among writers, these just bred confusion.

I got into a discussion with someone on Twitter recently about punctuation that indicates a “pause.” She felt nothing was adequately enough understood by readers to handle the job, including the comma, the ellipsis, or any of the dashes. I pointed out that in print, all had been well established over many tens to hundreds of years for their various purposes and variations of pauses, but she insisted that today’s reader can’t know what is in the writer’s mind by these punctuation marks. I think they can, if they are used and edited consistently.

That is why I still favor the Oxford (or serial) comma. Yes, I know, often you can deduce the meaning without using that final comma, but the goal of the writer and editor aren’t to leave a question in the mind of the reader but to be clear. Leave the questions for the poets and philosophers. Our purpose as editors, in particular, is to be clear. Thus, except in the case where I am trying to fit a house style in which they already follow the no-Oxford rule, I refuse not to use the Oxford comma. I nurture a passion for commas.

Yes, Will, “a comma says so much.” And we as editors owe it to our readers to give voice to those commas so that our readers may clearly hear.