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.

Which Conferences for Web Editors?

by Alison Lueders

It’s January, and I hope you are managing to stick to your resolutions. Mine were to get a cover for my Kindle Fire (check!), start using reusable cups at Starbucks (check!), and investigate composting (not yet). But I digress.

January is also a time for planning the year ahead. Last month, I spent time assessing what worked and what didn’t for my writing and editing business. I want to do better this year for my clients. As part of that, I’m researching conferences that are the best bets for web editors. Web editing covers a huge gamut – business writing, science writing, journalism, fiction, and much more. But I’m curious where the web editors in this group choose to go, and what their experiences have been.

This year, I’m amping up my focus on the craft of web editing.  And I’d like to make more connections with fellow writers and editors. Partly because I see them as potential partners, more than competitors. And partly because I feel quite at home with the writers and editors I know. Who wouldn’t want to spend more time with people they like?

So – back to conferences. What’s your feedback on any or all of these:

There are MANY more conferences that belong on this list. Please share them. It’s quite possible that the “mothership-conference-for-web-editors” is not listed here, and it should be.

And who knows – based on the ideas compiled here, we may even meet at one or more of these conferences in 2013. Wouldn’t THAT be fun?

I hope we are all off to a great start in 2013. I can’t wait to see your comments!

Website Redesign: Keep it Simple

How you reach the final design of a website is such an important part of the creation or redesign process, it cannot be overstated. So much rides on how your website looks, acts and feels to the visitor. The design or aesthetics is tightly tied into the functionality and structure of your site, and the three must really be tackled together and work together seamlessly.

The companies with the best websites have put a lot of thought into what they want to get out of their site. Sitting down to really think about what the company wants to accomplish (business reasons for the website), and having a plan for the site will be invaluable. What has been a challenge with the current site? Is the new design flexible enough to add new features without having to overhaul the entire site as the company moves forward? What do you really need from your website and how can you best attain that?

Let’s take a look at three key elements of a website design that can help any company attain its goals: structure, functionality, and aesthetics.

Structure
There is the classification of your content (taxonomy), and then the physical structuring of your content. Which sections can you group together in the menu? Are there clearly delineated categories and subcategories? Which should be publicly available and which should be restricted (member) content? The content of your menus and the placement of your navigation is extremely important, and needs to be discussed at an early stage. The whole development of your website hinges on how your site will be set up.

Do you want your navigation to be across the top of the page, which would then free up the left side of your content area – either for sub-navigation or more content? Or should your navigation stick to the left or right sides and either expand below each category via more choices or in a dropdown or flyout menu? There is even footer navigation, which is generally used as a global (entire site) navigation. Which of these is right for your site’s content?

Some structural considerations:

  • Navigation placement
  • Log in placement – is it easy to find where your audience needs to log in?
  • Logo and branding – is your website identifiable with your company? Is the logo presented with enough emphasis or is it unclear who the site belongs to? (Hint: size matters.)
  • Search – is it easy to find where the search field is? Does the website’s search engine return the expected results?
  • Social media presence – do you use social media icons to link to your respective accounts, or would you have your social media feeds represented right on the homepage?
  • Real estate. Homepage real estate is at a premium – which content is a must have versus a nice to have?
  • Advertisement placement – are there advantageous places to put advertising on the homepage or internal pages without compromising your content areas yet still please the advertiser?

Functionality
While it is easy to get caught up in new colors, fonts and a pleasing design, it is imperative that web editors keep an eye out so that a website’s design or redesign is not prohibitive to the functionality. Can your audience find what it needs to? Is the navigation intuitive? If you have to explain your navigation, back to the drawing board! If you click on something, do you get what you expect or is it unclear on where you need to go? Are the labels for the navigation buttons clear or vague?

Keep it simple. This is the best advice anyone will ever give you for website design or redesign. Just as you would not put up obstacles in front of your company’s business so that people could not reach the actual building and services inside, so too you must provide clear and easy access to your website’s information and content. On the other hand, your company’s expertise must be available, but not overpowering to what the customer is looking for. What questions does your audience come to your website to find answers for? These answers should be readily discoverable.

How do you know if your audience can find what it needs? Having your audience help you test your website pre-launch can be invaluable. After all, they are the people who will be using your site. Can they find what they are expecting to find? Here are two great articles on that topic:

Aesthetics
Are the colors, fonts and overall design pleasing aesthetically to you and your audience? Stay away from blinking icons or annoying colors that are hard to read against the background colors. Is there enough contrast between body text and the background – consider the color blind or visually challenged. Does the color scheme enhance the navigation (are the navigation buttons all the same color? Does content that should be grouped together “hang” together visually?)?

Look at the design critically – what stands out in a good way? What stands out like a sore thumb? Leave enough time in your design process to refine features. Does text slam up against your images or graphics? Or is there some “white space” between images and text? Is the design easy to look at or do people squint or grimace when they see it? Is your content cluttering your pages or is it neatly organized and easy to digest?

The Best Site for All
Keeping these three elements at the forefront of your website design or redesign process will help you make your site the best it can be. Finding the right balance and making these elements work together cohesively will only serve you and your customers better. Keep it simple!

Questions and Answers with Liza Bauer Barth

The Web Editors blog would like to introduce you to some of the incredible talent we have in the LinkedIn Web Editors group. Today we present Liza Bauer Barth, who is the web editor at Consumer Reports in New York.

Liza, thank you for joining us. How did you enter into the web world? How long have you been a Web Editor?
I was working in television production after college in the mid-1990s.  During my time there, I noticed a shift to using Macintosh computer programs for television graphics.  It was also the beginning of the Internet boom, which I found so exciting.  I wanted to learn more about these new technologies, so I decided to get my master’s degree in Media Studies at The New School in New York City with a focus on web design.  I left my TV production job in 1999 and went to a  small cable TV channel writing news for its website, and I’ve been working on the web ever since.

Have you ever had a mentor or someone who guided or inspired you in the web field?
I was inspired by my New School professor (his name is escaping me) who taught an online research class.  I learned how to search for information on the web through the original search engine, Alta Vista.  I loved how easy it was and after that class knew I wanted to work on the web.

Did you work in print journalism, communications, public relations or marketing before you became involved in the web?
I have a degree in mass communication from SUNY Plattsburgh and went into the television field first, then transitioned to online writing, editing and content management.

Which style (AP, Chicago, APA, AMA, etc.) do you use on your organization’s website?
AP style

How many people work on your organization’s website editorially?
While there are some designated online editors, all editors in our specific areas (cars, electronics, home, money, etc.) are involved in providing content to the website as well as to our other print publications.

In your work for Consumer Reports, what special challenges have you encountered?
It’s taken a while, but we had to work very hard to blur the lines between writing for print and online.  We have learned that content is content no matter where it lives.

Do you use a content management system? If so, which one?
We are using the CQ content management system, which is part of Adobe.

Do you have a workflow (approval process) established for your organization’s website?
When we migrated to the CQ system, a workflow process was instituted. It starts with the web editor and then it generally goes to copy and then publish depending on content.

Is any of your editorial work outsourced? If so, what do you outsource?
We had outsourced some newsletter and ShopSmart writing, but most has now been brought in-house to save on costs.  Online work has never been outsourced.

Which resources do you read regularly to keep up with what’s going on in the Web world? (blogs, e-newsletters, magazines, books, etc.)
I read much of my news via Twitter.  I follow many news organizations (New York Times, Huffington Post, CNN, and NPR) in addition to automotive and vehicle safety groups since my focus at Consumer Reports is on cars.

Do you attend seminars or webinars to keep up with your profession? Which one(s) have you found most useful?
No, I haven’t had much opportunity to attend seminars.

Along the same note, have you taken or are you taking university or other classes that helped you professionally, and what are they?
After my Master’s degree, I have not taken any further classes.

Do you have any editorial pet peeves?
Not being given journalistic freedom to develop a story to its full potential.

What would you advise someone just starting out in the business?
Know what’s going on in the world, read and follow the news. To gain experience, start writing your own blog or try to do some freelance work.

Do you have a favorite saying or inspirational quote that gets you through tough days?
No, but listening to Pandora during the day helps.

What do you like to do outside of your profession to relax?
I take a dance class once a week and exercise during lunch.  I also like to spend time exploring the world with my husband, 6 year old son, and 4 year old daughter.

What is your greatest challenge in being a Web Editor, and how do you deal with it?
Communication always seems to be the biggest challenge.  I try to ask questions and meet face to face with colleagues.  Walking over to someone’s office and talking can save a lot of time.

What was your greatest triumph or success (so far) as a Web Editor?
I am proud of my work at Consumer Reports especially working on automotive safety and becoming the organization’s expert on distracted driving.  I had the opportunity last June to present on the topic at the National Lifesavers Conference on Highway Safety Priorities in Orlando.

If you have one lesson learned to share with our readers, what would it be?
Keep learning and challenging yourself.  If you have an interest in a topic, become an expert on it.  Make your mark.

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions! Stay tuned for more interviews coming up!

Lessons from a Blogging Success Story

I hear a lot about people trying to make a living through blogging, but rarely do I get to see an example. So it was great to be in the audience at a recent meeting in which owners of a successful blog were interviewed.

The blog is youlookfab.com, a fashion blog run by Angie and Greg Cox, who live in the Seattle area. Even for someone with little interest in fashion, it was fascinating to hear how they made this blog work.
They talked about how they:

  • got started
  • built a blog so successful it supports them both
  • developed a thriving online community—a real community

You can check out the site yourself to get a sense of what they do, but the short version is that they started in 2006 with no particular goal, developed the blog and an online forum, and eventually Greg quit his job at Microsoft to run the back end. Now they run the blog together. Angie also has a business consulting with clients as a fashion stylist.

Fashion is not my thing, but for bloggers and web editors who deal with comments, social media, and the like, I found a lot of clues about what led to this couple’s success.

Not a Casual Interest

By the time Angie began a blog, she already had nearly two decades of professional experience in the fashion industry—as a fashion designer, buyer, and stylist.
How does she come up with ideas for ten posts a week? She answered that she is thinking about it all the time. Really all the time: when she’s with a client, she notices things to write in her next post. And when she’s not working with a client, she’s still thinking about fashion and what to blog about.

Elements that Form a Community

Since marketing has zoomed in on social media, “community” has become a holy grail for companies (who want it for marketing purposes). It’s no surprise that communities online tend to develop organically around shared interests. But even with common interests some groups thrive and some disintegrate.

What sets youlookfab.com apart is that it is a fashion advice blog. Fashion blogs come in lots of different types: celebrity-following blogs, daily photos of the blogger’s oufit, photos of street fashion, gossip+fashion, etc. Angie’s blog is really about style advice and helping people with their own style.

Angie and Greg didn’t set up the forum on the site until the volume of questions Angie was answering demanded it. The forum was an almost instant hit: it transformed the dynamic from Angie helping readers to Angie and readers helping other readers. The more I thought about advice—asking for and getting help—the more it made sense that it’s a perfect foundation for a thriving community:

  • People who help other people are usually nice
  • Nice, friendly people attract other people
  • Groups of nice people have some built-in immunity to trolls, keeping things useful and pleasant

Angie mentioned something else that I think further builds on the foundation of nice people+advice: her philosophy. To paraphrase, when it stops being fun, you stop.

If I had to sum up in one word my impression of what makes Angie and Greg’s endeavor successful, it would be authenticity.

Comments welcome.
@EditorAM

Pinterest for Your Publication

By Jennifer Ford

Most publications have gotten started with the basics of a social media plan by creating a Twitter feed and a Facebook page. But there are many, many other social media tools that your readers might be using and where you might be able to reach them. Readers and consumers these days don’t much care how you get your content to them, but they want to be able to find you on every screen and every device and every network they use.

That’s why you might want to consider Pinterest as part of your social media strategy to share your content. Pinterest is a virtual pinboard that launched in 2010. In under 2 years it became one of the 10 largest social networking services. I can easily see why: its purpose is to share photos, which we all know innately (and gauging from the shift toward a more photo-centric Timeline, Facebook agrees) are the most enticing element of social networking. I joined Pinterest during its beta phase and it has since become a regular at my social media table along with Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Businesses selling products marketed with images on Pinterest are seeing better sales than through Facebook. In a comparison of 50,000 purchases via Facebook and 50,000 purchases via Pinterest on jewelry site Boticca.com, Pinterest buyers spent $180 to Facebook’s $85 per purchase.

That’s great for an e-commerce site, you say, but what about for publications? They’re getting in on the game, too. Publications like the New York Times curate images from lifestyle and blog areas of their site on Pinterest. And take the magazine House Beautiful, for example. As of the time I am writing this, they maintain 41 boards of various themes on Pinterest. And this year they became the first Pinterest-enabled print magazine by implementing a digital watermark tool, like a QR code but integrated into an image, called Print-to-Pin (Digimarc). You can actually take a photo of the printed page with your smartphone and create a pin that will reference the House Beautiful site. There are still some wrinkles to be ironed out, but there are so many possible applications it makes the mind spin.

But there are reasons you might not want to use Pinterest, either. Consider the way it works: a steady stream of photos that reference a URL. For example, healthcare publications could face HIPAA compliance fines or other legal action if Pinterest users ever shared photos that did not have identifying information removed or did not have the necessary permissions attached. Even if you’re not risking something as serious as legal action, you don’t want to risk wasting your time. You need to gauge whether your readers are on Pinterest and would want to see your content there.

If you have decided you want to get on the Pinterest bandwagon, start by downloading the Pin It plugin that you can put on your site. You can also look to see if anyone has already pinned something from your website by going to http://pinterest.com/source/yourwebsite.com/. And, of course, you’ll want to develop a strategy for your activity on Pinterest and share it with other editors who are involved. When you pin your content, you’ll want to be sure that there are feature images that relate to the content, because the image associated with a URL is what users see in the pin, and if you don’t have one, Pinterest will try to use another image it can find, like your logo or an ad. Another resource that could be helpful is the book Pinfluence by social media expert Beth Hayden, which was published in July 2012.

Share your experiences! Leave a comment or tweet @jeniford or @thewebeditors.