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.

Analytics: Avoiding Overload

In my role as a board member of my local chapter of the Association for Women in Communications, I’ve been compiling analytics. I collect the information through Google Analytics (website), MailChimp (e-newsletters), and Hootsuite (Twitter), and then I give a brief report at our monthly meetings. Sounds simple enough, right?

Not so fast. Not for me, anyway.

These tools can be really useful for communications, but every time I log in for analytics, I feel like I’m bushwhacking with no machete. The statistics are piled high, and the graphics look appealing. But every month, I log in, look around, get overwhelmed, consider downloading default data, decide I can’t really use that, get mesmerized by the colorful charts, and start clicking around randomly like a lab monkey in a cage. After wasting an hour or two, I log out and take a nap.

Last month, I determined to have a strategy before I logged back in.

My first step was to think about how I would use the data; imagining myself giving the report to the rest of the board helped me focus:

  • The report had to be brief
  • The data had to be explainable to others
  • The information had to be meaningful, and therefore specific and applicable to our group’s overall goals

I like to procrastinate think about the big picture, so next I rewatched a couple of insightful talks on information glut:

Clay Shirky’s “It’s Not Information Overload, It’s Filter Failure.
What I like about Clay Shirky’s talk is that he puts our current situation (his talk is from 2008) in historical context. We’ve “evolved” in an environment where publishing and printing have traditionally had high upfront costs, and therefore publishers acted as gatekeepers and quality-control filters. Now we have low-cost, low-barrier-to-entry publishing and we have spam, “information overload,” a flood of low-quality content, and a whole slew of new privacy-control issues.

Our new forms of media require new ways of filtering because we no longer have a filter (via cost and inconvenience) near the source of information. And because we depend on email, social media, search engines, blogs, and many other new means of getting information, we need new ways of thinking about filtering. The information sources we use now are often not in “linear” form—a filter mid-stream will not work if the stream is actually a connected group of lakes.

Which brings me to JP Rangaswami’s TED talk, “Information is Food.
Rangaswami is on to something—on to a new way of thinking about filtering—when he says that information is food. At the end of the talk he asks:

If you began to think of all the information that you consume the way you think of food, what would you do differently?

Analytics, I thought, is an all-you-can-eat buffet. How to avoid indigestion at a buffet? Be choosy: go for quality and freshness, don’t mix too many types of foods, and don’t be tempted to overload your plate just because everything is so cheap.

Now it was time to devise my plan for going into the jungle of data, and coming out with something … digestible. I came up with a few simple questions that I thought our analytics could shed light on, and I put them in three rough categories:

What people like

  • What stories get the most click-throughs in the newsletters?
  • What links or tweets get the most clicks/retweets?
  • What subject lines result in the highest open rate for newsletters?

Experiments and outliers

  • Did we change our methods this month? Can we see results in the analytics data?
  • Are there any unusual results (compared to industry benchmarks, for example)—either very high or very low?

What brings people in

  • What search terms were used to get to the website?
  • What search terms were used to search within the website?
  • Where are people being referred from?

There are many other good questions one could ask, and there’s an endless amount of minutia one could track. I chose these because they seem to suit our needs. And I like to group them in categories because it makes it easy to pick a question or two from each category without feeling like I need all of the questions every time. The important thing, I now believe, is not to try to consume more information than I’ll actually use.

Comments welcome.


Shortie: How Do You Tweet?

According to a May 31 Pew Internet Report, “As of February 2012, some 15% of online adults use Twitter, and 8% do so on a typical day. Overall Twitter adoption remains steady, as the 15% of online adults who use Twitter is similar to the 13% of such adults who did so in May 2011. At the same time, the proportion of online adults who use Twitter on a typical day has doubled since May 2011 and has quadrupled since late 2010—at that point just 2% of online adults used Twitter on a typical day. The rise of smartphones might account for some of the uptick in usage because smartphone users are particularly likely to be using Twitter.”

It’s interesting that the growth is attributed to smartphone use. For individuals posting to Twitter, that makes sense. But for organizations, you would think staff would still be tied to computers, laptops, or tablets, unless they are tweeting remotely from a conference, tradeshow or event of some kind. It would be interesting to see what percentage of staff tweeting is done by smartphone vs. traditional avenues.

How much of your audience is on Twitter? How often do you tweet to your audience – daily, weekly, when news happens? Is it as useful a tool as Facebook or other social media for your organization? Are you seeing the kind of follower growth that is listed above? Most of all, do you and your audience typically access Twitter via smartphone? Please reply in the comments.

The Errant Tweet: Editing Social Media

by Rebecca L. Wells

Whether you’re in a one-person consultancy, a newsroom, or a large corporation, your marketing and communications strategies likely include social media assets that must be edited and curated. But not every social media site is the same. How do you craft an editorial policy that covers all the bases?

While there is no solid consensus on editing techniques for each type of social media site, there are some general guidelines to consider.

The Permanent: Wikipedia, Message Boards, and Blogs
Some social media properties have more staying power. They may show up in search results for years, or have trackable editing that makes any change to the content transparent. Examples of this type of social media include Wikipedia, Linked In, message boards, and blogs.

Wikipedia is somewhat self-policing in that an editing history is visible for every entry. But blogs are trickier: do you edit old posts? Delete them? What merits an update – a typo, or breaking news that contradicts your original post?

The Washington Post handles it this way:

Blog posts should be updated quickly and transparently to correct erroneous information.The placement of the correction should reflect the gravity of the error. Major corrections (e.g., when the headline or driving premise of the blog post is wrong) should be noted in the headline and at the top of the post as well as within the blog item.

Many media outlets and personal bloggers follow this rule. For example, if you have published a post complaining that cable service is down in your neighborhood, and those services are reinstated shortly thereafter, you should edit your post to reflect that. Your statement was valid given the situation, but you don’t want to misinform your readers.

A less obvious issue is what to do when you discover a typo. If you are merely changing a “thier” to “their,” it would be more distracting than it’s worth to call that to your readers’ attention. You have not changed anything of substance; you’ve merely corrected a spelling error and made your post easier to read in the process.

Corporate blogs
Corporate blogging can be a different, and less transparent, example. As an editor, you should make sure your writers are familiar with libel and defamation laws; you also must ensure that your legal department reviews content before you post it. This could prevent you from being asked to remove information that was already published.

Message boards
Some website message boards can show up in search results for years. Yet it is a method of communicating that often focuses on short-term (and therefore quickly outdated) content.

The best practices for message boards are similar to blogs; you should provide transparency and clarity for your readers. For example, if you posted a link to a site that is now broken, and the page is still prominent on your site or through searches, add a note to your original post that says “ETA: this link has now been changed to (provide new link).” (ETA is an abbreviation commonly used by online community posters; it means “edited to add.”) You can also add disclaimer language warning readers of outdated information that will appear with old posts. You should not, however, worry about correcting old news or outdated information as a rule; it’s an archive and readers should understand that.

If some of your message board threads are very out-of-date, lock them so users cannot post new messages that may keep old pages high up in search results.

The Ephemeral: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest
Some social media sites, unlike Wikipedia and blogs, produce more ephemeral, or short-term, content.  On Twitter, frequent users may post several tweets a day, but if followers are not checking often, they may miss several of those tweets and only see a few that were most recently posted.

News feeds on Facebook are similar. If your rogue post, rife with misspellings or a link that doesn’t work, shows in others’ timelines before you can delete it, it won’t last for long unless somebody captures your error with a screenshot.  But if it has been out there for a while and collected “likes” and comments, leave it and issue an updated or corrected post.

To delete or not to delete?
Regardless of the nature of the site, there are times when you need to update content you have published. If breaking news impacts a story you posted, for example, you should update your Twitter or Facebook feed with that breaking news. As with blogs, if you have to fix a minor typo that bears no weight on the matter at hand, deleting a post to replace it with the correctly spelled version is fine.

On these dynamic social media sites, you should be careful to credit any other people who have provided content you are referencing. On Facebook, if you are sharing something one of your friends shared first, it’s appropriate to say “via.” For example, if your friend Debbie Brown posted a review of Jimmy’s Deli that you noticed and now you want to post it too, you should post it as “Jimmy’s Deli Review via Debbie Brown” (with Debbie Brown’s name linked to her profile).

On Pinterest, if you are re-pinning somebody’s pin, they are automatically credited; and if you want to change the description of an item, it’s understood that users add their own labels. So you don’t need to call out the fact that you have changed the wording of the original description. But if you are using the original description, you should make sure that it is appropriately written for your audience and your brand.

Twitter has a more complicated etiquette. If you are quoting another person’s tweet, you should use the QT (quote tweet) abbreviation so the original tweet appears in quotes. If you are shortening a tweet so you can fit it and your comment within Twitter’s 140-character limit, you should use the abbreviation “MT” (modified tweet). Otherwise, you are editing someone else’s words without acknowledging it.

Because the social media landscape is ever-changing, you should review your policies on a regular basis. One good resource is the Social Media Governance site, which provides a list of links to social media policies for dozens of organizations, from the US Navy to the New York Times.

Web Editor: Jennifer Ford

“You become what you think about.” This is a key message from life coaching pioneer Earl Nightingale. He calls this “The Strangest Secret,” and it happens to be true in my case when it comes to my current role as a web editor.

I come from a background in various editorial roles, from educational book publishing to research to freelance projects of every color. Several years ago I began working full time for a monthly trade publication that had only just created a list of job responsibilities for a web editor and assigned them to a coworker. Over a short period I took on items from that list as the initiative to focus on and develop our web presence grew. I loved getting my feet wet and hoped that I’d take over the web editor role someday.

Well, with some big changes I suddenly and unexpectedly became what I had been thinking about: the web editor. Over the last two years I’ve learned about using content management systems, planning a website editorial schedule, managing social media campaigns, developing SEO content, creating multimedia and hosting webinars — all on the fly. It’s been a very interesting journey. I can only imagine many web editors have come to their current positions in much the same way.

I am honored to be among the very talented editors writing for Web Editors. In my next post I plan to write about using Facebook and Twitter to achieve a variety of different goals for your publication. I look forward to hearing from you!