Shouldn’t your next higher ed web project be a Content Redesign?

January 17th, 2011 Karine Joly 18 Comments

I believe it should.

What do I mean by a “Content Redesign?”

Something quite simple and complex at the same time.

This Way That Way Which way to turnEvery 3 to 4 years, most universities and colleges (well, at least those with some budgets left) embark in major web redesign projects. After many discussions and meetings, your web committee finally gives the greenlight to start the work on a several-month project to launch a newly redesigned website.

In most cases, the redesigned website includes new homepage and secondary pages, a more user-friendly navigation scheme and even some improved content. While it infuriates a vocal minority, this new version is welcome by the majority and even seen as a success by the members of your web committee.

All is well in Redesign Land and everybody can go back to sleep work until the need for another upgrade arises 3 to 4 years later.

While some institutions decide to spice up a bit the classic redesign project scenario by throwing up a content management system (CMS) implementation, these redesigns with a CMS twist have most of the time the same ending: web content that is rarely updated, some become redudant and the rest turns stale as the months pass and new responsabilities get added to the job description of content contributors.

As many have already pointed out in our community, web content doesn’t get a lot of love in higher education – or anywhere for that matter.

In her book, Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson, highlights clearly in the first pages that web content is most of the time an after-thought, a filler, you know, the lorem ipsum designers use in their design comps:

Most web project schedules postpone content development until the eleventh hour. As a result, content quality is often seriously compromised.

So, no love for content? Really?
Why on earth would you spend so little time and effort on what fuels the Web?

As you know, people use the Web to find content that entertains, informs or helps them connect with others. And, while web designs look more and more alike with the same widgets, social plugins, navigation schemes and even colors, great web content will be the next big differentiator in the Web (or Facebook) arena.

Unfortunately, any serious work on content strategy and production requires an important amount of time and resources. It might not look as sexy as a cutting-edge or smart new visual design, but on the big scheme of things, it’s definitely more important.

So, what can you do?
For once, why not focus your energy and efforts on content by planning and implementing what I called earlier a “Content Redesign”?

What better place than higher education to sell the merit of good Web content?

Make your “Content Redesign” the project.

Don’t touch the visual shell of your website.

Don’t evaluate and implement a CMS while you’re at it.

Instead, just focus on content.

Not just the way it’s organized at the site- or page-level, the information architecture, but also what it says and how it meets the needs of your web audiences. Give your web content the attention it deserves.

The content strategy purists won’t like my idea, because content strategy calls more for a process-approach than a project-approach.
However, I believe that it takes a village of projects to raise an effective process.

The web community might not been too keen on this idea, because it seems easier to address everything at once.
Well, I think it’s probably because it’s easier to pass over content shortcomings when the project includes many other components.

What do YOU think about this idea of “Content Redesign” for higher ed websites? I’d love to hear your opinion, so please share it by posting a comment!

18 Responses

  1. Thank you for saying this; I’ll go one step further: what if we asked all these actual writers working on campuses everywhere to take a break from writing alumni news, and spend a few hours on one undergrad program’s content.

    I’ve been doing this where time permits and I should probably share the analytics. It’s good.

  2. Karine Joly says:

    Great idea, Charlie.
    Shoot me an email if you have an interesting case study you want to share with the class. Seeing is believing and I’ll be happy to do a post about it.

  3. Desirina says:

    As a freelance copywriter for higher ed, one of my main sources of work is developing web content for universities. From that perspective, I could not agree with you more. Particularly with regards to this:

    “Instead, just focus on content.

    Not just the way it’s organized at the site- or page-level, the information architecture, but also what it says and how it meets the needs of your web audiences. Give your web content the attention it deserves.”

    Web content strategy is often sadly overlooked. Developing of print pieces almost always begins with a series of in-depth strategy conversations with the client, agency, and various stake holders — what is the goal, how do we represent the brand and maintain voice with past pieces while also evolving and updating this particular campaign for a new cohort of students, etc etc. With web content, that just doesn’t happen. I’m frequently given carte blanche to develop the web content however I see fit, without a larger creative framework to place it in. And, like you mentioned, at the 11th hour — when the focus needs to be on accuracy and production, not new creative schemes.

    The main institutional demand placed on web content is that it be clear, easy to read and concise. When the goals for web content haven’t been fully thought out by the institution, that makes sense — decision-makers prefer content that’s written in a “transparent” style, at least it won’t dilute or distract from any existing print campaigns. But I feel like web content could do so much more than that — with more in-depth time, discussion and collaboration, the web content could do it’s own part to advance the school’s unique brand.

  4. Karine Joly says:

    Desirina, do you think the approach is more strategic with print publications because they cost more? What can explain this big difference? Or are the web folks responsible for this lack of interest for content?

  5. Desirina says:

    Karine, that is an interesting question. The cost disparity may be a factor. But I’m inclined to think that it’s mainly about tradition and force of habit in process: institutions have been developing print pieces long enough that there is more of a protocol in place for how you go about making one.

    With web content the space is still uncharted; despite the decade or so that web content has been part of the strategy, in institutional terms that’s not very long, especially when colleges only refresh their websites every couple or few years. We only recently moved past the stage where organizations were getting websites just because everyone else had one; now we’re moving into that much more exciting space where we can actually start figuring out what they’re there for. But the process for that conversation isn’t in place yet.

    Thinking about it, perhaps its also about scale. There are simply many more pages on a website than in a brochure or even a viewbook, and it’s a much bigger project to drill down to each section and figure out what the goal is.

  6. Josh Stowe says:

    Great post, Karine! I like the idea of a special project to refresh and rethink content for a website. Ideally this is something that should be done on an ongoing basis, but without making it a project, there’s no urgency.

    I guess my twist to this would be to add monthly mini-projects throughout the year that focus on one aspect (or one area) of the site. Visual redesigns are great from time to time, but the key is having good content that’s organized intuitively.

  7. Erik says:

    I agree that a big part of the problem is habit. Print is more familiar and easier to wrap your head around. I also think cost is a big part – whatever gets the money also gets the attention.

    But another reason could be that print materials usually create awareness; they’re the first point of contact and so they have to create a great impression. Of course, as we all know, the web plays a much larger role in the entire admission process, even if print first drives them there. If we’re going to invest all that money and time in print, we should be spending as much if not more on the web to ensure that the whole process is seamless and pain free for the student.

    Now that I think about it, though, Desirina may be right that scale is also to blame. Most print materials are for admission purposes – a very comfortable topic for most marketing departments. But the website has content for every department and topic related to the institution! How are we possibly going to find content experts to figure out the goals and strategies for those sites, let alone actually write the content? And so we push out a CMS that lets each department fend for themselves even though they aren’t writers or information designers.

    Maybe if we can present a clear picture of what roles print and web actually play – the reach, the influence and the result on the bottom line – then we can start to acquire or shift the resources needed to use the web to its full potential.

  8. Desirina says:

    Agree with you Erik about presenting a clear picture of what roles print & web play. Web is not an extension or mirror image of print, hard copy translated onto the screen — at least it shouldn’t be.

    Maybe finding inspiring examples of institutions who are pushing web to do more/bigger/better things, and holding them up for study, would be a good way of advancing change among schools that are slower to embrace web strategy. Perhaps some simply need to see something exciting being done before they will be ready to pursue the idea.

  9. Karine Joly says:

    How about showing how good content can make a difference on a website – defining metrics to measure the BEFORE & AFTER differences in event registrations, applications, form submissions, etc — tying the content redesign to measurable goals?

  10. Mallory Wood says:

    Actually Erik, I think higher ed is finding more and more that the web is becoming the first point of contact (versus print materials), particularly with prospective students who start their college search on the web and then follow up with schools of interest at college fairs or an in-person visit. Many high school students will cross a college off their list based on the fact they weren’t able to find the information they needed on the website. Other students no longer feel a visit or even contact with the institution is necessary because they’ve learned all they need to know from the web. We have seen this played out over the past 5 years with the rise of the stealth applicant.

    This is obviously more reason for why your website’s content needs to be top notch. I think Erik has provided us with great advice: “we should be spending as much if not more on the web to ensure that the whole process is seamless and pain free for the student.” I think they key word is “seamless.”

  11. Patty Shaw says:

    Thank you for the great post and interesting comments. It has also been my experience that content is often overlooked in the website redesign/refresh process, or viewed as a low priority item. While many universities are effectively staffing-up their IT and web design departments to ensure web enhancement projects are handled in timely and quality manner, they are not resourcing or planning for the content generation required to effectively populate the web presences created. A carefully planned content strategy that is aligned with the university’s brand is an essential component of all web planning documents. After all, what is a website without relevant, well-written copy?

  12. Caryn says:

    Print has a deadline for production, but web can be edited any time, so it’s like the jobs on your ToDo list that don’t have dates: they don’t get done. Generally web content, unless the content includes deadlines (such as Financial Aid applications deadlines for Spring term), rarely even gets read by its owners.

  13. Kate Johnson says:

    A well-structured, sorely needed idea. It can be hard to communicate the overall idea of content strategy, both to higher ed administrators and to traditional Web pros. But this distills the importance and urgency of content into a specific project that should make sense to non-content types.

    We’ve already set exactly this kind of content redesign as one of our goals for this year, but we’re running up against the same problem you always face in higher ed–limited resources, limited time, and so many, many projects to do. We’re going to do our best to advocate for putting this project at a high priority.

  14. Mike says:

    While I believe a content-only redesign would produce positive results, I’m too biased by my IA background not to say this: content doesn’t live in isolation. Some content is bad because it’s in read within a poorly thought out context. So sure, pick the low hanging fruit by cleaning up the content, but I would find myself always fighting the urge to redesign other aspects as I went (maybe this is the process versus project approach you brought up).

  15. Kate Johnson says:

    That’s a very good point. When I say “content” these days, I’m not thinking of it in the traditional UX design model where content and IA are discrete categories and processes, and you could work on one without working on the other. (If you’re working on any other kind of content in the world–a term paper, a magazine, a video–the way the content is arranged is an integral part of the content itself, so in a way it seems strange to me that those two issues are often considered entirely separate problems on the Web. [I do understand where that comes from and the thinking behind it, but still, looking at it holistically, the results strike me as strange.])

    This does tend to get me in trouble sometimes in Web conversations and projects–I forget that the way I define content in my head doesn’t tend to match the commonly understood definition.

  16. Mike says:

    Kate: Yes, the distinction between content and IA is odd to me too. I’m so old at this point that I came from a world where one person did all of the things that, today, are specialized roles. People talk about the death of the “generalist” which may be the case, but I think having a generalist on the team is a clear advantage in helping to orchestrate all the moving parts. But I digress.

    I’m not 100% sure, but it seems the point of this article IS to separate content from other specialties which I don’t believe will create the best outcome. If you’re a content person who can do IA though, then you’re in business.

  17. Karine Joly says:

    Thank you all for your great comments.

    Mike, the point of this article is to focus on the content as opposed to “making a pretty website” first and foremost.

    Actually, I agree with Kate. I don’t see information architecture as something separate from content. Content (what it says and how it says it and is organized) isn’t something to fill up a page – it’s the core of the page.

    Today’s discussion around content strategy are, in my opinion, a repackaging of the good old principles but with web content at its right place.

  18. […] wondering if this kind of approach might not actually be the way to make the bigger project a “content redesign” by putting out of the way the cosmetic aspect of the […]

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