Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

May 2008 Archives

Back from Florida last night and reading a summary of a recent Carewords research project put together by the client. Just about perfect with one exception... an advisory to people working on their websites that they had about 30 seconds to make an impression and engage with a visitor to the page.

It would be nice if that were true. But alas, you don't have nearly that long to capture initial attention and get someone to stay on a website page. In my "Writing Right for the Web" workshops, I often say 2 to 5 seconds is the limit. That's from my direct marketing background and it is closer to reality than 30 seconds.

10 Seconds at the Most!

Also waiting for me when I returned was the May issue of Website Magazine. Taking a quick first look, I noticed an article on "The First 10 Seconds." And that's probably a good compromise. Personally, I'd still err on the side of thinking you really have to make an almost instant connection in the time it takes someone to first run their eyes over your page. That scan is very quick indeed.

Subscribe to Website Magazine 

A subscription to the print copy of the magazine is free at and you can also read the "10 second" article online when you visit even if you don't subscribe.

Highly recommended.

Sitting in the Sacramento airport this morning on the way back from a web review report at UC Merced, I got online to check email. That takes me through a first Yahoo "news" page. This morning, the lead story is a tease to learn about "degrees to get you hired" to help you move forward in life at least until 2016.

Since I'm always in favor of moving forward, I visited followed the link to and scanned the list of growing employment areas. Pretty standard stuff. Along with the story "reporting" the list comes a plethora of advertising opportunities for colleges and universities of every type. Hundreds of them.

You can sort by the level of degree or the area of study. But if you're interested in a "doctoral" program, don't expect to have only those advanced fields reported back to you. Whoever programmed this thing really does follow the mantra of "just keep throwing things at people until something sticks."

I tried sorting the alpha list for on-campus programs by zip code, using one from Michigan. That did sort things out to the point where the first programs reported were indeed in or near the zip code. But the list kept right on going, reporting non-degree occupational programs in locations as far as 2,000 miles away.

Does advertising like this work? It all depends on ROI. Cost of leads returned and percent who convert to enrollments. But it sure isn't a direct marketer's idea of how to do things.

In the middle of a communications capability review for a client this morning, I made a visit to Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox website in search of specific usability information. Haven't actually found it yet, but the browsing did make me realize yet again how important it is in online communications that websites tend to the basics before the bells and whistles.

We always say we know this. We don't always act like it when we plan to recraft our websites.

A 2005 column reporting the 10 most serious website design mistakes ends with a reminder that's as true now and it was three years ago:

Back to Basics in Web Design

"There's much talk about new fancy "Web 2.0" features on the Internet industry's mailing lists and websites, as well as at conferences. But users don't care about technology and don't especially want new features. They just want quality improvements in the basics:

  • text they can read;
  • content that answers their questions;
  • navigation and search that help them find what they want;
  • short and simple forms (streamlined registration, checkout, and other workflow); and
  • no bugs, typos, or corrupted data; no linkrot; no outdated content.

Anytime you feel tempted to add a new feature or advanced technology to your site, first consider whether you would get a higher ROI by spending the resources on polishing the quality of what you already have. Most companies, e-commerce sites, government agencies, and non-profit organizations would contribute more to their website's business goals with better headlines than with any new technology (aside from a better search engine, of course)."

Down in Fort Worth, Susan Ragland recently started a new position as Web Content Editor at Tarrant County College. When she contacted me recently for a mini-bio to use with some on-campus writing sessions she'll be doing, I asked her to send along a job description to include with those posted earlier. And so thanks to her for doing just that.

In addition to the job description, Susan reports that the specific responsibilities for the postion are still evolving. She works with another web person whose primary responsibility is on the technical side, although Susan has some technical experience as well. That seems a strong combination.

Here are some details for this Web Content Editor spot.

  • Collaborates with the director of public relations and marketing to ensure that website content related to the institution, its brand and marketing messages are maintained, updated, and evaluated for effectiveness and efficiency.
  • Specific ativities include these:
    • Assisting the web master in project management for redeveloping the website and for acquiring a CMS.
    • Giving final approval in the work flow for new web pages.
    • Assisting web editors and authors among the faculty and staff in writing and editing content to achieve maximum usability and to maintain brand consistency.
  • Basic job requirements:
    • A bachelor's degree, preferably in journalism, public relations, mass communications or marketing and 3 to 5 years writing and/or editing experience and knowledge of basic content management software.

Over the years I've learned not to predict the individual items in my monthly "Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter" that will draw special attention. And this month, the highest interest item (more than 3x more clicks than the 2nd highest) in the April newsletter was no exception.

The April newsletter featured an Alertbox column by web usability champion Jakob Nielsen: "Right Justification Menus Impede Scannability." He used three university examples to make his point:

  • Indiana University
  • University of Michigan
  • Vanderbilt University

The Alertbox column is at

What's unusual is the rapid response Nielsen received from the University of Michigan. Nielsen sent the Alertbox on April 28 and by the time I sent my newsletter on April 30, the Michigan people had already corrected their website and removed the right justification.

Nielsen notes that in the total array of things to fix on websites, the menu justification issue isn't the most important one. And while that's true, every little fix helps make things better for those who visit college and university websites. And so special congratulations to the University of Michigan people who moved so quickly to make this change.

The Michigan folk also took the opportunity to fix two other problem areas: the use of hard-to-read ALL CAP LETTERS in the menu and the low contrast colors used in the original. It is indeed much easier to read in the new format.


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