Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

Recently in Customer Carewords Research Category

Xavier University Story Continues: Creating the Most Distinctive Home Page in Higher Education

Last week I presented the first two answers to questions I sent along last year to Xavier to learn more about how they decided to position a "Search" box and the dominant feature of the university's home page. 

Here today are the next two answers from Rob Riesland, Director for Web Services in the Marketing and Communications Office. If you missed the first two questions and answers, you can start with those first if you wish.

Thumbnail image for IMG_0913.PNG

What did you do to ensure that your "search" function worked well enough to make this change?

Nailing the search was the key to making this work. We decided to enhance our current Google CSE (free version) by implementing our own, manually-maintained autocomplete script on top of the Google search. This gives us the fine-grained control that we desire.

To start off with, we automatically added every academic program to the search suggestions. The analytics tell us that this is one major area that prospective students are looking for. We also added all of the university offices, in their own category, with a lower priority than the academic programs.

We also added general search terms. We have been tracking search for years and know what people are looking for during different times of the year. We set minimum annual and monthly thresholds for search counts and used that data to add important search terms to the suggestions. This data is reviewed on a regular basis, with slightly lowered thresholds each time, and new items are added as needed.

Lastly, we told everyone on campus what we were doing, asked them to search for items that are important to their department, and let us know if there is anything we need to do differently. We did not receive much feedback from this round, but I think it was an important part of the process.

Over the past few months we have added several items to the search as needed. This is an important ability that allows us to adjust as needed and as requested by the departments on campus.

How will you measure success going forward? Who is responsible for monitoring results?

We measure success in two ways:

Are people using the results? We have extensive analytics on the search box and we track if people are using the search suggestions or if they default to the standard search. It should be noted that we also display up to 4 suggestions on the traditional results page, in case people make it that far.

We are also looking at user behavior over time, tracking how many site visitors, especially external, use the search vs the traditional navigation techniques.

The new information architecture of the whole site requires regular review and looking at the search box will certainly be part of that. This process will be run by the Office of Marketing and Communications, in collaboration with other departments on campus.

Marketing Opportunity: Learning more about Top Tasks and Carewords

There is of course, great marketing opportunity here. 

I'll be looking forward to learning more about what "new" or first-time visitors search for most often. That's a key indicator of the top tasks that website visitors want to complete. And creating a website that let's people complete their top tasks as quickly and easily as possible is more important to marketing success than anything else on the site. 

Especially important: Are visitors searching for content that is not already on the website? And if it is present, what happens when visitors land on the page with that content?

This is also a fine opportunity to learn more about the language people, especially future students, use. Those are the "carewords" that will engage people throughout a website.

That's all for now.

Subscribe to "Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter" for monthly marketing news and notes and weekly Link of the Week selections.

Join 7,125+ people and follow me on Twitter.
Websites gain marketing advantage with top task design

The secret to making your website an effective marketing tool: clean and simple design that lets visitors complete their tasks as quickly as possible. Experience on the site is more important than "stunning" hero images or other design fads.

For years now I've been a partner in the Customer Carewords team that promotes the use of top task research as the basis of successful website design. Carewords partners work for government agencies, private business corporations, and health care organizations as well as colleges and universities. Top task rules apply everywhere.

What are examples of effective top task use in higher education? Over my years of making Link of the Week selections I've often included top task examples. Now, prompted by a recent query from Anne Lutgerink at Internationalizing Education, I'm collecting here several of the best of those examples.

Key design elements: speed, task visibility, and "care" words

Three elements are key to top task design: Visibility in 5 seconds or less as a page opens and use of words that visitors care about. The rules don't change for mobile, except that the right words are even more important.

Examples from 9 higher education websites

University of Ottawa home page. When it went online early in 2013 this page was a thing of beauty as it gave prominent display to just four topics linking to tasks: "Find a program" and "University fees" for the primary external audience and "News, events and dates" and "Search library" for faculty and current students. Since then the page has fallen victim on occasion to someone's urge to add special events above the task links. It still remains one of the cleanest university home pages.

Victoria University home page: If you must use a carousel on your home page, don't let it drive a key top task lower on the page. In this example, "Find a course" and "Browse for courses" links take the prime upper left position and the carousel starts to the right of the task.

East Stroudsburg University admissions page: Highlighting top tasks on an admissions page is especially challenging as the tasks change as people move through the recruitment cycle. ESU meets the challenge in a simple but effective way: divide the page into 4 recruitment cycle segments and list the tasks for each segment directly to the right. Just about perfect.

Arcadia University study abroad page. The program entry page illustrates how you can use a strong image along with a branding statement and still include just 3 "can't miss" task words as the page opens. So simple. So clean. So seldom done. You can apply the same approach to just about any entry page.

Northern Alberta Institute of Technology academic program page: You won't find any photos here but you will immediately see "Grad Employment Rate" and "Median Starting Salary," two points about academic programs that are of increasing interest to potential students. Quickly following those are "Quick Facts," "Tuition & Fees" and "Entrance Requirements."

Williams College parents page: Open this page to find 6 images with word topics that you can scan easily to see the links to tasks for each topic. The first "Parent Resources" heading includes links to "Information for First-Year Students" and "Information for Returning Students" as well as a link to "Key Williams Contacts." The ability to 'find a person" is one of the most neglected top tasks on many websites.

Middlebury College department of English and American Literatures: Here is an admirable example of how to make it easy to contact your faculty. Each right-sized block for the 30 people listed includes email, phone number, and office hours. Sound simple? On many faculty website pages it isn't.

Rochester Institute of Technology Merit Scholarships: For sure this page will win no beauty awards but it offers in a single place what is so often missing from scholarship pages: name of the award, eligibility (including in some cases specific ACT & SAT scores), amount of the award, and what to do, if anything, to apply.

University of Oregon gift options page: Alumni and other potential donors want to know what their options are for giving to areas that match their special interests. Visit here to see 9 areas of interest that start with "Schools and Colleges" and end with "Athletics."

That's all for now.

Subscribe to "Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter" for monthly marketing news and notes and weekly Link of the Week selections.

Join 6,775+ people and follow me on Twitter

Responsive Design and Web Content: Top Tasks are a Critical Element

It is just a week since I'm back from our sixth annual Customer Carewords partners meeting in Dublin, Ireland. Each year proves to me that while you can do much online, there indeed is no substitute for in-person meetings with new and old colleagues.

This year I especially enjoyed a presentation by Christiaan Lustig, senior consultant at Sabel Online in the Netherlands. Christiaan's July article "The case for responsive web content: it's all about the users" helped me with a nagging concern about the rush to responsive web design that's been bothering me for a year or so now. 

The Holy Grail: Create Content Once, Publish it Everywhere

I'm always a bit suspect when the entire world moves suddenly in a single direction. 

Responsive web design has many strong points and Christiaan reviews them well in his article. But I suspected that a major reason for the attractiveness of responsive design was an understandable one: the lure of eliminating the cost in time and money of creating mobile web environments distinct from traditional websites. The new Holy Grail is a world where web folk can create content once and publish it everywhere... desktops, smart phones, tablets, refrigerators, TVs and who knows where else.

And I was startled by the vitriolic response on Twitter to a Jakob Nielsen Alertbox article in May. It was as if everyone waiting for years to draw and quarter the man had finally found a reason to pounce. What did Nielsen say? Responsive design might be OK for some websites but likely not for all websites. And most of the examples he's seen to date were "primitive" with respect to their user interface.

Before Responsive Design: Eliminate the Garbage Content

Most websites today (higher education included) contain a huge amount of garbage content that is seldom if ever used by anyone. Politics or simple neglect keeps us from any serious attempt to eliminate that content. We'll know things have changed when "content elimination" becomes a standard part of people's job descriptions and we no longer keep everything online because someone, sometime might want to see it.

Excessive content makes it nearly impossible to fix the problem that Carewords partners so often encounter: visitors can't quickly do the task(s) they came to the website to do. Transform a poorly performing traditional website to fit mobile devices and you still have a poorly performing website.

Before Responsive Design: Top Task Identification

Christiaan is quite supportive of responsive design while stressing a key point: top tasks will differ based on where a person is, what they are doing at the time, and what device they are using to do it. If that's the case, then content must differ as well.

  • The first step to get a handle on this is to do top task identification research. If Christiaan is right, and I believe he is, top tasks on a page visited at home or in an office on a desktop may not be the same as top tasks that should appear on a smart phone  when someone is out and about and truly mobile.
  • People expect to do different things on different devices. And so a single home page is an unlikely solution if we focus on making things easy for web visitors. 
The Holy Grail is "create once, publish everywhere." Alas, creating and maintaining an effective website in our complicated world might not be that simple.

That's all for now.

Subscribe to "Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter" and "Link of the Week" selections at

Writing Right for the Web: Register for my next two-part webinar with Academic Impressions on October 30 and November 1.

Digital Marketing Strategy Workshop: Join me Sunday afternoon at the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, November 11-14.

Content challenges for both traditional and mobile websites

Just finished updating the second "Writing Right for the Web" webinar next week, focusing on social media and mobile content. That had me back reading the questions sent along a few weeks ago by people already signed up for the sessions. Two of those were content related; the answers apply to both traditional and mobile websites.

If you missed the earlier post on these questions, here is the question people answered:
  • "What is your most pressing challenge or area of concern when writing for and presenting content on" a traditional website and for social media and mobile sites?
Two of the challenges reported were related to content:
  • "Understanding how best to develop content pertinent to all audiences and optimize for search."
  • "Translating messaging from offline publications and communications to a style that is optimal for online readers."
And here are some notes on how to best deal with these related issues. Which ones will be of most help on various campuses will vary, based in part on local talent and understanding of what works online, politics, and available staff time.

Developing the best content
  • Start by asking each audience to identify the top tasks that are most important to them. Then let the answers to that search be your guide to priority content placement on first and second level web pages. That means surrendering considerable control of your website to your key audiences. Not many are yet willing to do that.
  • How to find out what your audiences want from your website? Hire Customer Carewords research or read a guide from the U.S. Government and do it yourself. 
  • The most important point: do this research before your next major website revision begins. Don't rely on usability tests after you have the initial design in place. Usability testing and top task research are not the same thing. Start with the right information in hand. Planning a mobile site? Identify top tasks before you do anything else. Those are the links that people should see first when your mobile home page opens.
  • Beware of marketers. It pains me to write this, but I have to agree with my Carewords partner from Sweden, Fredrik Wacka, that the marketing impulse can hinder and even destroy the effectiveness of your website. Very few people come to a higher education website (or most any website) to read marketing content. Too often that content takes precedence over top task content and creates a barrier to top task completion. When that happens, people will leave your site. 
  • The imperative to reduce marketing content is more important on your mobile site, where you have even less time to connect with your audience. Best way to boost your brand at your website: make top task completion easy.
Translating from offline publications
  • Resist the impulse to slap content on your website as a PDF or "flip tech" copy of your printed publications. The more important the content, the more important it is to take the time to prepare a "web friendly" version that people might actually read online. That's true for admissions view books, alumni magazines, transfer guides, academic program brochures and just about anything else I can think of.
  • Next, make sure the web content conforms to usability tested guidelines for content presentation.
    • Use subhead that people can immediately scan when a page opens. Long, dense blocks of text are deadly.
    • No paragraph longer than 5 lines. 
    • Use short sentences. If you find yourself using a semi-colon your sentence is likely getting too long.
    • Use short words used by normal human beings as often as possible. Yes, if you're writing about research in a discipline for others trained in the discipline you can take liberties.
    • Don't be afraid of the "you" word. The web is an informal place. Get bureaucratic writing filled with imperatives that "students must do" out of the content. Check this "Admission Requirements" page at St. Edward's University where you find "you" or "your" used 12 times. Also note the short paragraphs and white space between them.
Alertbox reports on web writing

Jakob Nielsen has 15+ years of experience testing how people use websites. Take advantage of this by subscribing (for free) to his of Alertbox newsletters. Be sure to read the series on web writing. Send these to everyone on campus you think might pay attention to them.

Writing Right for the Web next week... solving more challenges

Join us on December 6 & December 8 for "Writing Right for the Web"
  • Review what we'll cover for traditional websites as well as the social media and mobile worlds in the Academic Impressions webinar outline.
  • Register and invite everyone who might be interested.
That's all for now.

J.Boye conferences... special places for new thinking and new solutions

Aarhus11 was my fourth J.Boye conference... my second in Denmark, with two in Philadelphia in between.

Why does a person who specializes in higher education marketing travel to this "web and Intranet" conference? 
  • To meet new people and hear new solutions about online challenges that we all face, from health care to higher education in areas that include digital marketing and web content management.
  • And at this event, to also meet Michael Fienen from Pittsburg State University who was presenting in the digital marketing and higher education tracks. Small world for sure.
Let me share some notes that made their way to my notebook at various times during the conference, in no special order of priority.

A new era for "simplicity" in web and Intranet?
  • Conference founder Janus Boye observed that "simplicity" was a word he was hearing in different sessions in different topics.
  • That's certainly true of the mobile world. The need for simplicity may indeed help shrink the bloated content that fills most websites today. The day the conference opened Jakob Nielsen published a new Alertbox column noting that working with a mobile site or app from a smartphone was like "reading through a peephole." 
  • Simplicity is imperative. "What did we do for simplicity today?" might well be the best way to start every web and Intranet discussion.
The Holy Grail is found: a person paid to remove website content
  • My biggest surprise was meeting someone who is paid to remove content from a website.
  • For over a year I've been asking in my presentations if anyone was paid to remove content from a website. Never yet had a taker until last Tuesday afternoon when Jesper Rossel raised his hand. Jesper recently persuaded his boss to change his position responsibility to removing 30 percent of the current content at Denmark's Knowledge Center for Agriculture
  • Be sure that I'll stay in touch with Jesper to see how that project moves forward. He should have a great presentation topic at a future J.Boye conference.
Social media: still a challenge
  • Organizations are still grappling with how to best "do" social media. Two not yet resolved areas: who in the organization is responsible and what to do when content appears that is not favorable? Answers are determined by factors as variable as the culture of an organization to the resources assigned to monitor and manage social media sites.
  • Loved Claire Flanagan's suggestion on how to bring a social media community to life and keep it active: create a controversy to get people's attention. A social media site that just reports news and PR spin won't do it. To read more about Claire's thoughts on the role of controversy in social media, check her Twitter posts.
  • Commitment to social media certainly is worth the effort to spread brand awareness and maintain customer loyalty. Those were points well worth the reinforcement given at Volker Grunauer's session on "Integrating Social Media into Your Digital Strategy." You can follow Volker on Twitter.
Top tasks, content strategy, and mobile website design 
  • My own tutorial went beyond higher education to include examples from local government and non-profit organizations to illustrate the key ingredient in developing content strategy for a mobile world: first identify the top tasks people want to do on your site, then build content and navigation to facilitate task completion. 
  • You can review and download that presentation from SlideShare now.

Next J.Boye Conference: Philadelphia, May 8-10 2012

Your next chance to experience a J.Boye conference is May 8-10 in Philadelphia. Program details are not available yet but you can check 10 track titles (including higher education), prices, and the conference hotel at the Philly conference website

Next "Writing Right for the Web" webinars in December
  • December 6, 8: Academic Impressions Webinars: "Writing Right for the Web: Social Media, Mobile, and Traditional Sites." Register now.
That's all for now.

Bob Johnson
Blog Contents
Recent Entries Categories Monthly Archives