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5 Most Important Web Content Management Principles

At the end of the March "Writing Right for the Web" conference with Academic Impressions we asked the people attending to select from a list of 25 web content management principles the 5 each person thought was most important. 

The survey was developed by the Customer Carewords partnership group and first administered in the fall of 2012. More than 1,000 responses were received from web professionals around the world. Visit SlideShare for a presentation on those results.

Without, as they say, further ado, here are the Top 5 principles from the 27 people from Canada and the U.S. who made selections, with my added comments for each:

"Ensure customers can quickly and easily complete top tasks."

  • This was also the top principle in our international survey. To see one university home page unlike anything you've seen before that is based on top task research, visit the University of Ottawa
  • For student recruitment, top tasks will vary throughout the recruitment cycle from first visit to orientation. One of the best examples of how to present top tasks quickly and clearly is at the admissions page for East Stroudsburg University.
  • Accepting the top task principle is daunting for some. It means a reduction or elimination of welcome messages from presidents and deans as well as "marketing speak" claims to a "dedication to academic excellence" or a commitment to be "a university on the move." Content like that too often just gets between visitors and top task completion.
"Keep content as concise and simple as possible."

  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short, as if you were writing a news article for a newspaper. If you feel the need to use a semi-colon you just might be writing a sentence that's going to be too long.
  • People need to be able to scan your content in 5 seconds or less when a page opens for the main points. Long blocks of dense text prevent this. Strive to keep paragraphs less than 5 lines long.
"Make sure everything has an owner who takes responsibility for ongoing  review and improvement."

  • This is a special challenge in organizations with content creators acting independently in departments across the enterprise. Too often people who have this responsibility do not have on-going access to a web editor for advice and assistance. And too often people who lead departments don't give those assigned web content responsibility the time to actually do the work.
  • At a minimum, make sure content creators in a decentralized system have a monthly opportunity to meet to present challenges and review solutions found by others.
"Make decisions based on evidence and facts, not opinions."

  • "Evidence and facts" can be elusive and are often challenged when "facts" clash with personal "opinion" on what content should be highlighted on a web page.
  • You need research on "top tasks." You can hire someone in the Customer Carewords partnership to do it for you. We'll be happy to do that. But you can also learn much on your own. Start by reviewing the "How To" guide from the Government Services Agency in the U.S.
  • Analytics can help. Do presidents and deans know how many people visit their welcome messages? And how many visitors actually stay long enough to read them?
"Fast and easy content review and removal process."

  • Review is fine, removal is even better. Content creators and editors should have responsibility for removing as well as adding content. "Websites always eat, they never poop" says my partner Gerry McGovern.
  • Consider this argument with your president: Google will penalize in search rankings websites that have large amounts of content that is seldom if ever visited. Find that content on your website. If you can't kill it, Google recommends moving it to a new domain for which search standing is irrelevant.
That's all for now.

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Strategic Recruitment Communication conference in June

June 25-27, Orange County, CA: "Building a Strategy Recruitment Communication Plan," sponsored by Academic Impressions. Review the agenda and register.

Welcome Messages from Presidents: Very Little Marketing Impact

Last week while looking for a possible new Link of the Week selection I did a search for "presidents' university welcome statements." And then, in a spasm of ongoing torture, visited all the welcome statements that appeared on the first four pages.

If you want to find last bastions of banal content from presidents at just about every type of college and university, force yourself through the same exercise. Do presidents ever ask for the analytics on how many people actually visit and stay on their welcome page long enough to read the message? 

Two major problems are common. 
  • First, the content is almost always presented as dense text unbroken by subheads, bullet points or links. In other words, it is almost always impossible to scan. And that means that very many visitors will not even make the effort to find out what's being said.
  • Second, the content itself more often than not includes a collection of platitudes that might fit just about any college or university. The idea of creating something that contributes to a distinct brand identify does not seem alive and well in the president's office or among those who write these things if the president does not.
Consider these opening comments from three university presidents as a sample:
  • "Steeped in history yet in the lead; demanding but caring; remarkably diverse in its people, its interests, its opportunities for personal and intellectual growth; and rooted in a tradition of service..."
  • "(University name) is clearly a very special place. In addition to the faculty, who are excellent teachers and scholars, everyone at (University name) is eager to help students learn and live well. This is a beautiful campus in an outstanding academic and physical environment."
  • "We take great pride in our history and in the exceptional opportunities we offer to students. That pride shows in everything we do -- indeed, great things happen here every day."
Exceptions of course exist. 

One that stood out started (after just a few lines of text) with a video that turned out to be the president's opening semester message. Congrats to someone at University of Iowa for crafting a short (just over 2 minutes), simple, friendly video greeting from President Sally Mason. Yes, the first 60 seconds or so include the usual words you'll find everywhere. Things improve in the next 60 seconds with visuals of improvement taking place around the campus. Why don't more presidents' welcome pages use video?

Visit President George Martin's welcome at St. Edward's University where the opening headline just might make you want to scan a bit more: "On Becoming Unstoppable." If you do scan the page you'll find 5 subheads for "Highlights and Hallmarks" of the university. And those would be even stronger with links from each section to more information about them.

Links on President Christina Paxson's welcome at Brown University are not especially easy to see, but they do exist. When the president notes, for instance, a "distinctive approach to education" there is a link to "Brown gives students the freedom to direct their education." Without that link to the additional content, a claim to a "distinctive approach" would have little value.

Remedial action for President's Welcome Messages

In 2014 let's hope that some combination of these steps take place:
  • Messages will pass the 5-second rule by being easy to scan for major points that are likely to engage visitors. 
  • If it fits the president's personality, more use of video to deliver the message.
  • Links to more content about major points about the university. Don't just claim, demonstrate the substance behind the claim.
  • Serious editing of the total length and paragraph size.
That's all for now.

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"Writing Right for the Web" conference in March

March 27-28, Denver: "Writing Right for the Web: Focusing on Student Recruitment" sponsored by Academic Impressions. Agenda and registration at 

Web Writing... if people can't scan your content they won't read it

Hard to believe that the third annual conference on Writing Right for the Web sponsored by Academic Impressions started two weeks ago today in Boston. We had a great time... everyone who attended said they would recommend the conference to a friend. 

We covered quite a bit in two days during presentation time and small group tasks. I'll share more from that in the future. Today I'd like to summarize 8 key points we discussed that are important for everyone preparing web content.

8 Points to Evaluate your Web Content Presentation:
  • Focus your content on top tasks for the individual audiences that use your site. What are those "top tasks"? Hire Customer Carewords to do the research or do it yourself following these U.S. Government "how to" guidelines.
  • Make sure key content elements on every page are scannable in 5 seconds or less. If you don't do that, you will lose visitors.
  • Use heads and subheads that tell people something. If they can be lifted to anyone else's website they will not do anything special for you. Not "Academic Programs" but "Academic Programs: 63 Bachelors & 14 Master's"
  • Clear and simple language... if the first scan draws people into the page, make it easy for them to read on for more details. "Organization speak" is deadly for people who are not part of the organization.
  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short... about 5 lines per paragraph. If you feel the urge to use a semi-colon in a sentence, that sentence just might be too long.
  • Use top page photos only when they have an impact related to page content. Don't let them be a speed bump between the primary heading and the content that comes after it. And nowhere is it written in granite that every page must have a photo at the top.
  • If you have a few top points in the center-page content that you think or know will interest people, link direct from each one to more information about that point. Don't make people look for a navigation point somewhere else on the page.
  • When you link, make sure that language in the link connects to what people will see first on the next page so they know immediately they have arrived at the right place.
Task Oriented University Home Page

For a rare example of a university home page that puts priority on people immediately seeing links to important tasks visit the University of Sydney.

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 6,200+ people and follow me on Twitter
This Thursday and Friday I'll be in Boston for the third annual "Writing Right for the Web" conference sponsored by Academic Impressions. We've done them in San Diego and Atlanta and I'm looking forward to meeting the people who will be with us this week.

The war on "Black Hat" SEO continues

An "extra" session on Friday will focus on writing and editing for search engine optimization. 

To help make sure I'm still close to the mark on that often-changing topic I have just watched a May video from Matt Cutts at Google (What to expect in SEO in the coming months). Here are my main take-away points:
  • Google continues to search for ways to but "black hat" SEO people out of business. That's great. I get regular offers from people who know little if anything about me to exchange links. At least 75 percent of these folk have little if any connection with anything I write about. 
  • Quality content remains the most important element for strong SEO results. What defines "quality content"? One important element for Google is whether or not anybody reads it. The "Panda" criteria are still important: if you have a large amount of content on your website that is seldom visited by anyone, your SEO rankings will suffer. 
"Be Natural" is still the best approach

The most important point that Cutts repeats over and over again: "Be natural."
  • Use keywords and phrases, but don't overdo them. 
  • Control the "marketing speak" that appears on your site. Too many higher education sites really are like Monster University from Pixar. Don't be Monster University.
  • Give people the content you know they want, not the content you think they must read. Long, dense "Welcome" statements from presidents and deans are my favorite candidates for purging.
Give the folks at Google credit for trying to chase the snake oil salesmen from our online lives and for crafting new ways to give more weight to quality content in SEO results. They may never win the war but let's hope they get close.

And put Matt Cutts on your regular reading and viewing schedule.

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 6,000+ people and follow me on Twitter

Web Writing: Too easy to find examples of pages that kill the ability to scan your site

Last week in Atlanta we had a great two day web writing conference, hosted by my friends at Academic Impressions. The people attending came from as far away as Hawaii, Saskatchewan, Cairo, and Qatar. Not to mention Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta itself and many places in between.

Great conversations, discussions, and critiques. Special thanks to the folks who volunteered their website pages for a public review. 

Looking back over the slides this week, one simple element stands out in my mind: the importance of the factors that can destroy a visitor's ability to easily scan a web page, whether in a large screen or a mobile environment. The ability to scan a page quickly in no more than 5 seconds is essential, so let's quickly review three elements that keep that from happening. 

Any one of these will kill the ability to scan a page:

If you want to engage people more easily on your site, review your website and find examples like this and eliminate them as soon as possible. Getting rid of large text blocks is easy. Controlling text contrast should also be easy. 

Ending "flip tech" is more of a challenge but well worth the effort if you'd like people to actually read your online publications. Make yours look like these examples we used last week from Johns Hopkins UniversityAlfred University, and Biola University. You don't need to be a big university with a big budget to get this one right.

Content Strategy: an important reminder

The best content strategy on the planet will not work if people can't scan and read your content.

That's all for now. 

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Bob Johnson
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