How do we train people to trust?

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A website is only as good as the content it supports, and that content is only as good as the system behind it. I’m not simply talking about a content management system (CMS), although that can certainly play a role in presenting good content. A successful system includes the processes and tools that support the people who need them, and the appropriate training for those people.

This year I helped implement a new CMS on my campus. The transition took place in tandem with a site redesign that was to be top-to-bottom responsive. The CMS, chosen to improve the back-end user experience, could certainly uphold the new responsive design. We knew from the beginning, though, that it would be the CMS users–our content contributors–who would make the project successful (or not). We needed our users to feel confident using the new system, confident in taking ownership of the web as a tool for their departments.

Whether you’re implementing a new CMS on your own campus, or training users to better use your existing system, you’ve likely heard the chorus of:

“I’m not a web person.”

This is how the training process often begins. Content contributors, regardless of (or maybe because of) past experience, are quick to doubt their role in the university website. They assume they don’t have the skills or expertise needed to create good web content. For so long, “web” work was something highly specialized that required programming knowledge or a technical degree.

The beautiful truth is that it can be and is so much more. With the right training and some time to get comfortable in a CMS environment, users will gain the confidence they need to tell their stories with the web. With the right education about best practices, principles, and tools, they’ll start to see how they can use the web to reach their goals.

But as it turns out, it’s not enough to train and educate our CMS users and content contributors. Armed with all the information and knowledge in the world, even the most confident content contributors can be derailed by the second verse of our too-familiar song:

“She’s not a web person.

If we’ve done our jobs well, content contributors campus-wide will gain new perspective and new skills; they’ll be a department’s best asset when it comes to guiding web communication. These people will understand how to use the CMS, what’s possible with and best for their websites, and have direct access to the subject matter experts within their departments. Sadly, this promising combination is wasted if administrators don’t trust it.

How do we train the people who need to learn to trust their own staff? How do we show them the necessity and power of building self-confidence? To be truly effective in their roles as content contributors, CMS users must be empowered to take the lead, offer advice, think creatively, and continue learning.

Some of our users will embrace their roles with the web once they’ve been trained, and will be outspoken advocates for using the web effectively. Some of these users’ supervisors will welcome this. In some cases, however, leadership is going to need our help to see what’s possible. We’ll have to encourage them to support and empower their people, and to trust them.

How do we do that?

On Being a Content Strategist

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I am a Content Strategist. Or so my new job title says. Through some series of bewildering events, I’ve managed to conglomerate all of the things I care most about into something I get paid to do. For the past year, I’ve been allowed to weasel my way into my university’s website redesign and CMS transition while I was supposed to be working on social media. I was encouraged, even! Yet, if you would have talked to me just a few days ago, I might have told you that I’m a complete fraud.

I mean, sure, I care an awful lot about strategy. I care an awful lot about a lot of things, actually. But that doesn’t make someone a content strategist, nor does reading every book or article within reach that contains the words “content” and “strategy” in the title.

Real content strategists help communicators connect in meaningful ways with their audiences—across multiple platforms and through various channels. They make sure that information, or content, is accessible to people where and when it’s needed. Technology affords communicators new opportunity and, yes, responsibility for reaching and connecting with other people. Content strategists help us do that. They help the rest of us see what’s possible when we use the tools in the right way.

And me? I work for the University of Michigan-Flint. In the heart of a city known for its struggles, I am so proud of what my university has meant to the people who live there. I’m proud of the work of our students and faculty. I take very seriously my role in serving potential and current students, doing what I can to facilitate a conversation. “This is what UM-Flint is about. This is what’s possible for you. This is the great work we’re doing. This is why Flint, Michigan is a place to be proud of.” The conversation takes place across many channels, and depends on strategic use of digital resources like the university website and social networks. It includes printed materials like brochures and postcards. Every point of contact is part of an ongoing conversation. I care an awful lot about that conversation.

I do care so very much about the people I want to reach, the stories I want to tell, and the calling I feel to do it all the right way. I decided many months ago that I want to be a content strategist when I grow up.

So I’ve been learning everything I can and applying it to my work. I may have a lot to learn when it comes to content strategy, but I can project-manage like nobody’s business. I can ask alllll the questions. In fact, these are “skills” (consider those air-quotes) that I’ve had since long before I’d first heard of content strategy. Even if I’m not a real content strategist, I can do my best to apply and share the principles of the field.

And then Confab Higher Ed.

I can’t recall a time in my professional life when I’ve so craved validation for my work, or a time when I’ve received more validation from people I respect. Confab Higher Ed was a perfect storm of inspiration, guidance, reinforcement, and—yes!—validation. In her opening keynote, Kristina Halvorson said two things that changed my entire view of my work. First, she said that the role of the content strategist is to negotiate and facilitate conversation with “all the people.” I do that! More than anything, I do that.

Then, the big one: “You’re not doing it wrong.”

You guys, I wanted to cry. Or laugh. Or emote in some way that expressed my relief and joy all at once. And then? Every single speaker I heard from afterward throughout the conference explained that they had come into content strategy much the way I have. Each of them had such a familiar story, with a similar set of goals and responsibilities. These people, these Content Strategists, do what I do! They have more experience and are so much more knowledgeable, but at the core… we are all working toward the same thing. Because we care. We all care.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to work. I’ll do much of what I’ve always done. I’ll check in with the web team and review our task lists. I’ll help train content contributors to use the campus’s new content management system. I’ll talk to departments about their stories, and how to tell them. I’ll do my best to make our social networks valuable to our community. I’ll do all of these things, but I’ll do them with a newfound confidence.

For the first time, I feel worthy of the title “content strategist.” I feel like I belong to a community of really smart people who are working to make the web, and the conversation, be what it should be. I have so much to learn, but an incredible community to learn from.

Where should higher ed web teams report? (Hint: It doesn’t matter.)

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What makes up a website? We know there is a back end, where code  makes everything work. There’s also a front end, where design and content come together. This simple divide is clear and provides a concrete separation of worker roles and responsibilities—or so we all thought once upon a time. As the web has evolved, however, it’s become clear that we cannot separate what happens on the front end from the work of the back end. We can’t, and we shouldn’t. Unfortunately, higher education is only just catching up.

Earlier this year, Aaron Rester conducted a survey to find out how web teams were structured and organized across higher ed. Among web team tasks, the majority of respondents listed: website development, information architecture, visual design, content strategy and/or production, social media management, and application development. This list certainly spans across traditional definitions of marketing and IT work, yet Aaron’s survey also found that 82% of web teams classify web work as “part of” marketing/communications/PR or IT.

For me, coming from a university with no formal web team and fairly traditional (by higher ed standards) division of web work, the idea of content strategy or social media being handled by an IT department was alarming. The idea of information architecture or website development falling under marketing was equally surprising. But if I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that web work is not easily divided between marketing and IT, nor should it be. The best work happens when the lines are blurred and boundaries are crossed.

So where should the web team reside? In marketing or IT? My position: It doesn’t matter. Or, at least, this isn’t the most important decision to be made. Before we think about where a web team falls on an organizational chart, we have to reconsider our definition of a web team.

Less than a year ago, my university’s web team officially included one webmaster and two developers. These three were responsible for maintaining our nightmare of a content management system (CMS), writing web applications, and troubleshooting all things web on our campus. Meanwhile, some of us in marketing worked on top-level web content. We made decisions about navigation and wrote words, and then handed things over to IT for the “web” part. Sure, we knew how to make updates in the CMS and had plenty of ideas about how things should be organized on the university website, but we were the front end. They were the back end. As far as we knew, that was the appropriate workflow.

Not that this workflow was efficient. Quite the opposite, actually. Without a clear understanding of what the other side worked on or valued, there was a huge communication breakdown between the IT and marketing teams. Then, one day last winter, we rallied behind a common goal. As a group, we would work to transition our campus to a new CMS and implement a new, responsive design across the entire university website—in less than a year.

We realized very quickly that the old way of doing things wasn’t working. In the absence of a formal web department, a number of us agreed to form our own ad hoc web team. Regardless of our job title or department, we came together to get this very important work done. In all, today we have a webmaster, two developers, a very talented designer, and two content people. Between us we report to two directors, who are committed to the success of the project as much as we are. We meet as a group regularly. We’ve worked to understand each other. And the results have been so positive.

This week, I listened to an old The Web Ahead podcast with Karen McGrane on web strategy. As I listened to her talk about the importance of user-friendly interfaces for content contributors within a CMS, I realized I had been helping our developers work through this very thing just a few days prior. Had I, a marketing person, been thinking about usability? Did I actually have an impact on user experience? Meanwhile, in a meeting yesterday, I listened as my friend the webmaster and my marketing director talked about how to better focus on content in the new CMS training sessions. Things really are coming together, I thought.

The work toward a successful website in higher education cannot be segmented into buckets like marketing, IT, content strategy, usability, accessibility, social media, or even web. The ideas and work related to each of these is inextricably connected. We cannot be experts in every subject, but we can do our best to understand how they overlap and work together. We can care.

Where I work, we don’t have a formal web team. I’m sure there are benefits to having everyone in one office or working for one director, but I never feel at a disadvantage. For us, it all comes down to communication and, of course, working really hard.

Taking the #strategycar out for a spin.

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Once upon a time there was a  road trip. It was a fantastical road trip with two important stops between my home in Michigan and State College, Pennsylvania where the 2013 Web Conference at Penn State was to be held. First I picked up Nick DeNardis in Detroit. From there we made our way to Oberlin, Ohio to collect Ma’ayan Plaut. Good times and great conversations were had. I counted myself lucky to have time to get to know these incredibly smart people.

But the trip home was even better.

With 8 hours of driving ahead of us, my passengers insisted I take a break from driving. I found myself in the backseat of my own car. With hours and hours ahead of me, I had a brand new vantage point from which to do absolutely nothing but talk. And think. And ask. And learn. From Tumblr to Twitter strategy, crisis communication to cooking, the three of us talked through our challenges, hopes, and dreams. Am I making this sound lofty and important? It was!

As we neared Oberlin and the inevitable separation from Ma’ayan, I tweeted:

Ron Bronson, ever the wordsmith responded:

And #strategycar was born. Inside of said #strategycar, I outlined my future web series in which I would drive around the country, kidnap higher ed smart people, and make them talk to me in my car for hours so I could learn all the things. I would be the Rainn Wilson of higher ed and my Saturn Vue would be the Soul Pancake Metaphysical Milkshake van. Or something.

Of course, I have no budget and there’s this pesky full-time job that keeps me busy.

But. BUT. Twitter.

Today I will take my #strategycar out for a spin, hashtag and all, and talk to you fine people about some things I want to learn. If it goes well, I do it again. And then maybe regularly.

#strategycar is coming to a Twitter near you. Maiden voyage: July 12,2013 at 3pm EST.

Let’s Talk

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I’ve been absent. I’m sorry. My life has been a whirlwind of many things these past weeks and months, not the least of which was the HighEdWeb Regional Conference in Michigan. Friends, I cannot tell you how proud I am to have helped bring all that is HighEdWeb to my colleagues at home. This week on May 20 and 21, 180 higher education professionals from Michigan and beyond (thank you, Andrew Smyk of Toronto for making our conference international!) gathered in downtown Flint to talk about content, web, social media, accessibility, technology, and community.

Earlier today I read a lovely recap of the conference from Tim Nekritz, where he noted that his take-away from HighEdWeb Michigan was that “technology is nice, but collaboration is key.” Absolutely. Truly, collaboration is a driving force behind so many of our collective and individual successes. For me, the collaboration that often results from a conference like this is the biggest take-away by far. And if “collaboration” is the thing for Tim, for me it’s “conversation.”

My HighEdWeb Michigan experience began on Sunday night when the conference speakers gathered for dinner. Immediately I was immersed in stories about Vine videos, Dropbox uploads gone wrong, and video files that were encoded in mysterious ways. I knew then that—even though I wouldn’t be attending many presentations in the following days—my education had already begun.

When I look back on HighEdWeb Michigan, the memory is much like that from other conference with this amazing group of higher ed professionals I’ve found myself mixed up in. It’s all a blur of conversations that I know are just beginning. One presentation starts a debate between coworkers that results in a new project. Questions asked by audience members spark ideas for others that lead to future presentations. Research is done. Ideas are shared. Conversations begin and are moved beyond a conference facility to Twitter or some other place where many other people join in.

You know, it’s kind of magical.

One of the strongest directives during HighEdWeb Michigan came to me from Ron Bronson during “Unboxing Yourself: Reaching Out for Professional Growth.” He told the audience to find at least five new people to connect with and follow during the conference. I say this sort of thing to people all the time, but I had been so caught up in running around and moving tables or picking up evaluations (what was I doing, anyway?) that I got sidetracked. In that moment, when Ron told the audience they need to be learning from and sharing with all of the people around them, I resolved to take advantage of that opportunity myself. I did find new people to follow, many of whom are right in my own backyard.

What it comes down to is that we are our own best resources. We have to learn from each other. We have talk to each other.

Let’s keep the conversation going.

 

Update: Speaking of conversation, the May 23 episode of Higher Ed Live was all about HighEdWeb Michigan and offered a good summary of some of the conference’s highlights. Plus there is a dog and a cat.

#Alaina24: A Day in the Life of a “Day in the Life”

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On October 11, 2012, the University of Michigan-Flint embarked on its first 24-hour photo project. We weren’t the first to try and capture a “day in the life,” but our successes and challenges were our own. It was #UMFLINT24, and it was beautiful.

I knew I was going to love it. A day full of activity on Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr—what’s not to love? But I didn’t fully grasp the emotional commitment I would make in that 24 (plus)-hour time period until it all began. I laughed. I cried. I stayed up later than I knew was possible. I absolutely did love it.

None of this is to imply that the day was without mishap. API limitations caused hiccups in our photo stream. Lack of moderation ability created one or two moments of panic. I was very lucky, though, to have a team of ITS guys to call on when things got messy. I learned a lot on October 11.

And now a recap of my #UMFLINT24. Perhaps we’ll call it #Alaina24. I like it. Here goes.

Some Background

The #UMFLINT24 website proclaimed: “For the first time on October 11, 2012, UM-Flint will document a full 24 hours in the life of the university. We’re asking our campus community to take pictures during a 24-hour period beginning at 12:00 a.m. on 10/11/12 and ending at 11:59:59 p.m.” We did our best to get the word out. Promotion included Facebook posts and tweets, a Facebook cover image, posters around campus, a splash image on the university’s home page, and ~300 informational cards attached to lanyards distributed at the campus’s Welcome Back Picnic in September. The instructions to participants were simple: Post your photos to Instagram, Twitter, or Flickr and tag them #umflint24.

Preparation

#UMFLINT24 Staff Schedule

We in University Relations were quite excited about our day-long photo extravaganza—and also petrified that no one would participate. We’d created a website that was set up like a timeline, allowing visitors to view each hour individually. As the date drew near, we all began to imagine empty screens in the wee hours of the morning.

To be sure photos would stream into the #UMFLINT24 website from 12 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. I created a schedule of everything I could find happening on campus on October 11. And I mean everything. The department staff then volunteered to work shifts that would cover the entire 24 hours beginning at midnight Wednesday night. (I’ve included a snapshot of the schedule. I think the color-coding made it particularly great.)

Wednesday, October 10

Those brave souls who volunteered for the 12-5 a.m. shift have my utmost respect. I volunteered for a 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. shift, thinking that I would probably check the website during my off hours, too. Oh, how naïve I was to think that I would sleep. How could I have slept with so much going on?

Wednesday night I vowed to stay awake until 12:05 a.m., just long enough to see the first photo post and make sure the website was working properly. I settled in on my couch around 8 p.m. and started tweeting reminders to the university community. When students began tweeting with the #UMFLINT24 hashtag, hours before the kick-off, I was shocked. Students I’d never seen interact with the university on Twitter before! Students that were staying up late just to start submitting photos when the time came! Students that were explaining to each other how to take part in #UMFLINT24!

At around 10 p.m., the university webmaster (my friend Tim, who was anxiously awaiting the launch from his own couch) redirected the #UMFLINT24 URL, from the descriptive page we’d created to promote the project, to the live-stream page that would showcase all photos tagged “umflint24” on Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr. Then we waited. Have you ever posted a link or made something live and then stared, unblinking at real-time Google analytics to watch visitors enter and exit a page? Imagine it now and you’ll have a mental picture of me and Tim during the hours between 10 p.m. and 12 a.m.

Thursday, October 11

At 12 a.m. I posted to Instagram/Twitter from the university account: “#UMFLINT24 begins NOW!

Photos immediately started populating the page. There were nearly 60 in the first hour! What began as fear of an empty page quickly turned into fixation. I couldn’t look away.

Then, a hiccup. When clicking around on the #UMFLINT24 page, I noticed that images were showing up inconsistently between the “All” and “12AM” views. By some miracle, another of our web guys was online and watching the website, too. Within 20 minutes, Donald had our first glitches fixed and things were back on track. I was so lucky that help was available.

I forced myself to go to bed at 1 a.m. and was back up at 5 a.m. Who needs more than four hours of sleep before working a 12-hour day?

In the office at 7 a.m., I found photos missing from the #UMFLINT24 site—many of them. My friends in ITS spent hours working through issues with the Twitter and Instagram APIs to make sure that all of our photos were pulled into the website. So that I could share with you some of these issues and resolutions, the web team (a.k.a. Joel Howard, Tim Todd, and Donald Wilcox) put some notes together which are included later in this post.

Despite the technical difficulties, I was truly amazed at the level of participation I saw throughout the day. Photos came to me by email from faculty and staff across campus, which I then posted to Flickr for inclusion. I saw connections happening between people who’d never worked together before, and learned so much about how my campus runs over a 24-hour period. The adrenaline kept me going. I didn’t want to miss a single thing!

My #UMFLINT24 shift officially concluded at 7 p.m. I admit I drove home faster than I should have. I ate dinner as quickly as I could and got on my laptop. Again I was fixated, but I’d also realized that we were about to enter Thursday night. For many students on a college campus, Thursday nights mean drink specials and parties. Because we hadn’t built a moderation function into the website, we had no ability to remove individual photos. Our only recourse in the case of an inappropriate photo was to take the website down—the horror! So I watched and waited.

I must say that the entire UM-Flint community was incredibly respectful and good-spirited throughout the project. There was only one photo, out of nearly 1,500, that caused concern. Thankfully the author of the photo was reachable through a network of students and it was taken down by the source. We weren’t forced to decide whether to pull the plug or not, but there was more than a moment of panic. Moderation is definitely something we’ll incorporate if we do this again.

Running on the momentum of a very rewarding day, I somehow kept my eyes open until 12:10 a.m. Friday morning. I’d made it. #UMFLINT24 had exceeded my wildest expectations.

The Numbers

  • Photos submitted: 1,475
  • Unique users: 253
  • 871 unique visitors to #UMFLINT24 website, from 10 countries and 20 states
  • #UMFLINT24 hashtag on Twitter: 764 tweets (average 31.83/hour), 67 retweets
  • Unique reach of tweets and RTs: 78,156 users
  • Most photos were first posted to Instagram
  • Peak hours of activity: 12:00 – 12:59 p.m.; 7:00 – 7:59 a.m.; 6:00 – 6:59 p.m.

The Technical Stuff

From UM-Flint ITS:

While working on #umflint24 a few problems were encountered that had not been accounted for.  The biggest problems came from the social media (Twitter, Instagram, Flickr) APIs (application programming interface).  These APIs provided access to images tagged with the #umflint24 hashtag.

During initial testing of the APIs there were not enough images available to load-test the limits on content being served per call.  Due to this limitation, at around 7 a.m. staff noticed all images were not being displayed on the timeline.  After ITS web developers analyzed the feed of images coming in from Twitter and Instagram, it was concluded that multiple calls to the APIs would be needed for all images to be pulled in correctly.  With multiple API calls now being processed, end user load times suffered.

Later in the day it was also discovered that Flickr wasn’t serving all of the images tagged #umflint24. This fix was simple compared to the Twitter and Instagram fix.  However, due to poor documentation of the Flickr API, the actual fix took longer than expected.

By the end of the 24-hour period, one last obstacle was encountered. Because of the sheer amount of traffic #umflint24 was generating, we began to max out Instagram’s API request limit.  Luckily, this was in the last hour of the 24-hour period.  However, after the 24-hour period all images were pulled in with no problems.

#umflint24 has been archived and code has been optimized to speed up load times.  To view the archive visit: http://www.umflint.edu/umflint24/

Lessons Learned

  • Testing conditions will not match actual conditions—be ready.
  • Be sure technical/web staff are available for trouble-shooting at project launch.
  • Assume you will work most of/all of/more than 24 hours.
  • If accepting photos by email, think about how to organize them on Flickr (i.e. “staff submissions” album, included in university’s album, etc.).
  • If you are the social media person for your campus, don’t expect to have much time to be out taking photos.
  • The option to moderate the photo stream is important, as well as clear parameters for what should be removed.

Who’s Next?

At UM-Flint we’re already discussing “next time.” Are you planning a 24-hour project of your own? Please share your ideas and outcomes! You can find great examples from SUNY Oswego, University of Wisconsin- Green Bay, and the University of Wisconsin, but let’s build a longer list.

This Job is Important

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Working in higher education likely means something different to every person who finds herself here. For me, it’s opportunity. It’s empowerment. It’s independence. It’s decisions and growth and responsibility. It’s being a part of a place where so many people come together to do, make, build, change. It’s all of the things that were so monumental in my own life as a student at the very institution where I find myself employed today. I love higher ed. But even more, I love this place.

As a social media specialist, it’s admittedly easy to get caught up in the marketing of it all. My days can quickly get tied up in numbers, trends, and research. “Engagement!” “Impressions!” “Reach!” “Blah!” The “social” part of social media can start to feel like a contest to talk to the most people. And at the root, that conversation can become self-serving if we’re not careful. This is marketing, after all. Of course our goals revolve around driving applications and enrollment, and then retention, and so on.

The really cool part, though, is that there’s more.

This week, a student on my social media team wrote a beautiful blog post about the passing of a fellow student. And suddenly, I saw it. Or was reminded of it. My efforts in social media do more than to push university content out into the world. When things work as they should, social media give everyone a voice. We hope to use those voices to amplify our messages, sure, but sometimes our message isn’t what matters.

When I do my job well, I show students that they have a voice, that their voices matter. The mission of higher education goes beyond enrollment and dollars, and so should the goals that we set as social media managers. Let’s build communities and share our stories, but let’s also empower others to tell their own stories.

A million years ago, I was a student at my university. I will forever be grateful for the experiences and people here that shaped me. Today, thousands of new students are going through the very same process of self-discovery and growth.

This job is important. Higher education is important. These students are important. I might not be able to quantify a touching blog post in a marketing report, but the blog post is important, too. Sometimes I just need the reminder.