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


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.


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


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.

A New Perspective on Social Media Reporting


Assigning numbers—meaningful numbers—to our work with social media is not an easy task. Setting measurable goals helps us get there, but there are always decisions to make about the numbers. Which set of numbers tells us what we want to know? How do we manipulate data to get the full (or relevant) story? And then, what do we do when our goals aren’t all that clear or measurable?

A New Perspective

I have a confession to make. I’ve long been touting the necessity of goal-driven social media strategy facilitated by meaningful measurement. Yet, in my own role as a social media manager, I find it incredibly challenging to define concrete and measurable goals. I live in a world without access to the data or the resources I want, at least in my immediate reach. The result has been a set of very broad goals for my university’s social media efforts. I tell others (I’ve told you!) that it’s not enough to aim for community growth or engagement; and this is the very thing I am working toward. Controversy? Maybe not.

Yesterday, while pulling together my latest version of a quarterly social media report, I made two decisions.

  1. We can/should be striving for more than community growth and engagement, but there is value there.
  2. By examining the behavior and preferences of our communities, we gain valuable insight that can shape content strategy across channels.

Resolved as such, I set out to create a report that would tell me what my community cares about. Instead of reporting on the past as a measure of success, I reported on the past as a resource for the future.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint which tactics yield the best results. Much work went into analyzing the time of day or media type that saw the largest reach, how many posts or tweets in a day affected follower counts, etc. No more. This makes no sense. From here on out, I am choosing to believe that good conversations will make for good interactions. Good content will lead to higher engagement and happier communities.

A New Report

I want to know which conversations and topics are getting traction across networks so I might understand what matters to our audiences. My new report serves to answer the following questions: What topics, regardless of the type of post, are resulting in the most impressions, reach, and interaction? Are topics received similarly across social networks?

To get these answers, I couldn’t rely on standard-format reports or spreadsheets. My examination of topic interest was limited to Facebook and Twitter, and I used numbers provided by Facebook InsightsBitly, and SocialPing. Below is a general list of steps for creating this sort of topic-focused report.

  1. For Facebook, export Facebook Insights data for the desired date range (page-level and post-level)
  2. Define a set of topic categories
  3. In Facebook’s post-level data spreadsheet, the “Key Metrics” tab, insert a column and assign a topic category to each post within the date range
  4. After posts are categorized by topic, average the numbers for Lifetime Post Total Reach, Lifetime Post Total Impressions, and Lifetime Post Consumers (total of values divided by number of posts)
  5. Graph averages by topic category for Facebook
  6. For Twitter, extract click-through rates for tweeted links from Bitly or a URL shortener of your choice (I copied and pasted Bitly’s stat information to a spreadsheet, which meant much reformatting and moving cells around)
  7. Assign topic categories to the tweets/links
  8. After tweeted links are categorized by topic, average the numbers of clicks for each
  9. Graph averages by topic category for Twitter
  10. Compare data and graphs to identify trends

In my case, the data showed that regardless of the social network, the best-received topics were consistent. Armed with this information, I can make better choices about which content I should share in the future, and which conversations my community wants to be part of.

This report, as always, will probably evolve in some way. In the future, I may need to adjust or better define the topic categories I assign. I may find a way to apply this categorization to Instagram or blog posts. Or maybe I’ll get my hands on the data I need to dig into lead conversion or campaign analytics. For now, I’m optimistic about how this set of data will guide future content strategy. No more social-media-report guilt.

Web, Social Media, and Content Strategy


It’s kind of an amazing thing when all of the floating bits in your brain come together.

So, there’s this “social media” thing. This thing that allows people to connect, to build community, to engage with each other or causes or companies. This thing that gives voice to all of the people. And I love it. This girl who spent so many hours on message boards in 1999 is now spending even more hours online, doing all that she can to listen. We who integrate social media with marketing have an uncommon vantage point from within the community we aim to reach—and an obligation, I think, to ensure that the voices of that community are heard. It’s the beauty of the social media, really. We all get to be heard.

Meanwhile, there’s this other thing. I’ll call it “web.” While I’ve spent the past few years immersing myself into social media, I’ve been consistently wooed by this (as I saw it) divergent path. Where there were needs, I filled in, particularly when it came to project management and organization of web content. My team now finds itself at the beginning of a website redesign and content management system transition. There’s so much to do, and I care so very much about making sure this thing goes the way it should. This is our chance to do things right. What else can I do but devote all of my time to researching content strategy, usability, responsive web design, and all of those other concepts that “web” people must know?

Alas, there are only so many hours in a day and only so much space in my head. For months, the battle between social media and web has raged with no clear winner. Now, with so much web work to be done, there is little choice for me to make. Most days I have to spend more time on content inventories than social media analytics. Then there is guilt.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve wondered, “How do I reconcile the web with the social media? Why do I have to pick?” When my job description was changed from special events manager to social media specialist (or a variation thereof), I was ready for a new direction. I was excited about the challenge and fascinated by all it had in store for me. Today I find myself in a different place. First, I have no desire to abandon my work with social media. Second, I can’t. I need to find a way to make social media and web play well together, and to make time for all the work that needs to be done.

Enter “content strategy.”

Well, I suppose it’s unfair to say, “enter,” as though content strategy is brand new and I’ve only recently heard of it. The concept was long ago introduced to me by some combination of HighEdWeb and Georgy Cohen, and later reinforced by MeetContent and the Web Conference at Penn State. Always intriguing and inspiring, content strategy has been something I added to my list of things to learn more about. Had I been listening more closely, I might have realized that I’ve been striving for a better content strategy for some time.

One day, I found myself in possession of Erin Kissane’s “The Elements of Content Strategy.” You guys, she was talking to me! You may have read the book and thought it resonated with you, etc. But that book was written for me. I’m now waist-deep into Kristina Halvorson’s “Content Strategy for the Web” and, funny enough, that book was written for me, too. I’m not sure how either of these women knew that I was struggling to connect all of the web and social media and content and structure and strategy, but they did. It turns out then when we are strategic about content, we consider all of the channels and messages. Yes, this means the web and the social media. Can you believe it?

Why did this not occur to me a year ago?

I have so much more to learn, and so much work to do. I can’t wait. After all, Halvorson tells me, “You can do this. You can make things right.”

Survey: Social Media Reporting in Higher Ed


I’ve long been chasing the perfect social media report, and discussing the importance of measurement based on strategic goals. To help inform my quest, I’m hoping to learn from all of you out there in the world of social media in higher education. If you are responsible for any sort of social media reporting for your college or university, please fill out the survey below. And then share the survey. I have only the promise of possible inclusion in a future blog post or presentation to offer you, as well as my eternal gratitude. Thank you in advance! Continue reading

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


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.


#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.