Crosstown Digital Communications

Content Posts

Retaining a Sense of Awe in Research News

One of the themes of my presentation “Storytelling as a Framework for Higher Ed Web Marketing” is that we in higher ed are in the business of celebrating ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The feats of the NASA scientists who orchestrated last night’s landing of the Mars Curiosity rover certainly fall under that category.

What’s remarkable – beyond, you know, lowering a rover to the Martian surface with a skycrane – is how NASA told that story. They did it with amazing content that informed, entertained and engaged a rapt online audience (even at 1:30AM EDT on a Sunday night) with not just personality but also humor and drama. (Tim Nekritz wrote a great blog post this morning talking about how they expertly leveraged shared experiences and the real-time web.)

But most importantly, their content had a heaping dose of awe. Through videos, tweets, live-streams and blog posts, NASA conveyed unabashed acknowledgment of the fact that the events transpiring were absolutely amazing, reflecting a very human longing for knowledge and thrill of discovery. And that, to me, was one of its strengths.

Why So Serious?

I couldn’t help but think about higher education (as I often do) and how we talk about research. We want to own our research accomplishments. We want to be noticed because of them, in order to attract funding, faculty, students and partnerships. In doing so, we often think organizationally, clinging to journal citations, jargon and internal priorities in shaping how we communicate about research. Research, after all, is a very serious thing.

But as I read about Curiosity – a highly important scientific undertaking with not just societal impact but also very real, hard science behind it – I wondered why we in higher ed can’t talk about research with the same level of personality, (appropriate) humor and downright inspirational quality that NASA employs. Research is serious business, sure, but it’s also important and awe-inspiring and creative and, sometimes, beautiful. We could be covering a technology that will help save lives on the battlefield, or a treatment for a rare disease that gives thousands of sufferers hope, or environmental analysis that will renew a community. These are amazing things that matter, and our faculty and students are diligently pursuing these solutions every day in the lab across the quad.

Sure, we need to write for the grant funding agencies, and sure, we need to write for the tech transfer partnerships. But if we’re trying to convey to the world how we are relevant, essential and innovative, can’t we find a way to retain that sense of awe in our communications? To capture some of the secret sauce that kept people up way past their bedtimes last night?

Telling the Story of our Research

Employing some of the basic elements of storytelling can help enliven our research coverage while embracing that sense of awe. Just look at the drama pervading the above “Seven Minutes of Terror” video (while still conveying the science and showing off some of the engineers behind the mission) and the quirky character of the (absolutely awesome) @MarsCuriosity Twitter account. Even NASA’s tagline for the mission, “Dare Mighty Things” (borrowed from a quote by Theodore Roosevelt) brands the initiative with historical significance, making it feel like just the latest chapter in an ongoing narrative of American ambition and accomplishment.

As if we needed more drama, NASA is facing major budget cuts. Their need to demonstrate relevance and value is urgent. And what is one of their key strategies for doing so? Telling (and owning) their story, of course, through smart and savvy use of various content tools at their disposal, while making it something in which we could all participate and be invested. For a cost of $7 per American, they gave us a hell of a show – and the curtain has really just gone up.

True, we may not be landing rovers on Mars at our university. (Or maybe we arehat tip to Kyle Judah.) But we’re doing things that matter. Can we find a way to inspire and engage in our research coverage the way that NASA has done?

Do you have an example of higher ed research coverage that not only informs and educates but also inspires and engages? Please share in the comments!

A Framework for the Thoughtful Creation and Maintenance of Social Media Content

Don’t Make Love Work Harder Than It Has To

On July 11, Stamats and HigherEdLive partnered to stream the annual TeensTALK panel discussion live from the Stamats Integrated Marketing Conference in Chicago, Ill. The discussion always yields frank and enlightening insights about higher ed web marketing and recruitment, straight from the mouths of college-bound high schoolers, and this year’s event was no different.

But one exchange in particular stuck with me. The moderator asked the students about their experience using college websites during their search. One student remarked that, upon visiting the website of a school he really liked, he found the website difficult to use, likening it to an “labyrinth.” His love of the school, however, was strong to enough to not let the dissatisfactory web experience sway him.

The school in question is lucky that this student loved them so much that its crappy website didn’t put a kibosh on the whole thing. Because what about the student who’s on the fence? Or loves them some, but not wholly? In those cases, the crappy web experience could mean the difference between an application and a bounce. The research bears this out. According to the 2011 Noel-Levitz E-Expectations report:

  • 47 percent of prospective students (and 57 percent of parents) said “A bad experience on a school’s site may have some negative effect on my perception of the school”
  • 17 percent of students (and 16 percent of parents) said “If I don’t find what I need on the school’s Web site, I’ll probably drop it from my list.”
  • 20 percent of students (and 13 percent of parents) recalled an occasion when they disliked a school’s site so much that they removed it from consideration.

In my talk “Storytelling as a Framework for Higher Ed Web Marketing,” I emphasize that a holistic approach to web development is required to support a school’s narrative on the web. That means content, technology, design, user experience, the whole enchilada. All of these need to work together, in concert, in support of the brand and in the service of user needs. If one falls down on the job, the narrative is compromised, and no one’s needs are served.

But telling that story well extends far beyond the web.

Shut One Window, Open Another

Have you ever been in a car or a room where the air conditioning is on, but a window is open? “Close that window!” someone might holler. “You’re making the A/C work harder.” And it’s true. That open window is letting in heat, making the air conditioner work harder to cool the space to the designated temperature. It has more heat to overcome.

With a crappy website, you’re making whatever interest a site visitor has in your organization work harder. It’s like putting up a wall between you and your visitors and asking them to scale it. Sure, if you’re lucky, they like you enough to muddle through whatever labyrinthine web obstacle course you’ve laid before them. But even if they accomplish the task at hand and move on, that love is a bit taxed. The A/C may have achieved the target temperature, but it spent more energy to do so.

Every part of the university experience — from the landscaping to the website to the tour guide to the president — should support the school’s brand and story. They should all reinforce and support that idea of what the school is, means and stands for. A weak link compromises the story — it’s like finding out that pages 67 through 103 are missing from the book. Sure, I can get to the end, but I’ve missed something along the way, and I run the risk of abandoning the story entirely.

The connection that prospective students — or any target audience, really — have to our institution is a powerful, but also fragile tie. We can’t take it for granted, and we have to nurture it. We have to realize how all aspects of the university experience have the opportunity to either reinforce or sever that connection. For our purposes, that means always advocating for the value of a good web experience. Your web presence should reinforce and grow the interest a visitor has in your organization, not make it work harder to overcome the obstacles in its path.

By addressing the weaknesses on our end that are asking too much of our site visitors — prospective students among them — we are opening a window of opportunity whereby we can kindle that spark of interest into a heat that you won’t want to cool.

Photo by bixentro / Flickr Creative Commons

A Newsroom Without the Drama

New York Times newsroom, ca. 1942

Lately, everyone is talking about Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama, “The Newsroom,” where an anchor goes rogue and dares to, you know, report the news. I don’t get HBO, but I did have a chance to watch the pilot in my hotel room recently, and I know that if I did have HBO, I’d be hopelessly hooked. I wouldn’t even be writing this—I’d be off reading episode recaps and character analyses. (Good thing I don’t have HBO, huh? Sigh.)

See, when people ask me about my professional history, I have to be honest and admit that, as much as I love higher ed, my biggest career thrill was working in the newsroom of The Boston Globe. It’s a thrill I don’t think higher ed could ever top, if only because breaking news is an adrenaline rush like no other. (I wrote about it a little bit in this LINK article about being an ex-journalist in higher ed.)

My career has taken a few twists and turns since my days at the Globe, but I still find myself in the business of dealing with newsrooms—of a slightly different sort, of course. Organizations, in higher ed and beyond, are realizing that they can be their own publishers. They can own their stories and communicate them to the proper audiences in the most appropriate manner. Hooray! This is great!

But it’s also work. It takes a whole heck of a lot of process and protocol to make those stories shine, and a lot of that is work that the audience never sees or even knows about. The best newsrooms, in fact, are silent, invisible machines that churn our all sorts of relevant, targeted content without revealing their inner workings.

I learned a lot about this at the Globe, but also during my time at Tufts, where
I had a hand in multiple news efforts—including the university’s new integrated news site, Tufts Now, which was more of an exercise in editorial problem solving than it was a mere website.

A lot of people ask me about Tufts Now and say many nice things about it. “Great online newsroom!” And while I love hearing people say this, because I’m very proud of what our team accomplished, it compels me to clarify something:

A newsroom is not a website.

A newsroom does not end in .edu or begin with www.

Newsrooms are silent, invisible machines. Your news website is what that machine, all gears spinning and pistons churning, churns out.

A news website like Tufts Now may look great, but it’s like an iceberg—the true heft of it, warts and all, is hidden below the surface. Buried deep in that icy mass are the real successes—and the real challenges—that no one ever sees.

If you look beneath the surface and chip at the ice a little bit, what you’ll find is that a newsroom consists of calendars, editorial workflows, messaging priorities, incredible stories (of course), epic whiteboard sessions, CMS customization, usability testing and surveys, social media, community management—and much, much more.

But above all, a newsroom is people. You can have the best stories at your fingertips, and the most advanced equipment and technology at your beck and call, but if your people aren’t invested in either the value of telling those stories or the best process by which to tell them, all you’ve got is a machine that makes a lot of noise but creates nothing of lasting value.

I am extremely fortunate to have two opportunities this fall to talk about how to create these silent, effective story machines. One will be on Sept. 27 as a speaker at the inaugural Content Strategy Summit, an online event organized by Environments for Humans. Alongside incredible speakers such as Relly Annett-Baker, Margot Bloomstein, Karen McGrane, Melissa Rach, Ginny Redish, I am going to talk about content strategy for online news organizations. There are many unique content strategy considerations for organizations that find themselves publishing news content, and I hope to share some insight on a few of them. (Psst! You can get 20 percent off of this incredible lineup by using the code 20GEORGY when you register.)

In addition, I am presenting a post-conference workshop at HighEdWeb on creating an effective online newsroom. That’s going to be a fun, hands-on opportunity to learn what makes a higher ed newsroom work, diving into many of the same ideas I’ll share in my CS Summit presentation and that I’ve shared with many audiences and clients over the past year-plus. I’m really looking forward to that. (Psst! You can still sign up! And early bird registration for HighEdWeb is available until July 31.)

When I first spoke about this topic at HighEdWeb last year, my talk had a “Newsies” theme, and I feel that it’s appropriate to invoke the film (not the musical) again here. Because, like Davey says, “Headlines don’t sell papes. Newsies sell papes.” The stories don’t tell themselves. It’s up to us to tell them. So let’s figure out how best to get that done.

Photo by vitike/Flickr Creative Commons

Confab Reflections

On May 15-16, I had the pleasure of attending the finest content strategy conference in these here United States, Confab. Over on Meet Content, Rick and I posted a ton of coverage from the conference, including:

That’s a lot! But I had a few additional ruminations that didn’t quite fit in that coverage. I shared a version of these thoughts at last week’s Content Strategy New England meetup, which featured other great recaps from Confab. (P.S. If you’re interested in content strategy, July is your month! Brain Traffic, the fab organizers of Confab, are declaring July to be Content Strategy Meetup Month. Find your meetup and go meet other folks who love to think about content. You don’t have to be a content strategist, per se — you just need to want to talk about content with fun, smart people.)

Anyhow, some of my spare thoughts on Confab:

Face the Future

One of my favorite quotes from last year’s Confab came from Erin Kissane, who observed, “It’s a weird time for publishing.” iPads, Kindles, time-shifted reading, you name it — there was a lot more to think about. But if was weird then, it’s downright bizarro now. Responsive web design has become a (nerdy) household word, we’re still figuring out mobile, our CMSes still often fail us and folks are buzzing about the value of a little thing called structured content.

Well, if last year’s Confab was an acknowledgment that the times they are a-changin’, this year we began to figure out what to do about it. From Cleve Gibbon’s discussion of CMSes and content architecture and valued tool to Karen McGrane’s clarion call of a closing keynote to embrace adaptive content, the whole conference was peppered with valuable, practical strategies and tactics for facing the future of publishing head on. It was just what we needed.

Journalism is Vindicated

I am a huge advocate of bringing lessons from online journalism to higher ed web publishing, so I was hearted to hear Kissane and McGrane relate to the field in their talks. In Kissane, which explored a wide range of ideas and inspirations from fields beyond content strategy, she talked about the promise of big data and how journalists are leading the way in using it to craft narratives.

Then McGrane shared a great nugget with the crowd as to why journalism is also ahead of the game when it comes to structured content — they’ve been publishing structured content for years. Hed, dek, lede, captions, cutlines, nut grafs—that’s structure, and that’s an inherent part of newsroom workflow.

Culture Club

When you think about it, the way you approach content reflects an institutional value. Multiple sessions at Confab addressed this. Fidelity’s Juli Smith talked about content strategy from an anthropological perspective — the need to observe the landscape, embrace the organizational values and understand the context in which the organization operates. She likened content strategy to terroir, the characteristics that geography, geology or climate lend to produce such as wine, coffee or tea.

From change agents to content sympathizers to the various relationships that ensure good work gets done, Smith reminded us that people are always at the heart of it. The other core component is process—even in content strategy, there are symbols and ceremony that are important.

Gerhard Arnhofer from Merck shared a case study of his company’s project to create Univadis, a portal for health professionals, out of a tangle of 20 CMSes, 250 content streams and no shared taxonomy. Such an effort, said Arnhofer, requires COURAGE—choosing partners carefully, outsourcing sensibly, understanding your environment, reusing what’s worth keeping, automating what you can, galvanizing your team, and evaluating your efforts.

For Arnhofer, building a culture around content meant ensuring only people who believed in content strategy were part of the team. In addition, he emphasized the value of alliances, information sharing and leveraging institutional knowledge for future efficiency.

There’s no single methodology for creating a content-centric culture, but it’s a huge priority. Content is a cultural value, and from authors to strategists to top level stakeholders, you need a shared vision in order to excel.

Preach It

While Confab is a somewhat elevated discussion of the ins and outs of content strategy, digital publishing and related concerns, the conference made me realize how fundamental those concerns are, and that I need to keep talking and learning about it. Why? Because it affects everybody. Content is a ubiquitous thing that people rely on heavily and invest in substantially.

The future of publishing a big deal. It matters a lot. Luckily, there’s a healthy community of people both in and out of higher ed who are constantly talking and presenting about this stuff. But we need to bust out beyond the echo chamber of fellow content nerds and preach the good word to the uninitiated. We need to advocate and evangelize. As I’ve charged audiences in the past, go tell it on the mountain! The future is depending on you.