Crosstown Digital Communications

marketing Posts

How Not to Make a Website

In the quiet days before Christmas, revered marketing guru Seth Godin excreted this pile of words, in which he purported to offer marketers tactical advice on how to make a website.

Needless to say, among the web professionals I know, the article caused a bit of a stir. Godin introduces the piece as a guide to “how marketers can work with their teams, their bosses and their developers to get the site they want built with less time and less hassle.” This, in theory, would be great. Increasingly, we are finding that we need to look at the web holistically in order to build successful user experiences that drive business objectives. That includes developers, designers, content professionals, clients, stakeholders and, sure, marketers.

But he proceeds to offer no such guide. Instead, Godin gives the marketer a guide to how to go in a cave, surf the internet, and vomit the things one finds and likes into a developer’s lap before scurrying away.

The tips Godin recommends — browsing websites to find site features you like, mocking up site concepts using a medium with which you are familiar, refraining from diving into code — are not terrible as parts of a process, or as complements to or inspirations for parts of a process. But as a process in and of themselves? Absolutely terrible advice.

In creating this stellar guide, Godin neglects a couple of important things:

1) GOALS. This omission is kinda funny, given that he is supposedly writing this for the “goal-oriented non-professional.” See, a website is not an artistic exercise. It is not purely a visual creation. It is a means to an end. It is a strategic business asset. With that in mind, why do you need a website? What are you hoping to achieve for your business or organization? With whom do you wish to communicate? What actions do you wish for these people to take? These are the questions that the “goal-oriented non-professional” should be answering, not “which shopping cart module do I like the most?”

2) CONTENT. Content is the vessel in which we encapsulate our best answers to the above-listed questions. You can’t find the best content for your website by browsing other websites. And the developer to whom you hand off your Keynote arts-and-crafts project is not going to have it, either.

Just a couple of minor things, you know?

The Elders of the Internet Would Never Stand For It

Breaking news: making internet is hard.

Related news: I am fairly confident that Seth Godin has never actually been within a hundred yards of a modern website development process.

The day after Godin published his screed, Robin Sloan wrote about his realization that writers like himself cannot be tasked with making websites that will succeed in today’s mobile, multi-screen web world.

Today I don’t think the amateur’s best effort is good enough. We as internet users have less patience and less charity for janky, half-broken experiences. (Which is quite an evolution, because the whole internet used to be a janky, half-broken experience.) That’s unfortunate for me, and other amateurs of my approximate skill level, because that’s really the only kind we can muster.

But you know who can totally craft an experience that works flawlessly on a phone, a tablet, a laptop, and a rice cooker? The team that made Medium. Other teams like it. In a word: professionals.

Sloan is right on. In crafting a successful web experience, everyone holds a piece of the puzzle. The answer does not solely live in one person’s brain, be it the marketer or the designer or the developer. Now more than ever, the web is the result of a partnership of skills. That partnership thrives on collaboration, mutual respect, and ongoing learning.

A week and a half before Godin’s post, digital marketing luminary Mitch Joel blogged about the importance of minimalism in an online marketing experience.

As complex as marketing has become, it is the simplicity of the brand message and product that wins. … The brands that are triumphant in the online world, are scaling back and making the experience as minimalistic as possible.

Thus, the marketer shouldn’t be clicking around websites, browsing functionality options. The marketer should be identifying (and ruthlessly refining) the core messages and the top goals, then working with the web professionals to create a website supporting them.

“Marketers are going to have to adjust their attitudes and perceptions as to what marketing can be in this world of the new digital minimalism,” says Joel. “Think minimalism. Think bare. Think simple. We often toss these words out into the marketing zeitgeist without really appreciating the amazing opportunity that we have – as a marketing industry – to truly add value to the consumer’s life.”

Now, that’s twice I’ve mentioned a “partnership of skills” or “working with the web professionals.” But what shape does that collaboration take? I recently published an article for HighEdWeb LINK about responsive web design (RWD), and one of the themes that came up with each person I interviewed was the fact that the traditional waterfall approach (design, development, content) was quickly falling by the wayside.

RWD – which is arguably becoming the standard for developing a modern web experience – changes how developers, designers, content professionals, and even clients work together. The process is much more collaborative and concurrent, and the heart of it lies with the content. What are we trying to say? What are we trying to get people to do?

These are questions essential to the development of a modern website that someone like, say, our infamous marketer is well equipped to help answer. No coding required (though sometimes it’s fun and even useful to learn), but they will have to sit down with the designer and developer and, together, figure out how to make the website reflect those messages and goals.

In her response to Godin’s post, Amanda Costello phrased it well:

Building sites is usually a team project, and making an effort to understand what your teammates do and what they know will make the project go a lot smoother. You’ll build respect for each other’s specialties and knowledge. Respect doesn’t prevent conflict, or remove all misunderstandings, problems, and barriers. But it makes working with them, and building awesome websites, a whole lot better.

Working with developers and the like is apparently a scary prospect for Seth Godin. But I promise, Seth, it’s not that bad. It’s actually kind of awesome.

And Another Thing…

It wasn’t enough for Godin to share these blessed insights. Despite the lack of comments on his blog or a meaningful Twitter presence, word of the criticism must have reached his ears, because the next day he filed a retort entitled “True professionals don’t fear amateurs.”

“The best professionals love it when a passionate amateur shows up. The clarity and intelligence of a smart customer pushes both client and craftsman to do better work,” says Godin. “If you’re upset that the hoi polloi are busy doing what you used to do, get better instead of getting angry.”

(Also, says Godin, “Talented web designers don’t fear cloud services.” It’s true. I don’t know a single front-end web developer who lives in fear of Netflix’s shift to on-demand streaming movies. Related: what?)

So, what Godin says is very true, but I would be careful in how we characterize “passionate.” If you mean someone who has thought through their goals and knows what they want their website to achieve; is curious about how things work, willing to learn, and asks smart questions; is committed to measuring the effectiveness of those solutions; is willing to work with and learn from fellow professionals in the digital space; and who knows what they don’t know, then yes, bring on the passionate amateur.

But if you mean someone who thinks they know all the answers better than anyone else because they filled up their browser cache with click-around “research,” then I think you’re working with the wrong definition of “passionate.”

You know what else true professionals don’t fear, Mr. Godin? The things they don’t know. The things they don’t understand. True professionals never stop learning and are never afraid to admit when there’s something new to learn. In fact, it energizes them. True professionals are both eternal students and eternal teachers.

To this end, Mr. Godin, you would be best served asking a few questions about how exactly websites get built nowadays. I am sure that this knowledge would serve your business well. But until you start asking those questions, I kindly ask that you step away from the internet. I’m sure there’s a keynote to give or a book to write somewhere in the meantime.

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!

The Continuity of Caring

Emotions are powerful. Feelings drive actions. They shape decisions and change minds.

Evoking emotion should be at the core of our marketing efforts. Do we want to encourage someone to apply? Enroll? Give money? Support a campus expansion initiative? Volunteer? Write to their congressperson on our behalf? They won’t do it unless they care. Unless it matters to them.

Since our content does our job for us, we have to create content that matters to our users. We have to convey how our activities align with their values, interests and beliefs.

I was pleased to see two recent blog posts touch on this topic. Jeff Kallay from TargetX talked about how all purchasing is emotional, particularly the decision of where to attend college. And on the other end of the life cycle, mStoner’s Fran Zablocki says that we should “operate under the assumption that every alum cares about something your institution does (or could do) enough to support it and you are left simply with the task of finding out what that something is and how you can enable people to support it.”

I mentioned the concept of the life cycle rather casually up above, but it’s a very serious consideration. For us to understand what our users care about (and thus drive action around it), we need to care about our users. To know what matters to them, we have to know them. And to truly care about and know our campus population — from prospective student through to alumni status, whether we’re marketing and communicating to them or on the phone trying to answer questions about financial aid — we can’t put an expiration date on that caring. It needs to be ongoing throughout the course of their relationship with the institution, which creates an (oft-neglected) obligation of knowledge transfer and information sharing on our part. And here’s a bonus — by truly caring, you naturally have that elusive authenticity thing everyone talks about.

You may be Bob and you may be Sally and I may be Georgy, but to a member of our community, we’re not separate people, in a sense. We’re the institution. And when it comes to that individual, our knowledge and understanding of them should be shared and continuous, both so they feel supported and special and so our content efforts are more effective. To not know them, as Zablocki has said before, is to not care.

After all, as the Lorax says: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

WTF FTW Part 2: The Real Internet

The other day, I wrote about Why The Fuck Should I Choose Oberlin? (WTFSICO), an irreverent but successful effort by a couple of loyal Obies to showcase why they love their school.

We talk a lot about authenticity in higher ed web marketing, but how much more authentic can you get than a website powered by user submissions, showcasing what people really like about an institution via an internet trope they readily embrace? (It’s important to note that, while I call it a “marketing” site, it is an unofficial site not officially endorsed by the university. More than anything, it’s a fan site that just happens to be run by university staff and alums.)

When I see WTFSICO, I see a reflection of any number of popular single-serving sites that come down the pike, go viral (like, legitimately viral) and spark a huge amount of sharing, conversation and attention. In short, what I see is the real internet. I don’t see a time-delayed facsimile that has been vetted by committees and upheld by established best practices, and in the process had all the life, authenticity and relevance wrung right out of it. I see a real-time cultural echo.

In higher ed, we far too often call that a risk.

Look Beyond .edu

At HighEdWeb, I talked about how higher ed needs to begin using mainstream media as an analog for developing our own news sites — learning from the standards they are setting for an online news experience and from the platforms, channels and content types they are embracing to tell stories.

But the validity of that approach goes beyond news. In his HighEdWeb session, University of Florida’s Jeff Stevens brought up everything from Kiva to Kickstarter to Farmville as inspirations for engaging alumni and soliciting donations in ways that are new to higher ed but proven in other contexts. If we’re reaching out to a particular audience via the internet, why not do what works for that audience? Seems simple enough to me. Maybe it’s a magazine. Maybe it’s LOLcats. If it works, it works.

The fact of the matter is, if you are doing what you’ve always done, or sticking only to proven .edu conventions, you will soon find yourself falling behind — or realizing you’ve been behind for a while. That’s not to say we should change on a whim, or just for the sake of changing. Not at all. But we can’t be complacent. That would be the real risk.

Fun, Fun, Fun, Fun

At Ithaca College, where campus closes at 3 p.m. in the summer, multimedia content coordinator Rob Engelsman and his colleagues took the opportunity to do a “fun, summery thing… to help celebrate the weekend” and post humorous GIFs to the university Twitter account. Yes, GIFs. In case you didn’t know, this 24-year old file format is having a cultural resurgence via sites like Reddit and a host of Tumblrs. Two of the most popular ones for IC were Rebecca Black visiting the campus fountains, which drew about 518 clicks, and a rendering of what campus looks like at 3:01PM on Fridays, which got about 189 clicks.

“For the last shuttle launch, we photoshopped the space shuttle lifting off from our new Athletics Center which has a large tower on it, and for the fourth of July we had the liberty bell swinging between our two iconic towers on campus with fireworks in the background,” says Engelsman. They got some feedback about a couple of the GIFs being too goofy, but according to Engelsman, “we had fun anyway.”

Recently, I saw Mike Richwalsky of John Carroll University tweet, “So we run digital signage, and I’m so tempted to put “STUDENTS Y U NO GET FLU SHOTS” on there promoting our free flu shots. #jobsecurity.” Pittsburg State’s Michael Fienen responded by creating the slide, which Richwalsky then adapted for use in digital signage. I’m not sure if he actually published it or not, but I thought it was hilarious — and certainly attention-getting, which is what you want for a flu shot campaign.

These examples few and far between. Though Rob Engelsman tipped me off to at least one company in the higher ed space is embracing this — check out Unigo’s Find Me a Fucking College single-serving site, driving users to the Unigo pages for various schools.

Too School For Cool

There is one giant caveat: It is extraordinarily difficult for us to do this. One of my cardinal rules is “don’t try to be cool,” because if we try to hard to be cool, we will only look foolish. This is tricky stuff to pull off. Photocopying pop culture is not a recipe for success; it’s a shortcut to failure.

We also wrestle with our own gravitas. I think many institutions would want to characterize themselves as forward-thinking and not hidebound, but how much of our marketing is hidebound? When trying to be forward-thinking, how often are we forced to tie one arm behind our back? Why do we have to hashtag neat, valid ideas #jobsecurity? Where does the real risk lie?

Why WTFSICO works for its creators is that they are not too far removed from their target demographic. Also, the site is not official, and it likely didn’t languish for months between conception and launch. WTFSICO is a natural extension of their love and enthusiasm for Oberlin and a natural expression of what, to them, is an effective web presence. In short, they are not trying too hard.

The July 2010 Brigham Young University parody of the Old Spice guy videos worked because it was a real-time, nearly instantaneous reaction to a pop culture phenomenon. (The incredibly popular video response phase of “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign launched July 14, 2010; the BYU video went up the next day. The original commercial had debuted in February 2010.)

Still, we have to be attentive to internet cultural phenomena like LOLcats and GIFs and single-serving websites. They represent a key dialect of the language that the rest of the internet is speaking, and we do not operate on a separate internet. In marketing, achieving a fluency in that language is the biggest challenge. Whether we’re talking Tumblr or flyers, the language may change but the challenge remains the same.

But maybe efforts like WTFSICO are out of our reach. Maybe they only succeed because they are not institutionally grown. Maybe we’re too close to the problem to be part of the solution, and our role is best served encouraging from afar rather than creating on our own. Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s easy for us to segregate ourselves, but our users don’t. We’re judged alongside everything else. We don’t get a break. Believe it or not, we are on the actual, real internet, right alongside everybody else. So need to find ways to start acting like it.

What do you think?

A World of Difference

Night Falls Over KortedalaLast night, I saw Jens Lekman perform at the Arts at the Armory complex in Somerville, just a 20 minute walk from my house. The last time I saw Lekman perform was in 2005, at a tiny club across town, PA’s Lounge. (It was also then that I interviewed him for a profile in Splendid E-Zine). In the interim, Lekman has gathered lots of acclaim for his honest, emotional, clever and at times charmingly awkward songwriting.

When I saw him in ’05 at PA’s, he was very fresh and young. He shyly clung to the microphone, eyes shut, crooning away. But at the Armory, I was stunned by how Lekman has matured as a performer in the past nearly seven years. At a sold-out venue packed with nearly 400 fans, Lekman commanded the stage with ease and comfort, dancing around, responding to the crowd and obviously enjoying the night.

It made me think about the act of creation. When you create something — a song, an essay, a painting, a website — you create a world. You can either invite people into it, or not.

Back in 2005, we got to observe the worlds of Lekman’s creation, and the audience derived some enjoyment from that. But we were not a part of them. Those worlds were his own. Last night, however, we were invited into them. We became an integral part of them.

After the show, my friend Chris remarked, “He was just completely engaged.” And that was it. Yes, the concept of engagement is one of the most overused in marketing. But now, after this concert, I feel like I have a better understanding of it than ever before. To engage someone is to invite them into the world of your creation, and to make it a shared experience. They become as much a part of it as you are, sharing in the honesty, the emotion, the cleverness and, yes, even the charming awkwardness.

Sometimes, your world needs to remain your own, and that’s okay. It could be something very personal, or you’re just trying to work something out or conduct an experiment.

But a world gains power when you bring people into it, because they make it better than you could have done on your own. They shape your creation, enhance it, amplify it.

It makes me think of one of the coolest phenomena I’ve learned about from the Occupy Wall Street movement — the people’s mic, where the crowd makes up for the lack of amplification by having an individual’s message shouted in echo by the people standing nearby. This not only enables everyone to hear the message, but actively involves the crowd in its communication.

It may have taken Lekman a few years to figure out how to let people into his world. But last night at the Armory, the power of his engagement was on full display. And his creations, his songs, buzzed with the life we fed into them.