Quick take: On incremental web improvements

Depending on your position and past experiences, “redesign” is either one of the most exciting or feared (or both) words used for higher ed webtenders. But it’s also a lot less important than keeping your eyes open for opportunities for incremental web improvements.

A few weeks ago, we finally rolled out an incremental change (I considered an improvement) we’d been simmering behind the scenes — changing our web fonts and especially boosting the visibility of links. For comparison:

Before

Before

After

After

Two simple changes: Moving to a more web-friendly font that works better across platforms and bolding inline links to make them more obvious (previously they were just green and the contrast wasn’t what we wanted). As we explained in a message to web editors just before the switch:

You will notice over the coming days that a couple of small changes are taking place with the website. We believe these changes will improve the overall look, feel and usability of oswego.edu. The font is changing from Droid Sans to Whitney, a font specifically optimized for display on the web across many browsers. This also will give the site a more distinctive feel.

We also will make our inline links more recognizable to users by increasing their weight within our page’s main content area. This bolded look will cause links to stand out more from regular paragraph text. This addresses feedback and requests to make links within pages stand out more and is part of our continuous program to make the site more friendly for all of our users.

The increased clarity of links is, imho, the bigger item because it incorporated user feedback and contributed to the navigability — in addition to readability — of our site. But taken together, any and all seemingly small steps put websites on the road to big improvements.

No, we didn’t form a committee. We didn’t call in a long list of consultants. We didn’t hold a launch party, didn’t send a press release, didn’t spend a lot of time patting ourselves on the back. We just tried some things, did some quick testing and made the improvement.

And if you’re into incremental web improvement, it’s just something you do and keep moving forward. Because there are always improvements to make. I only blog about it to encourage others to realize that there’s more to improving your sites than the enormous redesign project … every day brings an opportunity to have ideas, outline plans and make your site better.

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Why are colleges still writing press releases?

Everybody knows (well, I hope they do) that the dissemination of information and the news media themselves have changed immensely in the past few years. Today, colleges can reach large audiences for their stories, photos and videos via social media, while most of what were known as “print media” outlets have slashed editorial staff, cut back on publication dates and (in some places) evolve toward digital-first publication.

Against that backdrop, many colleges are still writing traditional press releases and not changing their view of how to generate and disseminate stories. But should they?

Two great sessions at the recent SUNYCUAD conference — Greg Kie’s “Why Are We Still Writing Press Releases?” and a panel presentation on “What’s Next for Local and Regional Media” hosted by Alexandra Jacobs Wilke — gave a fabulous and fascinating overview of this topic.

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The game has changed

The panel presentation, moderated by former higher education journalist Wilke now with SUNY Potsdam, featured Tim Farkas of Northern New York Newspapers; Ron Lombard of Time Warner Cable News; and Ellen Rocco, station manager for North Country Public Radio.

Their message was clear: They’re just not interested in getting buried in press releases. In fact, the more releases you sent, especially if they had little news value, the less likely some news orgs would even look at them in the busy, competitive news marketplace. Quality trumps quantity.

What do they want? News. Good stories. Things that will interest their audiences. But we (as communicators) need to facilitate this, not complicate it. We need to be more selective in what we send them, and focus on conveying relevant, interesting stories.

Lombard explained that news junkies still very much exist, but how and where they consume the news has changed. Farkas noted that the Watertown Daily Times has become digital-first and dedicates resources to getting its stories out to audiences via social media (do colleges follow their lead?). My favorite line from Rocco, whose operation has evolved from radio to media because young people don’t even have radios any more, was that “you don’t have to justify investing in new media” if your goals include younger audiences, because that’s where they are.

Instead of piles of press releases, they said, should focus on relationships and strategy: What do particular news outlets want? What don’t they want? If we have an outstanding feature story, they advised, consider personally reaching out and pitching it instead of burying it in an avalanche of releases.

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Think news, not press

Kie’s thought-provoking session drew on the SUNY Canton communicator and former journalist’s experiences as well as interviews with others. Ramming out releases loaded with marketing-speak and embellishment to meet marketing goals — but not news value — means more work for those editors, already drowning in releases, who may just let your releases sink into oblivion.

We should essentially, Kie says, write NEWS releases not PRESS releases, because the press is not our audience — readers are. We should be more selective in what we send and to whom we send it. We should avoid “cutesy leads,” Paul Riede of the Syracuse Media Group told Kie, and instead provide concise information and let media outlets decide what to do with it.

The edicts of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” are still relevant: “Omit needless words” and “Eschew obfuscation.” Be concise and clear. Or to borrow a beautiful phrase I heard recently: Nobody cares how a clock works. They just care what time it is.

But Kie sees use for relevant news releases which, when they run in online publications that take our submissions, surface on Google News and may lead to more discovery. He cited “Why Bullies Thrive at Work,” penned by Kevin Manne at the University at Buffalo, that started as a news release on faculty research and found its way into Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal, the “Today” show and BBC Radio, among other places. Admittedly that story was very topical since bullying was much in the news at the time, but it also represented an actual news story told with clarity and relevance that found a large and willing audience.

Kie mentioned the leaked findings of the New York Times’ innovation report, and its implications that newsrooms need to consider websites and social media channels part of distribution. Your news stories on your .edu site (ours is considered a Google News source) and shared on Facebook and Twitter can reach web-savvy and socially active audiences as readily as they can appear in what we once called newspapers.

In the end, you want win-win situations. “When you can write the type of press release that is aligned with the news media’s own goals and needs,” Colin Matthews, CEO of readMedia, told Kie, “they’ll not only print the release but thank you for it.” Worth noting that readMedia, which started as a conduit for sending student hometown news releases (probably news with the highest publication rate of all), has set the pace by evolving into a company that provides hometowners that also get distributed via social media through the students themselves (who can also build online profiles) via their Merit tool — which dovetails with evolving definitions of media and information flow.

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Less noise, more strategy

If you’re in an office that spends more staff time cultivating, writing, editing and distributing news releases for no other reason than because “that’s what we’ve always done,” it’s time to re-evaluate things. If you put out a high volume of press releases without any discretion, all you’re doing is creating more work … and more noise. When you need to do less — especially because it’s crowding out opportunities to do work that will get a higher payoff with your audiences than that news release on page 22 of a local shopper that almost nobody will read — you could consider asking some questions to steer your writing priorities:

1. Does this support our strategic communication goals?
2. Does this serve a substantial audience?

All communication should have goals. When your time and resources are limited, you shouldn’t create a news release, a webpage or a social media account “just because” — these should all involve strategy.

Strategic communication goals can be viewed broadly or narrowly. For us, promoting academic reputation — which I loosely define as “showing why attending or working at Oswego can be awesome” — is key, so promoting student or faculty research is part of that, made easier when you can show relevance that the average person can understand. If we’re opening a new building or adding a new major, however, the bottom line is not the building or program itself (and definitely, imho, not a process story) but how it will benefit our students (provide better labs and opportunities, meet a professional need or niche).

The problem we all face is tradition, the many press releases that we’ve always sent just because somebody asked us to … that many media outlets don’t even want, let alone want to run.

Digital (r)evolution

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 10.34.50 PMAs Herbert Spenser and Charles Darwin posited back in the 19th century, those who will survive and thrive are those who best adapt. Just a few days ago, Amazon bowed to the changing marketplace by placing its Digital Music section (formerly CDs and MP3s) front and center and moving its CDs down the menu into a CDs and Vinyl submenu in Movies, Music and Games. Couple that with the aforementioned New York Times innovation report and you’d have to be either obstinate or incredibly nostalgic/romantic to not realize the future (or perhaps even the present) lives in the digital realm.

If media outlets are going digital-first, shouldn’t we? Are we creating online newsrooms that showcase our best or are we sending (often-unwanted) e-blasts to editors? Or are we somewhere in between?

But let me clarify: Telling great stories on our websites and getting positive media attention are not mutually exclusive. Stories of interest to our key audiences are, by definition, news. Every media outlet wants news, wants to share stories that move their readers. The more we clutter the streams with off-point releases, the less they will even try to see the diamonds when they emerge.

We also need to realize that news releases are just one possible method of storytelling. Our student-created and student-centered videos such as Head2Toe Health: Kevin Graham, Grad Student/Pro Wrestler (approaching 2,000 views) and Monotype Printing at SUNY Oswego (above 1,300 views and counting) reach bigger (and wider) audiences than if we had merely blasted them out as news releases — in large part because the video medium tells the stories better. Similarly, standalone posts on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram can concisely and elegantly communicate better, quicker and more effectively — directly to key stakeholders — than pouring hours into a press release with little readership or relevance.

There’s no perfect answer to the question of why colleges still send news releases, or if they should, but it’s something we all ought to revisit and revise if possible. Our news should be, well, news and we should create stories welcomed by editors and readers alike, anywhere they want to find it.

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In social media, 1 big picnic in 1 park beats 100 scattered picnics

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When our new students are all on campus at the end of August, we throw them one big picnic under one big tent on the college quad. And it’s glorious (even if we’ve had a couple monsoons, students always had fun). Watching the #hewebmi conference tweet stream led me to this analogy: On social media, one big picnic in one park is better than 100 small ones in other parks.

Screen shot 2014-05-22 at 11.58.05 AMBlame Brian David Proffer of Marygrove College for triggering it with this tweet (RTed to my attention by the fabulous Alaina Weins of UM-Flint): “Points of wisdom: One site, one Facebook page, one Twitter feed, etc.” In short, make sure your community has one central place it can go to consume the best content your college has available.

But so many folks on so many campuses confuse and confound this notion. So many departments, offices and programs want their own Twitter feeds or Facebook pages with their own brand and logo and messages … and many efforts are abandoned after a few days or tweets that go nowhere because there’s nothing engaging happening and/or the student hired to run it graduates. And while some have valid reasons for that channel, many charge in with no content strategy — “let’s make a Facebook!” “let’s do a Twitter!” — or plan for providing and sustaining content, let alone how to respond to people who have questions. (Many accounts also feed updates into something that pushes them into Facebook and spits out cutoff sentences with Facebook links into Twitter, which essentially says they have no real interest in Twitter as anything but a place to blast messages … which isn’t the purpose of social media.)

To use a Memorial Day weekend (or, previously, Victoria Day in Canada) analogy: Wouldn’t you rather have all your friends get together at one picnic or barbecue, instead of having to drive all over the place to different gatherings? Of course. Similarly, your students probably want to have one main source of information they can trust and rely upon for constant updates — or, to continue the analogy, for the informative sustenance they need and want.

On college campuses, a staggering amount of time and effort is wasted by individual entities creating, promoting, haphazardly updating and often abandoning social media efforts. It’s like making a huge pot of macaroni salad for a picnic you want to control, even if it means nobody gets to eat it. But as a central social media communicator, I feel a need to do a better job of inviting and making everybody welcome at one big amazing picnic where everybody brings their own tasty dish to help nourish our campus community.

Screen shot 2014-05-22 at 12.12.53 PMBut how do we get there or, as my friend Deborah Edwards-Onoro sagely asks, “how to manage various stakeholders who want to ensure their voice is heard?” Not easy, but maybe it’s an opportunity for communication and collaboration.

Here’s my first take: I want to start building an outreach and process with our stakeholders. Basically along the lines of: “We want to share your awesome events and stories via social media. Here’s how you can submit them and here’s what we’re looking for.” As noted before, I love retweeting students who post great photos, student orgs who tweet details about upcoming events, anybody who has a link to a good story about one of our students/faculty or staff members/alumni. My guidepost is simple: Amplify the awesome that is part of our college family.

I’m not saying others shouldn’t have active accounts that serve their audiences, but that we should all work together to provide one conduit that improves everybody’s experience. After all, if @sunyoswego retweets a student club, we’re basically saying, “hey, here’s great content from this account you may consider following.” When various entities work together under one event hashtag (like our #ozwhiteout weekend) instead of everyone making their own hashtags, you see how efforts can dovetail to make a greater whole. In the college’s day-to-day picture, everybody’s content builds something bigger and more cohesive that paints the panorama of our institution beyond one snapshot or glimpse.

It sounds ambitious, and it is, but nothing good comes without effort. And if it sparks more conversations and collaborations and communications in the process, working together for a huge picnic in one park — or social media account — could feed and sustain well beyond one meal.

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Free soundtrack music on YouTube? Who knew?

Did you know that you can add copyright-cleared music to any video you upload to YouTube? I didn’t, until this week.

Super-intern and video blogger Alyssa Levenberg was assembling a video slideshow of photos submitted by members of our Class of 2018 proudly declaring their college choices by wearing Oswego gear when we hit a sticky wicket. The song she originally wanted to use wouldn’t clear YouTube copyright control (redacted rant about how we already pay for music licensing), yet when I went to figure out what options existed, YouTube offered a solution via its audio library.

Audio library? Full of music you can add for free? Have I been under a rock?

Perhaps, since the feature has been around a couple years. But the process of adding music is pretty easy. From your account’s Video Manager page, click on the arrow next to the Edit prompt by the thumbnail:

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Click on Audio and your video will appear with a selection of top songs you can add. Or you can click the Top Tracks tab and get a variety of genres from ambient to alternative & punk, classical to country & folk, rock to reggae, among others.

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With the video playing, click on the tracks (which include lengths, which is helpful) and see how they work with your visuals. That song doesn’t work? Click and try another. You can also search a database of what YouTube lists as 150,000+ tracks. Honestly, I thought a lot of the songs were good and catchy and flexible enough to work with many videos. You can also use the Position Audio feature to drop it in or out when you want it.

If you do a search, which you can even do by genre, you can scroll down and see all the songs offered, or even sort by songs that could fit your video’s length.

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If I had one critique, it’s that the minimum audio level available (if you slide the bar that says Only Music all the way left it will give you a lower volume and change to Favor Original Audio) can still be a bit high if your video involves a person speaking and you want the words to be clear. Maybe YouTube will tweak this feature eventually, although if you mix the original audio higher maybe it could work better. You’ve probably never heard of most of the artists available, but good music is good music regardless of whether it’s a recognizable artist.

And honestly, for a free fix that provides compelling background music for videos, the added audio feature for YouTube basically hits the right notes.

 

 

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Is a web service (G+, Facebook, etc.) ‘dead’ or ‘alive’? A quick users’ guide.

Image courtesy of fanpop.com. Points if you get the reference.

Image courtesy of fanpop.com. Points if you get the reference.

Much typing and responding and counter-responding of late has gone into whether Google+ is dead or alive, as is also happening with Facebook and myriad other past, present and future web services and communities.

What’s the answer? It’s simple.

Merely ask: Is this useful to me?

If you answered YES, then congratulations, it’s alive! Don’t sweat over what the pundits — most of whom make contrary claims mainly to get recognized and boost traffic to their own sites — say. When it’s no longer of use to you and what goals you want to attain, then it’s dead.

If you answered NO, then it’s dead to you. Not dead to the world, but to you. No pundit is in a position to tell others that a web service that they find useful is “dead,” no matter how many blogs they write or followers they have. It’s like telling your neighbor “using the hammer is dead” when you need a screwdriver for a project. If your neighbor needs a hammer, then it’s useful to him or her, no matter what anybody else says.

Glad we were able to clear that up. Keep using what you’re using, as long as it’s useful to you.

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The king of social media content on campus? It’s not us.

Those of us who work in social media and web communication professionally like to think we know all the answers about creating content that works. And then somebody comes along and makes us look like pikers. Such was the case of Charles Trippy of We the Kings, who played at SUNY Oswego on Saturday night. In addition to playing a good set, all he did was create the most popular piece of content ever to come from our campus … by far.

Not only was it a great plug (even if it did contain the word “badass”) but it told an interesting story:

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As backstory, Charles’ father, better known as Chaz Trippy, played percussion in the Gregg Allman Band. So he posted: “This is the badass venue we are playing at (SUNY Oswego) my dad played here too in the ’80s!” It’s a big compliment to our Campus Center arena and a great historical note (the Gregg Allman Band did play at SUNY Oswego, albeit likely in the less impressive Laker Hall, in 1982).

If you’re squinting at the number of likes, do not adjust your set, it does indeed say more than 31,000 people liked it on Instagram (now nearly 32,000). If one of our posts gets 100+ likes, I consider that impressive. I don’t see us dethroning this feat worthy of a king.

The post also appeared on Twitter, where the figures also rang up high: 96 retweets and 504 favorites (updated: 98 and 523).

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We can learn lessons from this, of course. In terms of social media success, yes it helps that Trippy is a good-looking guy who plays in a popular band. But he wouldn’t have 404,316 Instagram followers and 464,000+ Twitter followers if he didn’t create interesting content. His use of media crosses over into YouTube with his popular Web series Internet Killed Television, which basically chronicles Trippy’s life on the road and at home, sometimes with appearances from his parents. And his Charles Trippy Family x Core channel, where the episodes air, has 1,469,912 followers.

Trippy did indeed document his time at SUNY Oswego with a video blog episode, featuring several students and calling the whole experience “pretty awesome.” He enjoyed playing on the same bill as two bands that inspired him growing up, Motion City Soundtrack and Say Anything. Calling the experience “a dream come true,” he offers advice: “Never let anyone ever tell you that your dreams are stupid.” As of Monday morning, or in about its first 24 hours, his video featuring our campus had some 264,000 plays … and climbing.

Plenty of bands are more famous and sell more records, but Charles is certainly a king of content. A lesson learned in retrospect is how anybody involved with the show, including us so-called professionals, could have better engaged him sooner on social media and tried to leverage his huge following to promote the concert. Advice going forward for people promoting shows at any campus, concert hall or cafe: See who’s coming to perform and try to connect with them in advance and in a meaningful way.

Sure, I don’t expect to create a piece of content with better reception that what Charles Trippy got, but he put a lot of Oswego love and interesting stories all over social media. I’ll take that royal treatment any time!

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Smartphones/Twitter in the classroom, an update

Before this semester, I blogged about changing the syllabus of our “Media Copywriting” course (BRC328) to not only discard the old “put your smartphones away in class” trope but to even encourage and embrace the use of technology — specifically Twitter — during class time.

I was pleasantly surprised with how many readers asked for updates, and I’d say: So far, so good. Perhaps better, especially when it has curried creativity.

First I used Twitter for instant feedback, asking the class to give their quick review as I showed things like the classic Charmin campaign referenced in the name of our textbook, Luke Sullivan’s “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads.” I always ask for feedback using the #brc328 class hashtag.

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 9.22.05 PMSince advertising is about the instantaneous, in-the-moment reaction to content — humans generally think about ads in the moment, not in long-tail analytical ways, I found this very interesting. And found it funny how many times students words like “creepy,” “awkward” and “uncomfortable” to describe old Mr. Whipple spots.

But this week, we had in-class creativity exercises, with Twitter the expressive medium. I asked them to read a story — for example, on The Acting Company appearing on campus this week to stage “Hamlet” and the Tom Stoppard play it inspired, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Some of the responses were bardic nuggets in themselves:
Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 8.52.34 PMA Shakespeare reference is a plus. Or a good pop culture analogy …

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 8.52.54 PMBut this may be my favorite …

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It definitely encourages further use of Twitter during class. It succeeds in breaking up lecture time and finds new ways to include students in both the conversation and creative process. Stay tuned!

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