Category Archives: Web

Being useful is more important than chasing vanity metrics

I recently had a call from a vendor who brusquely said she thought our Facebook posts could do better and that their tool could help (a dubious argument). That week happened to be, in retrospect, one of our lowest for engagement rates, in part because Facebook was seemingly squeezing everybody’s reach at the time and because I was trying new content features, but it also brought to focus something I’ve been thinking for a while:

We spend a lot of time looking at social media the wrong way.

Graph that shows a rising and falling Facebook reachSocial media isn’t — or shouldn’t be — a popularity contest. If you’re only concerned with vanity metrics (likes, reach, etc.), you’re not really concerned with your audience.

Don’t get me wrong: I like seeing one of our posts getting hundreds of likes and shares and a big reach, but there’s something I like way better:

Seeing that one of our posts has helped somebody or had a positive effect. Maybe it makes an alum smile and remember their days. Maybe a parent comments on how thrilled they are their child goes here. Maybe it convinces somebody to come to an event or donate or maybe even choose to enroll at our college.

And in at least one case, a very helpful post made people mad and convinced them not to come, but ultimately was the right thing, engagement rates be damned.

Without getting too specific, we have a popular annual student-organized event that I happily promote when I heard about it because it’s one of the most cherished offerings to the community. But then, on the afternoon before the event (!), they emailed they didn’t have their resources aligned and would have to cancel it.

I knew what I had to do wouldn’t make us popular or that beloved in the short term, but it was the right thing: I had to post ASAP that this event was canceled.

People were mad. They chewed us out. They were rightfully upset that an event their children looked forward to wasn’t going to happen and they’d have to find some alternative. I checked around and found a couple of similar events they might enjoy.

The post did get shared quite a bit to make sure families didn’t show up to a canceled thing, which would have led to temper tantrums and the like, and the comments with which it was shared were not kind. Understood. I did a follow-up post the next morning, realizing it could bring more anger, although by then people saw it as more helpful.

If somebody only cared about sentiment tracking, would they have posted it?

If somebody didn’t think it would get a bunch of likes, would they have posted it?

I’d like to think the answer to these questions is “yes” for most people in the field, but if all you chase are likes and positive sentiment, you’ll miss the bigger purpose of social media, and that is being of value to your community.

If somebody doesn’t want to post something helpful or of interest to a key (albeit niche) audience because it might not get good engagement rates and could potentially lower EdgeRank, then they are managing numbers, not a true community.

Because posting something that genuinely helps one person, or moves one person to action that will have positive results, is more valuable than 100 likes any day.

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A successful conference that discussed failure.

Keynote presenter Felicia Day with the incomparable HighEdWeb President Colleen Brennan-Barry.

Keynote presenter Felicia Day with the incomparable HighEdWeb President Colleen Brennan-Barry.

Don’t be afraid to fail.

Intended or not, that was a major message coming through for HighEdWeb 2017 (#heweb17) that rocked and inspired hundreds of attendees in Hartford. The conference itself was a tremendous success — and one that, perhaps paradoxically — addressed the idea of failure, and why it’s part of the process, more than any other gathering I can recall.

A moving and magnificent keynote by actor, author and content creator Felicia Day especially drove the point home. Day — who pioneered successful crowdfunding for entertainment and has brought the enjoyment of a fun nerdy character to everything from her project “The Guild” to “Supernatural” to “Dr. Horrible’s Singalong” to the “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” reboot — was honest in how many times she took the wrong path on the way to an amazing career.

“Mistakes are rewarding,” she said at one point. “They are the best thing you can do.” She added that people are more successful when they risk failure instead of moving cautiously toward what they consider guaranteed success.

Day added we should treat ourselves as our own research projects — the key is to discover ourselves, as “the greatest tragedy is to not be who you are.” She has coped with anxiety and a desire to be perfect, and learned along the way there should be no shame to reach out for help, whether via a support group or counseling or anything that can bolster our mental health.

She said her own daughter serves as a kind of inspiration: We all have some joy in our lives we wouldn’t have if not for mistakes. Lose the regret, Day advised, and instead of dwelling in negativity, live a good and kind life that shows that being different, even being nerdy, is cool.

I had the honor of asking a question in the resulting audience Q&A, which essentially said that, yes, this really inspired us, but how can we bring the similar attitude — mistakes are OK and fuel success — back to the sometimes risk-averse atmosphere of higher education? While acknowledging that Hollywood was very risk-averse, which is why she independently funded so many wonderful projects, Day noted the idea of doing pilots the way the TV industry does is a great solution. Doing a pilot project, no matter how small, that shows something can be done is a useful first step to larger projects that can help our students, our colleges and our world.

One thing is certain: Bringing the honest, intelligent and engaging Felicia Day as a keynote speaker was by no means a mistake.

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Presentation slide: Get permission to fail

Unfortunately, I don’t even realize which presentation featured the slide Amy Wolf shared about getting permission to fail, but it perfectly encompasses something that came up a few times.

In her session that won the Best of Conference award, “The Art and Science of Collaboration,” Day Kibilds of Western University discussed using lessons learned and avoiding past mistakes can develop collaboration and drive winning projects. All with a “Game of Thrones” theme, I should add. In short, she encouraged us that if think about worst-case scenarios (like zombie White Walkers overrunning the Seven Kingdoms) to motivate stakeholders to work together, if we have the right players to have honest and healthy discussions, and if we acknowledge institutional mistakes and/or inconveniences, projects can be turned around if treated as an opportunity for learning.

Unknowingly, I joined the trend as I presented “7 Habit[at]s of Social Media Storytelling.” (Thank you to Donna Talarico for the marvelous recap!) And I’m not just saying out of realization as I developed the presentation I had taken the wrong approach — don’t base it on channels but on content and process instead — and had to practically rewrite the whole thing, nor because I goofed in thinking I could get it completed in just 45 minutes (sorry).

Nope. I’m happy that the presentation included a slide that read:

You will fail sometimes, but that’s OK.

The only people who never fail are people who never try.

And this #heweb17 wonderfully encouraged us to try, fail and try again. It’s really the only road to success.

 

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GroupMe: the new secret weapon for our social media team

One of the great things about having students on your social media team is that they bring you new ideas and platforms — some of which even work behind the scenes. GroupMe — which our students suggested — has been a noteworthy new tool that has improved our efforts this semester.

GroupMe is a private messaging service that allows you to share text, photos and video — and to help organize what you do.

This semester, we have our largest social media student team ever — seven students. How do we keep activities organized, especially spontaneously? GroupMe.

With that larger group, most of the students are specializing on one particular channel. But when they get that great content, how do they share it with the rest of us for the other channels? GroupMe.

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img_1493The perfect example of how we use it came this weekend, with a special and decidedly visual event — our first-ever Teddy Bear Toss to benefit local kids. In a nutshell, attendees to the Saturday night men’s hockey game were asked to bring teddy bears (or they could buy them in the arena from the local Girl Scouts) and throw them on the ice after the first Laker goal. A wonderful way to make spirits bright for a number of children this holiday season.

But it’s also clearly great content. Saturday afternoon, I sent a group message asking who was available to get video and/or photos at the game. Two students, Ilyssa and Erika, replied they would be there and they determined Ilyssa (whose main channel is Twitter) would get photos and Erika (whose main channel is Instagram) would get video.

img_1492The Lakers scored an early goal, teddy bears rained down and both teams helped collect them. Great visuals, indeed. Ilyssa’s photos and Erika’s video were posted and shared to appear across Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, all doing very well at showing this event that supported a worthy cause and underscoring we are a caring community.

A lot of people focus on the dazzle and the sizzle of social media, but you can’t do a good job without the structure and the steak. Whether its something as simple as Yousef, our intern who specializes in athletics, telling me he’s taking care of promoting today’s action, or as complex as coordinating a big social media moment on the fly, GroupMe has really been a fabulous addition to our social media game.

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#heweb16 shows it’s a caring community

Not only is HighEdWeb (#heweb16) probably the greatest conference for higher ed web professionals in the world but we were reminded yet again today that it’s a very caring community.

As Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code — which provides computer science and technological learning opportunities to girls of color ages 7 to 17 — gave a moving keynote on the importance of supporting technological opportunities to all, Chris D’Orso of Stony Brook cared enough to go to the Black Girls Code website and make a donation of $16 (in honor of #heweb16) to support the cause.

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And that in itself is lovely, but what happened next showed how truly beautiful the people at #heweb16 are.

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And it continued …

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(I also gave the $16, but was only one of many.)

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Until the giving spirit was everywhere in the room:

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I lost track of how many people donated, and I’m not sure how much total money we raised, but I’m completely sure of this: #heweb16 is an awesome community and I am so blessed to be a part of it.

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‘Our little group’? On being a nerd and being inclusive.

“This is a song about how little groups of people will make themselves into smaller groups of people in order to feel stronger …” — Peter Gabriel, “Not One of Us (Live)”

One of the drawbacks of today’s hypermarketed and ubertargeted and supersegmented society is the loss of inclusivity as people seek those people who think and feel and act just like they do. Of course, this is nothing new as high-school children have been walled off from “the cool kids” and separation by caste and/or class goes back ages. But as Peter Gabriel sagely points out or as former outcasts Nirvana sang about in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — a song that arguably changed the course of music and pop culture — the idea of of “our little group has always been and always will” suffuses society. (And that the teen elitists that line was about would sing along was grand irony.)

Too much passion?

Years ago, the NHL and its broadcast partners attempted to help clueless fans like me by adding a blue dot where the puck was to make it easier to follow (and went a bit far by giving a red comet tail on a hard shot, but anyway). Some hockey fans and purists were aghast. The league sold it as a way to draw in casual fans, but that dreaded c-word just made it harder for traditionalists to take. Maybe if the league had sold it as being for older fans or those with poor eyesight, the reaction could have been better — it’s hard for anybody to despise accessibility measures on their merit. Maybe it still wouldn’t have worked, but who knows? (Happy to report we recently wrapped a Hockey 101 video meant to let students who aren’t hockey fans learn more about the game.)

A dirty little secret to many might be that I have become a big fan of professional wrestling. Yes, the winners are predetermined and it’s a soap opera for guys or whatever you want to say — but it also features a lot of amazing athleticism and great storytelling. (I could write a blog or presentation on the topic of “what professional wrestling has taught me about storytelling” but maybe another time.) I’ve done some writing and commentary on fan site Cageside Seats, which is generally full of great and supportive people who have respectful debates (which itself dispels one stereotype of wrestling fans) but it has its share of those with disdain for casual fans. “WWE is doing this for the casual fans,” the argument more or less goes on some booking decision or character, “when they should reward us smarks and hardcore fans.” (Smarks = smart marks, i.e. people sucked in by wrestling while acknowledging its staged nature.) These people would despise casual fans who tune into John Cena on “Good Morning America” but who didn’t earn their cred by watching indy shows in bingo halls, or something. They mean well, but they need to understand their brand of fandom isn’t everybody’s level of fandom.

With any sport or passion, the idea that people with a more casual interest than you are less worthy of enjoying your thing is silly. Without casual fans, you can’t grow hardcore fans. They don’t offend your fandom or passion. That would be like an advertising agency saying, “nobody will love this product as much as we do, so we shouldn’t even advertise it.”

Rise of the nerds

This topic comes to mind as I prepare to leave for HighEdWeb 2016 (#heweb16), a conference for those who work in higher education web communications, also affectionately known as “nerd camp.” Nerds and dorks and geeks and former outcasts find validation with others like us. Levar Burton is one of the keynotes, which tells you plenty.

fullsizerender-6We generally were the uncool kids in high school, or at least certainly not the cool kids. But a funny thing happened along the way — kids who went into computer science or math or other scientific pursuits started making money and driving the new economy. Nerdy became the new sexy, and while TV shows used to depict nerds as uncool and poorly dressed kids with big glasses who were the butt of comedy, today a show celebrating nerd culture like “The Big Bang Theory” can become a cultural sensation. “Freaks and Geeks” remains respected and loved despite not being a hit during its brief run. Bill Nye the Science Guy, a former #heweb keynoter, is respected and admired. Doctor Who has been a huge nerd, yet he is adored across the globe.

Whereas The Beatles exuded cool, acts like The Replacements embraced awkwardness and dressed like nerds and Nirvana’s uncool coolness turned the pop culture world on its head. It got to the point that even the some of cool kids in high school tried to rewrite their internal biographies to being the pariahs in high school.

And so, for a few days in Memphis at #heweb, the outcasts will become the incasts, we will salute the freak flags that fly and in general much awesome will take place.

My nerd is not your nerd

But I offer one request or caveat to #heweb16 attendees, and those in these situations in general. Not everybody is your level or kind of nerd. Not everybody has an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek. Not everybody knows every corner of the Marvel universe. Not everybody has seen every obscure film that you can quote from memory. And that’s OK: My nerd is not your nerd. Remember this, and be inclusive. Being an outcast once doesn’t mean that you need to make others who don’t share your interests or ardor into outcasts. This isn’t a competition, it’s a conference.

Many times, I’ll probably have to nod my head and smile to something I don’t understand or, if I’m brave enough, simply say I don’t know what somebody’s talking about. And many times, people may not get my insider or obscure references. With any luck and grace, I’ll know to stop and explain something to include them in my strange world.

I was at a (non-#heweb) conference years ago, where some of us were singled out by organizers as “team Tweet” or “the cool kids.” I bristled. I am fortunate to have been going to these conferences long enough to know some awesome people, but I was once that person attending his first #heweb and knowing nobody and feeling like a complete loser because everybody seemed to know more than I did.

So while I’m so humbled and happy to be heading to “nerd camp” in Memphis, I hope I can be one of those pushing inclusivity. Many of us know each other already but, if you’re new, please don’t let that stop you from getting to know us. We were in your shoes too. And if you’re one of us who has been to many #heweb conferences, please do your best to help others into our circle and feel comfortable. Being a nerd is a badge of honor now, but not a license to put those who aren’t your type of nerd — or even not a nerd at all — in an outcast circle we once (or sometimes still) called home.

Be kind and be inclusive. It’s something any good nerd would do.

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Hick’s Law, making choices and leaner websites

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The other day, I hit the up button for the Culkin Hall elevator and a rare thing happened: Both elevators showed up on my floor and opened at about the same time.

My reaction was confusion. It goes against the natural pattern: Hit button, see door open, get in. Now I had to make an additional choice.

How many times have you encountered this unnecessary layer of decision-making in your daily life … especially when visiting a website?

There’s even a scientific theory related to this: Hick’s Law. Also known in some circles as the Hick-Hyman Law, after psychologists William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman, it posits that increasing the number of choices will cause the time for humans to make a decision increase logarithmically (or by a lot, if you prefer).

True of the elevator story: Normally, shuffling in would take about a second, instead I was confounded and took a few seconds. No harm no foul, but with websites it has more important connotations. (It’s the titular reason one of the seminal works of web usability is Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think.)

Jason Gross of Smashing Magazine took this theory Hick started developing about 75 years ago and translates it to design, especially for the web:

So, let’s step back and consider the thought process that users go through and how many levels of decision-making a Web design can consist of. For example, instead of just regarding each link in a navigation menu, sign-up form or toolbar as its own option, we should consider the process of interacting with the navigation a decision of its own. For that matter, any given design contains a whole array of top-level “options” that demand decisions of the user.

In choosing whether to read an article, navigate to a new page, fill out a log-in form or perform a search, the user has to mentally process several options before making even a single click. Are they interested in the content on this page? They might decide to skim the headlines to see what stands out to them. Perhaps they are shopping for something. Before even hitting the “Add to cart” button, they have to choose between making the purchase, looking at product details and reviews, and shopping around for something else.

Inciting indecision

More than increased time to decision, the greater danger is that people decide not to choose one of your options because they become frustrated or interrupted. “If you choose not to decide,” the band Rush notes in “Freewill,” “you still have made a choice.” I have opted out of confusing websites, forms that ask for too many fields or transactions that are too complex or take too long. Which is to say, sites not observing Hick’s law can cost themselves transactions, actions and certainly user happiness.

My friend Kyle James (now with NuCloud) gave a conference presentation years ago where he said something to the effect of “if you want your user to take one action, design a landing page with one link.” (Or something, sorry Kyle if I screwed that up.) And it’s true. The opposite is what we find on too many websites — pages overflowing with links, many of them poorly labeled or redundant, which increase user frustration and decrease the chance of completed tasks.

Many in our industry love specialized jargon or vague acronyms or phrases that they understand within their own circles but that are unfamiliar to students, prospective students and parents. Our suggestion is always: Speak like your user. Give them phrases they recognize, especially in your links. When creating web content, there’s no prize for showing off how big your vocabulary is or how many insider buzzwords you know.

Make actions possible

For whatever website you create, three key considerations remain constant:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What do you offer? (Or “what is your value proposition,” if you prefer.)
  • What action(s) do you want them to take?

Other key questions about content strategy exist, of course, but those three should drive your creative. Showing what you have to offer (why a visitor should apply to your college, sign up for your service, buy your product, etc.) and then trying to move your audience toward a related action should take priority.

Long rambling paragraphs about your mission statement, links appearing for vanity sake and a barrage of irrelevant graphics that might bury those calls to action and things your visitors are actively seeking work against the success of your site … and of your business.

With the web, less is more. Especially now that so many people use mobile devices requiring a leaner experience. For last month, more than 40% of our external traffic arrived via mobile device, and 50% of our first-time external users were on mobile. They don’t want to scroll past some irrelevant “happy talk” paragraphs and they sure don’t want to roll through 37 links to find what they want.

Let’s use a different elevator analogy. You get on an elevator and it has a set of numbers (1 to 10) on one panel and a set of letters (A to J) on the other. You’re pretty sure you want a numbered floor, but the added choices leave you unsure. Sounds outlandish, right? Yet this is what a lot of websites do by crowding in extra information and links and shiny objects.

We should all be leaning toward lean websites. Let’s make it easy for visitors to get on our sites and go where they want without unnecessary confusion or work. If they can reach their desired web destination on a smartphone while traveling a few floors on an elevator, you are moving in the right direction.

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Facebook Live and incoming student Q&A: a promising idea

On Sunday night, we might have seen the future of Facebook Live in higher education, and it was awesome.

Alyssa Levenberg, known best for her Alyssa Explains It All video blogging series offering advice to incoming students, posted a question to our Class of 2020 + Transfers page: If she did a Facebook Live Q&A, would they participate?

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The answer via likes was a resounding yes, so at 8 p.m. Alyssa went live on her Alyssa Explains It All Facebook page and fielded questions for two hours. The post reads 138 comments, not all of which were questions, but the interest and questions were especially active early and pretty steady throughout the broadcast.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 1.14.36 PMThe number of viewers at any given time may not look impressive — it hovered in the upper teens and 20s most of the night — but remained fairly consistent and this is about quality of over quantity. Sure, a Facebook Live video of a watermelon with rubber bands can get millions of views, but how much does it impact anybody’s lives? With Alyssa’s webcast, incoming students received words of comfort and encouragement in addition to getting their questions answered. That’s a bigger impact than mere numbers show.

The short throw in terms of promotion and using a relatively new delivery method not yet in wide use may have kept the numbers down a bit, but Alyssa said Monday she was pleased overall.

“I think it went really well!” Alyssa said. “When people first came, they asked a lot of questions, but then it started to die down to only a few people asking. But they seemed to really like me answering them honestly and live for them.” This personal touch from somebody who was in their shoes certainly represents a real value-added for incoming students.

For the rare things Alyssa did not know fluently, a couple of current students (and this blogger) joined the channel to lend expertise or insight when needed, which wasn’t very often. It’s worth noting, I aimed to take a fairly hands-off approach as this was an “unofficial” activity Alyssa just thought of, proposed and ran with.

For future planning for our college and other institutions, a current student (or recent yet dedicated grad in Alyssa’s case) or student team doing a Facebook Live Q&A has a lot of potential. It could work well in different parts of the cycle; during college choice, discussions would more likely involve fit and what a college has to offer, while after students have committed it more moves toward specific questions and concerns (mostly about living on campus, for this session).

Since empowering student ambassadors and storytellers is a big interest, Alyssa’s Facebook Live provided proof this could work. The challenge is finding a student as engaging and knowledgeable as Alyssa — something we think about all the time now that she’s graduated and will one day yield her active ambassador role — but it’s definitely worth considering. Go in with an open mind and don’t necessarily expect it to “go viral” but with an understanding it can genuinely help and satisfy concerns of incoming students. That alone is a worthy goal.

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