HighEdWeb 2014: Recap

By Kat Liendgens — Tuesday, October 28th, 2014 at 10:00am
Good content attracts the right audience, but it also repels those who aren't a good fit for your organization.

We’re back from HighEdWeb, which took place in the beautiful city of Portland, Oregon this year. We thoroughly enjoyed talking to all of you smart and creative web professionals who genuinely care about higher education organizations and their online presence. It was not only a fun, but also a highly informative conference with a plethora of fantastic presentations. Here are some takeaways.

It’s Not Just About Technology

While there was a good number of technical presentations as well as sessions that covered specific products and technologies, the focus this year appeared to be on the human component of the web. Perhaps the most talked about presentation was Karlyn Borysenko’s “Playing Politics: How To Get Exactly What You Want at Any Given Time”. We all know that navigating the political waters in higher education can be challenging, so this topic resonated deeply with the attendees. Karlyn provided excellent advice about picking your battles, using your influence for good, and, as a result, creating a happier work environment for you and your colleagues. One key piece of advice was to figure out who your friends and your enemies are. Note that this doesn’t mean “good” versus “bad” people. In fact, someone you might consider a close personal friend could still be your professional enemy. It refers to how each person’s goals are aligned with yours. Being aware of this helps you make better decisions and focus your energy on the right individuals. Another great point Karlyn made was that you have a limited amount of political capital, and it takes a while to build it back up, so you have to carefully examine how you spend it.

Making Technology Decisions

Several presenters talked about making technology decisions in order to improve the user experience and to make your own life much easier. After all, you don't just make technology decisions for your organization, but also for yourself. A “self-help” type presentation by Jesse Lavery (Allegheny College) revolved around increasing your productivity through automation. Jesse showed a variety of free tools that help you eliminate tedious tasks, improve your current processes, and free up time for more strategic work (or, as Jesse pointed out, family time). Another presentation on how to make a technology decision was given by David Rosen, who discussed the pitfalls to avoid when going through an RFP process. Those pitfalls include deciding solely based on a point system, not involving contributors in end user testing, not getting sandboxes from vendors prior to the purchase, and letting the vendor determine the use cases to demonstrate. Nikki Massaro Kauffman of Penn State University did an excellent presentation entitled "Authors Are People, Too", in which she highlighted just how important a good authoring experience is and how it will affect the quality of your web content.

Strategic Content Marketing

Regardless of the topic, content strategy quickly became an underlying theme in most of the sessions. Considering that roughly 90% of all Business to Consumer (B2C) marketers are using content marketing, it is crucial to have a strategy in place in order to differentiate yourself and to harvest the best results for your efforts. Rick Allen of Meet Content led a vivid discussion on authentic content, in which he showed several marketing videos found on university websites. After each one, the audience debated whether the video exemplified authenticity, leading to the conclusion that authentic content doesn’t mean that it’s unscripted and spontaneous. Instead, it unequivocally represents what it’s like to be a part of your university. As David Poteet of New City pointed out in his presentation (“Show, Don’t Tell”), good content attracts the right audience, but it also repels those who aren't a good fit for your organization. One of the most innovative marketing ideas came from Mark Greenfield of Buffalo University in his presentation “Own The Second Paragraph: Newsjacking in Higher Education Marketing.” While companies like Oreo seize opportunities to insert their brand into content on current events, colleges and universities should insert their subject matter expertise. For instance, if there’s talk about a certain disease, make sure to get your faculty members who specializes in the topic in front of journalists. This approach provides value to your audience and can significantly widen your reach.

Paradigm Shifts

Evolution requires the ability to adapt to change, and it was clear that web professionals in higher education are open to paradigm shifts. The first significant shift consisted in the fact that we can finally talk about revenue. In the past, you could see higher education marketing and communication pros cringe whenever a sales term such as “lead” was brought up. Talking about the sales funnel was an instant conversation stopper. Not anymore. As Jess Krywosa (Wellesley College) mentioned in her presentation, “All Growed Up: Social Media Matured,” - “Fundraising is not a dirty word. Everything you do is tied to bringing in money.” As a university, you want to change the world, but you can only do that if you keep the lights on. Recognizing the truth that generating revenue is a crucial part of your work as a marketing professional allows you to become more effective and to make better decisions.

The other big paradigm shift might be rooted in the first one. Your website is not for you. It’s for your audience. Your prospective students don’t consume content the way you do. They pay attention to different things than you do. Even their language is different than yours. What this means is that you can no longer make content, design, and information architecture decisions based on your preferences or by committee. Instead, you have to do extensive research in order to appeal to your audience. It’s no surprise that Mark Heiman’s “Let's Face It: We're Not Sixteen Anymore” presentation won a Red Stapler, as he revealed some eye-opening facts. Who would have thought that the choice of a chair in a picture could have a profound impact on the way prospective students view your university?

Collaboration: Silos Breaking Down

Marketing and Communications, Student Affairs, and Information Technology are starting to work more closely together. Several presentations focused on collaboration between multiple teams. Donald St. Martin showed how Texas A&M Engineering Communications used a cooperative approach to implement responsive websites. Samantha Goldstein and David Decker discussed how Carnegie Mellon University’s teamwork between IT and student advisors led to better processes for managing exam data. Katye Robare Munger (Castleton College) and Christopher D'Orso (Stony Brook University) stressed the importance of ensuring that your web team and your enrollment team are synchronized. Seeing the world through an admission rep’s eyes might change the way you approach the web. It was great to see that organizational silos are starting to crumble in favor of collaboration towards common goals.

Surprise: Only a Little Talk About Analytics and Targeted Content Delivery

As expected, mobile and social strategies were some of the most popular topics at this year’s conference. A little surprising, though, was the lack of talk about analytics. Given the fact that so many discussions revolved around return on investment, one might have thought that measuring the effectiveness of your content marketing would be a key discussion point. After bringing the topic up during breakfast and lunch, though, I realized that it’s not a lack of interest in the subject matter. Many higher education professionals simply haven’t had the time to dive deep enough into analytics to leverage their findings as part of their content strategy. Next year’s HighEdWeb conference will be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and we’re already looking forward to it. I predict that two significant themes will be analytics and targeted content delivery (personalization) based on analytics and other data collected on your visitors.

The Hannon Hill team would like to thank the city of Portland for its hospitality, excellent transit system, and amazing food. Another huge Thank You goes out to the HighEdWeb team and everybody involved in hosting such an unforgettable conference.

Did you attend HighEdWeb? What were your takeaways? Please post them in the comments below.

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