Appendix B
Episode 054 -

Higher Ed Has a Website Problem

Text reads: Appendix B. A Bravery Podcast. It's on top of a generative AI render of a laptop with flames coming off of it on a solid pink background.

Hosts Joel Goodman and Kristin Van Dorn discuss the challenges of properly maintaining an effective higher ed website, especially in the face of budget constraints and changing economic conditions in higher education.


Joel Goodman
From Bravery Media, this is Appendix B. My name is Joel Goodman. With me is Kristin Van Dorn, fresh from her vacation. And I’m glad to have you back, Kristin. It’s good to see you and good to talk with you.

Kristin Van Dorn
It’s good to be back.

Awesome. I want to have a conversation today about staffing web teams properly, especially I think with the, constriction in higher ed because of budget decreases because of the FAFSA issues, because all this stuff that’s making our institutions worried about their next cohort of accepted students.

Everyone wants to go vertical again, and we see this year after year or decade after decade, or, you know, every five years or so there’s this cycle. Where you know, when everything’s great, we just like flatten out it’s great for agencies. Like we get a lot of work, we can work a lot of projects.

It’s great for institutions cause their overhead goes down and they can get stuff done really quick. But then as soon as there are financial troubles, everyone thinks, Oh no, we got to hire in house and we’ve got to go vertical again. I just don’t think it’s the right way to go about staffing for a lot of things.

You know, we’ve talked about core competencies in the past. there’s a disconnect between the reality of, what it takes to, have a competitive web marketing unit uh, and what institutions are actually hiring for. Plus there are all these jobs, that are sitting there open that no one’s applying for, or unqualified people are applying for. How do you feel about this?

Well, I think it’s a great idea. I also think that, we need to talk about how web teams for a college or university, can move more seamlessly through vendor partnerships and out of vendor partnerships, rather than have these abrupt swings in one direction or the other, based on how they’re doing economically, like I, I, I think that they’re making these decisions impulsively based on budgets, but they’re not looking at how these partnerships either support their growth or support their changing environment versus when it makes sense to, structure things in a way that’s more internally focused.

Like it feels like a haphazard decision making process instead of something that’s aligned with a strategic path forward.

Definitely. One of the underlying reasons that that happens is the methodology, if you can even call it a methodology, behind how institutions manage their websites is 30 plus years old. It’s kind of like if someone were to go out and freelance on their own, kinda like how, when I started Bravery, it was sort of like this. I’m going to go out on my own. I’m like, I can do some web design and I can do some web development and I can talk to people, but I’m going to need to hire a web developer over here to do the stuff I can’t do and hire another designer over here that can do stuff that I can’t do. And then you get kind of a mix of people that can do stuff, but there isn’t any, real method to how they work together, right?

The method is we have people, but that’s not actually a method, right? And when you look at how successful companies run their web practices, they’re strategizing when they’re releasing new features, how they’re releasing them, what that cycle looks like, they’re focused on that sort of stuff. And they have enough work for those people that are on staff where in higher ed, I feel like we’re just kind of like, well, we need to update this thing, and then it takes five months, like a really long time, you know, or you’re just taking orders from people saying like, Hey, update this content and update this content and update this content to the point where you’re not actually improving the website that you have, not actually improving how it reaches other people.

Yeah, managing a website is a lot like managing a household where you have daily chores and tasks like picking up the laundry, doing the dishes, sweeping or vacuuming. And then you have like household management tasks, which are like fixing a leaky faucet or making sure that raccoons are not getting into your garage at night or something like that, right?

Okay, so when we focus on the daily tasks, we tend to lose sight of the household maintenance tasks. And when you leave the household maintenance tasks for too long, like a leaky faucet for years and years, suddenly you are facing a major plumbing fiasco or an entire bathroom remodel, rather than just like the iterative fixes that would have helped you sustain a bathroom that was working more functionally for you all along.

And I think with web management, it’s really similar. So we hire content strategists and designers, and we think about information architecture and how our content is relating to itself and how it’s resonating with our readers. Right? That is the daily tasks of website management. But then there are all these tasks that are a part of like the web management infrastructure that we pay various amounts of attention to over the years, sometimes with accessibility, sometimes with usability, sometimes evaluating our tech stack.

And if those projects get deferred for too long, then we get thrust into this, remodel or a website redesign process just because too much is broken and we can’t even use it to like discern usable research from. Because it’s so broken that like any research we got would just report back how broken it is and not give us viable strategies to move forward. So we lose like the scent of information for moving our websites forward. Right?

Yeah. And I would suggest that while it is like that, it might be the wrong way to go about this, right? Like, your website shouldn’t be a house, and you shouldn’t be treating it like you’re just maintaining it forever and ever and ever. You should be trying to push it forward and improve it. And while you do have some of those maintenance tasks finding ways to constantly improve your site is way more cost effective than letting all that technical debt, build up and then having to redesign it all at once.

Right. And part of why that doesn’t happen in higher ed is that we don’t have leadership that looks at it from a product perspective, right? They’re not, they’re not treating it in the way that a tech company would treat their website or their application as a product that constantly needs to be improved and pushed and made modern.

They just view it as a dumping ground for content that hopefully is doing something but isn’t being tracked. And because of that, they don’t have the staff to support a product cycle. And I actually think that’s okay, not having that staff in place, because I don’t know that there are many institutions, I think the exceptions are like big institutions, like mega, mega colleges, mega universities, maybe large state schools, right? But I think for the majority of medium and small institutions, You don’t need a web team. You just need a really good partner that can manage this stuff. The problem is that most of the web agencies that exist, you know, probably get me into trouble with some of them, but most of the web agencies that exist today don’t do that.

And I don’t know that it’s their fault. I actually kind of think it’s higher ed’s fault because I’ve been in this industry for long enough that I know that higher ed doesn’t think that way. What we need is a really forward thinking institution to hire one of us and say, no, we want to operate this like a product and see what happens, you know?

And I think what you need on the institutional side are marketers, not web people. You need marketers, people that can tell the story, communicate the brand promise, communicate all those things that people that aren’t on your campus or aren’t in that community explicitly, have a disconnect with, right?

And then you can rely on an external partner to manage getting that stuff out in a way that’s effective on your website and in a way that improves and is strategic and, pushes your website forward as though it were a product.

It sort of reminds me of, um, I’m going to make a football analogy and I’m going to make it poorly,

That’s okay. I don’t know anything about football.

Like a few years there was a college team that never punted, that always went for it on fourth down because they realized mathematically. It’s just, if you’re playing the odds, it makes more sense to hold onto the ball than give the other team the ball for better field advantage. And the NFL recognizes that this is true, but no team will make the full go at it because it completely changes the dynamics of the game. And so if one team goes for it, it means they all fall like dominoes. And I feel like it’s a little bit similar in higher education where marketing and communication staffs, you know, like they house web teams, they hire on developers, they hire on designers and to give that all up at once feels really scary.

And so, you know, like I think that they’re alarmed by like being the first out to market with that kind of strategy. I mean, higher ed has been hiring vendors to cover different aspects of their business that are not within their core competency for, you know, as long as they’ve existed. You know, a lot of parking and transportation is outsourced. A lot of like, food and dining is outsourced,

Even IT is outsourced now and you see that all over the place.

Yes. But I think that there’s some concern about outsourcing their website, like. they’ve been pulling or holding back that punch for a long time. And I think it just needs a shift in thinking, and a shift in service model for them to get more consistent, more practical, more advanced on the ground service than what they’re getting right now, by not knowing exactly how to hire a developer, not having the expertise to maintain a solid web strategy for decades. it’s a challenge for higher ed right now.