Appendix B
Episode 055 -

How to Build the Perfect Higher Ed Web Team

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Joel Goodman and Kristin Van Dorn discuss the outdated models of maintaining and running higher education websites. They emphasize the high costs associated with such teams and suggest alternative models, including agency partnerships, to achieve competitive results without the financial burden.


Joel Goodman
From Bravery Media, this is Appendix B. My name is Joel Goodman. With me is Kristin Van Dorn. So we were talking about the model for maintaining and running websites in higher ed and how it isn’t really fit to purpose. It’s kind of old school. It’s kind of all internal.

I wanted to talk about the makeup of an ideal team. So, let’s imagine we’re one of those mega universities or big state schools that can afford to have a team in-house. What I’m going to lay out here is not exactly what you’ll see at all of those schools. Some of those schools have double the positions in some of these places.

But if you as a small or medium-sized institution recognized that you need to compete in this arena and you wanted to hire a fit-to-purpose web team that was going to operate at a product level at a minimum, I think, you would need one, someone in a director role that does web strategy, just in general, you might have that person already, actually, you know, that could also be part of what a marketing director in general does. Right.

Second, you probably need a strategist, a normal digital marketing strategist. So even if you had someone who was kind of part-time at that director level, have someone who focuses just on strategy, who looks at all the data, and who thinks about what the next thing is.

Then you’re going to need a product manager or product owner, someone that’s thinking about how all of that strategy gets realized on the web, someone that has some technical ability, but also understands how people are going to interact with websites. What’s going to make sense? What’s going to get you to your goals?

Then you need content strategists and you probably need two of them because there is a whole lot of content on higher ed websites and they need to not just be responding to your faculty requests for updates or staff requests for updates. Right?

Kristin Van Dorn

Next, you probably need a web designer who also has a UX research background. And this is like, this is lean and mean, right? I mean, ideally, you would have a UX person who’s a UX researcher and strategist, a UX designer. And then you would have a web designer who’s doing your UI front-end type of design.

You then need a front-end developer to make all that stuff happen in HTML and CSS and whatever else. You also probably need a back-end developer to manage your CMS or technical platform.

And then, if you really wanted to have a go at this, you’re going to need a data analytics person who is managing, looking at all of your data analytics, choosing the products, monitoring goals and conversions, and making sure all of that is hitting where it needs to.

And then you’re probably going to need someone that produces digital media. It’s going to be a video person, video, audio, photographer. Ideally, you wouldn’t just have one of those, but most schools do just have one. But you’re going to need someone that’s doing production work there.

And then you probably need an accessibility engineer unless you’ve magically found someone in the rest of that stack who does accessibility. By our calculations, looking at competitive salaries, we know that higher ed doesn’t actually pay competitive salaries, but looking at median salary data from 2023.

All of that adds up to just under a million dollars a year in staffing costs alone. And that’s not including benefits, subscriptions to software, the hardware and machinery you need to buy for them, different computers, and all that technology stuff.

This is literally just salaries for that team.

Yeah. Salaries without fringe. And then you’re also looking at, products that you would, like you mentioned subscriptions, but accessibility monitoring, UX tools and subscriptions, an SEO service, maybe a content governance service. On top of that, when you look at that broad range of staff members that you’d need to have, you are also going to have to supply them with professional development because their skills will quickly atrophy. They will go out of date. You won’t get the same effectiveness from them in year three as you will in year one if you don’t help them maintain their skills.

Ideally, we all want the magical unicorn who updates their skill sets outside of work time just because they’re passionate about their industry. But the truth is, we all have lives, and we don’t want to manage our own professional development exclusively by ourselves on weekends and evenings.

So, this is just a huge expense for universities to take on to do this really well.

It’s gigantic, and I don’t. I think the thing that jumps out to me within this is that none of these, except maybe content strategists, are necessary in-house at an institution. And I think you could even argue that you don’t need content strategists in-house at an institution either. I think it’s helpful, and I think they’re good for marketing.

But, all the rest of this stuff can be backfilled by an agency partnership or similar, and yeah, it’s self-serving like cool. We want people to work with us, but also, it’s not like, I think, realities of where money gets spent in higher ed point towards someone needing to change the model and be smarter about it. Because you can’t afford that million dollars in staffing, you know, plus everything else that goes into it. Like, what are you going to do? Like, try to accomplish all of these big aspirational goals that the new president has when they come in with a team that is one-eighth or one-tenth of this number of people? Even unicorns can’t do all of this work well.

This means that there aren’t many institutions in the U.S., especially those that can compete. You can’t even start to think in a product mentality because everyone’s so overwhelmed by the amount of work that’s going on.

Yeah. I mean, Joel, I know you’ve seen this on resumes. I have, too, where people apply as a Jack of all trades or a Jill of all trades. And I know that it sounds attractive to hire that way. But remember that that comes from a phrase where the second half is master of none. You’re not going to get someone who is an equal expert in all of these different fields to be able to produce the kind of work you need to have to stay competitive.

If you are putting all of your eggs into a handful of positions and you’re expecting maybe one person to do your production. In that case, your media production and your Google analytics and your SEO monitoring and your backend development or your front end design, like, those things require different skill sets, they require different habits of mind, they require different training, they require different professional development, different communities of practice to maintain your skills, and just trying to shove it all into one person to do all of that work, you’re going to burn them out.

And they’re going to leave. You’ll have this revolving door of hires to try to fill everything that you need, only to wear away at your institutional brand, your students’ trust, and your community’s trust in your brand. It’s just not a practical strategy.

It’s not. And on top of that, the output’s not going to be up to your standard, right? It’s not going to actually bring in new students. You’re not going to have that return on investment that you expect from having that person in-house.

Especially for institutions with positions open right now, my recommendation is to reassess. Like look at that position that’s open, that you haven’t been able to fill for the last four or five months or that you’ve had applicants for, and they’re just not really up to, up to what you need them to be, reassess and talk to your CFO, and try to get that money back into your web budget so that you can work with someone that can start doing stuff now.

Because I think that’s the biggest difference is that we higher ed is willing to wait months and months and months and months and months, because we usually don’t see the results of our poor decisions until two or three years down the line. Right? And then we’re seeing that right now with, a demographic cliff coming up, with the FAFSA stuff. Like, we just delay and defer those consequences for years. And we’re gonna see the effects of this.

The effects we’re seeing now are due to the pandemic. You can just go back and follow this. Get that money and put it to use now so that you are strategic about what you’re doing. And maybe you’ll get to the point where you’ve got enough revenue coming in and you’ve grown enough that it makes sense to build that team in-house.

But until you do, the money should be working for you, not sitting in a budget, waiting for someone to fill a role and hoping that they’re going to be good enough.

There’s a lot of human resource cost involved in keeping a position open, developing a search, and interviewing. We know that that process yields mixed results because determining whether someone is a good fit based on a series of interviews hasn’t proven to be effective.

We know from Harvard Business Review and multiple other sources that interviews don’t necessarily lead to the best hires, right? But I think there are a lot of creatives out there in the world that are getting frustrated or skeptical by the interview process that gives you homework assignments where you’re asked to do free work to demonstrate your value.

So we know this is a time-intensive and nuanced process that deserves much more thought and consideration than typical institutions can give it. And yet, if you hire an agency to do this kind of work for you, even temporarily, you’re buying back an institution’s time. They will handle the issue of staff turnover, and they will handle the professional development. They will handle attenuating to your institution’s specific needs without that learning time that someone needs when they come on board—without that sussing out time for if this is going to be a right fit for you, culturally.

There’s just a lot that having a partner or a vendor relieves you of the burden of. So then, you’re managing relationships, which I will give you is another strength to develop and another process to go into. It frees you with a lot of flexibility to make the right choices now for your institution versus waiting for the right alchemy of people to come together to make something work.