Text reads: Appendix B. Cost, Value, and Vendor Relationships
Episode 44 -

Cost, Value, and Vendor Relationships

Joel Goodman
From Bravery Media, this is Appendix B. My name is Joel Goodman. I’m joined, as always, by Kristin Van Dorn. Hi Kristin.

Kristin Van Dorn
Hi, Joel.

Joel
One of the things that comes up a lot, at least in our conversations, that I figured we could have a conversation about here on Appendix B is the value of having long-term relationships on our side with the clients that we partner with, but then also, what sort of benefit comes for those institutions that decide to work with us with another vendor partner in the long term? And why someone would choose to do that versus just hiring a web design agency to design a website and then walk away, have them walk away and just leave you with it.

Those are the projects that always kind of make me a little sad inside because, you know, Kristin, you and I wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t care about higher education, if we didn’t care about the institutions, and if we genuinely didn’t like the people that we worked with, at the different colleges, universities that, that choose to work with us.

And, for me, the hardest part is always finishing a website, getting it out in the world, and then the engagement being done. Like there not being any, you know, any need for us anymore. Well, there’s always need for us, but like there not being the willingness or the budget or you know, the foresightedness to have us continue working on that website, continue making it better, adjusting to the, the people that actually, actually start using it after it’s out there.

And I think there’s a lot of benefit to extending those relationships. And I’m not just saying this ’cause I want more business, but I mean, genuinely, I think there is a lot of benefit to it. And for me, the first one is, is just that it’s, we do a ton of research, and then once the website launches, you can only validate so much before you get something out there in the wild and actually have people using it.

A longer-term relationship affords us the ability to continue testing, evaluating if the choices we made were the best choices, and iterating on a product that we put out in the world.

Kristin
Yeah, sometimes when we do a project, I see lots of iterations beyond launch. I see possibilities for changing up content or for, um, developing new workflows, and we rarely get the opportunity to implement those because. The new website is launched, and the contract is over, so it’s a little bit sad to let go of that.

And certainly research, like there are two sides to research, right? There’s the research you do at the beginning of a project, but then there’s the research that you do to validate the success of the project or the changes that you would make on top of that.

And I look at launching a new website as your first step. And because the web is a dynamic place where things could change from day to day, you have all these opportunities once you have this new pattern set, this new library, new design system to make all of these iterative changes that are going to, slowly and methodically improve the user experience.

Joel
Yeah. I think the exact same thing is true for optimization. You know, things change, people change, you do constant research because the tastes of, or, or the ages, you know, or the demographic or the, the, the generational shifts of the audiences that you serve are always going to change the way they interact with your website.

And, you know, the same thing on the technical side. Standards change, browsers change, and internet speeds change. CSS changes. You know, all, all this stuff that affects how a website is gonna perform for those people is constantly changing. And I think a lot of times institutions aren’t properly staffed with the expertise to take care of that stuff, you know?

Or if they have the expertise, it’s usually maybe someone in IT, but you know, IT has a lot of other stuff that they gotta focus on. A bunch of enterprise applications and a whole, a whole campus experience where the website ends up, usually over in Marketing, where I, I think it should be, but without the support to, or even just the time for the people in Marketing to stay kind of ahead of the changes that happen on the web from a technical standpoint.

And I think the same thing is true for UX. They don’t have people whose job is only UX and only studying the website. Everyone’s just spread so thin. And I think a vendor relationship can help with some of that for sure. But the alternative is that the institutions provide enough funding to hire that expertise in-house.

And I think for me anyway, the big question is like, is that even a rational choice in higher education? Like, does it make sense to have that kind of expertise in-house at a college or university for the money that it costs to have that expertise in-house? And I’m not sure that it is for some institutions.

Kristin
Universities have models where they outsource different aspects of their day-to-day operations in a lot of different ways. They might outsource their campus security, or they might outsource their campus dining to another company that will just run it for them.

And I’m not saying that that’s necessarily the perfect fit for web operations. But what I would say is that over the last few years, I’ve seen universities use a project management model instead of a product management model when it comes to their websites. And so what happens is they manage the product, and then the product comes to completion, and then you have a website that slowly succumbs to entropy over the next four years, either by the pace of change outside the website moving and making some of the features and design choices moot, or through the internal changes and the politics of higher ed, needing to add things to the homepage, needing to consider different audiences that are not your primary audiences. Making certain faculty happy with having certain features in their news.

And, you know, it just, it sort of reminds me of what Development and foundation work in higher ed often does, which is, you know, they have this ongoing fundraising campaign, but then all of a sudden they’ll have this capital campaign for raising money for a big building or a big initiative. And it feels like the website becomes this big capital campaign where you invest all this money in an agency partnership, and then, okay, it’s done. We raised the money for a new building. We raised the money for a new website. Let’s just go back to our regular fundraising routine.

And I’m not sure that serving universities that well to look at their web communications and their web management in that model where there’s this one big push to get it to look like something that’s newer and fancier and is going to speak to students on a better level and then letting it just sit like that for a while in this suspension while they go about not changing their operations at all. They just go back to their old routines and habits.

Joel
Yeah, we see this a lot when we’re working on information architectures that haven’t been updated in a long time. It’s all across higher ed, especially in web marketing. There are conversations about how we shouldn’t be pushing our content into the organizational structure that we have.

You know, don’t make your website organized like your org chart internally. But in some ways, we put the project nature of a website redesign and development back into that organizational structure as well. The way that most institutions go about managing a web project is still set in the late nineties, early 2000s when honestly, the web actually still moved very fast back then. And you know, I remember probably like 2010, maybe a couple of years before that, lots of talk about having more of an evolution than a revolution, which is, sorry, cheesy. But that was what the actual saying was: an evolution instead of a revolution.

But like evolving your website and treating it… That was the early days of product management, of having product cycles and evolving your website. And it never caught on. And here we are 20 to 30 years later, and we’re still thinking in terms of, okay, website, done. Website serves us for five years. And then, in five years, oh, we need to redo the website and dump a whole lot of money into it in one go.

Whereas the process of having someone – a vendor partner, someone in-house that is paid well enough to be retained for multiple years and can really own that product, support it, improve it, and make changes and recommend things based on data – will cost far less in the long run than every four or five years, dumping 400, 500, $800,000, a million dollars for some institutions, you know, into a web redesign project.

And I don’t really know what the solution is for modernization of that thinking in higher ed. I’ll bet that there are a lot of people in marketing leadership who feel stuck because they know they should do that. They know that’s the right way to go about it, and the modern way and the more nimble and responsive way, but they don’t have the support elsewhere in the institution, you know?

I don’t know where that lack of support is. Maybe it’s in IT ’cause they’re too busy. Maybe it’s leadership, from the president’s office, or maybe it’s somewhere else. But it ends up just being a drain on a lot of things that makes the rest of the work that the institution does not as effective.

Kristin
Yeah, I think year over year, the longer you let a website sit without regular developmental changes, the less effective it becomes. So you start off with it being its highest level of effectiveness right after launch, and then you watch it slowly do less and less work for you over time when if you have a relationship with a partner that can be a product manager or a product owner, or you have that system set up inside, you can make sure that each year that website’s working harder and harder and harder for you, rather than just being something that slowly gets worse and worse and worse until you rehire and restart the whole process over again.