Dealing with Content and Technical Debt
Carl Gratiot: From Bravery Media, this is Appendix B, candid conversations about Higher Ed in 10 minutes or less. And now here are your hosts, Kristin Van Dorn and Joel Goodman.
Kristin Van Dorn: Okay, so Joel, tell us about content debt.
Joel Goodman: Oh, man. So we’ve all heard about technical debt and that’s when you know you, you develop something and over time you develop other things and eventually all this old code that you had in your website or your product ends up taking more time than it’s worth to update. Like I go through this a lot actually with old websites that I built, you know, five, ten years ago, people will come back and say, hey Joel, we want some updates. And then I go in, I’m like, oh no, this, this is really old stuff that’s progressed since then, and then I’m left with all this, you know, this decision to either like, build in the old, ugly way that’s slower and awful, or redo everything and make it modern, and that’s awful as well.
And I think we run into this in Higher Ed a lot when it comes to student institutions that don’t have a solid content strategy. And definitely not a solid governance strategy in place where you, you just don’t know what kind of content is getting thrown up onto your website. And then eventually it comes time to, you know, take stock of all of it to assess what’s there.
Maybe, maybe you’re really looking to do some conversion rate optimization or something like that. and you just have to wade through sometimes thousands of pages of content and not all of that is relevant anymore, that’s what we would call technical debt in this sense.
Kristin Van Dorn: Okay, so that’s technical debt.
Content debt is now building off that concept, all of the content that winds up on your websites from poor governance or stop-gap solutions or even, just deferred rewriting during a design process, all that content builds up its own form of debt, and what we mean by debt is that there’s an implied cost of reworking this content.
So it’s not just the future cost that you’re not paying on right now by doing the harder fixes. It’s also the opportunity cost or that lost opportunity that you might have for not being able to find the students that you’re looking for, for not being able to convert, for not being able to engage other audiences.
All of that is lost revenue or lost ability to capitalize and leverage on opportunity.
Joel Goodman: It also costs more time when you try to bring other people in or if you try to go through like an audit. Kristin, you were telling me about a project where you found a page that literally had like an email address on it or something like that.
Kristin Van Dorn: Oh no, a phone number.
Joel Goodman: Oh, a phone number. Perfect. And that’s, well, why is that there? What is that doing to your SEO? To me, the real solution to solving what you’re not solving, but at least getting a, some sort of diminishing amount of debt of content debt comes with governance.
And it’s so weird to me because I remember six to eight years ago, like governance was the big topic at all he Higher Ed conferences, especially at all the content strategy-focused conferences that cater to Higher Ed, but even just for the wider content strategy sector and there’s still this lack, of formalized governance at a lot of institutions, and I, I don’t know, it’s really strange. Like I don’t, I don’t know why that is. I think a lot of people still don’t even really understand what governance is supposed to be and what it’s supposed to do, and that’s a big problem if governance is the underpinning to successful content strategy, to successful web marketing, all of that sort of thing.
Kristin Van Dorn: So I think another thing that we might talk about is almost governance debt. And maybe that’s what people are trading on, which is that if you get governance wrong, if it just feels clunky or if people don’t understand why you’re doing a certain process or negotiating who’s responsible for certain content, takes some political capital that you just don’t have, it’s very easy to go into debt on your content to avoid going into debt on your governance.
I think that’s the trade off that people are making, and I think that’s why even though we’ve seen a big push towards more web governance, we haven’t actually seen it in practice. We’ve just heard about people talking about it. But the hard work is getting people to come around a table and decide who’s gonna be responsible for what, and then what is the process for the updating or what’s gonna be the process for revisiting an editorial calendar.
On a set schedule and making sure that that happens despite the fact that you have work colliding and other projects coming up and just a busy calendar of other needs.
Joel Goodman: Yeah, policy is great, but only if it gets executed on and who’s there to enforce those standards, who’s there to be the, you know, the, that person that’s making sure that the governance policies that have been put into place are also not just sitting there on a piece of paper or on a, you know, in a Google Doc somewhere, a PDF in, in some network share, but are actually practices that are being used when talking to faculty to subject matter experts to people in other departments, and you know, and it’s an authority thing as well.
Like, you don’t have authority unless you actually use what you’ve put in place to that’s supposed to be giving you that authority.
Kristin Van Dorn: Right. And I think maybe part of the struggle is understanding that there’s just high upfront costs with creating great content and creating that solid governance plan to keep that content in a debt-free mode, because you are thinking about just the upfront payment and not the incremental interest that builds up on that. Debt over time, but you can run into a situation where you’re almost paying down the interest, but never paying down the principle, and you get upside down on your website because your website’s not being effective.
It’s not doing the things it needs to do in order to recruit your students in order to convert prospects into applicants, into students that show up in September. When your website is ineffective, all you’re doing is paying down the interest when you make any content changes whatsoever.
Joel Goodman: So what’s occurred to me just now is that there’s also probably always going to be a little bit of debt that you maintain because everything’s changing, right?
And so if you’re actually doing research and monitoring how your website visitors are interacting with your content, how effective it’s being, all of that, then you’re going to know that it has to change and it has to get updated. And so if you’re trading on all of this built up debt in your content, then how do you ever get back on top of it?
And because there’s always gonna be a little bit there, you’re always going to have to be changing and tweaking stuff. And, you know, some trends, like I think about how student spotlights were all the rage a few years ago. Like, that’s great, but the usage of those has changed over time. And so just having a student landing page or a page that just lists a bunch of them isn’t nearly as effective as building that content into your program pages or into your homepage and using it as something to generate actual interest in the programming that you have. But how do you get back into that, that mindset of knowing that there’s always going to be changes there and so there’s always a little bit of debt building, but staying, you know, being able to keep up with it, being able, you know, pay that, pay that credit card bill every month.
Kristin Van Dorn: Well, I think that comes down to change management because eventually you have to switch strategies. So maybe it is switching to that credit card with the low interest rate to pay down your other credit card. So that you can catch up, it’s about taking the plunge and trying out new strategies that are going to pay off in the long run, quicker and more effectively, even if it costs a lot of time and energy to make that change right now.
Carl Gratiot: Thank you so much for listening to Appendix B. If you’ve got thoughts, we would love to hear them at Apple Podcast or here in the comments section. For more information, please consider subscribing to our weekly newsletter at bravery.fyi. Thank you so much, and we’ll see you soon.