If you build it, they won’t come
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.
Joel Goodman: So Kristin, one of the things that I keep seeing, well, I guess, in the last 15 years of working in higher education is this tendency for a lot of institutions to want to build something that they think is really cool internally, but they don’t actually have any data around that being something that’s productive. And so like all this time and energy gets put into building something like, and like back in the day, it was like the giant social media feeds that people wanted to have on their homepage.
And it was just like, we need to aggregate all of this stuff. When you look at the actual returns on that, it’s bad. I mean, like generally you’re just shoveling people off of your website. But I think overall, like there’s, there’s this issue when it comes to stuff like, I don’t know, events calendars, or newsfeeds or these, these like shiny new things too that a lot of schools think are going to solve all of their web problems.
But then no one shows up like, no. No one actually comes to see these things because there’s no plan around how to market them whatsoever.
Kristin Van Dorn: Yeah. I think that there’s a lot of shiny new features that higher education wants to jump on board with. Like I think we’re probably a year out from hearing an institution say they want their own NFT , you know what I mean?
Joel Goodman: LOL, already missed the boat on that one.
Kristin Van Dorn: But I mean, a lot of them are still talking about chatbots. Do they need a chatbot? How will the chatbot interact with students? What kind of features do they need to be thinking about? And they’re already late to the game on chatbots, but they don’t understand what chatbots actually do on their websites and how the AI will crawl their site and provide content for students. So their content has to be good in the first place in order for it to work. But I think that gets back to the social media feed too, or the strategy about let’s build it and then people will show up for it. Isn’t a thought about where they are in the trend, it’s just, how do I get into this?
How do I ride this wave? And they’re usually late adopters. There’s nothing to capitalize on anymore.
Joel Goodman: I just wonder how they think any of their audience is going to like, hear about this cool thing that they built, you know, or, or I think about like, and a lot of times this comes up a lot during design processes where, I mean like, just with clients that we’ve had, and I mean, even when I worked in, in-house at a university, but this idea that we need to have like something that’s really fresh all the time, right?
Like we need to have photos that are randomized or we need to like constantly, well, we need to have something that’s dynamic, which means moving, you know, like a slideshow or carousel from back in the day, but the reality is that people don’t think about your websites in their normal day to day.
And so like, how do you get them to come back? You’re not building things like no one, no one looks at a, no one’s gonna be like, Ooh, I’m gonna refresh this page to see what random photo I get. You know? Only people that work at your school are gonna do that. Prospective students don’t care. They’re there to get something done.
And you know, what’s being built in to kind of incentivize someone to come back to your website and look at these things or like figure it out. Like it’s, cause it’s not these like shiny features. Yeah.
Kristin Van Dorn: Well I think that there’s one thing that’s going on, which is that a lot of faculty and staff have been trained in the mindset of engagement, like civic engagement or engage your community, and then they try to translate that to marketing engagement, which means something entirely different.
But they’re blending those two concepts together. So they think on a marketing page, they’re supposed to have a game or an activity or something that’s gonna keep people coming back in order to increase their brand salience or thoughts and judgments and feelings people have about their brand, but in reality, those marketing gimmicks are taking away from the actual engagement that they need to spend nurturing in their current student population.
These are very different concepts out in the world, but somehow on higher education campuses, they get muddled together like they mean the same thing.
Joel Goodman: You have to, you have to put yourself in the position of remembering that there is an outreach aspect of this to get people to come in house. So, you know, setting up a new events calendar is great.
Sure, but if it’s not for your internal community and it’s meant to connect people with what’s going on, how are they gonna, how are they gonna know that it’s up? How are they gonna know that it’s there? You know, what, what are you giving them as an incentive to follow it? Like you have to, you have to supplement building these things, or I guess compliment and support building these things with going out and talking with your actual community or with your prospective students or, you know, and, and not, not in this aspect of like, well, hey, look at this new thing that we built just for you.
Yeah. I mean, cuz still, like, they’re not really gonna care about the, the tool aspect of it or the shiny aspect as much as, you know, we have this benefit for you and we want you to come and, and then that’s another point. It’s, it takes active engagement all the time. It’s not a one and done. You don’t build it and then expect everyone’s gonna come back and, you know, on their own over and over and over again.
Kristin Van Dorn: Well, and that’s also getting to a point of. Is there a point to having these components or these feeds to begin with? Because you know, sometimes when they build something like a new calendar or a new blog and they’re feeding it with content or social media profiles, they expect their future students to wanna use this content and that somehow this is going to amplify or accelerate their growth.
But the truth is, is that students come to a higher education website or web environment with a specific task in mind, and they don’t necessarily wanna be distracted by a different feed or rethink the business model of higher education, where suddenly it’s a news outlet too. They don’t see it that way.
They see their job is to get something accomplished. And so turning your website into a news outlet is only gonna confuse students about if they’re in the right place, if they’re looking for the right content, if the content that they’re looking for is easily accessible. It’s all this struggle between whether or not the student is understanding what you’re actually trying to do.
Joel Goodman: Well, and I think there’s an expectation of those prospective students that anything they come in contact with is built for that purpose, right? It’s built to help them figure out that question that, you know, that process of getting into your school.
And so if you do things like have a new, new student blog or, uh, or you know, start putting a lot of new stories or student profiles or things like, all these things that were touted as best practice, you know, five years ago, we gotta have all these student spotlights and stuff. They’re not bad things to have, but they have to serve a purpose of solving those things that prospective students are looking for, and they’re, they’re not there to be informed about your students, they’re there to find a program that they want. And so if you’re posting a student story or a news story, it had better or link into that content that’s relevant to that student, that prospective student, and it had better further them along that journey.
Kristin Van Dorn: So imagine that you’re a store that sells clothing and you’re getting user-generated content. You use that for your brand. Generally, those are people that are reporting on the fit of clothing or on the circumstances in which they wear the clothing on the texture or the comfortability of the clothing, but it all comes back to the sale.
In higher education, when we are encouraging user generated content, it tends to not be as closely tethered to the program, or it tends not to be tethered to the action we want students to take on the website. So it’ll be a feature about a student that’s won an award or a student that’s done really great things.
Or if students are generating their own content, it’s about like what they enjoy on campus, but it’s not necessarily tying back to the exact action that you want a prospective student to take.
Joel Goodman: An outside of higher ed example that recently happened. So, uh, my wife and I recently moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and, uh, there’s a, well, there’s a ton of, uh, there’s a ton of vintage shops around here, just a whole lot, uh, more like, you know, antique malls and stuff.
And we were following one on Instagram and apparently they have this service where they will rent out their vintage clothing for photo shoots or their, you know, or their, uh, their, the furniture and stuff that’s in there too. and then they start using that on their social media accounts. Like the photos, uh, like taken of people, you know, the, uh, from these photo shoots, like photos from these photo shoots.
And it’s really confusing because you’re there to see a specific thing and find out do they have the thing I want? Like, you know, do they have any new mid-century modern furniture and today or, you know, whatever. But all you’re seeing is these weird, like, You know, amateur models like reclining on stuff and you don’t know what the thing is for, and like I, I think that kind of gets to what you’re talking about, at least a part of what you’re talking about on the higher ed side of things. Like when, when you do use user generated content, uh, in, in ways that aren’t strategic or, uh, even when you start implementing these features that you think are really cool, but you don’t think about how they further that core journey or those core few journeys that you want to kind of foster on your site, you just end up confusing whoever visits the website and that’s, that’s enough to like, kind of stop someone dead in their tracks and they’ll just, they’ll just leave . Like, why? Why are they gonna stick around if they don’t know what’s going on?
Kristin Van Dorn: Yeah. I think that overall when we’re planning these things, these new engagement activities that are gonna take place on a higher education website, we’re not thinking about who’s actually coming to that website or planning for the people that we hope will come to the website, but oftentimes it includes everyone from prospective students to current students to families and parents to alumni, to donors, and that blanket over, like that blanket umbrella of people that are supposed to come and interact with these tools. Those tools no longer make sense for connecting to a specific call to action because they’re meant for anyone to enjoy. They’re meant to inspire, delight, but they don’t quite get there because all they’re doing is interrupting what the person actually came to the website to do.
Carl Gratiot: Thanks for listening to Appendix B. If you’ve got thoughts, we’d love for you to share them on Apple Podcasts or here in the comments section. For more information, please consider subscribing to our newsletter. It comes out once a week and we will be back in about a week. Thank you.