Kristin Van Dorn:
So Joel, we know that newsletters and emails drive students and prospective students to the website. But how do we balance the content that we put on websites versus the content that we put in newsletters and emails? And how do we prevent email bloat when we’re trying to get more traction on our websites?
Well, I think there’s a few ways to go about it. You know, this is, this is, I think this is a really important kind of section of content strategy that we don’t often dive into in higher ed, you know, content strategy is like, let’s figure out what kind of stories we wanna have and what’s gonna go on social media and all that sort of thing. But when you think about, the needs that your students have, that your internal audiences have, how you communicate with them is… super important and I think a lot of times we end up using our institutional websites as sort of a dumping ground for all this stuff, right?
And it goes to what you were saying about email bloat too. You can’t just take all that stuff that, well a lot of times it’s like, oh we don’t want to send out too many emails because no one’s reading them.
Spoiler, everyone is reading them.
Well, not everyone, but the kids these days still read their emails especially when it’s for something like school or work. So, you know, don’t stop emailing, but you know, you may want to cut down on the amount of content going on email. And so where’s the best place to put that? Well, we put it on the website. Okay. Have you thought about what that content is saying, how it’s crafted, how it’s kind of put together? Are you saying too much? Are you giving away too much information? Or are you structuring it in a way that is more confusing than it needs to be?
I mean, this is why there are people that study for years to become content strategists and that are paid really good money to do this. It’s not a part time job just thrown at someone. It’s because if you really want to be at the top of your content game, these are things that have to be thought about in strategic ways and have to be thought of actively and all the time.
Content isn’t a passive sort of practice that sits there and can just work. It’s something that has to be thought about all the time. But I think a lot of times we’re more concerned about what we wanna say to people, but not how we’re going to actually communicate it with them. And when I say how, I don’t mean what the technology platform is. I mean the actual like bones of how something is written, put together and communicated. And that’s the big, that’s the larger question of this. Like how do you do this stuff? You know what thought process has to go into it or I guess like, where do we where do we start when we want to get into these practices of more thoughtful content creation?
Yeah, as my friend Amanda says, “tools before strategy, headed for tragedy.” So when you start thinking about the platforms on which you’re going to deliver content before you think about the structure of the content or the kinds of content that people are looking for, then you’re running yourself aground before you even begin to start.
So I think some of the things that you might want to consider are, I did a talk, I think it was at HighEdWeb a few years ago, about how students are reading your content. It’s sort of infamous how often you’ll hear “students don’t read anything anymore.” And partly it’s because I think when put on the spot, students lie.
You know, it’s like, if you are caught like a deer in the headlights, like, why didn’t you respond to this? They’ll go, oh, I didn’t see it. Oh, I never got that email.
That’s a bunch of BS. Like, yes, they saw it. Yes, they got the email. They probably read it. They probably didn’t know how to parse it. And they probably didn’t know what the action steps were to take or the action steps felt complicated. Or it felt like they didn’t have time budgeted to take those action steps. And when asked directly, spontaneously, why they didn’t take the step that they were supposed to take, it’s better to say, oh, I don’t even remember receiving it, or I never saw it, than it is to take ownership of the, I saw it, I didn’t know what to do with it.
One of those things feels comfortable to say, and the other one doesn’t. But I think we get so trapped up in this idea that students don’t read, that we think, well, the answer to this is just bombarding them with more.
Yeah. And I think it goes beyond students. I think we do that with everyone, right? And we’ve talked about this in the last year with clients that want to build out their community presence or we talked about this on another episode when we were talking about news stories. People aren’t gonna come to your website to read the content. And if you overload them, whether it’s email or text messages or whatever, eventually they’re just gonna unsubscribe or they’re gonna send it to spam or send it to trash.
So the means by which you express yourself are super important, but so is the way you express yourself. So is the way that you’re communicating this stuff. Especially when you’re trying to interact with a specific sort of audience of people, you need to make sure that you’re saying things that are relevant to them, you know, that are targeted toward the things that they need. Don’t give them too much information. Be very clear about the specific things you need them to know. Like, get to the point.
It’s not that people don’t read, it’s that… you can overload their brains with too much content and too much writing, and sometimes it’s just a turnoff. When I hit a website that’s got that many words on the page or when I get an email that is going to be six paragraphs long, unless I really, really like that service or whatever that’s sending me the email, I’m just going to delete it because I don’t have the time. I don’t feel like I have the time and I don’t feel like I have the energy to parse that information and try to understand it on top of, if I’m a student, on top of the reading I have to do for class or on top of the stuff I have to do for work or the other things that are going on in my life.
Yeah, you know, in that talk that I mentioned for HighEdWeb, one of the things that I talked about was defensive administrative content. And that’s when our administration takes a defensive posture. They’re anticipating the problems that students are going to have, or the complaints that they’re going to receive.
Sorry, my dog’s having a dream in the background. So if you hear little yips, it’s very adorable.
But, back to defensive administrative posture. So they’re anticipating the kinds of complaints that they’re going to get and they try to address those complaints upfront. And what happens is, is instead of saying, you need to take these three steps, it says, before you take these three steps, we want you to know these things that are going to impact these three steps after you’ve taken them.
And it just loads down your content, it becomes so weighty and unwieldy and disorganized in terms of like temporal planning because you’re front shifting all the things that are gonna happen afterwards that people can’t make sense of like the flow, the natural order of expectations and of the order of operations that they start to tune out. They’re like, oh, I can’t worry about this right now. It’s too complicated.
It’s just how we operate. It’s how people want to talk and especially in higher ed. When you have all this knowledge of the systems, you wanna like, one, you wanna offload any blame when someone’s gonna get mad, right? And that’s that defensive side of it. But it’s less valuable and causes probably more frustration down the line when you do that.
When really bottom line, what we should be doing is just saying, who is this person? What do they need to know? And just give them what they need to know. Now, don’t give them everything around it because they don’t understand your systems. They don’t, they, you know, they haven’t been in the registrar’s office for three years. They haven’t been, uh, you know, they haven’t been on the administrative side of admissions for 10 years.
Like they, they just need to know what do, what action do I need to take now and how do I do it? And cool. Where do I go to do it? Cool. There you go. You’re done. And then follow up.
And so. You know, I think email bloat, I think a lot of times is more about the amount of content in the email than how many emails you get. There’s a balance there. But if you’re sending some short emails and they’re sensical and it helps people, that’s not bloat. Like, you know, if you have a web page that’s got a simple one, two, three steps to do what they need to do, like, that’s great.
If you have a whole section with 15 pages on all of the various nuances of what could happen in every edge case for every single thing, that’s not that’s not helpful either. Sometimes you need to simplify your processes, sometimes you just need to put the work in to figure out how to simplify how you’re explaining those processes.