Appendix B
Episode 026 -

Rethinking Storytelling on Higher Ed Websites

Appendix B Episode 26, text is present that reads, "Rethinking Storytelling on Higher Ed Websites"

What role should storytelling play on higher education websites? 
Joel and Kristin think there should be a shift in perspective. Maybe we should think about institutional websites as world-building experiences that empower students to be the main characters. This would allow them to navigate their own educational journey at their own pace, and hopefully, enhance the overall enrollment process.
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Carl Gratiot:
From Bravery Media, this is Appendix B. Candid conversations about Higher Ed, in ten minutes or less. On this week’s episode, should we be rethinking storytelling on our Higher Ed websites? And now here are your hosts, Kristin Van Dorn and Joel Goodman.

Joel Goodman:
Kristin, remember a few years ago when everyone in Higher Ed was talking about how we needed all these student spotlights and stories and how everything needs to be more narrative and story driven and how much that doesn’t work?

Kristin Van Dorn:
Yeah, I was one of those people.

So was I LOL.

I was like, actually, we need more stories.

So was I. And you know, I think it’s actually important for those of us in this profession to admit when we were wrong, simply because the work that we, it’s a case study in how the web is constantly changing, users are constantly changing, the things that convince people to choose our institutions and our programs are constantly changing, and we need to pay attention to those changes and course correct sometimes, right?

And I think, you know, this isn’t to say that like, we need to not tell these stories. I think, at least in my mind, it’s kind of a, it’s more of a shift in how we understand how stories contribute to the decision-making process in Higher Ed. And this isn’t about writing these super long editorial you know reports on how someone’s doing you know a really cool like student experience that you have or doing a really long video about a student that’s involved in student government. Sometimes those are good. I mean format wise you could question it, I don’t think many of the youths these days are wanting to sit and watch even a three minute long video with a student. But it’s more that like these stories are supposed to be supplemental and directing people towards things and not all of your content.

It’s not that your website’s supposed to tell a story because how do you do that in a hyperlinked age, and how do you maintain a consistent narrative and a consistent thread four levels deep in your website when you’ve got that page of content that no one actually visits but someone said has to be there, has to live on your site? How do you maintain a consistent, logical, cohesive story about your institution? Are we just misunderstanding what we mean by story and narrative and story-driven content in this sense?

So I think we are. And I think that there’s a couple of different misunderstandings happening at once. Like one is that storytelling content is a really broad way of speaking about what your website should contain. And I think that without more explicit understanding of what we’re actually going for, we wind up with trying to imagine someone interacting with your website as though it were a news site or an entertainment site that they’re going to learn from as well as we populate a bunch of example stories.

And I think… that might not be the best way of looking at it. It’s not looking for like, who’s someone that’s been successful in your program before, or has done amazing things at your institution, but how do you create the feeling for a new site visitor that they could be that person? And I’m not sure that automatically putting like a couple of faces and their story on the site will make that more clarifying. You know, I think storytelling is a way of sort of understanding our position in a world of uncertainty. But when we come to a Higher Education website, we’re not coming to be entertained, or to necessarily like find our place, we’re coming to do certain tasks.

And that can be embedded in a story, but the character is your user or your prospective student. It’s not the students that are already at your institution. And the plot is determined by the user, not by you. All you can do is sort of set up some basic themes and some ideas that they fill in their own identity as the main character in their own plot on the site with their own end goal that might not match the end goal that you have, but it’s not as straightforward as, let’s put a bunch of student profiles up. That will certainly get them hooked.

I think one of the problems that we’ve seen over the years is that people miss part of it. They hear student profile, student spotlight, tell more student stories. But then what they miss out on is actually deep linking into the content that makes that relevant, right? The content that those stories are supposed to lead people to get them to make that decision to apply or to request information or whatever that action is going to be.

So we have this long news story that, yeah, maybe someone’s reading, maybe someone isn’t, but you don’t get an RFI anywhere, deep link into a program page or you don’t have any supplemental content on, you know, on that story or any supporting content for that story that’s emphasizing and selling the program that you want to really connect this to. And honestly, when it’s long, someone’s going to get lost. They don’t know the person unless you’re a really good storyteller.

I mean, you know, I mean, part of this is kind of maybe dreams of grandeur, like you don’t have a press room, you know, you’re not a newspaper. And I mean, why would you want to be at this point? You might have one or two journalists on staff that are good at doing news releases and things like that, but do you have people that know how to connect the content you’re writing to sales copy? I think the storytelling part comes in communicating what your institution is about. It’s communicating the brand value and the brand story, not surfacing stories from within your campus unless they really highlight that brand.

And again, you really have to work to make those connections to the pages and to the other content that leads to action. It’s not, people don’t come to your website to read stories, as you said, they come to get something done. And if the stories are getting in the way of that task, of that journey to get the thing done, they’re hurting. They’re not useful. They’re the opposite of useful.

Right, so. think of it more like world building. So since there’s been, I’m trying to think, N.K. Jemisin’s work on the Broken Earth trilogy, there’s been a lot of talk about unique world building, like Brandon Sanderson. It’s where they have these magical systems and rules that sort of govern the world, like the physics of that world. I think that’s the way we ought to think about our world and role as storytellers.

We are building the world for our students to come in and then tell their own stories or be the main character. I mean we joke about like main character syndrome in people, but everyone wants to feel like a main character. They want to feel like their life is important, their goals are important, they’re meaningful, and so what we’re trying to do is create the sandbox for them to determine what that looks like.

And so that is done with branding that is determining like what the character of your institution is. It’s also done with like your business processes and the way people move from office to office to get certain processes done. The more simplified that can be, the more time they have to tell the exciting parts of their story versus the tedious parts. But I think that if you imagine… sort of what the rules, like the physics of your organization or your institution are like, and then if you see ways of connecting that atmosphere to how a student is going to be able to accomplish their goals, that’s going to be the effective storytelling strategy you might bring to a website that’s going to be productive in getting your enrollment up.

And a great side effect of that is that it helps enhance what you can say about your brand beyond your website, right? And in some respects, it should help change and center the way that your staff, your administrative staff, your faculty work within that world. Because you’re not just world building from a marketing perspective, you’re creating this experience. I mean, it’s experience design, it’s service design, right? And world building is a great analogy for it.

How do you build this experience of hospitality, of service, of learning, of care around who you are and pay attention to all the little touch points that your students are hitting, that your prospective students are hitting? And then how does that transition itself into the way you communicate on the web and the way that you talk about your institution, the way that you talk about your students, the way that you place prospective students, as you were saying, that world and make them that main character? It’s not about just spitting a bunch of words on a page about someone who had a good experience. It’s not a press release. It’s not a feature story from a magazine.

And I think that’s the hard part. It’s how do we get out of this publication mentality on the web? It’s strange that we’re still fighting that digital versus print magazine or newspaper sort of paradigm, but how do we get away from that? And it’s changing how we think about that content and how we think about telling the stories of our brand and creating those experiences for our students.

Yeah, instead of thinking about it like storytelling, maybe think about it in terms of playing a video game or playing an RPG where like, you have this opportunity to move through this space in whichever way that you want. And sometimes you’re gonna need certain skills to get past certain roadblocks in that video game.

And you would acquire those skills earlier on if you read this section or if you visited this page first, but you have the freedom to explore it at your own pace for your own design. And I think if we treated our websites more like a discovery process through a video game, rather than trying to build the story that a student can kind of see themselves in, we might be better suited towards recruitment.

Thank you so much for listening to Appendix B. If you wanna hear more from Bravery Media, please check out our Higher Ed Hot Takes newsletter at Thank you so much and we’ll talk to you next week. Bye bye.