The stakes have never been higher for colleges to use the Web effectively.
So why can so few barely muster up a passing grade for their Web strategy?
The majority of higher education leaders I talk to are struggling to simply keep the digital lights on, let alone differentiate the institution online. They spend more time fighting internal politics than building remarkable online experiences. Their Web operations are underfunded, understaffed, and undervalued.
While non .edu organizations are aggressively moving digital to the center of their business, colleges are still largely wrestling with 1.0 problems. Even tactical wins such as adopting new social media tools tend to be a smoke screen to addressing bigger issues around strategic alignment of the Web.
While colleges fumble at the controls, the evolution of mobile, social, video and Web publishing are transforming the way higher education engages students online. There's a growing sense of urgency from higher education leaders I talk to that the digital status quo is unacceptable.
I see several challenges higher education leaders need to overcome to drive effective digital programs.
Getting Governance Right
Structuring effective Web teams inside of higher education is difficult to say the least.
The highly decentralized operating model produces an equally decentralized Web publishing team. The typical institution has a small core Web team responsible for stitching together a patchwork quilt of folks across the institution with varying skill sets. This results in extremely uneven execution.
The core team is usually woefully understaffed and relegated to customer service tasks, rather than driving new strategic projects. Throw in a dotted line relationship to IT and a highly political environment, and you've got an ineffective operating model at best and a toxic one at worst.
I've talked to organizations that have spent 3-4 painful years developing a governance model that works. But it often ends up in a tangled Web of committees and steering groups focused more on keeping the peace than executing a crisp digital strategy.
The successful institutions have strong executive leadership, a clear vision and minimal stakeholders driving decision making. They are building a larger core Web team, and setting clear expectations for how decentralized Web authors contribute. It sounds like straightforward advice, but within the walls of academia it's anything but.
Martin Hackett, Senior Director of Marketing at the Wharton School's Executive Education division at the University of Pennsylvania, believes a strong marketing and IT partnership is fundamental to overcoming organizational challenges inside higher education.
"The intersection of marketing and technology must be exploited," Hackett said. "My colleagues in technology are an incredible source of ideas. I do not act until the technology team is on board. They are a trusted advisor and our close working relationship ensures our teams are always in alignment."
Beyond building strong internal alliances, Hackett brings a marketer's mindset to staffing Web teams. He actively seeks out individuals who have held marketing positions outside of higher education.
"Quite simply, I see myself more as a product marketer, than as a brand marketer," he said. "I steward the brand, but I leave brand development to the school's central team. Through that marketing lens, I view our Web site as one of commerce, which informs how we think and execute."
The Cartoon Heard 'Round the Campus
Look no further than the home page of a college Web site to see these governance challenges unfold firsthand. The page has become a digital battlefield for the political turf wars that consume many Web site planning sessions.
The popular xkcd.com Web site poked fun at these challenges with a cartoon (shown below) that mocked the disconnect between the content on a typical college Web site and what a visitor is actually looking for.
Seasoned college Web professionals realize that the cartoon is no laughing matter. It simply highlights the reality of a design by committee approach where the complexity of the organization trumps user centered design principles.
And the home page is just the tip of the iceberg.
The typical college site struggles to differentiate itself with a user experience that engages and connects with its target audiences. Designing great Web sites and developing great Web experiences are two very different things.
Why is it such a struggle for colleges to develop great online experiences?
For one, college Web sites are still largely organized around the internal structure of the institution and not the goals of external users. But beyond that, few colleges have invested in user experience as an internal core competency.
Roles such as information architects, usability experts, interaction designers and content strategists simply don't exist on most higher education Web teams. These team members are needed to move beyond cookie cutter templates to more holistic experiences that connect the entire student lifecycle.
Rick Allen has such a role as the Manager of Web Content at the F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College. He's helping to develop an editorial process and content strategy in tandem with launching a new Web site this fall.
He acknowledges that a content strategist can be a tough sell, but views it as an absolutely mandatory role.
"Content problems exist because organizations treat their Web site as a project rather than a process," said Allen. "Web site redesigns often involve outside Web writers and strategists, but when the site is launched, the regular staff are unprepared or unqualified to maintain and improve the site."
Rick added that he's less interested in seeing new job titles than he is seeing the work get done. "Even if you can't hire a content strategist, someone needs to take on the responsibilities," he said.
Investing in Digital
At the end of the day, most colleges simply struggle to build an effective business case for the Web.
Institutions have no problems confidently pursuing a capital campaign to add a new $100 million building, or allocating six figures to glossy view books. But when it comes to investing in digital, institutions struggle to add a single new position, let alone field a complete Web team.
The savvy institutions are using data to make their case. Hackett said he's been using analytics to drive his decision making and advises other institutions to follow suit.
"We pride ourselves at Wharton as being a metrics-driven marketing organization," said Hackett. "As a result, all of my internal clients, constituents and executive leadership clearly understand the impact marketing has on revenue and profit. I'm able to leverage this posture during budget and funding conversations. My internal stakeholders may not know every detail—but they clearly understand the scope of our digital strategy."
We're seeing anecdotal evidence that change is afoot. That some institutions are taking a big step back in order to plot a multi-year digital strategy to propel the institution forward.
The University of Michigan-Dearborn is one such example. They are in the beginning stages of rethinking the role of the Web and developing a new digital strategy to differentiate the institution and better connect with students.
"We are excited to be working with experts outside of the university to build a sustainable digital strategy," said Tom Baird, the Vice Chancellor of Institutional Advancement. "We have found that we don't have the internal capacity, or knowledge to do it on our own, and we want to develop that expertise within the organization. We understand the power of the Web in terms of meeting our institutional goals."
I hope that we're on the cusp of a tidal wave of digital innovation and new investments from energetic leaders inside higher education.
We don't need an A+ effort in all cases, but let's at least shoot for a passing grade.