At this year's Higher Ed Web New England, we learned about web content management woes and the future of the web in higher education. Read more on our blog.

Kemal and Lauren at Higher Ed Web New England

6 Things We Learned at Higher Ed Web New England

Wed Apr 30, 2014

While attending the Higher Ed Web New England conference in Providence, RI, we had the opportunity to attend some of the day’s sessions and talk to many higher education web and marketing professionals. It’s often the case at conferences that you learn as much from other attendees as you do from the presenters, if not more. This time was no different.

There were a number of themes that seemed to reassert themselves throughout the day that painted an interesting picture of the present and future of web in higher education. Here are our main takeaways.

Your web content should matter to the reader

The top-down request to put something on the homepage often frustrates higher education web content managers who know that putting a long-in-the-tooth official receiving a citation front and center might not be the best way to connect with prospective students. As Georgy Cohen of Meet Content pointed out in her session, to make your content effective, it needs to be more meaningful. Your news stories should illustrate your brand in action, and help the reader understand your institutional values.

Website management in an accidental profession, and that makes it unsustainable

Higher education web veteran Jason Pamental reminded us in his keynote that higher education web professionals are often there as a result of an unusual path. Many “fell into” their current position due to a combination of curiosity about the web, aptitude for code and design, and desire to build something new. However, because of tradition and accreditation requirements, universities favor academic credentials when hiring for teaching positions, making it tough for experienced and passionate practitioners to teach the next generation of web professionals. What colleges can do to bridge the gap between theory and practice and formalize the right kind of education without shutting out leaders with hands-on experience is a question worth exploring.

Follow the data to inspire change

Making a case for change is difficult, and because web design is highly visual, stakeholders can form strong opinions that threaten to impede or completely derail projects. More college web marketers and designers understand that to ensure good decisions are made, they need to come prepared with web analytics, behavioral data, usability and eye tracking studies, and a readiness to do some of their own testing to take “I just don’t like it” out of the equation.

Iteration is the new redesign

With college website redesign projects leaning towards the lengthy and complex end of the spectrum, more institutions are experimenting with iterative design. Even the most complete web user data can’t predict what will work in the future, and any design changes you make don’t have to be forever. In fact, it’s a good idea to continuously test which layout and element positioning is most effective in helping your users find the right information and inviting them to take action on your site.

Higher education web management is diverse and decentralized

There are as many models of website management in higher education as there are colleges, it seems. There is no dominant content management system, with colleges running on anything from .NET development platforms, to productized CMS, to open source, to collaboration platforms adapted to content management. The make up of college web teams and job titles also varies, and some larger institutions with widely decentralized web ecosystems will include multiple WCM products, websites, and professionals who work independently of one another.

A new leadership model needs to emerge for higher education web

The diversity of higher education web professionals, the complexity and scope of their work, and the increasing dominance of the web across all aspects of a college experience, the old organizational hierarchies might no longer apply. Rather than being subordinate to marketing, admissions, advancement, or another arm of a college administration, managing a college’s digital presence might soon require a vice president or c-level position. As our industry matures and continues to evolve, both resources and decisions will have to come from the 50,000 foot view that belong in a college’s executive leadership.

Did you attend Higher Ed Web New England this year? What did you learn? Are you planning to attend other regional conferences or the national one in Portland, OR? Let us know in the comments.

Karo Kilfeather, content marketing manager at Percussion Software
Karo Kilfeather
Content Marketing Manager | Percussion Software

Karo was born in Poland, and learned to speak English by watching "Saved by the Bell" reruns during her first summer in the U.S., which has left her unable to go through life without occasionally breaking the fourth wall. As Percussion's content marketing manager, she oversees and creates content that drives website traffic, engages followers, and helps fill the marketing and sales funnel. She writes about content management, content marketing, SEO, social media and web design, and how to make it all less complicated.