A Content-First Approach to Your Events Calendar


Treat your events calendar like a CMS.

Ah, the events calendar. One of the most ubiquitous components of a university website, and often one of the most confounding. From wrestling with feeds and technical configurations to simply getting people to use the darned thing, a calendar can be a headache. Time to schedule some Excedrin.

With the right approach, though, that headache can become a valuable asset. An events calendar is not just a software application, after all—it’s a rich store of purposeful content that, when planned, structured and promoted appropriately, can be helpful, relevant and interesting to your users. But that means we can’t treat it like an afterthought. We have to handle it with the same thoughtfulness that we give to any content platform.

This is complicated by the fact that there are tons of vendors offering various calendar applications, and it may be hard to decide what best fits our needs. But just like a content management system, the more we couple our technical requirements with a firm sense of how the calendar should serve our communication goals, the more likely we are to arrive at a smarter decision.

Getting the Most Out of Your Events Calendar

Make Sure Your Event Content Is Structured

One of the top goals of an events calendar is to promote what’s happening on campus to specific audiences. But we can’t count on those audiences always going to our calendar website to get that information. We may want to display event information on a mobile site or app, via digital signage, as a widget on other websites, or as a feed downloaded to their own personal calendars.

We need to ensure that our calendar can “chunk” out (as Karen McGrane is fond of saying) the specific content fields as we need them and send them where they need to go. Which devices and contexts need a title? Blurb (versus the full event description)? Time? Date? Building? Room? Campus? Thumbnail? Larger image? If you face the challenge of using a room reservation system as a front-facing events calendar, this may be particularly difficult. So when choosing a calendar system, make sure it has the flexibility you need.

Organize Your Calendar Content

The more you can organize, categorize and tag your events calendar content in a way that makes sense for your school and for your audience—not by org chart, and not by whatever categories comes as default—the more usable the content will be and the more appropriately you can place feeds and widgets across your various digital properties

In the case of tags, be sure you are enforcing consistency either at the submission level or the moderation level. (After all, you don’t want both “reunion2013” and “reunion-2013” floating around, do you?)

Promote The Heck Out of It

Great content hidden in a dark closet is great content that no one can find or use. Find smart ways to promote your events calendar both online and off. In a blog post from earlier this year, one calendar vendor, Localist, shared some great ideas for spreading awareness of your calendar, including mentions of the calendar in material provided to freshmen, dining hall table tents and empowering student group leaders as contributors.

You also want to make sure you are appropriately promoting your calendar across your website—for example, your student life page could have a sidebar widget pulling events tagged or categorized around the same topic, or even just a snazzy callout directing students to the calendar to learn what’s happening on campus. And a “Featured Events” category may be the perfect solution for highlighting top-tier events on your homepage or news site.

Empower and Support Calendar Users

In planning for our calendar’s success, we can’t ignore the system’s most critical component—the people. The gap between your calendar and people on campus is a wide one to bridge, in multiple respects—one, getting event organizers to share their events with a central-level calendar, and two, getting our audiences to reference the calendar to see what’s going on.

The gap between your calendar and people on campus is a wide one to bridge, in multiple respects.

When thinking of the target audiences for our calendar content, we need to remind ourselves of the need to plan content that both serves institutional goals and users’ needs. So, what do they need? How do they need it? This should guide how we source content and what functionality we build into the calendar. Can we measure what types of event content is most popular, and what how can that information help us better promote campus events?

We can’t forget that our users also include those submitting events to the calendar. Is the event submission interface intuitive? Clunky? Are all the fields necessary, or are any necessary fields missing? Are stylistic considerations or other content requirements explained well? Test the form with a select group and make adjustments as needed. Don’t let a crappy form experience be a barrier to your calendar’s success. On the other end of the submission form, make sure there is an established workflow around moderation, editing and approval of event submissions, whether it’s done by an intern or a staffer.

How do we encourage those submissions in the first place? One approach we used at Tufts was to remind individuals that only events that had been added to the calendar were eligible to be featured on the homepage, digital signage, news site homepage and other high-visibility placements, because the events areas were powered by a feed from the calendar.

Events on the Homepage

According to a scientific study, 100 percent of higher ed homepages feature an events feed. Okay, not really, but it’s probably close to that. With visions of the infamous XKCD cartoon dancing in our heads, let’s consider this more closely.

Our homepage should not be an all-things-to-all-people dumping ground for information and links. It should be strategic and purpose-driven, curating meaningful content for the audience(s) we know to be frequenting that doorstep. That may mean not just showing the next three upcoming events, but the next three events of a particular high-profile nature, or in a specific category.

Ask yourself: “Does this content help support our communication goals for this page?” If you’re trying to convey a vibrant, dynamic campus life, does showing an event taking place three weeks from now support that intent or belie it?

Highlight Event Coverage

As we’ve written about before, there are lots of ways to offer live coverage of an event to your audience, from live streaming video to live-tweeting. If you plan on live-streaming an event or promoting a hashtag for use by attendees, consider incorporating those into your event listings. Remember: off-campus audiences such as alumni and prospective students may be perusing your event listings, and they may welcome opportunities to be a part of on-campus events.

If you raise this idea, someone may protest, “We can’t do that! No one on campus will come” or “We don’t want everyone tweeting and not paying attention to the event.” We need to educate stakeholders about our various audiences and the different ways they experience events.

Make Your Events Social

From a small departmental lecture to a VIP speaker, all event organizers crave attendees. Your calendar should make it easy for people to share events to Facebook and Twitter, as well as email or text them to friends and add them to their own personal calendars. But we should also incorporate event calendar content into our social media content calendars, as appropriate. What more, we could link to coverage of select past events (Storify recaps, photo galleries, etc.) from within our calendar site.

While many of us enjoy the benefit of checking into concerts and movies at certain Foursquare venues, this ability is not yet available to all venue managers. (It will be really cool when we can add events to our campus concert halls and theatres.) In the meantime, though, I would advise against creating event-specific Foursquare listings (e.g. “College Theatre Company presents ‘Into the Woods’”), because in the long run that will simply litter the location database. The one exception may be major, annually recurring events such as Commencement.

How do you manage your event calendar content?

Photo by photosteve101 / Flickr Creative Commons

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »


  1. Julia Misses Georgy says:

    Thank you for posting this, Georgy. At the moment, we still blend our events postings and calendars because the university’s system doesn’t allow for the specificity of feeds that my audiences are looking for. This means double entry into the main calendar and our Google calendars, which include each department and center under our school. The most important aspect of posting for both, though, is making the content sound interesting. No one outside of a department is going to care about something labeled solely as “CEE seminar”. So even though it seems basic, I’ve developed posting guidelines for our interns and deptartment admins to use. With pretty good sucess rate so far.

  2. Great post. At Cornell College, our efforts at maintaining a campus-wide master calendar (through the open source UNL Event Publisher) have become much more successful in the past couple of years by feeding upcoming events to our Faculty/Staff and Current Students portals. If events aren’t entered into the calendar, as Georgy suggests, they do not get published to the campus community on the website. And in the process we have greatly simplified the work of promoting events to our campus community, which used to require cutting/pasting/reformatting events from the calendar into a daily email.

    None of this has worked well for student-sponsored events, however, because students have continued to rely on flyers, banners hung in the student union, Facebook, and other methods of communicating. This year our Student Activities Office invested in Symplicity Community so that students can manage all of their activities in one system, hopefully offering them good reasons to enter their events.

    This will leave us with two completely separate calendar systems, but I’m hopeful this will actually be a good thing. Most student-sponsored events are open to faculty/staff but not intended for wider audiences. So our plan is to publish master calendar (i.e. college-sponsored) events widely to all of our audiences, while being more limited in where and what we publish related to student-sponsored events. For those student-sponsored events that desire a larger audience, we will copy to the master calendar, but this will not occur often.

  3. Georgy, great post on a subject that my company Timely champions daily: quality event content. I have to say that one of our biggest issues with typical calendar and event management software is the inability to upload complimentary media with the event details i.e. images and video.

    Jeff you mentioned that students promoting events at Cornell continue to rely on flyers, posters, Facebook etc and I think that’s telling of a deficiency in the kinds of online event posts they can make. If you’ve got a fundraiser for example and the student organizers have whipped up a great promo poster then they want to show that off. The poster conveys much more about the quality and tone of the event than a simple text entry of “XYZ Fundraiser – Friday” in a campus calendar. If on the other hand they had a simple way of uploading and displaying the poster with their event entry (as they can on Facebook) that would probably make a campus wide calendar much more useful and appealing to them.

    We’ve developed an event calendar plugin for WordPress called the All-in-One Event calendar and we’re experimenting with alternative calendar views, one in particular called “Posterboard View” displays each event listing as mini poster of the event, much in the same way as a traditional community pin board. If we want to make online event calendars more attractive we have to get away from this idea of the Mon-Sun grid/text layout and offer something richer in media and design – especially where young people are concerned.

    Another innovation we’ve developed is to have event calendars simply network with each other, so that student group A connects with student group B or perhaps just a filtered category of Student B’s events, any group that wanted to feature their events on the campus wide or organization wide calendar would simply share their .ics feed and in that way create a robust event calendar network that would eliminate the need for reproducing events twice and cut down significantly on event calendar administration.

    If anyone is interesting in learning more, check out http://www.time.ly or email info@time.ly

What do you think?