Content Strategy and Web Development in Higher Ed


How do content strategy and web development support one another?

We can talk until we’re blue in the face about what makes for great web content, but those efforts would never make it online if not for our web developers. From content management systems to microsites blending multimedia and social media elements, they create the systems and interfaces that give our content function, traction and mobility.

In my experience working on content-centric projects with web developers, I find that the key to success is twofold: inclusion and information. Include developers in project conversations from the earliest stage of idea generation, and give them the information they need to make the project successful for stakeholders and users alike.

However, many of us face challenges with web development, whether it is because our developers are located in another department across campus, or because the technology at our disposal does not meet our needs.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is approaching projects holistically, viewing content and development as two sides of the same coin.

How can we best do this? Meet Content reached out to four higher ed web development professionals and asked them about how their work intersects with content strategy.

Defining the Partnership

1. What does the practice of content strategy mean to you as a web developer?

Daniel Spillers, Systems Developer, University of Arkansas at Little Rock (@almostdaniel): Developing (or designing) in the absence of a content strategy means you are building the shipping container without knowing what goes in it. It creates a one-size-fits-all world, especially if there are enterprise-level pressures when creating web presences for diverse institutions. In the simplest terms, I expect a content strategy to give me more information before I begin developing.

Developing (or designing) in the absence of a content strategy means you are building the shipping container without knowing what goes in it. – Daniel Spillers

For example, a metadata strategy helps describe your content (which you can do well if you know your content inside and out). Providing that to a developer on the front-end means that the resulting code will be much more aware of the content it is meant to handle. This has a huge impact on future feature development, as it is much more likely that feature requests will be resolved by simply exposing content relationships that already exist in the code or data sets because I created the product within the context of a content strategy.

Zac Vineyard, Web Development Director, Northwest Nazarene University (@zvineyard): Content strategy is, no doubt, an important part of a web site. It influences design, site structure, even which CMS to use when building a site. But content strategy, to me, is ultimately about doing the best job of marketing that a web site can. This means that content needs to be found, displayed well, and function as expected by the user. And a site needs to be programmed in such a way that it can support a variety of content strategies. It needs to be flexible.

Another way of saying what I’m talking about is that content is supported by the strength of a site’s programming and its design.

Gregory Cornelius, Solutions Architect, Boston University (@gcorne): Since developers don’t typically produce content, and rightfully so I might add, my main take-away from the content strategy mindset is that solutions developed to work over the long term that align with a broader strategy have real value. Launching an impressive website is only the beginning—the design and admin tools must meet the organization’s needs for 2-4 years beyond launch. Doing so is tricky. When racing to finish a project, punting the work needed to develop a solution that works better over the longer term is often easier than adjusting deadlines.

Seeing Things From All Sides

2. What do you see as the most important ways you support content strategy in your role? What are some of the biggest challenges you face in this regard?

Cornelius: My approach to building content management tools mixes careful analysis with a strong almost aesthetic preference for smooth running systems. Designing an elegant system that is easily adapted to the changing needs of an organization requires striving for “correct” solutions, not workarounds. The correctness of a solution needs to be evaluated based on (1) the quality of the technical design, (2) the ease of content management, and (3) the ability of the solution to support design variations.

Establishing a culture that considers both viewpoints and is able to handle the political and technical ramifications of decisions that result is my biggest challenge.– Gregory Cornelius

Not only must these perspectives be balanced when evaluating a solution, the usefulness and impact on the rest of the service needs to be considered. When a solution makes sense for both a particular project and the service as a whole, the decision is easy, but actually adding a tool service-wide is much more complicated than just meeting the requirements of a particular project.

The same challenge of balancing local and global viewpoints is fundamental to a successful content strategy—individual solutions need to fit a broader strategy, but the needs of the individual need to be able to trigger adjustments to the larger strategy. Establishing a culture that considers both viewpoints and is able to handle the political and technical ramifications of decisions that result is my biggest challenge. [For more from Cornelius, check out the slides from his Wordcamp Boston 2011 session, “Synchronizing Creativity With Content Management”]

Chris Traganos, Senior Web Developer at Evernote; previously, Web Developer, Harvard University (@ctraganos): A solid higher ed developer builds new routes for sharing and curation. The content and technical teams have dual-ownership for our digital outposts and it is often a delicate balancing act. That said, the biggest challenges center around when roles are framed as ‘maintenance-only’. Boil this challenge down to a central point: If the rubric for success is only resolving IT issues, the best case scenario is that you did what was expected. The fun begins when you can build and integrate new features that influence and shape your communication team’s strategy.

Strengthening Relationships

3. How could developers and content staffers work more effectively together toward implementing content strategy in higher ed? Is it an organizational problem? A communications problem?

Cornelius: Nothing is more effective in establishing a strategy then face-to-face discussions between folks that are committed to serving the needs of not only their own department, but also the needs of the entire organization. When influencers are on the same page, delegation is effective. Once established, implementing the strategy depends on momentum and daily commitment through the entire life cycle of a website—visitors view a strategy through its execution, not its mission statement. Most issues occur after launch. During the wrap-up phase of a project, the team responsible for creating content must have the necessary skills and knowledge to carry the torch post-launch. For designers and developers, especially if the team is an outside agency, this step is often overlooked.

Since content and technical teams are often on different wavelengths, the give and take is crucial for collaboration.– Chris Traganos

Traganos: Since content and technical teams are often on different wavelengths, the give and take is crucial for collaboration. Team-focused developers value the contributions of content professionals and strive to support their needs. Team-focused content staffers understand smart collaboration and include the technical team from the start. It’s important to remember that both these teams share in success and regroup after tough launches. Great products are often launched from the results of solid project post-mortems. Bottom line is the sum of the whole is greater than the parts.

Case Studies

4. Could you give an example of a content-rich initiative you have been a part of, what your role was and how it worked well or could have been better?

Traganos: Last year’s Harvard commencement involved streaming live video content, social integration from Facebook using the open graph, Harvard daily Gazette signup, and serving as a gateway to the graduate schools sites and calendar of events. My role was to create and build out a site that was device-aware and could smart switch the content view based based on context.

The win was 44K uniques with 90k+ pageviews for the commencement live video site within the 4 hour period. Many of the graduate’s family members around the world were able to interact on Facebook’s chat, which was built into the site next to our live video player. Also, our mobile traffic played a significant factor and this was directly related to the strategy we put in place for switching the format and layout depend on the user device. Looking back, special events such as commencement and school anniversaries allow you to test out new and exciting ways to interact with the online community.

Spillers: The only initiative that comes to mind is perhaps a poor fit to the question: our campus web portal. I have found myself thinking about what goes in the portal more than how it looks. Perhaps that is because the portal itself is a framework for content aggregation and integration. It is so task-oriented (and therefore often has a poorly-designed interface) that you can’t even begin without a clear plan for those tasks and the content they require. We created not only an information architecture but a clear, phased plan for when content would be added. Then we built a design, more as an afterthought than anything, so the tool would fit with our family of web sites.

[The ideal is] having the ability as a team to show creative restraint and look for simple content solutions to marketing problems/challenges– Zac Vineyard

Vineyard: Most recently I was the web development lead on a very content-rich micro-site. This level of content use (in richness and quality) was new territory for our university. It took a lot of planning to get a site to be this rich. The most difficult part for my role was to engineer a site that was flexible enough to handle all the text, video, and photos we were looking to display. This took our new site to a place, I feel, now, that is almost too much to handle. This content is almost too rich.

My role in this site build was really to boil the “dream site” our team imagined down into a realistic site build. Even now the site pushes load-time boundaries. There were a lot of ideas bouncing around the room. We wanted to be more creative. Putting aside time to be creative as a team really did help us come up with new ideas, but we ended up not being able to make quantitative decisions about which of those ideas could (or should) be part of the site. So, many of them made it in, which really fattened up the code base.

Having the ability as a team to show creative restraint and look for simple content solutions to marketing problems/challenges is, I feel, a more ideal way to use content online than exploiting every creative idea a team has about a web site and its content. But achieving this type of restraint, I think, requires a lot of data about your university’s particular marketing challenges.

What’s your take on how content strategy and web development can work together in higher ed?

Photo by nikio/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 »

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