The following guest post was written by Erin Martin, Web Communication Leader for the departments of Horticulture and Crop and Soil Science at Oregon State University.
Last year, I scraped up enough funding to attend Confab Higher Ed, the inaugural higher education content strategy conference held in Atlanta. As I was wandering around, meeting inspiring folks and talking shop with people who get it — who see the value in thoughtful, mindful online communication — I kept getting asked a question over and over.
“You work for a department — like, directly with faculty?” Imagine an excited, incredulous face.
Well, yes. Every day.
I had never before considered the location of my position to be an asset. Many Confab Higher Ed attendees I met had secure jobs in university marketing, web communications or alumni relations, in lofty administration buildings with good wifi and clean halls.
Meanwhile, I dodge dirt clumps and soil samples littering the obstacle-course hallways I share with students and faculty in the Agricultural and Life Sciences building at Oregon State University. Not to mention, the quest to find funding from year to year — for professional development, for equipment and for my salary — can be an obstacle course too.
As web communication leader for the Departments of Horticulture and Crop and Soil Science at Oregon State, I navigate university politics as well as dirt clumps. I’m part of a web team made up of a Drupal developer, a Drupal themer/project manager and a faculty advisor, who helps us stay grounded and in tune with faculty needs.
Our team rose up to fill a gap between what our university’s core web services offered and what our faculty and staff needed to provide to their audiences.
In addition to our team’s expertise with web-based communication, we’re armed with other relevant assets. I’m an experienced science writer, our project manager has an M.S. in soil science and our faculty advisor is a vegetable specialist.
We’re one of them, you see. We’re people who have worked in science, who understand how research works — and why it’s crucial to communicate the results, risks and rewards of our programs.
University Marketing within Oregon State has incredible resources and power, compared to a department or research unit, and its charge is to serve the university as a whole. Being a part of the central university administration, with a stake in the outcome of the university’s brand message, allows these central groups the freedom to devote resources and time to creating content in a strategic way. This type of communication is directed toward broad audiences like prospective students and university donors.
But, as content professionals know, a department’s target audience can differ greatly from the university’s target audiences.
Take, for instance, the 17-year-old, about-to-graduate, high-school student. University Relations and Marketing produces incredible content aimed toward these prospective students — content like Welcome to a Major Discovery and This Is Beaver Nation.
And that’s great for a typical prospective student audience, but a significant number of the Department of Horticulture’s undergraduates are nontraditional, mid-career students — students who have worked for growers or in nurseries and have decided to explore getting their degree. Content featuring a bunch of fresh-faced teenagers discovering who they want to be and how to change the world isn’t going to help them.
Departments, colleges, research units, even labs are starting to realize this. Content and communications can’t be boiled down to a one-size-fits-all game.
Focusing on the Department
Smart, committed, driven graduate students are the sign of a healthy research program. To assist in the recruitment of quality students, our department websites make it easy for prospective students to find a faculty member whose research interests align with their research interests by creating content around an overall research theme like crop production and crop science. Within that theme, students can browse by commodity (e.g., barley) or by topic (e.g., plant breeding). Once the prospective students drill down to this level, they can then explore faculty profiles to find the perfect match.
While working for two departments and a few research units, our group noticed that there was a lot of duplicate content scattered among the sites. Some faculty would have three or four profiles floating around in varying stages of updatedness. Events would be listed multiple times on various sites, sometimes with conflicting details (e.g., different room numbers).
Our group devised a way to share this common content among sites using tools offered in our CMS, leading to a streamlined experience for users and relief among content creators who now need to update information only once.
Learning About Audiences
As a communication and content professional, I know enough to guide faculty away from their assertion that the whole world would rush to their website, if only it found its way on to the internet from their brain. After all, the world at large may not be as interested in all the particulars of their research — maybe just outcomes, risks, or an aspect that the faculty member hasn’t even considered.
Our web team has started holding web strategy workshops designed to give faculty space to think about 1) what they need to communicate to their audiences, 2) what their audiences are looking for and 3) how to use online tools to support their content needs.
We charge faculty and researchers to think strategically and really push them to consider what their audiences are looking for. In certain cases, a small tweak is all that’s necessary to improve their communication online. In other cases, our web team must work closely with faculty to assist in building new content from scratch.
Often our faculty show up at the workshops with a kernel of an idea, something like “People are always asking me about new drought-tolerant landscape plants for this area. I just completed Grevillea trials in western Oregon and wrote up a long Word document detailing the research and my findings. What now?”
It’s a lot of work but through exercises that help them define their audiences and explore online tools, we help faculty communicate their research in efficient, effective ways.
At the end of the day, I am a communicator working directly for two departments. Web duties aren’t farmed out to an unknown unit or tacked on to an overworked admin’s job description as “other assigned duties,” which benefits the departments and my groups in many ways.
I don’t think any initiative within a university can be easily called nimble, but our web team’s leanness and focus on results allow us to move a bit more quickly. We’re lucky in that we can rely on the university’s web group to do the heavy lifting on some of the more vexing issues, like accessibility or template development.
Another benefit of working directly for a department is that I can take advantage of the content from more long-form pieces written by University Marketing, Web Communications or our research magazine. And, I can choose to focus solely on the topics that interest my departments.
For instance, from an article that focuses on all the ways the university is researching the effects of climate change on the natural world, I can extract and republish the information about agriculture — content that the College of Agricultural Sciences’ web users are interested in.
Of course, there are a few drawbacks to this sort of in-the-trenches departmental content strategy— for me, one drawback is an uncertain job. Departments and units kick in to cover salaries and benefits, so really showing value is key. I do this through analytics and student data.
However, our web group also tries to make ourselves indispensable by offering consulting expertise aimed at connecting with our audiences in new and more effective ways — running webinars, producing videos and even developing a communication strategy that informs content creation for smaller projects, which includes setting communication goals for a site and devising a schedule of content creation and maintenance that allows the project to reach these goals.
Also, Oregon State University’s brand guidelines are well known, deservedly so, for being simple, strong and followed across the university. Faculty who bristle at being told what to do have come to me to try and find a way around these identity guidelines. OSU’s strong branding makes my job easier, so I follow it closely. You’ll not be breaking any branding guidelines with me.
Near the end of Confab Higher Ed 2013, feeling a bit overwhelmed, I hid out in a hallway and found a comfortable bench to park myself on. I needed a breather for all the inspiration and ideas coming my way. But my hiding place wasn’t very good — first one attendee wandered up to ask me about my position, then another. Here I had attended Confab Higher Ed, in part to learn what I could do with minimal resources, but people were seeking me out, showing me the benefits of my position.
Before Confab Higher Ed, I was slightly embarrassed about my position within the university — and even hid the facts when I registered for the conference, saying that I worked for the university as a whole. But Confab Higher Ed convinced me that my role is an asset to Oregon State University. Content strategy doesn’t have to work out of your central marketing and communications office; it can work where you are — whether you’re a team of many or one.
Are you working in the trenches, too? What does your department-level content strategy look like?