Monday, June 04, 2012

HBCU Websites -- Some Best Practices

Part I -- It's a Web World
A consensus has recently emerged within the HBCU community that lack of public awareness of the recent achievements of HBCUs makes them vulnerable to judgments that they have nothing more to contribute to U.S. society, that HBCUs have a distinguished legacy, but a dubious future. HBCUs need to tell their stories more effectively so that the general public can better understand why they are still needed. I agree with this consensus.

However, I disagree with most of the specific suggestions I have encountered as to what HBCUs should do to remedy this situation because most suggestions haven't focused on the most important tool for managing the public's perceptions of what HBCUs are all about ==> their Websites.

To rephrase the emerging consensus, some HBCUs have used their Websites to tell their stories very effectively; but most haven't. Even a cursory examination of the 105 HBCU Websites provides ample evidence that most HBCUs don't seem to understand that their Websites are their primary opportunities for informing prospective students, alumni, and potential sponsors of their R&D projects about their most important strengths and recent achievements.

In today's world, institutions are defined by what people see and hear on their Websites. If HBCUs don't tell their stories well on their Websites, it doesn't matter how well they present themselves in other media because today's world is a Web world, a world wherein all other media are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Anyone who doubts this assertion need only consider the fact that the other media -- newspapers, magazines, radio, network TV, and cable TV -- are losing readers, listeners, and viewers while for more and more people the Web has become their primary source of information about everything.

HBCU Websites as News Media
But the good news is that the Web also provides every institution, including HBCUs, with an inexpensive medium through which they can tell their stories directly to everyone else on the planet in their own words, unfiltered by reporters and editors, and at the times best suited to yield the biggest advantages.

As the manager of the Digital Learning Lab (DLL), I have visited each of the 105 HBCU Websites every week since 2003 in search of announcements about their academic achievements or upcoming academic events, i.e., announcements and events related to their teaching & learning, their research, and their community service. I then post links to these announcements on the DLL's "Gateway to HBCUs" Web portal and also add them to the DLL's searchable database.

The following notes summarize my personal observations about the features of HBCU Websites that have assisted or impeded my search for their academic news, observations that I will categorize as the Do's and Don'ts that are most likely to assist or impede prospective students, alums, potential sponsors of R&D projects, and other visitors in their search for information about a much broader range of information that includes academic issues, but also includes news about campus life, sports, fraternity activities, band competitions, theater productions, rivalries with other HBCUs, Home Comings; assistantships, fellowships, and internship opportunities for current students; career opportunities for graduates; alumni achievements; etc, etc, etc.

An Illustrative Example
But allow me to pause for a moment to cite an example from the last presidential election that illustrates my point that HBCUs must not only continue to do good stuff; nowadays they must also provide good descriptions of their good stuff on their Websites.

As most readers will probably recall, the 2008 campaign for the nomination of the Democratic Party began with a series of nationally televised debates among the Party's candidates that started in 2007. The first debate was held on April 26, 2007 at South Carolina State University, an HBCU; and the third debate, moderated by political commentator Tavis Smiley, was held at another HBCU. That two of the first three debates among the Democratic Party's candidates were held at HBCUs were not only major achievements for the HBCUs that hosted the debates;  their locations set the stage for an historic turnout of support from the entire HBCU community that greatly contributed to Senator Barack Obama's historic election in November 2008 as the nation's first African American president.

Now let's get down to the Web stuff. Searching the DLL's HBCU archive database on South Carolina State University in 2007 for "Democratic Party debate" returned three headline links and excerpts from the full articles that South Carolina State posted on its Website:
  • "First Democratic Presidential Primary Debate to be broadcast from SC State, April 26
    The Democratic Presidential Candidates’ Debate will be broadcast live from SC State’s Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium on Thursday, April 26, at 7 p.m., and will be produced by NBC News. This will be the first Presidential Primary debate broadcast from a Historically Black College or University." (1/8/2007) ... Initial announcement
  •  "All systems are go! All candidates confirmed for 2008 Presidential Debate
    With less than two weeks before South Carolina makes history with the first presidential debate for either party in the 2008 cycle, officials from the South Carolina Democratic Party and South Carolina State University announced today that all systems are ready and on track for a both a successful and a historic Path to the Presidency Debate on SC State’s campus on Thursday, April 26, 2007." (4/13/2007) ... Timely reminder
  • "600 media, 1,279 stories boost image of SC State
    Now, the debate’s success can be told in numbers. There were 1,279 stories told about the university and the debate. The total audience for programs mentioning SC State and the debate from April 16 until May 7 was 119,526,115, according to Nielsen Media Research figures. Had S.C. State purchased all of the advertising it received, it would have cost $1,331,716. The total publicity value of hosting the debate was $4 million."  (5/9/2012) ... Announcing the benefits
The third announcement is the key. While the major media alerted the nation and the world that the first debate was held at SC State, the post-debate Nielson figures were not featured in subsequent reports by the major newspapers or TV networks. Publicizing the good news embodied in that important data to the justifiably proud members of SC State community -- its students, faculty, staff, and alums -- and then to other interested readers, like you and I, at a later data was something that SC State's Website was uniquely qualified to do ... and it rose to the challenge ... Well done, SC DOGGS! Well done!!! ... :-)

Let's start by sketching a general framework for the specific do's and don'ts for HBCU administrators and Webmasters that will be presented in subsequent sections:
  • Objectives ... The basic idea is to post enough new stories on your Website about your HBCU's achievements and upcoming events on a week-to-week, month-to-month basis to attract new visitors and to convert old visitors into "subscribers" who come back to your Website again and again the way readers and viewers used to read their morning newspapers and watch the evening news on TV.
  • Drive new visitors to your Website by engaging the support of new Internet media that focus on issues of concern to the HBCU community. Think of them as tech-savvy partners who can marshal an array of Web-related technologies -- Websites, blogs, twitter feeds, YouTube channels, Facebook pages, etc -- to reach far larger audiences than you can. Their success is based on their capacity to relay reports of your success; so when you win, they win ... and vice versa. Ironically, many of these private cyber-operations were developed by far-sighted, young entrepreneurs who recognized the potential value of Internet technologies for the HBCU community long before the HBCUs themselves.
  • Make it easy for visitors to find the news on your Website Place headlines and short blurbs for your most important stories on your Home Page with links to the full stories on separate pages with unique URLs.
  • Write clearly. Your announcements and your descriptions of forthcoming events should be easy to read  ... so include photos and video clips where possible ... and in those rare instances wherein numbers are key features of your announcements, also include eye-catching charts and graphs.
  • Check your visitor stats regularly, e.g. use Google Analytics (it's free) every day/week/month to see how well you're doing ... or not.

Part II -- Some Do's
The section recommends a few of the "best practices" that are followed by some of the best known HBCUs. Indeed, one of the reasons their brands retain their prominence in the public's awareness is their adherence to these practices. Most of the recommendations can be implemented with a minimal increase in the work loads of the staff currently responsible for an HBCU's Website and overall communications. Note: Some of the following bullets include links in italics to HBCU Web pages that illustrate their points.

1. Think of Your Website as Your HBCU's Most Important News Medium

2. Drive New Visitors to Your Website
We're talking about raising the visibility of your brand in the academic marketplace, so this is really about advertising; which means that we're talking about ads on the Web, today's most powerful communications medium. The goal is to get the most favorable references to your HBCU in front of the most Web users for the least cost to your HBCU. Two approaches to this challenge come to mind:
  • Pay for search engine ads via Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. with your HBCU's funds
  • Engage partners who will cover the advertising costs
Make no mistake: the most successful for-profit institutions -- like Phoenix, DeVry, Strayer, and Kaplan -- pay millions of dollars each month for search engine ads for their certificate and degree programs because their expensive Web-based advertising works. It generates lots of student inquiries that yield high enrollments that yield high tuition revenues that yield high profits. But you know this. So let's talk about the second option.

(a) Use Social Media to Mobilize Your Home Base
Start with your own HBCU. Don't assume that the members of your own community read your press releases and other news notices just because you post them on your Website. This is a particularly dubious assumption for your current students and youngest alums. You're more likely to get their attention through social media, e.g., Facebook and Twitter.
  • Establish a Facebook identify for your HBCU and place a Facebook logo in at the bottom of your Home Page that links to your Facebook page ... Note the Facebook "f" logo/links on the following HBCU Home Pages: Claflin University, FAMU, Howard University, Jackson State University, Spelman College, Tuskegee University
  • Establish a Twitter account for your HBCU and place a Twitter logo at the bottom of your Home Page next to your Facebook logo that links to your Twitter page .. Note the Twitter bird logo/links on the following HBCU Home Pages: Claflin University, FAMU, Howard University, Jackson State University, Spelman College, Tuskegee University
  • Send out mass emails a few times to all faculty, staff, students, and alums imploring them to "Like" your HBCU on Facebook and to "Follow" your HBCU on Twitter.
  • Whenever you publish a press release or an important news notice on your Website, post a message that provides a headline and summary for the news on your Facebook page that includes a link to the full description of the news on your Website.
  • Tweet your news announcements with a brief (max 140 character) headline that included a link to the full news item on your Website

    -- Hampton University tweet  = "HU Community Mourns the Loss of Devoted Honors College Director Dr. Freddye T. Davy " ... clicking the link leads to the full announcement on Press Release page

    -- North Carolina A&T tweet = "Take a look at this week's Alumni Times! " ... clicking the encoded link leads to the online magazine "Alumni Times" on A&T's Website

    -- Spelman College tweet = "
    New revamped Spelman website unveiled tonight. Check it out Retweeted by "... This tweet is a  neat bank shot. President Tatum sent a tweet from her BDTSpelman Twitter account that encouraged those who followed her to look at Spelman's newly reorganized Website found at ... The official Spelman College Twitter account follows Dr. Tatum's BDTSpelman account, so it received her tweet. It then retweeted (rebroadcast) her tweet to all of its followers.

    -- Morehouse College tweet = "
    The Class of 2012... ... "  Clicking the encoded link leads to a large photo on the Morehouse Facebook page of the graduates in procession. Below the photo find happy comments of the grads, families, and friends.
  • Indeed, an HBCU's Facebook page makes a great supplement for an HBCU's Website because of Facebook's capacity to share photos, videos, and online conversations in which members of the HBCU community can exchange comments about the HBCU's announcements.

    At this time Facebook has two additional advantages with regards to communicating with students and younger alums ==> (a) they "all" use Facebook; and (b) they "all" know how to publish materials on Facebook. Indeed a far higher percentage of students know how to publish materials on Facebook than on Websites; so there are more potential student assistants who could be hired to help an HBCU publish more concise versions of its announcements on Facebook than on the HBCU's Website.
    Some HBCUs now publish a large share of their announcements on their Facebook pages. This is especially convenient for announcements about local news that is more likely to be of interest to the students, faculty, staff, and alums within the HBCU, rather than news that would be shared with the community of all HBCUs or with the wider world beyond HBCUs. In such cases, their tweets contain links to the full news announcements on Facebook, rather than to the archives on their Websites.

    -- Elizabeth City State University ... Twitter ==> Facebook
    -- Howard University ... Twitter ==> Facebook
    -- Florida A&M University ... Twitter ==> Facebook
    -- Spelman College ... Twitter ==> Facebook
(b) Understand How HBCU Service Providers Support the HBCU Community
As previously noted, entrepreneurs have established Web-based, for-profit companies and non-profit organizations that provide information, social networking, memorabilia, and other services for the ultimate consumers within the HBCU community -- students, staff, faculty, alums, former students who never graduated ... and their families and close friends.
  • There are about 300,000 students currently enrolled in the 105 HBCUs, so I would conservatively estimate that the HBCU market represents between 3,000,000 and 4,000,000 core consumers.
  • These core consumers are also well positioned to influence the institutional purchases made by their HBCUs for computers, networks, enterprise applications, textbooks,  cable TV services, food services, travel services, conference services, etc, etc, etc.
  • Beyond this, successful providers have attracted the attention of the staffs of foundations, government agencies, educational media, major media, and other potential supporters.
Here's a short list of HBCU providers. Note: Appearance on this list is not an endorsement; nor does omission reflect a derogatory judgment:
Some other providers of online information services address the broader market of black American consumers; but they also focus on HBCU issues from time to time
Many of your own students, faculty, staff, and alums already subscribe to the services offered by HBCU providers because they are not only interested in what's happening at their own HBCU; they also want to keep up with what's happening at other HBCUs and to stay in touch with friends and colleagues at other HBCUs.

They don't want to look at all 105 HBCU Websites every week. They want to obtain the news they are interested in -- e.g., sports, campus life, entertainment, academics -- via convenient access to the Web pages, blogs, tweets, and Facebooks of a couple of sources; and they want to be able to interact with members of other HBCU communities without having to look up names, email addresses, and other contact info by going to the 104 other HBCU Websites. Indeed, providing  convenient access to the entire HBCU community is such a fundamental function that some providers include words like "connect" and "digest" in their names ... :-)

(c) Use Social Media to Engage HBCU Service Providers as De Facto Partners
HBCU service providers are the new Black Press. They aggregate and distill the success stories of the 105 HBCUs for their subscribers. More stories attract more subscribers; more subscribers enable the profit-oriented providers to generate more profit from the Web ads of their corporate sponsors; and more subscribers attract more support from the sponsors of the non-profit providers. In other words, your success as an HBCU enhances their success.

But the partnership works both ways. The providers' capacity to reach more subscribers enhances their capacity to raise the visibility of your HBCU and thereby increases the public's understanding of what your HBCU is doing nowadays and why it's still needed.

The following bullets suggest a few basic techniques to get you started using Facebook and Twitter to draw the attention of HBCU providers to the announcements and events posted on your HBCU's Website. You can find more advanced techniques in the Facebook/Twitter online "help" sections and/or by using  Google, Bing, or Yahoo to search for more extensive "how to" manuals written by third parties.
  • Configure your HBCU Twitter and Facebook accounts to follow/"Like" HBCU providers on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Use Facebook and Twitter to send messages that encourage more members of your HBCU community to sign up for the providers' services on their Websites and to follow the providers on Facebook and Twitter
  • Retweet the tweets and share the posts of the providers that are most relevant to your HBCU and/or to the HBCUs that the members of your HBCU community relate to most strongly.
  • HBCU providers follow all HBCUs that have twitter accounts and Facebook pages.  But if your accounts are new, then @mention the providers in your first few tweets to alert them that you're online.
  • Use #hashtags in your tweets to identify the categories of your press releases and other announcements; for example #HBCU or #HBCUs or #HBCUgrant or #HBCUsports

3. Provide News That's Easy to Find, Easy to Read
The "best practices" noted in this section are obvious and widely applied; so the only question is why all HBCUs have not adopted them yet; but unfortunately, they haven't.
  • News Facts vs. Forthcoming Events
    It's useful to distinguish between announcements that present important news facts (for example, your HBCU's receipt of a large donation or a major grant) versus announcements of forthcoming events (for example, Homecoming, conferences, commencements, and guest lectures.)

    -- Alabama A&M University ... "AAMU Spotlight" vs. "Upcoming Events"
    -- Claflin University ... "Claflin News" vs. "Upcoming Events"
    -- Florida A&M University ... "News" vs. "Events"

    News facts should be presented asap, or at least before the most important information reaches your target audience via other media. Forthcoming events should be announced far enough in advance for your target audience to make plans to participate. Reminders of the events a few days before their occurrence are a good idea.

    Summaries of what happened at an event as news facts should also be published after the event for the benefit of the members of your target audience who were unable to attend

    -- South Carolina State University ... Impact of hosting Democratic debates in 2008
    -- Hampton University ... Summary + video of Mayor Cory Booker's 2012 Commencement address
  • Headlines, optional blurbs, and full text
    Headlines for a few of your HBCU's most important recent announcements in all categories should appear in prominent locations on your Website's Home Page, followed by an optional blurb that provides the reader with a brief description of the announcement. The headline should be linked to the full story on another page (or in set of paragraphs on another page).
  • News Archives
    The reader should be given access to old news via a list of all headlines (and blurbs) grouped by month and year on a page called "Archives" or "Old News" or some other name that has similar meaning. If your archives cover more than one year, it's best to provide a drop-down list from which the reader can select a year. Each year should be a link to a page that contains all of the headlines (and blurbs) that your HBCU published that year. As on the Home Page, when the reader clicks a headline, the full text of the news announcement should appear.

    -- Hampton University ... Drop down links to archive list at top of every full story
    -- Howard University ... Links to archive list at top of Press Release page
  • Headlines, Blurbs, and Social Media
    All headlines should be tweeted at least once and each tweet should contain a link to the full text of the news announcements on your Website ... or for HBCUs that publish announcements on Facebook, the link should point to the full text on your Facebook page. 
  • Change Your Headlines (and blurbs) "frequently"
    If the headlines (and blurbs) on your Website's Home Page (or on its Facebook page) don't change from time to time, visitors will get the worst impression about your HBCU -- that little or nothing is happening there, that it's becoming irrelevant. But how often you change your headlines (and blurbs) will depend on how much news really occurs.

    Large HBCUs have more faculty, staff, and students so they have more opportunities to do "interesting" things every week; whereas small HBCUs have less opportunities so their news headlines (and blurbs) might only change every two weeks, or once per month. But no matter how small your HBCU, it's always doing something interesting.
  • Good Writing
    Your headlines should be eye-catching; they should stimulate visitors to your Website to want to read the full stories. And your stories should be well written; to be specific, they should follow the hallowed format inherited from printed news media. The first paragraphs should present the essence of the story for all readers; whereas later paragraphs should present more details for readers who become engrossed in the story.
  • Search Engines
    Install a search engine on your Website whose scope covers your archive pages and possibly the files that contain the full text of all of your news announcements. This will enable readers to find each and every news announcement months or years after you first publish its headline on your Home Page.

    If you don't include this kind of search feature, your HBCU will lose access to its history. When someone asks, "Which HBCUs have done this or that?" your HBCU may not be included in the answer. It's not enough to tell your HBCU's stories once; you have to tell them again and again and again. The easiest way to do this is to let readers who ask the same questions about your HBCU be able to find the same answers again and again and again by using your Website's search engine.
  • Caveat ... the Limits of Facebook
    Posting announcements on Facebook is convenient, but poses significant retrieval problems. On a Website, you can use keywords to search for all announcements, no matter how old the announcements; but on Facebook, searching is highly restricted at this time. Indeed, here's a quote from  Facebook about its search function:

    "How can I best use [Facebook] search to get news and information? ... Currently, you can only search for content that has been posted in the last 30 days. The range of the search history may be expanded in the future."

    Until Facebook's search history is greatly expanded, HBCUs that use Facebook for their announcements are strongly advised to also post their most important announcements on their Websites. Otherwise, no one will be be able to search for and retrieve announcements older than 30 days ... :-(
4. Keeping Score
It's not enough to tell your HBCU's success stories. You also need to know how many people are reading its stories so that you can see if your efforts to increase the visibility of your HBCU's brand are succeeding or not.

(a) Web Pages
We're talking numbers now, nerd stuff, the cold-blooded, green-eye-shaded figures that tell you whether all of those sleek new graphics that you added to your Web site really made any difference, in what ways, and by how much.
  • Some Useful Statistics

    Among other things you will want to know how many visitors come to your site; how many pages they visited; which pages; how long they stayed on each page; how many/what percent of your visitors were new versus how many/what percent were making return visits; where they came from -- city, state, country; which browsers they were using and (sometimes) which operating systems managed their platforms.You'll want to compile these stats on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis; and compare them to the stats for previous days, weeks,  months, and years. And you'll want to produce compact graphics that will let you quickly identify important patterns in these statistics.

  • Analytical Packages

    There are numerous commercial (expensive) and freeware analytical packages on the market that will enable you to compile these kinds of statistics and graphics for your Website. Some are more powerful than others, but also require time to master.

    Google provides a tool kit called Google Analytics that is powerful, easy to learn, and free. If you decide to use any other set of tools you should compare the alternative to Google in terms of power and ease-of-learning. If the alternative is a commercial package you should be absolutely sure that its reports are sufficiently superior to Google Analytics to justify whatever they cost.

(b) Social Media
If your HBCU uses Facebook and Twitter, you should track how many people "follow" its tweets and how many people "like" its Facebook page from week to week. Ideally the number of "follows" and "likes" should be a high percentage of the total number of your HBCU's current students and recent alums because they're the members of your community who are most likely to be regular users of social media. 
  • Of course, when your HBCU first launches its Twitter and Facebook pages you will have to use your Website, email, and other non-social media to encourage the members of your community to follow its new social media.
  • As your HBCU's Twitter and Facebook pages acquire interesting content, the HBCU service providers discussed in previous sections of this report can help you enlist followers from other HBCUs and from the wider world.
  • Unfortunately, at this time there is no reliable way for you to track how many people actually view your HBCU's Facebook pages, not even Google Analytics, as per this statement from Google:

    "Can Analytics track my Facebook or MySpace account?
    Currently, it is not possible to use Google Analytics to track individual profiles in Facebook or MySpace. These accounts do not allow user-defined JavaScript code. Therefore, you won't be able to install the tracking code. Because the Google Analytics code uses Javascript, if the code can not successfully execute, a visit will not be recorded and you will not retain any visitor information."

Part III -- Some Don'ts
It's usually difficult to do the right thing and and the wrong thing at the same time. So given my extensive list of "Do's" that were presented in the preceding sections of this piece, my list of "Don'ts" is correspondingly brief ... :-)
  • Never Place Announcements in Word Documents

    Word documents and other files produced by Microsoft Office are able to contain macro programs. This makes them relatively easy targets for hackers who infect the files with malicious virus programs. Modern anti-malware packages can detect some, but not all macro viruses. Therefore prudent visitors to your Home Page will be reluctant to open announcements that are housed in Word files.
  • Never Delete Your HBCU's History

    Your announcements are the rough drafts of your HBCU's history, so this "Don't" is merely the flip side of the "Do" about maintaining searchable archives for your announcements. Nowadays digital storage is so cheap that deleting old announcements can only be justified in the most dire circumstances.

    This also means that if you have to move an announcement file, you should configure your Web server to automatically redirect browsers that have the old URL for your announcement to the file's new location. 
  • Never Waste a Home Page
    A Home Page without any headlines for announcements about what your HBCU has done recently or about forthcoming events at your HBCU is a wasted opportunity to inform your visitors that your HBCU is still engaged in important activities, that it's still needed.


Post Script on 6/20/12 ... The good news is that Google's stats show that lots of folk have viewed this note; but the bad news is that only a few people have left any comments so far.

I've received direct feedback from friends and colleagues, mostly approving, but also mostly preferring a different balance. Some thought that some of the best practices I included were "too obvious" to have been listed; whereas others felt that important innovations, e.g., use of social media, were not given sufficient emphasis. 

So now I'm making a direct appeal to the readers of this blog. What do you think of the "best practices" that I described? Should other strategies have been given more emphasis? If so, which ones? .... Please leave your comments in the form at the bottom of this note. Thanks ... :-)
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