Six Questions with Bob Johnson

Consultant. Vendor. Why do these often seem like such dirty words in the higher ed world? What if that consultant slugged it out inBob Johnson the trenches of enrollment management and higher ed marketing for nearly 30 years? Understanding that the struggles higher ed marketing/Web professionals face are not necessarily new–they just have a new name–can help us press forward.

Bob Johnson, an experienced higher ed marketing professional, shares his thoughts on what he sees as marketing/Web/comm departments’ biggest gaps, his pet peeves and greatest lessons learned.

1. It seems more Web/marketing professionals in higher ed are beginning to understand the importance of “writing right for the Web.” Was there a time when higher education marketing went through this type of learning curve with “traditional media”?

Yes. Higher education has always found it difficult to develop a communication strategy based more on what a potential student wanted to know than what the organization wanted to tell them. That’s why so many view books read as if the content for one had been borrowed from another. Everyone had a “commitment to academic excellence” and “educated the whole person” and had smiling students everywhere.
And while it is easier to read a printed piece than a page on a website, the best principles of “writing right for the Web” apply to printed marketing pieces as well: give people headlines crafted from words they care about, use subheads so people can scan content quickly to find points of major interest, keep paragraphs and sentences reasonably brief, and use words that real people use rather than jargon.

2. A few years ago, it seemed that college and university marketing/communication departments generally lacked positions whose main responsibility was editing Web content. What do you see as the current void in higher ed communications/marketing departments?

At the risk of overgeneralizing, two or three years ago it seemed as if there was serious movement to create “Web content editor” positions at various levels, from quite junior to fairly senior levels. My impression now is that budgetary constraints have slowed that movement, especially where funding for new positions was required. We still need many more of them, at levels equivalent to magazine publishers. A website is a series of online publications, for different audiences. The organizational structure doesn’t recognize that yet.
For marketing departments, the challenge is larger than editing Web content. There is an ongoing need to evaluate the impact of print and electronic communications and continue to shift resources from print to electronic media, including websites and social media and the new mobile environment. Print is not “dead” but it does not play the same role today as it did eight or 10 years ago. At many schools, budgets and staff responsibilities still lag behind the change in how people actually gather information and make decisions. Change is happening, but it is not happening as fast as the change in media preferences.

3. What role do you think content strategy, writing for the Web, usability, accessibility and user experience have in the overall responsibility of marketing/communications/Web teams in higher education?

Marketing communications teams should be the most expert people on their campuses in all of these areas. That’s a reasonable expectation for professionals who are hired to communicate persuasively with external audiences so that more people in those audiences do what’s needed and enroll or donate to the organization.
Much of higher education is still decentralized. Marketing professionals have to find kindred spirits throughout their universities, especially in academic areas, who share their interest in effective online communication and then work with them as closely as the campus culture will allow. Don’t worry about the recalcitrant ones. Try to form a club of communicators who want to share ideas, experiences and solutions together on a regular basis. Have a party every year to celebrate success.
Why should marketing people care? Because you can’t control where visitors go on a website. Marketers need to do whatever they can to get as much of the website, especially the academic areas, in “written right” form as they can. Other marketing efforts will suffer because the experience people have on the academic areas is not pleasant.
I’m especially concerned about the folk in various departments around a campus who are handed responsibility for creating and updating content when a new CMS arrives. Too often they have no regular contact with anyone else with similar responsibilities and too often nobody else in their department is interested in what they do. That’s a recipe for failure.

4. Usability expert Jared Spool has mentioned the phenomenon of useless “girls under trees” photos on college/university websites for the past few years. What would you consider your biggest pet-peeve when it comes to Web content in higher ed?

Why just girls? There are lots of useless men under those trees as well. All to prove the point that except for same-sex institutions, everyone has smiling men and women on campus. That’s silly marketing.
My biggest pet-peeve? Pick one from these:

  • Print magazines put online using “flip” technology.
  • Inquiry forms that ask for high school codes and other information not needed to respond to the inquiry.
  • Photos of building exteriors at the top of a page that have no obvious relationship to the main content on the page.
  •  Horrible search engine results, in no small part because dead content litters the website and turns up in search results.
  • “Why study (discipline name)…” introductions written in academic jargon.
  • Long FAQ pages filled with questions not “frequently” asked by anyone.

5. For those Web and marketing professionals that keep up with writing for the Web techniques from experts such as yourself or Jakob Nielsen, do you predict any changes to the current “guidelines” with increased use of tablets or other mobile devices?

I don’t see as much a change in the guidelines as a greater reason to actually implement them. The smartphone/mobile environment means we have even less space than before to present content that doesn’t make people finger-flick to enlarge it enough to read. “Don’t make me squint” will get more essential.
One benefit we get from Twitter is that we’re forced to practice brevity. That’s a good exercise for mobile.

6. What has been your greatest lesson learned in the past year?

Marketing in higher education hasn’t advanced as far as we’d like. It still doesn’t permeate entire universities. That’s a special problem because we can’t control where people go on a website. Many potential students will go first to the academic area that interests them rather than start at the home page. Too often those academic website areas are still immune from a marketing oriented content-strategy that says speak first to potential students.
That will change over the next few years, especially if public sector privatization continues and tuition dollars become more important to individual academic areas.