The web is a platform for communication. But simply putting words on a page will not guarantee anyone will read or act on them.
Be thoughtful about what words (images, videos) you use and how you present them. Try to understand the perspectives and needs of your audiences. Consider how your web content can cultivate relationships. To do this, you must think ahead, plan strategically, and act deliberately.
These steps can provide a strategic framework for creating and maintaining web content.
Identify Your Goals
What are you trying to communicate and why?
Before you begin wordsmithing, think about why you have a web presence in the first place. What do you want your web visitors to do? Apply? Find specific information? Learn about your programs or services? Choose courses for next term? Collaborate with you? Stop calling your office?! Think highly of you? Support your research?
Clear goals help you focus and organize content, and communicate more clearly with your constituents. They will help you evaluate whether the content is working for you and ground you in the bigger picture when faced with information overload and/or requests to put content on the site. You are also part of the larger Purchase ecosystem and as such carry some responsibility for broader communications goals as well.
Understand Your Audience
Who are they?
Start by listing out the different groups of people visiting your site. Likely your list of audience types will include some combination of people on campus (internal audiences)—students, staff, and faculty—as well off-campus (external audiences)—prospective students and their parents, alumni, job applicants, local community members, scholars and professionals elsewhere, the media, policy makers, general public, etc. Each page/section of your site could have a different combination of audiences too.
Areas that focus on student services, alumni, or donors may seem to only serve a single group, but prospective students (and parents) frequent these sites too, curious to find “real” information about Purchase’s services and offerings.
Who are they to you?
Now, prioritize. You can’t be all things to all people. For each page/section, figure out which audience group is most important to you and focus on them first, addressing your other audiences in lesser ways—guiding them, if relevant, to pages devoted to their needs and interests. Audience content needs do overlap, so you will also likely be able to serve a few groups with the same information.
Who are they really?
No one fits neatly into a box. Once you’ve listed audience groupings, give them some nuance—identify their expectations, perspectives, and external pressures.
Also known as context, this refinement helps you communicate with your site visitors in a way that makes sense to them. You aren’t just communicating with a parent of a prospective student, for example, that parent is at their office and stressed out trying to find the deadline for submitting financial aid forms.
Context is influenced by time of year; where a person is physically (office, library, home); the amount of time they have to spend online; where they live (close by or across the world); other concerns in their lives (job market, nearing graduation, family issues); and so on. Though it seems like the possibilities could be endless, develop the most likely scenarios for your primary audiences and recognize that these change during the year.
What do they need?
Your website is not for you. It’s for the people who visit it— accordingly, the site should give them what they want and communicate in ways they understand.
Surprisingly, the needs of internal and external audiences are not always that different when it comes to easy-to-use navigation and compelling content. Both appreciate clear pathways to information; you can’t count on either to be familiar with certain terminology or the way an office, program, or school is organized. Well presented, interesting content is good reading for everyone, whether a young prospect, a fellow academic, or a retired alum.
The differences lie in the specific information sought by one group versus another. Identify the information your primary audiences are seeking most often and address it in a way that’s sensitive to context—you may need to edit text or add something new depending on the time of year, etc.
Next, think about your secondary audiences. How can you serve their needs without overloading a page or taking away from the primacy you’ve given to another group? Small, call-out feature areas or sidebars are often good places to address them.
Connect Your Goals to Audiences
But then again, the website is for you. Beyond meeting your web visitors’ information needs, you have goals for the website too: qualities you’d like people to associate with you and actions you’d like them to perform.
Connect each goal with one or more of your audiences. You have the power to craft your content in a way that speaks more directly to one group or another. You also have the ability to choose what to show and what not to show. If you know who your primary audience is and what you want them to do, it is easier to figure out what should be on that page.
Guide Your Visitors
Each page should present unique information and guide the reader to the next step. Use navigational links, links in the text, headers, featured links, event titles, and captions to help move visitors through your content.
Top-level pages have the most varied audiences. Their content should link different groups to the information they seek with minimal details.
Pages should work together to tell one story. Websites often grow in spurts, with various authors adding content at different points in time. The result is a site that is rife with duplicated information and pages that do not flow together. With few exceptions, the content of a page should be unique, adding the next bit of information to the greater story and linking appropriately to the various next steps.
Share Stories and Show, Don’t (Just) Tell
Stories about the people who make up Purchase validate your claims and forge critical emotional connections with your constituents.
Prospective students want to get an accurate sense of the Purchase experience. Prospective donors want to hear about what’s been happening in at the school. Direct exposure to your community is the best way to achieve that goal. People
stories, student- or faculty-generated content, photos with descriptive captions, and video all communicate this. A story of a successful alum will have significantly more impact than a statement about the success of your alumni in general.
For academic programs, finding ways to show the student educational experience through highlighted academic activities showing class work, research, or capstone/senior projects will ground abstract learning outcomes in reality and give prospects concrete ideas of what they will be doing while studying at Purchase. It will also show the world the caliber of work being done at the college. Seek creative ways to incorporate recent faculty/student achievements or activities through stories, video, audio, candid photography (with descriptive captions), etc.
Mix up your approach
These all offer different ways to absorb information and help to form a richer, more realistic picture of your efforts.
Do not cram every bit of information into the main body text of a page, especially for homepages and others at the top level. Use a story or a photo to connect a message (goal) with an audience. Provide information for a specific audience segment in a list of featured links.
Integrate key messages
Visitors will form opinions based on everything they read on the site. Each part should reflect the qualities of the whole as much as possible.
Think strategically about your news and story headlines, event titles/teasers, in text examples, and general choice of words. Readers should come away associating Purchase with some of its key values and characteristics.
Keep it simple and clean house
A smaller website with fewer pages to maintain is much better than a huge site that looks great this year, but quickly becomes dated because you can’t maintain it.
More content is not necessarily better. Engaging and accurate content is better. It is more important that your pages be thoughtful, relevant, well written, and interesting to your audiences.
Just because it exists doesn’t mean it should be on your site. Think about what information people seek, what you need them to know, and whether your presentation of such material is working. Official policies are often densely written and hard to understand. Pull out the most important points and make them easy to read. The official version can exist deeper in the site or as a downloadable PDF.
Create a schedule
Whether you create a full editorial calendar or a simple plan to update your site on a certain day every week/month, the effort will pay off.
Saying you’ll “update regularly” is not enough. Things happen throughout the year that should be featured on the website: program detail changes; activities and events; big news; faculty and student recognition; publications; faculty and staff going on leave, etc
Begin by thinking through the academic year and identifying times when you’ll need to feature specific types of information—commencement and the beginning and end of a term, for example. By planning ahead, you’ll more easily be able to notice gaps in your content and give yourself plenty of time to find or create new stories.
Decide on a manageable schedule and stick to it. You can even maintain multiple calendars: a master schedule and more detailed, specific ones for social media, student profiles, or news stories.