Web Governance: Why Institutions Need to Care About Their Digital Presence
When selecting an institution to attend, most students based their decisions on the on-campus experience. With an unforeseeable future for campus life, an institution’s digital presence is more important than ever. First impressions are important, and prospective students will have all eyes on a school’s website. Having too many hands on the wheel can create a confusing, unattractive and off-brand website that will turn students away. It’s important for an institution to put their foot down and have a strict set of guidelines when it comes to creating website content and giving control over it. In this interview, Mark Rimar discusses the importance of web governance, how to take a more orderly approach to your website’s structural model, and its impact on the student experience.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What is web governance?
Mark Rimar (MR): It’s a comprehensive way to manage your website. Generally, you’re talking about the checks and balances of publishing content to the web. Governance involves every level of CMS user and how they push content to the website through workflows.
Good governance also encompasses usability, ADA compliance, quality assurance, user experience and search engine optimization (SEO), among many other things. Each of these elements has its own set of rules and guidelines, which all relates back to content strategy. Good governance allows you to stay on track with your content strategy and website performance.
Evo: Consistency in the student experience is something that we’re all aware of this need for it, but why is web governance so important to delivering that consistent institutional brand?
MR: It’s really the glue that holds everything together in many ways. If your experience isn’t consistent, the end user will have a fragmented experience. There are few opportunities to onboard a student, so you need to be able to catch their attention right away. In today’s market, you won’t catch other students’ attention unless you have a strong and consistent brand.
Bottom line, students are looking for a well-branded experience as much as key information that will help them choose an institution. If they don’t get that information in a quick and timely manner, they’ll have time to rethink their opinion about your brand. You always want to make a great first impression. It’s important to make sure you’re taking every chance to make their experience easy and give them a brand they can feel good about becoming a part of.
Evo: How impactful is good SEO on converting prospects who aren’t necessarily looking for the institutional brand, but are instead looking for an educational experience?
MR: In general, if someone doesn’t have a specific institution that they’d like to attend in mind, their search can simply begin with typing “colleges near me” into Google. The better organic search results and SEO your site has, the more traffic you’ll receive from that general search. Organic SEO is as important as paid traffic.
Even paid traffic needs to be fully optimized with the information on your site. If you’re not fully optimized, you might lose out to other institutions with similar information that are more SEO friendly. What I find is that we tend to focus more on the individual degrees that students are interested in pursuing because it’s a sweet spot. Students almost always want to know if you have the degree they want and will only come to your institution if you do. If they see your website at the top of their search results, and you have the academic program they’re looking for, there’s a greater chance that they’ll engage with your site.
There are a lot of variables to undergraduates’ decision-making. With good organic SEO, your site will show up higher in search results. Google’s search results are generally localized; an institution in Seattle isn’t going to appear first in the search results for someone in St. Louis, but optimizing for your local area enables you to win in our backyard.
If we find we’re not ranked as high as other institutions, we’ll assess how we can enhance the specific low-ranking degree or program. It’s a different challenge when someone doesn’t know a lot about your institution, so it’s a mix of organic and paid search.
Evo: How is your team able to create an orderly approach to web governance across SLU?
MR: The governance process began over 15 years ago with our first content management system. We have tried many different models over the years, but we have learned that we always need to be clear and communicate the process with the university’s community. This allows most people to understand that there is a process with rules. At the same time, you those rules need to be fair and understanding. It’s about building trust and personal relationships. We have regular meetings in which we try to be as clear as possible about the services that we’re going to provide for the university. We also are open to consulting and giving direction on the more important things that other units and end users can focus on.
In terms of branding, we have pretty clear guidelines on what can and can’t be done. Within the template, we provide branding elements that can be inserted into a page, but there are a lot of other things in the system that are locked down. When they’re locked down, about 99% of users can’t change elements, like text colour or font. What we’ve found in the past is that if someone wants to put, for example, an emergency warning on the site, they’ll want to make it bold and red. We try to limit choices to a certain palette that goes hand in hand with our overall marketing strategy and branding guidelines. It goes back to the idea of being consistent.
When necessary, there are certain people (like the brand manager) who are allowed to customize certain rules. The overall brand is fairly flexible to begin with, but there needs to be an exceptional reason for bending the rules.
Evo: What are some of the challenges in establishing and maintaining that clear process-driven web governance structure?
MR: The number one challenge would be pushback. There’s never a shortage of opinions at a university, and a lot of people want certain things done their way without considering overall web strategy. The other challenge is that certain divisions within a university have the ability to fund projects on their own, so, the right governance needs to be in place to prevent that from happening. When projects are funded, collaboration and consultation with the brand managers must be a part of those projects for effective brand consistency. Major marketing activity needs to be signed off by the marketing department leadership in order to comply with the overall marketing plan.
We also have a policy in place that states all content development must be done within the university’s centralized content management system, which we oversee, and there are only a couple exceptions to that rule right now. One of them is our athletic site; most athletic sites are not housed within the main university CMS because it operates more independently from the institution.
Much of it comes down to is usability. We want SLU.edu to be ADA compliant, have good SEO, and we want everyone to be happy and successful in their recruitment efforts. Ultimately, the brand needs to be as consistent as possible. The other challenge is that people don’t understand that our objectives are generally their objectives, and sometimes battles occur. Even though you’re both on the same page, you might not realize that you are.
We went through a rebranding process about eight years ago. The website was an important–and the final phase–of this rebranding. When it came to our old website some of the odd 200 microsites that comprised it had similar templates, but the majority didn’t because they weren’t in a CMS. This made the process much longer and more difficult to deal with. We had to make a policy that ensured everyone was integrated into the CMS. In the process of completing this project, we had a lot of turnover at the university, which posed a challenge to its completion. It’s more difficult to onboard someone who wasn’t a part of the initial process and get them to fall into sync with the process and strategy. There has to be a lot of communication, which can sometimes get lost. We all have our jobs, and sometimes projects like this one are put on the back burner.
Evo: What role does a CMS play in helping to establish or harm these efforts around a consistent governance model?
MR: You can’t get everyone on board unless you have a flexible CMS that can serve different needs. Your template also goes hand in hand with the CMS. For example, if you have website that isn’t mobile friendly, then you’re not using it the right way. Some people might see it as a file managing tool and argue that it’s not meeting their needs.
Your CMS must be flexible and have the ability to scale for other things, interacting with databases or pulling databases into your template. The framework needs to be adaptable, simple and user-friendly. A developer can work with anything, but the majority of users have simple technological skill sets. They might not understand how a website or CMS works, but they know that they can drag-and-drop content and publish it. Therefore, people of all technical skill levels need to be able to use it. Fortunately, we have a lot more flexibility in our OU Campus CMS.
Evo: Do you have any advice for those who are kicking off this process of defining and establishing clear web governance models?
MR: Do a full assessment of where you currently are and where you want to go—and be as thorough as possible. You’re likely going to have to change some of the things you’re doing. You may not like your website, but there also may be a hole in your governance, and that’s why the website might not be the greatest—currently, no one is taking responsibility for it.
Without someone being held responsible for the website, there may be content that isn’t being proofread, for example, which is a huge issue. You’ll have to work together with other departments to have a secondary person to actually proofread the content rather than simply publishing it as is. Standards need to be held high, people need to be held responsible, and we all have to work closely together to make it work. In that, trust has to be built. It’s easy to be siloed and stay within your own department or division, but we need to get through those pain points and focus on the end goal.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.