Are you a Wonk?

Yesterday American University launched a new marketing campaign, American Wonks. They’ve released a very well produced video introducing the idea. It’s quite long but worth a watch:

Obviously everyone in the video is very positive about the idea and their definition of wonk supports that:

wonk | noun

  1. An intellectually curious person; expert in a field: physics wonk
  2. A knowledgeable Washington insider: policy wonk
  3. Someone focused on an issue and passionate about creating meaningful change: financial reform wonk, human rights wonk, sustainability wonk
  4. American University person in the know

Other websites define it slightly differently however:

wonk (plural wonks)

  1. (derogatory) An overly studious person, particularly student; a nerd.
  2. (by extension) A policy wonk or other intellectual expert.

I really can’t imagine this working for a university in the UK. Maybe we’re more conservative – although I find that slightly hard to believe – or maybe the typical 18 year old student has a different idea of what university life is about? I hope the campaign is successful for American University – it’s certainly a very bold move and I’m impressed by a lot of the material they’ve produced to support it.

Handling sales calls

I receive quite a lot of sales calls and I’m certain I’m not handling them properly.  The problem is that I’m probably not interested in what they’re trying to sell me yet I don’t want to miss out on something that could interest me. So generally I’ll ask them to email me some details and I try to take a look.

But it doesn’t stop there.  They want to follow up with me to see if I’m interested yet and this goes on and on ad infinitum! So how can I deal with them better?

My idea is to put stuff out in the public. I’ll tell you what I’m interested in hearing about and you tell me what your offering is.  If I like it, we can talk further about the offering with the possibility of using your software or service.

If on the other hand I’m not impressed or it’s not something I’m interested in then I’ll tell you, and the rest of the world.  How does that sound for a deal?

So here’s a few things to get you started with my thoughts…

Content Management Systems

I am almost certainly not interested in acquiring a content management system.  This blog contains lots of posts about our approach to building websites and you’ll quickly see that doesn’t involve decentralising control to several thousand content publishers.  A good place to start is my presentation “Building an Anti-CMS” from PHP North West.

Having said that, if your approach offers something genuinely different – I’m thinking along the lines of an approach to openness that isn’t usually seen – then I’m interested in seeing your product, but it’s still unlikely we’d adopt it in the next 18 months.

Search Engine Optimisation / Paid Advertising

If you make any claims that you can control anything in this sphere, I don’t want to hear from you.  Far too many people are peddling snake oil and it’s not funny.  If you want to send me a “free report” and it’s simply an output from some free tool then don’t be surprised if I’m not impressed.

The only thing I’m likely to be interested in related to SEO/Adwords is good value training to allow us to do some stuff in-house.  Ideally you would be able to cover a variety of technical and content-editing topics over a day’s course.

Virtual Tours

Some interest in these but you need to be honest about what you’re offering.  If you’re making use of a free package to create the 360-photos then admit it – I can tell from the Flash player you’re using anyway.  Show us what value you can add to the offering.

Open for submissions now

I don’t have the time to build a fancy submission system so I suggest using this blog post.  If you want me to have a look at something leave a comment below with a link to the demo website or any other information you have.  Comments are approved prior to appearing and it’s possible Akismet will spam trap them even earlier – if that’s the case then you might want to look at your sales description 😉

Apologies to all the people who’ve phoned me over the last 12 months and I’ve fobbed off – it’s a fresh start from here so feel free to submit now!

Case Conference Presentation

In July I delivered a presentation at the IWMW in York entitled “Let the students do the talking…” and yesterday I travelled to Edinburgh to deliver a varient of this at the annual CASE Conference.

I was slightly anxious about telling Marketing and PR people to put everything in the hands of the students but was delighted at the positive response I had to what I had to say.

After speaking with colleagues who attended the full event it seems the Web 2.0 buzz has well and truly captured the imagination of those in the Marketing and PR world and people do seem read and willing to embrace the online trends and work with them.

I believe my slides will be available on the CASE Conference website shortly but for anyone who wishes to see them they’re on slideshare too.

One thing that I have taken away from both conferences is that our ‘hybrid’ approach to a Web Service (with my own role informally split between IT Services and Corporate Marketing) is quite unique but it’s really worked for us and has allowed us to develop services from different perspectives.

Write Articles, Not Blog Posting

The web guru Jackob Nielsen in a recent article is arguing that people should write articles and not quick blog posting entries, but he’s actually focusing on business blogging if they want to make money.

Blog postings will always be commodity content: there’s a limit to the value you can provide with a short comment on somebody else’s work. Such postings are good for generating controversy and short-term traffic, and they’re definitely easy to write. But they don’t build sustainable value. Think of how disappointing it feels when you’re searching for something and get directed to short postings in the middle of a debate that occurred years before, and is thus irrelevant.

Read his article ‘Write Articles, Not Blog Posting‘ , as the way he handles the matter is quite interesting and he’s backed his argument with some impressive stats.

A question of confidence?!

I will be giving a presentation at the IWMW in July entitled “Let the students do the talking…” and in advance of this Brian Kelly (UKOLN) asked me to write a blog post relating to my talk.

When I submitted my abstract back in February I was thinking of social networking and collaborative tools and how these could be utilised within our University from both a marketing and student support perspective. At the time my experiences were very positive and like many others, I was enthused by the buzz surrounding what we label Web 2.0 and excited about what this could mean for us. I still am but a number of recent issues have led me to tread a little more cautiously.

I firmly believe that as a University we should be moving towards user owned technologies. The bulk of our students (and staff) join us with a range of skills and preferences and whilst we still have to do some hand holding, the majority know the services they like to use and engage with so I believe we need to adapt accordingly and allow and encourage their continued use.

  • Use gmail for your email? Use it for your Uni email too.
  • Don’t want to wait for email and prefer IM? Sure no problem, that’s available too.
  • On Facebook? We’ll plug you in through our portal so that you see any changes alongside the key messages we need you to see.

I still believe this is where we need to be but I also know this kind of step change is not be without its problems. Why? Because we loose some of the control. We can’t guarantee gmail’s up-time (although I’d be pretty confident it would work 24/7). We can’t moderate things like Facebook (just look at the outcry caused at Keele) so we potentially loose the power to manage some of the internal issues, without then appearing in the public domain. Naturally that’s a worry for any organisation but is it a big enough worry to prevent us from moving forward? I don’t believe it is.

We have more to gain in terms of a competitive edge by being in these spaces. User owned technologies and collaborative tools in a University environment are niceties at the moment and an added benefit but it won’t be long before they are the expected norm. On the internet word of mouth, user reviews, recommendations etc. are proving more readily available and more popular than our “corporate” offerings so the more we engage with and allow these things the more we can use them to our advantage.

How?! Well going back to my presentation title we let the students do the talking. Put the tools in the hands of the people that use them. Let them decide how to use them, how much/little to engage, what they say, how they say it. If we concentrate on providing the experience we claim to do then (which is what we’re all about) then we should move in this direction with confidence.

Recent posts on Brian’s UK Web Focus blog indicate my thoughts are echoed by others too which is encouraging. So whilst I’m treading carefully I’m still convinced it’s in the right direction…

Can you find what you’re looking for?

Yesterday Sam and I went to a talk organised by MERIT and presented by Jan Klin titled “Advanced Search Engine Marketing – A Fast Track Approach to the Google Top Spot”. Now, I’d admit that I’ve always considered SEO a bit of a dark art and people specialising in it had something of the Derek Trotter about them, but yesterday’s talk was genuinely interesting. Jan talked through a process of auditing your site, identifying key phrases and targets and only then modifying your pages to be optimised.

While SEO in a university environment might not be quite as important as businesses who are selling products and services (unless you believe students are customers) we do need to ensure that people are able to find what they’re looking for on our sites. We can certainly do more in describing our pages and ensuring that site visitors find pages appropriate to what they’re looking for rather than just landing on the homepage and being left to browse the site themselves.

This is something that we’ll be looking at more in the future and building into new developments from the outset but in the mean time if you’ve had trouble finding something on our website, please do tell us – post a comment below or email the webteam – and it will help us identify areas for improvement.

Those Weren’t the Days

Browsing the new undergraduate prospectus for 2008, it’s interesting comparing the content to that within the ‘Prospective Students’ area of the corporate website. A few years ago, the two were almost identical in terms of structure and text, but the content appearing online today is independent, written specifically for the web rather than merely ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere.

The most obvious difference between the Edge Hill site ‘now’ and ‘then’ is the amount of text – Jakob Nielsen’s research on writing for the web reveals how few people read word-for-word on the web – but presenting information to prospective students online isn’t just about reducing the word count from conventional writing.

Bulleted lists (describing the application process, for example), tables (displaying fee information) and strong visuals (department tours) help present information in an attractive, user-friendly format but the interactivity of the website is probably where the greatest change has taken place. Podcasts, streaming videos, virtual tours, forums and blogs are now all integral parts of Edge Hill’s online communication and allow current and prospective students to interact in a way which has previously not been possible.

Thankfully the days of getting 30 pages of text in my inbox to ‘go on the website’ seem to have gone!